srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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What is Times Higher Education for?

By Paul Temple

Have you been to a THE Awards bash? If not, it’s worth blagging an invite – your University must be on the shortlist for Herbaceous Border Strategy Team of the Year, or some such, as the business model obviously depends on getting as many universities as possible onto the shortlists, and then persuading each university to cough up to send along as many of its staff as possible. A night out at a posh Park Lane hotel for staff whose work most likely is normally unnoticed by the brass: where’s the harm? I went once – once is enough – mainly I think because our Marketing Director wanted to see if I really possessed a dinner jacket. (She was generous enough to say that I “scrubbed up nicely”.)

I mention this because THE itself seems to be becoming less a publication dealing with higher education news and comment and more a business aimed at extracting cash from higher education institutions, with the weekly magazine merely being a marketing vehicle in support of this aim. The Awards events are the least bothersome aspect of this. The THE rankings – highly valued as “how not to use data” examples by teachers of basic quantitative methods courses – have now entered the realm of parody (“Emerging Economy Universities with an R in their names”) although the associated conferences and double-page advertising spreads in the magazine rake in a nice bit of revenue, one imagines. THE might fairly respond by saying that nobody makes these universities come to their conferences or buy corporate advertising in their pages, and anyway they weren’t the ones who decided that the marketization of higher education worldwide would be a good idea. True, but their profit-making activities give the ratchet another turn, making it harder for universities trying to survive in a competitive market to say no to marketing blandishments, and so helping to move yet more spending away from teaching and research: something regularly lampooned by Laurie Taylor in – remind me where his Poppleton column appears?

The newer, more problematic, development is THE then selling itself as a branding consultancy to the same universities that it is including in its rankings and maybe covering in its news or comment pages. Now it goes without saying that a journal with the standards of THE would never allow the fact that it was earning consultancy fees from a university to influence that university’s position in the rankings that it publishes or how it was covered editorially. It would be unthinkable: not least because it would at a stroke undermine the whole basis of the rankings themselves. Audit firms similarly assure us that the fact that they are earning consultancy fees from a company could never affect the audit process affecting that company. The causes of misleading audit reports – on Carillion, say – should be sought elsewhere, we’re told.

But wait a minute, what’s this on the THE website? “THE is the data provider underpinning university excellence in every continent across the world. As the company behind the world’s most influential university ranking, and with almost five decades of experience as a source of analysis and insight on higher education, we have unparalleled expertise on the trends underpinning university performance globally. Our data and benchmarking tools are used by many of the world’s most prestigious universities to help them achieve their strategic goals.” This seems to be saying that the data used to create the THE rankings are available, at a price, to allow universities to improve their own performance. Leaving aside the old joke about a consultant being someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, referring to the data used to produce rankings and in the following sentence proposing using the same data to help universities achieve their strategic goals (and I’d be surprised if these goals didn’t include rising in the aforementioned rankings) will suggest to potential clients that these two THE activities are linked. Otherwise why mention them in the same breath? This is skating on thin ethical ice.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

 


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Powerful knowledge in the fishbowl

By Jim Hordern

A review of an SRHE South West Regional Network event on ‘Knowledge and power in higher education’

On 8 May 2018 an SRHE SW Regional Network event held at the International Centre for Higher Education Management (ICHEM) at the University of Bath examined ‘knowledge and power in higher education’. Two speakers, Michael Young and Melz Owusu (who also treated the audience to some rap), gave opposing views. This was followed by brief comments from David Packham and a ‘fishbowl’ discussion session, which offered audience members opportunities to voice their opinions on the topic.

Young, well known for his advocacy of ‘powerful knowledge’, outlined key tenets of his thesis: firstly, that the knowledge taught in schools and higher education should be specialised and differentiated from everyday experience, and secondly that the disciplines in higher education provide a reasonable means for organising that knowledge. Young emphasised that access to powerful knowledge should be an entitlement in a democratic society, and that this entitlement is undermined by the attack on collegiality in academia.

