srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education

Image of Rob Cuthbert


Leave a comment

Memo to Universities UK: don’t let this crisis go to waste

by Rob Cuthbert

Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero[1]

Our text is from Boris and Horace. Boris Johnson had Churchillian aspirations, and it was Churchill who supposedly first said in the 1940s: “never let a good crisis go to waste”, in the context of the formation of the United Nations. And it was Horace much longer ago who urged us to seize the day, and put little faith in the future.

As we survey the present carnage[2] in government, what are vice-chancellors to do? First, take stock of the damage to the machinery of government, both in the Department for Education and the Office for Students. At government level we had three Secretaries of State in the space of just 48 hours. Nadhim Zahawi, the last-but-two incumbent, had shown some signs of common sense, although admittedly his predecessor Gavin Williamson had set the bar very low. Nevertheless Zahawi had done nothing to rein in his universities minister Michele Donelan, who seemed to prefer fighting the culture wars to addressing the real problems of English HE – declining levels of funding, an epidemic of student mental health problems, profound staff dissatisfaction and the threat of mass redundancies and even insolvencies in too many universities. She had taken to telephoning individual vice-chancellors to question some aspect of university management or student behaviour, while enthusiastically pursuing the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which at the time of writing is at the committee stage in the House of Lords, procedurally close to its establishment in statute – perhaps. Her reward as the resignation carnage unfolded was a big promotion to Zahawi’s job, as he moved to be Chancellor of the Exchequer on Rishi Sunak’s resignation. But as the ministerial resignations surged past 50 on Thursday 7 July, Donelan obviously thought that it was safer to join in than to be, perhaps, buried in an eventual massacre of the survivors. But her timing was bad. Her letter of resignation was made public less than an hour before the news emerged that Boris Johnson had bowed to the inevitable and agreed to step down as leader of the Conservative Party – but to continue as Prime Minister, possibly until the Autumn party conference. For a brief period the DfE had no ministers at all, but the Donelan resignation made no difference to the outcome. Had she stayed, she would probably have remained in post and the outcomes for HE might have been different. Instead James Cleverly is the new Secretary of State. He has previously served in the Cabinet, but his views on Education have been “mainly confined to a yearly jeremiad on how A levels were getting easier”, according to David Kernohan’s instant appraisal for Wonkhe on 8 July 2022. At the time of writing the new Universities Minister has yet to be named.

The tsunami of ministerial changes will make waves for the regulator too. While that would be true of any ministerial change, in these peculiar circumstances the waves may reach storm heights. The chair of the Office for Students owes his position to his closeness to Boris Johnson. Baron Wharton of Yarm, as he now is, was simply a former MP when he took on the role of campaign manager for Boris Johnson’s successful bid to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party. (In the past there has been some dispute about whether he really was ‘the’ campaign manager, but no doubt there are now fewer claimants to that ‘honour’.) Wharton was rewarded first with a peerage, and then with the chair of the Office for Students. Controversially, he has continued to take the Conservative whip in the House of Lords although the OfS is by statute an independent regulator. It comes as no surprise that the OfS is fulfilling the prediction made before OfS was established by Director of Fair Access Les Ebdon, when he said “the OfS will do whatever the government of the day wants it to do”.

One of many ministerial letters of ‘guidance’ went to the OfS from the then Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi and the then Universities Minister Michele Donelan on 31 March 2022. It said in effect that they like the way the OfS is doing the government’s bidding, but they want it done quicker and better. The interim OfS Chief Executive, Susan Lapworth, tried to defend the position in her HEPI blog on 13 June 2022: “ministers are not ‘politicising’ the work of the OfS when they make use of these lawful mechanisms to express their priorities and expectations. Rather, they are making proper use of the powers Parliament gave to them and that feels entirely democratic to me.” She noted that “ministers appoint the members of the OfS board: the OfS chair, independent members, the Chief Executive, the Director for Fair Access and Participation, and, subject to the passage of the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill, another future director. These are all subject to the normal processes for public appointments. It is, though, hardly a surprise that ministers would wish to appoint people broadly aligned with the policy preferences of the government of the day. And a democratically elected government gets to make those decisions.”

Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan in their 1 June 2022 blog for Wonkhe noted: “… the first meeting for a new [OfS] board member announced by the Department for Education (DfE) as one Rachel Houchen. She’s the wife of Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, who “lives in Yarm with his wife Rachel” and who until recently was assistant headteacher and governor of a local school, making her arguably more qualified than James Wharton to be on the board. No problem – according to the OfS interim chief executive, it’s OK to appoint the wife of your good friend and neighbour (and Conservative MP) to a seat on the board, if you’re the Chair who still takes the party whip in the House of Lords, because, “once appointed, we all ensure that OfS decisions are taken independently”.  

Now all bets are off. It remains to be seen whether the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill will be enacted; it might depend on the kind of drubbing it gets in the Lords at committee stage, and whether a limping government has the inclination for a fight on that particular hill. That will determine whether we get a higher education free speech ‘tsar’, directly appointed by the Secretary of State (whoever that is by then). But the Donelan-pleasing initiative announced on 26 May 2022 is already looking more uncertain. The OfS launched investigations into eight universities and colleges to decide whether they meet the OfS’s conditions for quality, which had just come into effect. “Other factors to be considered include whether the delivery of courses and assessment is effective, the contact hours students receive, and whether the learning resources and academic support available to students are sufficient. To support this work the OfS is recruiting a pool of experienced academics to lead the investigative work.” OfS warned that they would be putting ‘boots on the ground’. But on what grounds? Diana Beech (London Higher) was in combative form in her HEPI blog  on 16 June 2022: “In sum, it appears that before implementation of the B3 risk framework, we have moved to a process of investigation based on undefined thresholds or metrics, accepted a subject-based evaluation rather than sector or institution, and accepted that volume balances against scale of variance. Consequently, questions must be asked about the timings, approach and motives for this announcement, which comes before the new Chief Executive of the OfS has been announced and also before a much-anticipated ministerial reshuffle.” Beech, of course had no inkling then of the scale of the ‘reshuffle’, but those questions must be asked with even more urgency now. Will the new DfE ministerial team wish to persist with such an ill-founded venture?

The situation poses existential challenges not just for government and the OfS, but perhaps also for Universities UK. There is an unprecedented opportunity for UUK to reset the terms of engagement between government and universities, by asserting a new and better interpretation of what the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 should mean. There is a chance to put an end to unproductive top-down meddling and reinstate constructive dialogue. But will UUK seize the day?

Some recent signs are not hopeful. OfS have repeatedly criticised ‘unexplained’ increases in the proportion of first class and 2:1s degrees, most recently in a report published on 12 May 2022, readily spun as ‘grade inflation’. In response Universities UK and GuildHE jointly announced on 5 July 2022 their plans to return to pre-pandemic levels of first class and 2:1 degrees being awarded over the next two years. The UUK ‘commitment’ is carefully worded, so the details of how the new arrangements will work are yet to be determined. However UUK accepted the language of ‘unexplained’ increases in the proportions of first class and 2.1s, even though the possible explanations include ‘better teaching’ and ‘students working harder and better’ – for which there is some research evidence. In principle the UUK announcement can only be seen as a shift to norm-referencing and away from criterion-referencing. There is no reference in the UUK announcement to the value of academic autonomy, or the need to be mindful of that autonomy. There must be a danger that UUK will continue to be reactive rather than assert more vigorously the value and the values which underpin the excellence of the English HE system.

But there are encouraging signs too. On 9 May 2022, while Michele Donelan was still fighting the culture wars as Minister for Further and Higher Education, UUK issued a strongly-worded rebuttal of government proposals to cap student numbers and introduce minimum entry requirements: “proposed reforms to post 18 education and funding in England would turn back the clock on social mobility while limiting the government’s own levelling up agenda. … UUK strongly opposes the introduction of student number caps, which would hurt those from disadvantaged backgrounds the most. As well as limiting student choice, student number caps entrench disadvantage because students who are unable to move location to attend university have fewer opportunities to apply and be accepted to university, making them more likely to choose a path with poorer employment outcomes. Limiting educational opportunities is also counterproductive as the UK looks to upskill and meet the growing need for graduate skills. There were one million more graduate vacancies than graduates in 2022. As part of its response to the consultation, UUK has also raised issues with using minimum entry requirements. The universities most likely to be most affected by minimum entry requirements recruit high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

