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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Brenda Leibowitz


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Brenda Leibowitz 1957 – 2018

It is with much sadness that the SRHE community notes the passing of Brenda Leibowitz, a South African scholar in academic development and higher education. Her recent work on academic staff development features twice in the SRHE/Routledge book series; first, a chapter in the edited 2016 book “Researching Higher Education: International perspectives on theory, policy and practice”, and then, with Vivienne Bozalek and Peter Kahn, a 2017 book “Theorising learning to teach in higher education”. She also presented her work at the SRHE annual conference and will be known to many in the community for her engagement across a wide range of higher education conferences in South Africa and abroad.

Brenda’s engaged scholarship over nearly 30 years was strongly rooted in her activist commitment to recognizing a democratic and transformed South Africa through education and higher education. She began teaching in secondary schools designated for ‘coloured’ pupils and this sharpened sense both of the inequities of apartheid and the possibilities in education led to a most formative stint in the Academic Development Centre at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where her practice and emerging scholarship focused on language issues in the university. She followed this with a period of curriculum work as a Director in the national Department of Education, completing a PhD from the University of Sheffield, and moved from here to nearly a decade directing the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Stellenbosch University. Here her work moved from a focus on student development to staff development, bringing with it a critical edge and an exceptionally strong commitment to collaboration and empowerment. In 2014 her scholarship was noted with the appointment to a chair in Teaching and Learning at the University of Johannesburg (and more recently, with the award of an National Research Foundation (NRF) funded South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) position on Post School Education and Training).

Brenda was one of the Principal Investigators on an ESRC Newton/NRF funded project entitled “Southern African Rurality in Higher Education” (SARiHE), which began in 2016 and will complete work in 2019. Brenda’s long-term interest in social justice in higher education especially for students from rural backgrounds in South Africa helped to secure funding for this project. The Southern African University Learning and Teaching (SAULT) forum, which she helped to build, has also been important in this project and has facilitated the involvement of academics and academic developers from across nine Southern African countries.

Brenda was absolutely prolific in her deep scholarship, and pulled many others along in her wake. She published across national and international journals, book chapters and books. A flavour of the evolution of her distinctive scholarship can be seen in the perusal of some of her article titles that drew on direct quotes from her research participants:

* “Why now after all these years you want to listen to me?” Using journals in teaching history at a South African university. The History Teacher, 1996 

* “Communities isn’t just about trees and shops”: Students from two South African universities engage in dialogue about ‘community’ and ‘community work’. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 2008 

* What’s Inside the Suitcases? An investigation into the powerful resources students and lecturers bring to teaching and learning. Higher Education Research and Development, 2009 

* “Ah, but the whiteys love to talk about themselves”: Discomfort as a pedagogy for change. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 2010 

* “It’s been a wonderful life”: Accounts of the interplay between structure and agency by “good” university teachers. Higher Education, 2012 

The title of her most recent paper, with colleague Vivienne Bozalek, ‘Toward a Slow scholarship of teaching and learning in the South’ is also revealing. ‘Slow scholarship’ foregrounds qualities such as thoughtfulness, attentiveness, the valuing of relationships, creativity, and depth of engagement – qualities that embody so well Brenda’s own scholarship and her way of being in the world.

In her research, Brenda leaves an extraordinary written record of scholarship; however, more importantly, there are the many, many lives that this extraordinary educator and scholar touched and influenced deeply. Brenda had an openness and generosity of spirit that allowed her to traverse boundaries and bring together collaborative teams across all the usual divisions of discipline, social background and institutional type. She had a solid compass that never deviated from its pointing towards the long arc of social justice, but she accomplished all she did with notable humility and serious interest in others and their educational and research journeys.

The period of late apartheid bred a distinctive sort of higher education researcher, many of these working in academic development at UWC in the 1990s. In this group of hugely influential higher education scholars, including Chrissie Boughey and Melanie Walker, Brenda made a distinctive and important contribution, cut much too short by her cancer diagnosis. We will remember her with love and admiration.