Owusu echoed aspects of postcolonial and critical theory to argue that the academy represents an ‘all-encompassing Eurocentric epistemology’, and that this implicitly and explicitly excludes non-European knowledges and cultural traditions. For Owusu, Continue reading


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Preventing Plagiarism – Professional Development Programme

By Caroline Jones and Gill Mills

Report of an SRHE Professional Development Programme Event held in January 2018

This event was relevant and current for all who work in and across HE. Plagiarism is a contentious and serious matter for students in higher education and a challenge for staff; it made the ‘Preventing Plagiarism’ professional development programme both intriguing and attractive. We all want to know how to ensure our students never fall into the trap of attempting to pass off the work of others as their own.  However many times we point students in the direction of institutional regulations and talk about ‘plagiarism’ and ‘misconduct’ there are still frequent cases. Sadly, plagiarism is becoming more accessible to students, owing to the perils of essay mills, contract cheating and now even spy kits. Institutional policies are rightly steeped in procedural routes and punishments can be severe, with misconduct panel meetings, outcomes logged on a student’s record, and even expulsion from the institution. Both staff and students report that these processes are stressful, severe and unpleasant experiences. In a bid to make changes Continue reading


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Doing good by wealth

By Paul Temple

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when “millionaire” was used to describe someone who was almost unimaginably rich. Then, sometime towards the end of the last century, “billionaire” took its place – a reflection, probably, of both inflation and increasing disparities of wealth. Now, in America, being a billionaire is no big deal (540 of them, apparently) – you have to be a multibillionaire for people to take notice. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon boss, is worth $100bn. Globally, the top 1% own as much as the remaining 99%. (SRHE members need to tread a little carefully here: Continue reading

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Academic freedom and freedom of speech

By Rob Cuthbert

In universities worldwide the debate about academic freedom and free speech continues, which is just as it should be. Meanwhile journalists in the popular press seem to have decided that political correctness and the ‘snowflake generation’ have made it impossible for anyone to debate anything in universities any more. But for those journalists, ‘research’ usually consists of looking at other journalists’ opinion pieces and referring to an alleged ‘free speech’ ranking from Spiked. This greatly exercised Registrarism’s Paul Greatrix, whose vituperative blog on 16 February 2017 said that as usual the new ranking was “sure to grab the headlines as examples of shocking repression in the higher education sector are paraded in the quality press”. As if to prove his point, a report from the Adam Smith Institute on alleged left-wing bias in academia was attacked by Aidan Byrne (aka Plashing Vole), aiming to debunk what he called this sinister new addition to the debate. The report was called Lackademia, though the URL was blunter: it read “Left Wing Bias Paper”.

Beyond the mass media there is a more informed debate. A faculty committee at the University of Minnesota Continue reading


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Max Weber and the rationalisation of education

By Geoff Hinchliffe

In order to understand our own times, it can be beneficial to go back in time, in order to take advantage of a fresh perspective from afar. One thinker who was uncannily prescient about some of our current concerns in higher education was Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber has always been held in high esteem, of course, by sociologists. But I think what he has to say about the effects of bureaucratisation are of interest to anyone working in higher education at the moment.

Weber thought that the methods and techniques of bureaucracy were all-pervasive in a modern industrial society. These techniques were by no means confined to the state: bureaucracy colonised all forms of commercial and institutional behaviour – including education. And these techniques were also accompanied by a certain habit of mind which Weber called rationalisation.  In his book, the Protestant Ethic, Weber famously invokes the ‘iron cage’ which modern man had constructed for himself, signifying the development of procedures and behaviours necessary for a modern economic order whilst “the rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems to be irretrievably fading” (Weber, p. 181-2).

This ‘iron cage’ – the cage of rationalisation – includes : Continue reading

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Academic practice, identity and careers

By Bruce Macfarlane

The word ‘traditional’ is possibly the most over-used term in the higher education discourse. In common with nearly all institutions that have endured for any substantial length of time, such as the Church of England or the Conservative Party, the University has been adroit at re-inventing itself. The latest re-imagining is that ‘traditional’ universities are research-led institutions. This myth has comparatively recent roots linked to the growth of an audit culture, expansion and stratification on an international basis, and academic performativity at an individual level. These trends have collectively re-shaped the nature of academic practice and identity over the last 50 years.

An insight into how priorities have changed among academics during the recent past is provided by Halsey and Trow’s seminal study, published in 1971, of a then still small and elite British higher education sector drawing on data gathered in the mid-1960s (at a time when the SRHE was being formed). They found that British academics were overwhelmingly oriented towards teaching rather than research. A mere 10 per cent were even ‘interested’ in research while just 4 per cent regarded research as their primary responsibility (Halsey & Trow, 1971). The study concludes Continue reading