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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Virtually inaccessible

by Dai O’Brien

With the current climate of everyone working from home, remote meetings and dashing to move all teaching and course materials online, there seem to be two schools of thought opening up in discussions on social media. One is a response of almost resentment and caution, a feeling of being rushed into something that most academics are not trained for and have no experience of. The other is a feeling of almost relief, a ‘finally!’ moment from those who are more willing or able to embrace the online teaching classroom and virtual meetings.

However, what neither of these two camps seems to engage with are the problems of access for deaf and disabled people. There seems to be an assumption from many that placing resources online magically makes them accessible to all, and that technology will solve all ills. I’m sure that many of us are quickly finding out that this isn’t necessarily the case. In this blog post I will focus on deaf access to this move online for academics working in HE, not only for teaching, but also for professional, collegiate matters.

Many of the insights of this blog post are from research I conducted as part of my SRHE Newer Researchers Prize funded project, The Spaces and Places of Deaf Academia (2017-2019). This project focused on the experiences of deaf academics working in HEIs in the UK, exploring their experiences of the workplace on both a physical and social level. While this research obviously was conducted before the current pandemic, there are useful lessons that can be taken from the findings which are worth bearing in mind during the current migration to online and remote working and teaching.

If anything, this move to online working exacerbates rather than resolves many of the problems deaf academics face. While it was often difficult before to find BSL/English interpreters or other communication support workers at short notice to attend meetings and to interpret or provide access for everyone to those meetings, it can be even more difficult now to find interpreters and other communication support workers who have the technological ability and resources to provide the access that deaf academics need. Even when they do have the right technology and skills, meetings held over apps such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom require pre-meeting meetings between the interpreter, the meeting chair and the deaf academic to ensure that all parties know how to use the technology, the chair understands how to run a remote meeting, and new ground rules are established and upheld to ensure access for all. This is all extra labour required from the deaf academic to ensure that they can participate on a level playing field. Sometimes these pre-meeting meetings last longer than the meeting itself! If one is to consider a similar situation arising where a deaf student needs access to a seminar or lecture live-streamed online, power imbalances in the student-lecturer relationship may lead them to feeling unable to insist on such a pre-lecture meeting to iron out any potential problems, resulting in them missing out on vital contact hours.

In the first couple of weeks of remote working, I have found myself sometimes inundated with meeting requests from colleagues, managers and students. During a normal working week I would have felt confident and comfortable in re-scheduling these meetings for a time when I had interpreters booked. But the immediacy of the need to navigate the sudden change in working conditions, and the relaxing of usual work boundaries and time frames that working from home seems to impose, have meant that this has not always been possible. Remote working comes with an implicit expectation that you are always available to meet, anywhere, so long as you have an internet connection. This isn’t true for those of us who need communication access provided by BSL/English interpreters. We are still restricted by the availability of the interpreters, and our ability to pay them. Luckily, I work with colleagues who understand this. However, similar restrictions apply to students. They may have limited funds to pay for communication access, access which is required not just for face-to-face or streamed teaching, but also any podcasts, uncaptioned videos or other resources that we feel able or compelled to share in this new virtual teaching space.

Some of this technology offers automatic captions or other automatic access options. But very often the output of these automatic functions is extremely poor, if they work at all. For deaf students (and academics) these disjointed, context free, incorrect captions are often more of an additional barrier than an access solution. It is not enough to rely on technology, or to expect it to act as a saviour. We all need to be considerate and critical of our new online remote approaches and consider whether or not they are truly accessible.

Dr Dai O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer in BSL and Deaf Studies in the School of Languages and Linguistics, York St John University. Read his 22 November 2019 blog What are the experiences of deaf academics working in UK HEIs’ here, with BSL interpretation.

References

O’Brien, D (2020) ‘Mapping deaf academic spaces’ Higher Education DOI: 10.1007/s10734-020-00512-7

O’Brien, D (2020) ‘Negotiating academic environments: using Lefebvre to conceptualise deaf spaces and disabling/enabling environments’ Journal of Cultural Geography 37(1): 26-45 DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2019.1677293


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How literature puts a spark into university access debates

by Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Colin McCaig

“The greatest competition to the establishment of social science was literature” observed one of our undergraduate lecturers many moons ago. If you wanted to know about the conditions of Victorian England, would you like to read a report detailing the diet and housing conditions of members of different social groups or read Charles Dickens?

As scholars in the field of widening participation and social mobility we were implicitly challenged to reconsider this question: is it literature or is it social science that touches us, and motivates us to change policy or even our own actions? Unsurprisingly, we argue that there is room for both genres, but literature wins hands down in terms of instilling passion and allowing us to consider issues with our hearts rather than heads.

We are talking here about Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, that ‘went viral’ in the United States and beat Michelle Obama’s autobiography to become the Goodreads Choice Award 2018. Among the over 50,000 reviews of the book is one from Bill Gates and the book was on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.

Reviews and talk-shows featuring the memoir have focused primarily on the family story and the often disturbing relationships between family members, which led to the ultimate schism between Tara and her parents. But reading the book as social scientists, we did not only see  a memoir of bizarre familial dysfunctionality, we found ourselves reading this book as the ‘ultimate widening participation’ story.