Jenni Case, Lisa Lucas and Delia Marshall

Ian Mc Nay


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Professional and Professionalism

By Ian McNay

My views on ‘professional’ and ‘professionalism’ in HE have been tested in several ways recently. One of my doctoral students has just got his award for a study on the topic. A major part of his work was a case study in a modern university, with a survey of teaching professionals with fellowship status in HEA either by a PGCE or a reflective portfolio of experience route. The survey group presented a homogeneous monochrome picture of what Hoyle, many years ago, labelled ‘restricted’ professionals – classroom bound with little engagement in the wider professional context, focused on subject and students, with punctuality and smart dress as professional characteristics. That reflected the response I got from some academics when I was appointed as a head of school: I met each one of my staff and, as part of the conversation, asked their view on development issues and future possibilities for the school. The response of several can be summarised by two: ‘I don’t have a view; not my role and above my pay grade’, and ‘You’re the boss. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it’. Continue reading

Paul Temple


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Steering Column

By Paul Temple

The SRHE Blog hasn’t featured a motoring column before – and actually it’s a bit late to start: if you’ve recently bought a new-ish car, it may well be your last one. That’s because the car makers and the big tech companies are betting the farm on driverless (“autonomous”) cars being the future of road travel – not in some “weekend breaks on Mars”-type sci-fi scenario, but in the next couple of years. At the end of February, an autonomous Nissan Leaf drove six miles around East London, including negotiating a roundabout on the A13 that scares me. It’s generally assumed that these cars mostly won’t be owned by individuals, but will be driverless taxis, summoned to your door (at least, in towns). Most new cars are already at or near what the industry calls “Level 3”, with sensors for parking, automatic braking, lane guidance and so on; “Level 4” cars will add all this to artificial intelligence and so do away with the human driver. The computer won’t make the stupid mistakes that all human drivers do – so one effect that’s already been noted will be the “nice to have” problem of a reduction in the number of transplant organs available.

It’s the combination of the scale and the imminence of this revolution that makes it so interesting social scientifically: this won’t be a gradual evolution, but a big bang – one year, cars like we’ve always known them; a year or two later, a transformation. Like an avalanche, unnoticed high up on the mountain, it is about to sweep down. (Look at one of the many blogs on this, such as “Connected Cars”, to get a sense of how fast things are moving.)

Why should this be of interest to higher education researchers? Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay


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Ian McNay writes…

By Ian McNay

Good to see action being taken on gender-based pay inequality after all the talk and all the evidence. Congratulations to Essex and, recently, LSE where women will get rises to close the gap of over 10% between their salaries and those of men with equal rank, length of service, research outputs and age. Essex earlier gave a one-off boost to female professors.

But … way to go fellas! I saw little coverage of the Women in Science Fellowships (we need a different title, surely). There were five awards of £15,000 to be spent in any way the winners choose in order to help them continue research in their chosen fields. What, then, did they choose?

  1. Help with childcare and some conference travel
  2. Flexible childcare arrangements to allow the further development of key collaborations and partnerships
  3. Childcare to allow an early return to work
  4. Practical help with childcare fees, with some on equipment and conferences
  5. Resolving the tough decision between my research and looking after my son

I cannot imagine a group of five male winners having such unanimity about such a ‘choice’. Thank you to the Evening Standard for its coverage and editorial stance.

Holiday reading

I spent some time over the summer copying Ulysses and cruising, less excitingly, the northern Mediterranean, Aegean and Adriatic seas. The ship’s library, for 1800 passengers, had about 120 books, including a history of Test Match Special. More relevant to readers here was one by Jonathan R Cole (2016) Toward a More Perfect University, NY, Public Affairs. One can criticise the title for thinking that ‘perfect’ can be susceptible to gradations, and for implying that the top 300 US research universities – the author’s basic starting point, are already perfect. Indeed, he criticises Johns Hopkins for distorting their mission to overstate research. Among his recommendations are a reduction in doctoral students; more emphasis on undergraduates – the quality of teaching and academic standards; and a compulsory one-year training programme for new members of governing bodies, Boards of Regents or their counterparts, to include a module on the nature of a university and its place in USA society. Good luck with that one.

The second one was a surprise. It was a John Grisham imitation, a courtroom drama. The following comes when the defence lawyer is about to cross-examine and discredit an academic expert. He sends his assistant to dig out his publications from 2008, 2004 and 2000.

‘If you’re cross-examining an academic witness, you have to look at their publications. Those years were the ARAE: the American Research Assessment Exercise. The more articles published by academic staff in the ARAE, the more money comes to their university and the more money those nerds take home. During those years everybody writes like crazy, and probably reasonable academics write crap things they would not dream of writing ordinarily. Writing for volume does not promote good theories, and pretty soon they’re writing papers on fairies and UFOs. Back then, articles meant cash. So, if there’s anything out there that will give us something on [him] that’s where we’ll find it.’

