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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Paul Temple


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Mind the Knowledge Gap

By Paul Temple

I teach an MA session at the Institute of Education called “The University in the Knowledge Economy”. We canter through the history, starting with a few reflections on the medieval university, going on to consider the development of science in nineteenth-century Germany, noting Bush’s 1945 Science – the Endless Frontier report, examining Bell’s seminal 1973 The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, and coming up to date with references to theorists such as Stehr and the policy statements to be found in any British White Paper on higher education in recent decades, or in any comparable European Commission report. My no doubt predictable thesis is that the university has steadily assumed an increasingly dominant place in knowledge production and transfer in modern societies; and that this has certain implications for the ways in which universities should be planned and managed.

But I’m now beginning to think that this rather Whig approach is looking painfully complacent. The development of knowledge economies seems to have had the effect of producing deep social divisions that are only now becoming obvious – the Brexit vote here, Trump in the US, Le Pen in France, and so on. What was widely thought to be an unarguable good – more knowledge, used in new ways – is turning out to have some troubling consequences. It doesn’t have to be like this, of course, but the understandable grievances of those left behind by the knowledge economy – stuck in the knowledge gap, between old ways of working and the new economy – have been both overlooked by otherwise progressive politicians and then ruthlessly exploited by cynical ones. Do we now have “knowledge Britain” and an “anti-knowledge Britain”, to set alongside the “locals vs cosmopolitans” and the “somewheres vs anywheres” divisions? Have those of us working in knowledge businesses assumed too easily that most people were seeing the world from a vaguely similar vantage point to our own?

Universities have got some questions to answer here. If they have done such a wonderful job in creating and transmitting knowledge, then how come the quarter-baked ideas about how a modern economy works (“balancing the books” and so on, as if the national economy were a corner shop) have the currency that they apparently do? How come that the benefits of a single market for goods and services, explained in shelves-full of economics textbooks, have so little political traction? How come that the intellectually discredited idea of grammar schools is still thought to be worth even discussing? (The bitter irony here is that the idea does rest on research – mistaken when not actually bogus – on IQs.)

The idea of the knowledge economy or society seemed not to figure at all in the recent general election campaign. Actually, you could argue that the Conservative campaign’s vision of taking Britain back to the 1950s – Brexit, grammar schools, fewer foreigners, fox hunting – was an anti-knowledge one, designed to cut Britain off from the cultural and economic links on which its knowledge base (and much else) depends while at the same time deepening internal divisions. Accordingly, my feelings towards my fellow citizens became markedly warmer in the early hours of 9 June, when it became apparent that this approach had met with something less than universal acclamation.

At HEPI’s “Policy Briefing Day” in April, a former ministerial special adviser apparently suggested that “universities tailor their priorities to fit the Government’s expressed goal of ensuring the UK’s departure from the EU is a success” (translation: don’t cause trouble, get on side, or else). I suggest that the task confronting universities goes beyond helping the government to manage its Brexit damage-limitation project: it is about working to close the national knowledge gap and in doing so saying, loudly and clearly, that some ideas are just plain wrong.

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

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Making admissions better in Australia

By Marcia Devlin

In Australia, the federal government has been focused on improving the transparency of higher education admissions. I’ve been concerned and written about this matter for some years, particularly the confusion in prospective students and their families around exclusive admissions criteria being used as a proxy for quality.

The government-appointed Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) were asked to consider and report on how the admissions policies and processes of higher education providers could be made clearer, easier to access and more useful, to inform the choices and decisions of prospective students and their families.

In the context of an increased variety of pathways through which a prospective student can apply or be accepted into higher education in Australia, the HESP found that prospective students, their families and others, including schools, are finding it increasingly difficult to understand the full range of study options and opportunities available, and to understand how they can best take advantage of these options to meet their education and career objectives.

The HESP made 14 recommendations Continue reading

Paul Temple


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Be careful what you wish for

By Paul Temple

At an SRHE conference session not long ago, I remarked on the hostility shown at any mention of neoliberalism. As I recall, the neoliberal charge-sheet included the commodification of higher education, cuts in funding, the proletarianisation of academic staff, an obsession with metrics and targets replacing a culture of standards and quality … the list went on. My response was that while these were all no doubt bad things, neoliberalism was merely a bystander at the crime scene, not the perpetrator. Politicians and their agencies, wishing to exert ever-tighter control over higher education through half-baked ideas about markets and business methods, were the ones wielding the blunt instruments. A proper neoliberal would no more have a view on the size, shape and methods of higher education than they would want to determine the types and quantities of cars produced by the motor industry.

Neoliberals would instead want to reduce government controls on universities (or car makers) to allow them to meet the needs of students (or car buyers) in the ways they judged best. They would want governments to concentrate on Continue reading

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Constructing the higher education student: a comparative study of six European countries

By Rachel Brooks

We were delighted to give the first proper presentation about our new ‘Eurostudents’ research project at the SRHE annual conference in December 2016. As the project will run over the next five years, we hope that we’ll be able to give further presentations about it at various SRHE conferences in the future. Colleagues can also find regular updates on the project website (www.eurostudents.net) and by following us @eurostudents_ on Twitter.

Below we provide a brief background to the project, and explain what we will be doing over the next few years.