Born in Idaho to a Mormon survivalist father opposed to public education (indeed, any government activity), Tara never attended school or saw a doctor. She spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught herbalist and midwife. While one of her siblings taught her to read, another frequently attacked her violently with the parents looking away. Her story of transformation through education began when Tara taught herself the numeracy skills required to pass the standardised entrance test for universities, the ACT. This set her on an education journey to Brigham Young University (a Mormon university in Utah), Harvard and to her PhD at Cambridge, England, on The family, morality and social science in Anglo-American cooperative thought, 1813-1890.

Reading Tara’s story with the eyes of social mobility scholars, it offered much reassurance for academics committed to the access agenda. Tara is admitted to higher education despite her lack of traditional (school) credentials. She receives a partial fee waiver by the institution. When, eventually, she applies for federal financial aid help, she receives help from the state. Her tutor encourages her to apply for a study abroad opportunity at Cambridge. Not only this, but when she is not selected, he uses his knowledge of her and her context to advocate for her and succeeds in getting her a place. Other tutors spot her talent and encourage and advocate for her to obtain a scholarship – the Gates scholarship – to undertake her PhD work at Cambridge. There are also wider support networks: when she first enters higher education, a Mormon Bishop supports her though conversation and, at Cambridge, she is able to enrol at the University Counselling Service.

We read this as a partial redemption story for those working on access and increasing opportunities. We are often frustrated by slow progress and continued inequities in access, progression and success in higher education, or we see HE institutions struggling to change as fast as society to be fully inclusive. There is always a feeling that more could be done: our outreach programmes sometimes don’t reach the most disadvantaged. There can be inadequate regional coverage of opportunities. Higher education may not be the right choice for everyone. Our institutional timetables don’t always allow for students to have part-time jobs they need to fund themselves or their caring responsibilities. We have to make the same arguments year after year to keep widening participation as a core consideration of the daily activities of our institutions. Universities are all fishing for the same ‘diamonds in the rough’ which, in the UK, is often solely defined as a disadvantaged student, however measured, with unusually high grades given their opportunities and context. We need to work on widening access and funding for postgraduate study. And all this is not for lack of social science evidence of what the issues are, or ideas of what needs to be done to achieve greater evidence – it’s just that it is hard to do it all the time. So, it is easy sometimes to be frustrated.

And then along comes Tara and tells the story of how it is all worth it in the end. How she encounters academics who are fundamentally decent human beings, who can contextualise her knowledge and lack thereof, who care and make a difference. And she tells of a state government that does actually offer funding (if modest), of institutions that offer scholarships (if modest), of scholarship panels that are thoughtful – perhaps even wise – and of professional service parts of the university successfully working to support students.

But there are also questions the book leaves us with, that emphasise the need for further research: Tara was able to compensate for an almost complete lack of education by passing a college entrance test. This would not be possible in the English system – save for, perhaps the Open University, institutions respond to market drivers and want young people from a traditional trajectory of having been to school, taken exams (especially A-levels in favoured subjects) and demonstrated prior success. Tara would have been denied the  opportunities of higher education in the UK and we would have lost out on a PhD – and, more importantly, her book.

We can also ask how people who share some of Tara’s ‘educational disadvantages’, such as rurality and home-schooling, could be reached and inspired to change their journeys. It is clear that Tara is an incredibly resilient and reflective woman; it would be unreasonable to infer that everyone in her circumstances could have taken the path she did. How can we support more people who share some of Tara’s characteristics to enter higher education?

We also wonder about the role of academic discretion, one of the greatest aspects of being a professional in higher education. The academics in the book put their discretion to good use to support Tara, creating a powerful story of individual academic success and opportunities. But how can we create more structures that enable more of such individual success stories? For example, we don’t know – from the book – whether there are established links between universities with a specific religious focus – such as Brigham Young – and favoured entry to her subsequent institutions, Harvard and Cambridge. Was her discretion-enabled journey really about her specific talents, or was she just the Mormon applicant with the most harrowing backstory? Access work is all about equalising opportunities for progression into HE, but the implication is that Tara was helped on her way because of her initial church affiliation and subsequent links between institutions with Christian foundations. In essence, the access question is: would an uneducated rural girl from the mountains of Idaho have the same opportunity if she didn’t have familial links with the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? Discretion, when it is essentially discrimination, can be more structural than personal.

Social science can give us good questions, good evidence, answers and facts. Literature can put the soul and heart into the stories and inspire more thinking, research and action. Dr Westover may not have intended to create new lines of research in social mobility, but she has nonetheless succeeded in doing so perhaps to a greater level than recent scholarly books in the field.  So we end with a big thank you to Dr Tara Westover for sharing her fantastic story!

SRHE member Anna Mountford-Zimdars is Professor of Social Mobility and Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter. SRHE member Colin McCaig is Professor of Higher Education Policy in the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University.

Which books beyond social science have influenced your academic practice? Write us a blog about it, or if you prefer discuss an idea first with editor rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk.