This is the kind of robust response which UUK will need to maintain and strengthen. The clear statement of values which underpins the statement is the best way to show in practice how UUK will stand up for HE’s best interests and the ‘brand’ that is British (not just English) higher education. Zeenat Fayez (The Brand Education) wrote in a HEPI blog on 11 July 2022: “Brand is a comparatively new concept for universities and can be an intimidating commercial term; but, distilled to an essence, it is simply the reputation of an institution. Marty Neumeier encapsulated the concept best in his description: ‘a brand is not what you say it is. It is what they say it is.’ A brand can therefore be said to be a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or company. Consequently, brand management is the management of differences, not as they exist on data sheets, but as they exist in the minds of people.”

There are profound differences within HE, not least between staff and vice-chancellors, thanks to the long-running dispute over pay, pensions and conditions in USS institutions, and the equally severe problems facing many other universities as student numbers have shifted upmarket, away in particular from Million+ universities towards those Russell Group universities which have chosen to expand. This jeopardises opportunities for many potential students unable to move beyond their local institution, especially across arts and humanities subjects, as the reported redundancies in too many universities demonstrate. In some cases vice-chancellors have been tin-eared in response, as in the case of one VC announcing redundancies to a mass staff audience online, simply making a statement and not taking questions, and another threatening to stop recruitment to a programme where staff are currently taking industrial action. However a number of individual VCs swiftly and robustly disagreed when Michele Donelan wrote to all English HE providers on 27 June 2022 about “growing concern that a ‘chilling effect’ on university campuses leaves students, staff and academics unable to freely express their lawful views without fear of repercussion.” As for the Race Equality Charter and Athena Swan: “I would like to ask you to reflect carefully as to whether your continued membership of such schemes is conducive to establishing such an environment. On that note, I would draw to your attention that, in May 2022, the interim CEO of the Office for Students, warned that universities, should “be thinking carefully and independently about their free speech duty when signing up to these sort of schemes.” Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe on 27 June 2022 was quick to note there had been no ceasefire in the culture wars.

It is time for the sensible tendency in UUK to reassert itself. That would enable UUK to reset how people inside and outside HE think about the management of differences, especially those between HE staff, UUK, OfS and DfE. It might even enable UUK to give a lead in the broader culture wars. By asserting its position vigorously and properly, and by being proactive on some issues rather than simply responding to another government initiative, UUK has an unprecedented opportunity to restore some faith and trust in its capacity to represent the sector’s interests.

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.


[1] “Seize the day, put little faith in the future” Horace Odes 1.11

[2] After pausing to be grateful that carnage for once refers to somebody else’s mess, rather than commercially-inspired student drunkenness.


2 Comments

Can coaching bring back the joy to academic work?

By George Callaghan

Pause for a moment and jot down how many tasks and projects are currently at the front of your mind? You might already be thinking, “hold on, am I asked to pause, to stop thinking, stop doing, even for a moment? Does he not know how much I’ve got to do!” I would encourage you to give it a go.

Here are mine: write this blog, check work emails, check personal emails, re-read my Career Development Staff Appraisal Form for meeting later today, check train is going to be on time for said meeting, check if Waverley station has moved bike storage area since lock-down, check today’s to-do list I made yesterday, send the two qualitative interviews which have been transcribed to the printers…” OK, I will stop there – quite a long list which only took about 30 seconds to come up with. It also does not include other University work or general life stuff such as parenting, being in a relationship, owning pets, shopping and so on. The distinction between the private and professional life of academics is becoming increasingly blurred – and the pressure of work is becoming increasingly intense.

Then think back to when you embarked on your academic career, most likely full of excitement and joy at being able to pursue your intellectual passion for a subject, enthuse students, write papers, and successfully present at conferences.

What happened between the early excitement and present overload? How did our academic lives become so busy we barely have time for a coffee break, never mind time to think clearly and analytically? And crucially, what might we do about it?

While the answers to the changing nature of demands will be multi-factorial and include the marketisation of higher education and the pressure of research and teaching metrics, I argue in this blog that coaching offers a route-map to creating a more balanced and enjoyable professional life. It is an invitation to self-reflect, to recognise strengths, to develop insights, and to allow obstacles to be identified and overcome. This makes it a tremendously powerful staff development intervention.