Background

There are currently over 35 million students within Europe and yet, to date, we have no clear understanding of the extent to which understandings of ‘the student’ are shared. Thus, a central aim of this project is to investigate how the contemporary higher education (HE) student is conceptualised and the extent to which this differs both within nation-states and across them. This is significant in terms of implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumptions that are made about common understandings of ‘the student’ across Europe – underpinning, for example, initiatives to increase cross-border educational mobility and the wider development of a European Higher Education Area. It is also significant in relation to exploring the extent to which understandings are shared within a single nation and, particularly, the degree to which there is congruence between the ways in which students are conceptualised within policy texts and by policymakers, and the understandings of other key social actors such as the media, higher education institutions and students themselves.

Research questions and methods

The empirical project is guided by four main research questions:

(i) How are understandings of the higher education student produced, shaped and disseminated by (a) policymakers, (b) the media and (c) higher education institutions?

(ii) To what extent do these understandings differ within and across European nations?

(iii) How do students of different national and social backgrounds understand the role of the higher education student?

(iv) To what extent are their understandings consonant with those produced, shaped and disseminated by policymakers, the media and higher education institutions?

To answer these questions, data will be collected from six different European countries – Denmark, England, Ireland, Germany, Poland and Spain (chosen to give variation in welfare regime, relationship to the EU, and mechanisms for funding HE) – and through four strands of work, each of which focuses on a different social actor i.e. policymakers, the media, higher education institutions and students themselves.

new-picture-3The research is funded by the European Research Council, through a Consolidator Grant awarded to Rachel Brooks (Surrey), and runs from August 2016 until July 2021. The project researchers, working with Rachel, are Jessie Abrahams, Predrag Lažetić and Anu Lainio.

SRHE Member Rachel Brooks is Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey and has edited one of the latest books in the SRHE/Routledge series entitled Student Politics and Protest

MarciaDevlin


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Australian HE reform could leave students worse off

By Marcia Devlin

Australia is in full election campaign mode. What a returned conservative government means for higher education is a little worrying, although what a change of government means is worrying for different reasons.

Two years ago, the then federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, proposed a radical set of changes for higher education funding including, among other things, a 20% cut to funding and full fee deregulation. While the latter received support from some institutions and Vice-Chancellors, there were very few supporters of the whole package. Among those who did not support it were the ‘cross-benchers’ – the independent and minor party members of the Parliament of Australia who have held the balance of power since elected in 2014 – and so the proposals were not passed.

The government have since introduced Senate voting reforms which means the minor parties will not be able to swap preferences in order to secure Senate seats as they have done in the past, and there is less likelihood of a future cross bench like this one. Which is a shame for higher education in my view as these folk actually listened to the sector and public and responded accordingly. Mr Pyne has now moved onto other responsibilities. But just before he moved, this actually happened: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hc9NRwp6fiI

The new and current Education Minister, Simon Birmingham has released a discussion paper in lieu of budget measures: Continue reading


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Gesellschaft für Hochschulforschung – the German Society for HE Research

By Richard Budd

Given that my PhD compared German and English HE, I was thrilled to be awarded SRHE funding to attend their counterpart’s annual conference in München. It gave me a chance to gen up on the hottest topics in German-speaking HE research, to catch up with a few people I already knew from a stint as a visiting doctoral researcher, and to build some new bridges. It didn’t disappoint, and the only dark cloud was that I was unable to stay for the whole event due to prior commitments.

The early career researcher day started with a workshop on publication strategies, and was mostly directed towards doctoral students who might be unfamiliar with the publishing landscape. Many of the tips such as identifying the original contribution of your paper, an eye-catching title, and listening to the editor’s /reviewers comments were (recent) old hat, although some of this I’d had to learn the hard way. Of particular interest was the array of German language journals that either focus entirely on HE or are amenable to HE-oriented pieces. A number of German academics do publish in the more familiar English language journals, but there is a great deal of interesting research that happens away from the ‘English eye’. I struggle to keep up with the volume of my ‘must-reads’ in English at the best of times, and would welcome suggestions on how to manage this (on a postcard, please). I am conscious that I somehow need to keep my finger on the German language pulse, too.

The main event of the early career researcher day was Continue reading


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The Annual Conference of the German Association for HE Research

By Susi Poli

It was by chance that I sent my application for a sponsored delegate place at the Annual Conference of the German Association for Higher Education Research (GfHF), held in Munich in April. SRHE had called for a student/early career researcher, fully sponsored by GfHF, to engage in their panel discussion at the pre-conference on making the connection between HE research and practice. Surprisingly or not, I was shortlisted and I got the place!

Before leaving for the conference I became aware that there is a distinction to be made between ‘early stage researcher’ as defined by the EU, and ‘early career researcher’ (ECR) based on UK terminology. The first refers to the European Commission’s Charter for Researchers, which clearly states the professional status of the researcher from the early stage, ie from the doctoral phase onwards. In contrast the UK considers its doctoral candidates as ‘students’ and doesn’t afford them professional status (Hancock et al, 2015). However, I was happy to be seen as an early career/stage ‘something’ or researcher, appreciated even more as a woman and an experienced/mature (or both) professional in her mid-40s.

The leading questions in preparation for the panel discussion were: Continue reading