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Sneering at ‘low quality’ universities and their students is not the way to equalise educational opportunities

by Rob Cuthbert

Jamie Doward reported for The Observer on 26 January 2020 on recent research by Stuart Campbell, Lindsey Macmillan, Richard Murphy and Gill Wyness of UCL’s Centre for Economic Performance (CEP Discussion Paper No 1647 August 2019 Inequalities in Student to Course Match: Evidence from Linked Administrative Data). Their report said: “We find sizeable socio-economic gaps in academic and earnings match across the attainment distribution, with low SES [socioeconomic status] students consistently undermatching, attending courses with lower attaining peers and lower expected earnings than their richer counterparts.” So far, so good, and no surprise. The paper is largely careful in using factual or objective descriptions, but then it explains its methods thus: “Calculate course quality: we rank each university-course combination in a distribution of course quality, based on either (i) The median of the best three age 18 exam results of students on the course (academic-based), or (ii) The median earnings outcomes of an earlier cohort of students on the subject 5 years after graduation (earnings-based).” So quality is deliberately aligned with difficulty of entry or future earnings potential – both of which are more likely to be associated with the prestige of the course and location of the university, and may have nothing to do with the educational or academic quality of the course. The argument is circular: “People with good A levels do high-quality courses. How do we know they’re high-quality? Because people with good A levels take them[1].” Worse, Gill Wyness is quoted in The Observer article as saying: “You’re much more likely to go to your local university if you are from a poorer background. But if you look at all the students who go to a university that is near them, the disadvantaged kids will still go to a lower-quality university than the advantaged kids.” She has no compunction in generalising from supposed ‘low quality’ courses to whole supposed ‘low quality’ universities.

The ‘low quality’ narrative is up and running, reinforced by right wing commentators like Iain Mansfield, a prolific tweeter now at the Policy Exchange think tank, previously a special adviser to Jo Johnson as Minister for Higher Education. He was quoted in Times Higher Education on 27 January 2020 as saying an Ofsted for universities regime could “come to be seen as needed if the major issue of low-quality provision isn’t tackled … I think it would be a last resort and it would be quite undesirable for our sector.” Mansfield, who developed the teaching excellence framework as a senior civil servant in the Department for Education, also said that “…’poor quality provision’ can already be identified via existing measures: dropout rates, the TEF and graduate employment data, as well as figures on grade inflation and unconditional offers”, as John Morgan reported. It is alarming that a recent senior DfE civil servant so readily accepts these as ‘measures’ of ‘quality’, when each is riddled with ambiguity. If DfE civil servants were drawn more from the ranks of people with actual teaching experience, they might have a better appreciation of what these ‘measures’ actually signify.

Drop-out rates: are higher for disadvantaged students, but many such students leave for non-academic reasons.If ‘course quality’ means high standards we might expect it to be correlated with comparatively high drop-out rates. Did you mean low drop-out rates imply lower quality? No, we thought not.

TEF: TEF has little to do with teaching or excellence: as SRHE Fellow Rosemary Deem (Royal Holloway) and Jo-Anne Baird (Oxford) argued in the Journal of Educational Change  in 2019: “… the English TEF is not about improving teaching but rather an endeavour to pit universities against each other in a highly marketised competitive system …”. Universities, of course, do little to help by trumpeting TEF Gold awards, bearing out the Deem/Baird argument.

Graduate employment data: can often be a function of postcode: the data “could be telling us that a public school dropout working at an upmarket estate agent in Kensington earns as much as a recent graduate working part-time in Bolton”, according to David Willetts, the Minister who commissioned the longitudinal educational outcomes project. He warned that: “Graduate earnings rarely afford good policymaking”.

Grade inflation: for many years Russell Group universities have led the way in grade inflation. Is this a marker of low quality? Some, perhaps most, of what the OfS likes to call ‘unexplained’ improvement in grades might actually be accounted for by long-term improvements in teaching, teachers and school leaver attainment.

Unconditional offers: If government exhorts universities over many years to behave as if they are in a market, they can hardly be blamed for trying to induce their potential student-consumers to choose them over their competitors, by making unconditional or ‘conditional unconditional’ offers. The evidence on unconditional offers is mixed (see Ratcliffe v Dandridge in January 2020) in terms of their impact on students’ motivation for A-levels. At the least, an unconditional offer of any kind is an indication that the university is confident this student will succeed. Harrumphing by Government ministers and the OfS is disingenuous and may work against diversity in the student population.

The ‘low quality’ narrative protects and extends the current stratification of prestige in HE, by abusing the universities which cater for the majority of UK HE students, and abusing their students for choosing to attend them. While that may be no more than we expect from some parts of the political spectrum, we are entitled to expect more concern for evidence and rigour from academic researchers. Lindsey Macmillan and Gill Wyness, two of the co-authors of the recent CEP paper, are respectively Director and Deputy Director of UCL’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities. ‘Impact’ seems to take precedence over rigour here, because this research has nothing to say about ‘course quality’. The message of their research is that high-achieving students from low SES backgrounds choose to attend universities other than those they might have considered and for which they were apparently qualified. Perhaps those students think the places they actually choose offer the best-quality education for them. What happened to informed student choice? Clearly, the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities thinks low SES students don’t know what’s best for them, and wants to change things by sneering at those students and the ‘low quality’ universities they persist in choosing. They think ‘student choice’ means forcing a larger number of disadvantaged students to go to ‘high-quality’ universities against their wishes. Is this what is meant by ‘high-quality’ research?  

Rob Cuthbert is editor of SRHE News and Blog. He has been a student, teacher, researcher and manager in a wide range of universities, chair of Aimhigher South West, a member of HEFCE’s Widening Participation Strategic Committee, adviser to the DES on the establishment of the Office for Fair Access, and a senior adviser at the Higher Education Academy.