Coaching can take several forms. For example, academic leaders and managers might use training to develop a coaching mindset. Here they would be using skills such as active listening and reflective inquiry to deepen the quality of their communication with colleagues. Alternatively, academic and professional staff might take dedicated one to one sessions with a trained and qualified coach.

Here, I begin to tell the story of how we are using coach training and coaching sessions to develop a coaching culture amongst academic staff within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University. The project is still in its early stages but is showing great promise.

The initial idea was sparked by some coach training I engaged with as part of my professional development. I had a lightbulb moment when I realised that the constant curiosity, invitation to self-reflect and absence of judgement which underpin coaching conversations fit wonderfully well with the academic labour process. Many of us are drawn to work as university academics because we value agency, autonomy, and self-direction. As we know only too well, the current intensification of academic work militates against these, produces feelings of frustration and can be overwhelming. Coaching, with its focus on open questions and reflective inquiry, signposts new ways forward. Open questions and reflective inquiry may even lead to insights where we remember the joy and love of our work.

The project involves an external coach organisation providing introductory coaching skills training to academic leaders and managers. The positive early feedback led to expanding this offer of training coaching skills and to set up an internal coaching service where one to one coaching supports colleagues through career transitions.

We are presently working on an evaluation project using grounded theory methodology to analyse the impact of the coach skills training. The data is presently being collected and analysed and our aim is to offer a paper on this evaluation to Studies in Higher Education later in the year. Here, I offer my own reflections on what appears to be working – as well as some thoughts on what I might have done better.

In terms of what’s worked I am both refreshed and relieved to find that informal feedback and my own observations indicate that coaching adds value to the academic working life. One of these is the invitation to leaders and managers to self-reflect. To “listen more and talk less”.

As part of my own self-reflection, I began to pay attention to how I behave in meetings. Not how I thought I behaved, but what I do. I thought I consistently listened intently to others before making my own contribution. In fact, I was half listening to comments while internally formulating my own ‘excellent, articulate and very powerful’ contribution! I barely waited for others to stop speaking before I started. Acceptance of this embarrassing revelation led to a change in my listening. I began to concentrate on what others were saying. Not just to the words, but also the emotion behind the words. I began to pause before replying or I invited someone else to come in first. These are particularly challenging changes to make when one is chairing meetings or in a leadership and management position. Interestingly, once I let go of feeling responsibility for being the one with ‘the answer’ I felt more calm – and better ideas emerged.

In group or one to one meetings, taking the time to really listen generates new insights and opens the door to new possibilities. For leaders this can also be rather humbling as one realises others have equally (or more) valid ideas and solutions. This type of facilitative as opposed to directive leadership is particularly suited to academia, where the apprenticeship for the job involves independent thinking and the development of critical questioning.

This shift to leadership habits which draw on coaching, for example moving from ‘telling’ to ‘listening’, has the potential to motivate and energise colleagues. This takes time but offers substantial returns. Telling and directing is quicker in the short term – perhaps you are familiar with colleagues hesitating before making decisions, looking to first run it past a head of department, research lead or some other authority figure? While this style of management and leadership works to some extent (courses still get taught and research still gets done), it can create a dependent relationship. Leading through coaching invites colleagues to take more responsibility for their own – and consequently the university’s – development and growth.

What might I have done better? What immediately comes to mind is that I could have been much more patient. As I became convinced of coaching’s effectiveness, I set high expectations of uptake and the pace of change. The take up of coach training by leaders and managers did pick up, but over months and years as opposed to weeks. The habit of self-reflection I am (still) learning to practise has been of great assistance. The realisation that I must meet colleagues where they are now, not where I am.

Please consider how adopting a coaching mindset may be of service in improving the leadership and management in your own institution. You might reflect and think it is all working fine, but if you realise there is room for improvement then coaching may very well be of service. In the meantime, stay curious!

SRHE member George Callaghan is Professor of Personal Finance and Economics in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at the Open University. He is also a qualified coach with the International Coaching Federation and the Institute of Leadership and Management. If you would like to discuss any points in this blog, please email George.callaghan@open.ac.uk


Leave a comment

Covid-19 won’t change universities unless they own up to the problems that were already there

by Steven Jones

At a national level in the UK, two Covid narratives vie for supremacy. The first positions the government response to the pandemic as successful, pointing to a world-leading vaccine development and roll-out, a well-received furlough scheme, and an accelerated return to ‘normal’. The second positions the government response as calamitous, pointing to recurring misspends, accusations of corruption, and a death rate among the highest in Europe.