Steve Cavanagh (2016) The defense, NY, Flatiron Books, p51

And there was, and they did, and attacked the credibility of the witness to distract from the credibility of his evidence. Successfully.

There is, by the way, no such thing as the ARAE. It was, after all, a work of fiction, but bearing an uncanny resemblance to reality. The author’s details give no obvious connection to a background in higher education.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.

Ian Mc Nay


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Ian McNay writes…

By Ian McNay

How many Eleanors can you name? Roosevelt, Marx, Bron, Aquitaine, Rigby…add your own. Why am I asking this? Because it is a new metric for widening access. The recent issue of People Management, the journal of CIPD, reports that in 2014 the University of Oxford admitted more girls named Eleanor than students who had received free school meals. Those who were taught at private schools were 55% more likely to go to Oxbridge than student who received free school meals. Those two universities have even reduced the proportion of students they admitted who came from lower socio-economic groups in the decade from 2004=5, from 13.3% to 10% at Oxford and from 12.4% to 10.2% at Cambridge. Other Russell Group universities also recorded a fall, according to HESA data. So, second question: how many people do you know who have had free school meals or whose children have had? Not a visible/audible characteristic: they do not wear wristlet identifiers. But your university planning office will have the stats if you want to check its record. Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay


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Post election, Post budget: The shifting landscape of Higher Education in the UK

By Ian McNay

It says something about the Guardian and its reader profile when it builds a crossword round knowing the names of the chancellors of Russell Group universities, as it did on 27 June. I also liked its headline the previous day: ‘New dinosaur found in university store cupboard’. It has now been re-united with older colleagues in the department of economics.

My serious considerations here concern the post-election agenda – what I called Jo-Jo’s in-tray issues in a recent workshop at Coventry (to where/whom, congratulations on their Guardian league table ranking on student views on teaching quality: second only to Cambridge, and, more importantly, above Warwick). That system level policy focus will be balanced by treatment of emergent concerns at institutional level in a later piece.

The most immediate issue is a cut of £450m in the DBIS budget, which may be followed by further longer-term cuts as the failed austerity project continues. Nick Hillman at Coventry suggested an easy step was to convert grants to loans, which reduces the deficit but still increases the debt. I am writing before the budget, but I expect a loosening of fee limits, not ruled out during the election and possibly linked to teaching excellence, with high scorers being allowed to increase fees, as UUK want. Then there will be the sale of further tranches of the loan book, possibly to universities for their own alumni. Research Fortnight expects science to be protected Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay


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The REF: Digging beyond the headlines

By Ian McNay

Recent headlines on the Research Excellence Framework (REF) were  a bit over the top when the scores are scrutinised closely, particularly in Education, as detailed in my earlier blog post back in February. So, I won’t take long, but want to add to what I said then to emphasise the impact of the three elements of scoring and the discontinuities between exercises. Andrew Pollard, chair of the Education panel, concentrates on ‘research activity’ in his comment on the BERA website, where 30 percent was at 4* level. However, output had only 21.7 per cent at that level; the scores were boosted by scores of over 40 per cent for impact and environment.

If you look hard you can find a breakdown of scores by element for 2008, and these show how things have changed. For environment, in 2008, 5 units scored 50 per cent or higher at 4*, with a top score of 75 per cent; 19 scored 50 per cent or more when 3* and 4* are combined. This time, at 4* 18 units scored 50 per cent or more and 8 scored 100 per cent. Combining 3* and 4* shows that 52 units scored more than 50 per cent with 23 scoring 100 per cent across those top two levels.  That grade inflation suggests either considerable investment for development or less demanding criteria.

On impact there is no precedent. In 2008 the third element was esteem indicators, where the top score for 4* was 40 per cent, by only two units, with a further 10 getting 30 per cent. For impact in 2014, 13 units scored more than 50 per cent – well above the highest score for esteem. Perhaps we judged our peer academics more harshly than users of research did. Or, perhaps, they were less obsessed with long term, large scale, statistical studies using big data sets which successive panels have set as the acme of quality work, and more concerned with ’did it make a difference?’ Continue reading