[1] My thanks to Paul Temple for this observation.


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‘Care-free at the top?’ Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers

by Marie-Pierre Moreau

Over the years I have expressed a keen interest in the relationship between care and academia. This interest was triggered by my personal circumstances when, in 2008, as a research fellow and PhD student, I took my newborn daughter to the local university nursery and mused on the lack of research exploring the relationship between studying and parenting. What I did not know at the time was that, a decade later, I would be writing about this particular episode and that this thought would lead to the development of a range of research projects, initially focusing on student parents and, lately, on academics with a range of caring responsibilities. Earlier work I conducted with Murray Robertson on the latter group suggested that, at senior levels of the academic hierarchy, academic cultures are experienced as being particularly ‘care-free’, with one participant in particular describing care as ‘glossed over’ in senior academic cultures (Moreau and Robertson, 2017). Winning a 2017 SRHE Research Award enabled us to further explore the in/visibility and mis/recognition of care at that level of the academic hierarchy, as we embarked on the ‘Care-free at the top’? Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers project (Moreau and Robertson, 2019).

It is worth reminding here that very little is known about academics with caring responsibilities, and even less so about those carers who are in senior academic positions. So far, most research in this field has focused on ‘balancing’ motherhood and academic work and has ignored those with caring responsibilities other than the parenting of a healthy, abled child. Likewise, research on those in leadership and management roles has concentrated on their academic lives, usually in isolation of their more ‘personal’ commitments. Drawing on a post-structuralist feminist perspective and a corpus of 20 semi-structured interviews with ‘senior academics’ based in England, the research team explored how members of this group experience and negotiate their hyphenated identity, as senior academics who are also carers. In the stories they told us, participants went to great length to keep care ‘at bay’, drawing on a discourse of separateness which has been a long-lasting feature of academic cultures, in Europe and beyond. Think, for example, of Descartes’ philosophical proposition ‘cogito ergo sum’ and of one of its underpinnings, ie the view that our intellect suffices to define who we are. Despite considerable cultural changes over the centuries, the association of academic excellence with White, middle-class and ‘care-free’ masculinity subsists to this day (Leathwood and Read, 2008).

Yet it is also clear that, despite these discursive attempts to keep care ‘at bay’ and embody the subject position of the ‘care-free’ academic, participants’ narratives simultaneously highlighted the entanglements of care and paid work in their lives – a slightly expected finding in a context where the family and academia have been described as ‘greedy institutions’ which demand full availability and loyalty (Coser, 1974). In particular, this discursive construction of the academic as care-free appears highly gendered, as well as classed and ‘raced’, with considerable variations across this group of academics in terms of who can occupy the positional identity of the ‘care-free’ academic. Those who were the more likely to fit the default figure of the ‘bachelor boy’ (ie a white, middle-class, heterosexual academic) were less likely to experience the tensions arising from combining care and paid work than those belonging to marginalised groups. Women academics, and women academics from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in particular, often described their experience of combining the demands of paid and care work as a ‘struggle’ – a narrative broadly absent from the stories told by their male counterparts. It is also clear that those identifying as LGBTQ were exposed to additional difficulties in their attempt to perform a senior academic and a carer identity, in the context of academic cultures which remain predominantly heteronormative. Likewise, those with responsibilities other than the parenting of a healthy, abled child were, overall, the more dissatisfied with the support received from their institution on a formal basis, and the more pessimistic about significant improvements to this support in the future. Thus, there are considerable hierarchies and intersectionalities at play in the lives of senior academic carers, with their ability to swiftly perform a senior academic identity depending on their location at the intersection of multiple discourses and relations of power.

Such inequalities are maybe best illustrated by the contrast between Jeremy’s and Rosie’s narratives (both names are pseudonyms, with limited detail provided to protect participants’ identities). Jeremy (a professor and a father) talked about feeling ‘relentlessly positive’ about his job, with academic life constructed as eminently flexible and allowing him to care for his children. Combining caring and academia was, in his own words, ‘a very natural experience’. He did not identify any negative impact from being an academic carer, nor did he think there were any senior roles which might be challenging for carers to hold:

… but is any post not attainable?  No, I don’t think that’s correct at all, I think all senior management posts are entirely compatible with having a very active family life or indeed, a very active life without a family outside work.

In contrast, Rosie (professor, caring for parents) alluded to the multifaceted dimensions of caregiving (Lynch et al, 2009) and to its significant impact on her life:

… even when professional services are involved and are supposedly responsible for the person you were caring for, I am still responsible for my mum (…) So this issue affects your day-to-day living, your life, your working life, because if there’s a problem they ring you, she’s refusing personal care, she’s locking herself in her room, she’s throwing things, she’s abusing staff, and you’re the one responsible. It all comes back to you.

Also significant was the finding that some senior positions appear more open to carers. Managerial routes were viewed as particularly hostile to this group due to expectations of full availability and to the ‘ever present’ culture they were linked with, while a research professorship route was deemed highly demanding but more flexible and thus more ‘carer-friendly’. Managerial positions that still involved academic work (ie a pro vice-chancellor or a faculty dean) were deemed the most problematic for carers, due to the multiple demands on those occupying these positions and the resulting workload (eg when individuals have significant management responsibilities and are also expected to be research active).

In the context of an ageing and feminised academic workforce (HESA, 2018), the combination of paid and care work is likely to remain a key concern for the sector for many years to come. To challenge the status quo, we need to move away from a conception of carers as ‘encumbered’ and of care as ‘getting in the way’ of performing the neoliberal dream of the care-free, globally mobile and fully available academic. Instead, care needs to be conceptualised as a part of life that calls for recognition, with the figure of the carer normalised, in senior academia as elsewhere. This requires challenging care-free academic cultures – something individualised practices cannot achieve and even help to maintain. 

Based on the findings from this project, we made the following recommendations:

Recommendation 1: There is a considerable dearth of data regarding carers, including in senior academic positions. HESA and individual institutions should consider collecting data on academic staff’s caring responsibilities in intersection with other identity markers (e.g. position, gender and ethnicity).

Recommendation 2: The sector and individual institutions should mainstream care in university policies and practices so as to ensure that senior leadership roles are compatible with caring responsibilities. While this study highlights particular issues at this level of the hierarchy (eg mobility requirements, a ‘long hours’ culture, heavy workloads), these are likely to vary across institutions and subject areas. Thus, the views of carers should be sought before reviewing extant policies and developing new ones.

Recommendation 3: Institutions need to acknowledge the diversity, intersectionality and fluidity of care. This means a ‘one fits all’ solution is unlikely to be satisfactory. Policies should be flexible enough so that they can be tailored to suit the needs of various groups of carers, particularly women and those with caring responsibilities other than parenting, whose careers and well-being are more likely to be affected by their dual roles.

While the project is now completed and the final report published, the team continues to research this area, with the recent publication of an article on individualised practices of care in academia. Engaging with HE policy-makers and practitioners, as well as with the general public, is another ongoing aspect of our work. This has involved working closely with various HE institutions and national HE bodies; producing a short film on academic caregivers; and developing two briefing papers (to be published in the summer). In doing so, the team aims to raise awareness and encourage the development of policies which recognise and value the presence and contribution of carers in academia.

SRHE member Professor Marie-Pierre Moreau, School of Education and Social Care, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. Contact details: marie-pierre.moreau@anglia.ac.uk. Marie-Pierre and Murray would like to thank the SRHE for their generous support, Prof. Nicky Le Feuvre, Université de Lausanne, who acted as critical friend on this project, our colleagues at Anglia Ruskin University, and the participants to this research who shared their life stories with us.

The following policy briefings may also be of interest:

Academic Staff as Caregivers

Students as Caregivers

References

Coser, L (1974) Greedy institutions New York, Free Press

HESA (2018) Who’s working in HE?: Personal characteristics.

Available online: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/working-in-he/characteristics

Leathwood, C and Read, B  (2008) Gender and the Changing Face of Higher Education: A Feminised Future? London: SRHE/Open University Press

Lynch, K and Ivancheva, M (2015) ‘Academic freedom and the commercialisation of universities: a critical ethical analysis’, Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 15: 6-20

Lynch, K, Baker, J and Lyons, M (2009) Affective equality: Love, care and injustice Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Moreau, MP (2016) ‘Regulating the student body/ies: University policies and student parents’, British Educational Research Journal 42(5): 906-925

Moreau, MP and Robertson, M (2019) ‘Care-free at the top’? Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers London: SRHE

Moreau, MP and Robertson, M (2017) Carers and careers: Career development and access to leadership positions among academic staff with caring responsibilities London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

Marcia Devlin


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Supporting disadvantaged students is more expensive than you think

By Marcia Devlin

A national election looms in Australia and while no-one is under any illusion about the likelihood of higher education being a key issue for the Australian public when they are considering for whom to vote, those in the sector are hopeful that, at the very least, higher education policy common sense will prevail. Depending on your particular higher education interests, the focus of such policy common sense will differ. For me, at least partly, the focus will be on equity policy.

I recently led to completion a national study that looked in part at the costs of supporting students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in Australian universities. We used a mixed methods approach, incorporating quantitative analysis of national higher education data and qualitative exploration and validation.

The complexity of university finances, the opaque nature of equity funding and the generally low level of understanding of the precise costs of supporting low SES students in the sector provided challenges to meeting the project brief. That said, we used data from 37 universities over ten years and a sophisticated quantitative methodology and detailed consultation with senior executives at four universities on the quantitative findings to test their validity. The results were, as one Vice-Chancellor described them, “stunning”.

We found that the average costs of supporting low SES undergraduate students are around six times higher than the costs of supporting medium and high SES students. This was for a university with an average number of undergraduate low SES enrolments. At the postgraduate level, the average support costs for low SES students are around four times higher than those for medium and high SES students for a university with an average number of postgraduate low SES students.

These are, indeed, stunning findings.

We found that the kind of additional support needed by students from low SES backgrounds includes: outreach support to raise aspiration and relevant individual capital prior to enrolment; academic, personal and financial support while at university; and in some cases, support to care for students with highly complex needs.

We found that the additional cost incurred in supporting a low SES student compared to other students include those inherent on the support listed above and additionally, the costs inherent in the interventions required to address disadvantage throughout school and university.  We found that the costs of establishing, maintaining and appropriately staffing multiple and/or regional campuses, particularly but not only those located in highly disadvantaged communities, also contributed to the cost differentials.

In simple terms, we found that universities that are strongly prioritising or enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions.

Because low SES students are not a homogeneous group, we found that additional support costs are not the same for all low SES students. As will be unsurprising to those working with equity group students, depending on their particular background and circumstances, low SES students may experience different levels of disadvantage and/or multiple disadvantage. In the four universities consulted, there were different costs in, and different approaches to, supporting low SES students. This was partly because of the differences in the universities’ missions, the number and geographic locations of campuses, whether the student was undergraduate or postgraduate and the characteristics of the particular low SES students for whom support was being provided.

There are a number of policy implications that an incoming Australian government might like to consider:

  • Given universities that are enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions, moving from activity-based to mission-directed costing may be a fruitful area for further exploration.
  • Given that the costs of supporting low SES students are four to six times higher than those of supporting medium and high SES students, consideration could be given to applying the principles of ‘cost compensation’ in university funding for low SES numbers. In rudimentary terms, this would mean that each low SES student would attract four times (postgraduate level) to six times (undergraduate level) more funding than otherwise like students.
  • Given the lack of homogeneity of low SES students and the differential costs for different universities in supporting low SES students, consideration could be given to the distribution of funding to support low SES students according to the investment/cost need of a university/campus/area in which a campus is located, rather than according to the number of students at each university who meet the technical definition of ‘low SES’. This would also help reduce perverse incentives to seek only the least costly low SES candidates.

I’m not overly optimistic about these findings being immediately embraced and celebrated by either side of politics. I am hopeful, however, that a government genuinely interested in equity might recognise that properly funding universities to enact their missions might be purposefully conceived as an investment that lowers social disadvantage and ultimately improve economic outcomes for both graduates and communities. In other words, I’m hoping policy common sense will prevail.

SRHE Fellow Professor Marcia Devlin is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Senior Vice-President at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. The study referred to above was funded by the Australian government through the National Priorities Pool


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Estranged Students in Higher and Further Education

by Yvette Taylor

This report is based on research by Yvette Taylor (Strathclyde) and Cristina Costa (West of England) as part of an SRHE funded project ‘Exploring ‘Estrangement’ in Higher Education: Standing Alone or Settling In?’

Estrangement feels very taboo… it’s almost like having to out myself a lot of the time to people… people are more familiar with the idea that your parents are divorced or have died or whatever“ (Jennifer, 31)

It’s like a rope round you pulling you back as you’re going forward, but I don’t think it’s a barrier that stops, I think it’s a barrier that’s just there and to be aware of.” (Robert, 29)

Estranged students can be defined as a group of young adults who have unstable, minimal or no contact with their parents and/or their wider family networks. In the context of Scotland estrangement status among students was only recognised in 2016 through campaigning initiatives supported by Stand Alone and ButtleUK. To date, only seven Scottish universities and colleges have explicit policies in place to support this group as signatories to the Stand Alone Pledge.

Little is known about the experiences of estranged students either in the UK or internationally: based on interviews (n=23), this study represents the first of its kind in Scotland, exploring how estranged students navigate education structures and the institutional and interpersonal resources available. It examines estranged students’ further and higher education experiences, identities and expectations, how these are supported and managed and what educational and employment aspirations are fostered and developed. While it is clear that steps have been made in helping education institutions identify and support estranged students, often estranged students do not fit pre-existing widening participation policies or funding categories (eg Bland, 2018; UCAS, 2017); discretion, care and flexibility are needed.

Students become estranged from their families for a number of reasons, including emotional and physical abuse, clash of values and mismatched expectations around family roles. In addition, estrangement can also relate to ‘divorce, honour-based violence, forced marriage, and family rejection of LGBTQI+ students’ (Blake, 2015).

Research Findings

  • Definitions of estrangement are restrictive and inflexible, offering little understanding or appreciation of the complexity of estrangement experiences and practices and hardships: the Office for Students limits the status of estrangement in higher education to students between 18 and 24 years old and stipulates that estrangement means no communicative relationship with either living biological parent (2018), a definition also shared by the Student Loans Company (2016). It can be very difficult to ‘prove’ the status of estrangement under such restrictive conditions.
  • Definitions of estrangement shape the identities and realities of those who are formally associated with it and who can become, or fear becoming, victims of scrutinisation and unfair surveillance strategies, justified in the name of anti-fraud detection. Often monitoring approaches do not take into account the specificities, vulnerabilities or characteristics of estranged students (Bland, 2018).
  • Estrangement does not cease or become irrelevant when a student reaches the age of 25. Even when young people leave the family home it ‘continues to be the site through which many of their individual biographies and expectations are routed’ beyond the tidy age of 25 (Valentine et al, 2003: 481).  This signals the complexity in defining ‘youth’ and the significance of this (expanding) point in the life-course of an individual, especially when they may lack the social and economic support that they are assumed to receive via family.
  • Although well intentioned, supporting structures only cater partially for the needs of estranged students who are often considered from the perspective and experience of traditional students, with ‘add-on’ support recognising additional financial hardships. The intersection of financial, social and emotional needs still has to be taken into account.
  • There are enduring similarities in the experiences of estranged students, with many reporting, for example, experiences of homelessness, severe financial hardship, mental health issues, disrupted study, etc. Experiences of estrangement can lead to a strong sense of difference and exclusion within further and higher education contexts. As colleges and universities claim readiness to welcome a diverse student body, there is a need to acknowledge the complexity of students’ lives, encompassing an approach inclusive of those do not fit within a regular or expected pattern of what it means to be a student.
  • While there are group commonalities, little is known about the differences in estranged students’ experiences, in terms of such issues as race, class, gender and sexuality, a knowledge gap that requires research attention. Students’ struggles need to be accounted for intersectionally rather than through a tick box exercise of widening participation/diversity agendas to which institutions sign up. The Stand Alone Pledge has to be agreed, actively implemented and monitored.  
  • Inclusion of estranged students in academia does not stop at entry point; to measure entry as success would be to ignore the challenges students bring and carry with them throughout their studies, and indeed beyond. Positioning students as ‘non-traditional’ can encourage a deficit perspective (and labelling students as ‘disadvantaged’ may strengthen stereotypes rather than contest them). This ‘othering’ of students from non-traditional backgrounds may well foster a sense of difference, with institutional variations in student integration.
  • It is important to consider students’ own definitions, as well as resistances and personal strength evident in all interviews. Often students face isolation, uncertainty, financial instability and experience or fear of homelessness, and yet have still secured a place at college or university using whatever limited resources, personal and practical, they have to navigate barriers to their academic success.
  • Family estrangement is often regarded as a form of deviance and interference in relation to both unquestioned assumptions and the cultural imagination that ‘a family is forever’ (Sharp, 2017). This is problematic in that such an approach casts estrangement as an anomaly that requires fixing, whereas family estrangement is becoming a more prevalent reality in modern society (Conti, 2015). 

It [estrangement] seems negative that you’re either cut off or cut yourself off from your family, and normally that comes with the attachment of ‘what have they done wrong for that to happen?’ (Robert, 29)

[estrangement comes with] a degree of further responsibility and further pressures that not everybody has to experience.” (Dylan, 28)

So I think financially it is a big difference [from peers who are not estranged]. As well as like focusing on my studies I need to focus on an income.” (Ingrid, 22)

Maybe they [students who are not estranged] can have worries about other things, but they will never lack food, they will never have to worry about rent or stuff like this.” (Martin, 22)

See below link to the Estrangement Challenge Game developed from this research https://pure.strath.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/90590639/Taylor_etal_2019_The_estrangement_challenge.pdf

References

Blake, L (2017) ‘Parents and children who are estranged in adulthood: a review and discussion of the literature’ Journal of Family Theory & Review 9 (4): 521–36 https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12216

Bland, B (2018) ‘It’s all about the money: the influence of family estrangement, accommodation struggles and homelessness on student success in UK higher education’ Text. July 2018. https://doi.org/info:doi/10.5456/WPLL.20.3.68.

Conti, RP (2015) ‘Family estrangement: establishing a prevalence rate’ Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science 3 (2): 28–35 https://doi.org/10.15640/jpbs.v3n2a4

Scharp, KM (2017) ‘‘‘You’re not welcome here”: a grounded theory of family distancing’ Communication Research, June https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650217715542

Taylor, Y (2018) ‘The strange experiences of ‘estranged’ students’ Discover Society (blog) 2018 https://discoversociety.org/2018/11/06/the-strange-experiences-of-estranged-students/

Image: Postcard produced by research participant (see Taylor, 2018).

SRHE member Yvette Taylor is Professor of Education and Deputy Head of School (Research) in the School of Education at Strathclyde University.

Image of Rob Cuthbert


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What’s wrong with the debate about widening participation and fair access?

By Rob Cuthbert

The invaluable Higher Education Policy Institute breakfast seminar series at the House of Commons continued on 27 February 2019 with speakers Chris Millward of the Office for Students, Alan Rusbridger (Oxford) and NUS President Shakira Martin asking the question: ‘Widening participation and fair access: is it time to reset the debate?’. The answer: yes it is, but the seminar didn’t.

This seminar could have happened at any time in the last 20 years, and probably did: obsession with Oxbridge admissions, with a nod to the severe but lesser difficulties of the (rest of the) Russell Group; a lament about social mobility being at a standstill; a deficit model of disadvantaged applicants still being used to excuse lack of progress; and a plea for greater use of contextualised admissions. There was a hint of menace in Millward’s reference to the much greater and more nuanced regulatory powers available to the OfS, reinforced as Rusbridger referred to Oxford’s changes – such as they were – being driven only by greater transparency and the fear of closer regulation. Shakira Martin gave an excellent tub-thumping speech but didn’t go beyond a general exhortation to dismantle the system and build a new one.

There were positive steps. Millward, having noted – with a tinge of regret? – that OfS powers did not extend to admissions, was good on reconstruing ‘merit’ as ability to benefit, rather than level of prior qualifications, citing Princeton’s recent example in tripling its proportion of student intake from disadvantaged backgrounds from 7% to 21%. He also properly emphasised the need for a package of support pre- and post-application: “getting in and getting on”, to which later comments added “getting out” – ie not letting employers escape their share of responsibility. But he pointed out that on present trends fair access would take 50 years to be realised, and Martin asked how many people would suffer in the meantime.

We are doing no more than inching in the right direction. The elephant in the room was the higher education ‘market’, taken for granted so much that it had become invisible as part of the problem. The whole debate was implicitly framed in a market environment. The last Labour government, the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition and now the Conservative government developed a tripartisan agreement that HE should be treated as a market, in the profoundly mistaken belief that marketisation is the best way to ensure accountability and, as HE ministers always say, ‘to drive up standards’. This is a no-win game for universities, because government thinks that having more students getting better degrees is evidence not of rising standards but of grade inflation. And it’s a no-lose game for government: the marketisation policy survives despite the evidence that the HE market allowed in some for-profit operators who induce students with loans to transfer large sums of public money to them, in return for educational programmes of dubious quality.

In present circumstances the widening participation debate starts with the taken-for-granted assumption that universities and colleges are atomistic individual players in competition. However, institutions should not be allowed to do what, perhaps in desperation, they might think best in the competitive market – unconditional offers, closing unpopular science or language courses, or whatever. Government knows better and wants them to do things differently, even as it nods through the collateral damage of a policy-driven catastrophic fall in the numbers of mature and part-time students, and contemplates with equanimity the closure of entire universities – not the ‘top’ universities attended by ministers and civil servants, obviously, just the ones most likely to be serving disadvantaged communities. In addition, government knows better than students what is in students’ best interests, so the policy obsession is with admissions to Oxbridge and the Russell Group, to which of course all students would apply if only they knew what was best for them.

Hence the WP debate continues to be treated as a matter of institution-by-institution target-setting, public embarrassment, regulation, and occasional punishment of the deviants (only the lower-status deviants, obviously), in a way which implicitly and strongly reinforces higher education’s reputational hierarchy. We have travelled a long way from David Watson’s wise celebration of the UK’s ‘controlled reputational range’ and his reminder that ‘a rising tide floats all boats’ in widening participation.

Diagnoses are plentiful, but where might we find a solution? The first step is to remember that there is more to a widening participation philosophy than self-styled ‘top’ universities’ could dream of. Government could and should do much more to celebrate and reward the ‘other’ HE institutions – those which go on providing good or excellent HE for the great majority of students (over 80% of students do not attend Russell Group universities), but which may not appear in the top 20 of any university league table. And if that is too much to ask, then widening participation initiatives, at least, should raise their heads above institutional level. WP practitioners know that collaboration is the key to success.

Aimhigher, a national WP initiative based on collaboration, was killed in 2010 by the then new HE Minister David Willetts, having already been marked for execution by the outgoing Labour government. This was because, as HEPI’s Nick Hillman, Willetts’ special adviser, has said, there was not enough evidence (from the Treasury’s point of view) to save it rather than others from the axe. In subsequent years the collaboration was slowly reconstructed, as far as it could be, by WP stalwarts swimming against the rising tide of market forces in the National Collaborative Outreach Programme. The £50million annual cost of Aimhigher is by now outstripped by a much larger sum being spent much less efficiently on bursaries and predominantly institution-focused outreach activities. Rusbridger reminded us that Oxford’s £14million spend over 2009-2016 had benefited just 126 students, characterised by one seminar participant as spending ‘to keep things exactly as they are’.

How can we reset the debate on widening participation and fair access? We will not do it by encouraging another surge in the market tide. OfS’s widely-admired Chris Millward is doing his best to square the circle, with guidance issued on 28 February 2019 for institutions on their access and participation plans, but the overall programme is inevitably still enslaved by the ambitions and fears of excessively market-conscious institutions. We need to expand ringfenced funding and empower the people who spend it, for fair access initiatives which benefit institutions beyond their own – or, importantly, bring benefits to others but not at all to their own institution. (Yes, Russell Group, that means you.) Initiatives must be rooted in the institutions but promote higher education in general, and should rely for their success on improved participation from truly disadvantaged groups – not those often wrongly flagged as disadvantaged by POLAR data. We need to support more institution-based activity which is not institution-focused. We need to help potential students find courses and institutions which are best for them, not courses in the ‘best’ institutions which their qualifications allow them to consider. Contextualised admissions make good sense in terms of reconstruing merit and ability to succeed, but institutions need to discover that for themselves, and discover how they need to change to accommodate different kinds of merit. Regulation will not change minds in the way that the experience and contribution of a more diverse student body will.

Just as we should be professional, but not mistake academics for a profession, be businesslike, but not mistake the university for a business, we should compete for students, but not mistake higher education for a market. Government and the Office for Students should encourage institutions to collaborate for fair access, and not mistake collaboration for a cabal. The OfS could then focus its attention on any ‘top’ university that is so insecure or selfish about its standing that it fails to collaborate in such collectively-funded fair access initiatives. Most institutions, allowed to be true to the values that motivate most of their staff and students, will do more for fair access than the Office for Students could ever impose.

SRHE Fellow Rob Cuthbert is emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management and a former Deputy VC. He chaired Aimhigher South West, which had an integrated  region-wide programme of WP activity involving all of the South West’s 13 HEIs, 40 FE colleges, state secondary schools, regional agencies and the TUC. He edits SRHE News and the SRHE Blog and is interim chair of the SRHE Publications Committee


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Mind the Gap – Gendered and Caste-based Disparities in Access to Conference Opportunities

In an interview with Conference Inference [1] editor Emily Henderson, Nidhi S. Sabharwal discussed inequalities of access to conference opportunities in India.

Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)

EH: Nidhi, can you explain first of all where conferences come into your wider research on inequalities in Indian higher education?

NS: Equitable access to professional development opportunities such as conferences is an indicator of institutional commitment to achieving diversity and inclusion of diverse social groups on campuses. Continue reading