Within UK higher education, two parallel narratives have arisen. On one hand, sector leaders and institutional managers claim against-the-odds victory because most universities emerged reputationally and commercially unscathed from the most unforeseeable of global challenges. On the other hand, for many students and staff, Covid-19 further exposed the limits of market-based approaches to funding universities, and the harm done by corporate governance cultures.

Discursively, Covid-19 laid bare a higher education sector fluent in the language of competition but mostly unable to articulate its underlying value to society. Senior management teams continued to pore over league table performance indicators and rejoice in individual ‘excellence’, but struggled to co-create a narrative of common good and humanity in the face of a deadly virus.

Yet at the local level there was much of which to be proud: university staff listened to their students and put their needs first, recognising that welfare now took priority over academic outcomes. Learning persisted, even during the depths of lockdown, with pedagogies adapting and curricula evolving. The question now is how to reconcile a renewed spirit of collegiality and creativity with top-down policy wedded to the idea that universities are ‘providers’ and their students little more than consumers of a premium product.

The starting point may be to accept that UK universities were struggling long before Covid-19 struck. Many of the sector’s underlying problems were simply brought into sharper focus by the pandemic. This slower-burning crisis in higher education means that: 

  1. Relations between senior managers and their staff are broken. During Covid-19, university staff wondered why their efforts appeared to be appreciated more by their students than their employers. For those in positions of authority, the successful response of front-line personnel seemed almost to threaten their authority. Top-end remuneration had raced ahead of median campus pay for decades because governing bodies were convinced that the university’s most important work was undertaken by its executive. Suddenly, it appeared that collegiality at the disciplinary level was what mattered most. Institutional managers would no doubt retort that running a university by consensus is impractical, not least during a worldwide emergency, and that the financial sustainability of the sector was secured by their swift pre-emptive action. But to those on the outside, the simmering resentment between employers and employees remains unfathomable: how can those who lead the university be so far adrift of those who work for the university?
  • Relations between senior managers and students are also badly damaged. Partly this was the fault of policy-makers, for whom students were at best an afterthought. But instead of fashioning an alternative narrative, institutional management teams mostly followed the lead of a cynical government and framed students as potential individual rule-breakers rather than a vulnerable cohort of young people facing an extraordinary mental health challenge. One vice-chancellor foolhardily suggested that where students were forced into self-isolation it might engender a ‘Dunkirk spirit’. At times, international students were treated like cargo. In August 2021, over fifty UK universities clubbed together to charter flights and import students from China. Home students were also lured back on to campus prematurely, the risks to local communities apparently secondary to income from accommodation, catering and other on-site spending.
  • Ministers don’t listen to sector leaders. Despite institutional managers and their representative bodies dutifully following the marketisation road-map that policy-makers laid out, Covid-19 exposed a sector that had remarkably little sway over government strategy. Ministers showed no interest in University UK’s proposed bail-out package, with one Conservative peer pointedly suggesting that institutions show ‘humility on the part of those vice-chancellors who take very large salaries.’ This undermined the soft-power strategies of which sector leaders had boasted for decades. Some ‘wins’ for students did emerge, but they were invariably overstated: the government’s announcement of a £50m package of support in February 2021 was met with enthusiasm by sector representatives, leaving it to mental health charities like Student Minds to point out that this amounted to barely £25 per head. Ironically, when the government botched its A-levels algorithm, universities stepped in to bail-out policy-makers.
  • The business model on which universities operate is brittle. No-one would deny the reliance on overseas student income leaves the sector financially exposed. Many would go further and say that there’s something unethical – neo-colonial even – about charging sky-high fees to foreign students so that other university activity can be cross-subsidised. The most principled long-term approach would be for university leaders to reassert the common value of higher education, and seek to persuade the public that a system funded through progressive general taxation, akin to that of other nations, would be fairer and more robust. With graduates of English universities facing interest charges of 9-12% over four decades, there has never been a better time to make this argument.

In 2020, I wrote an upbeat piece in The Guardian suggesting that Covid-19 could change universities for the better. This is still just about possible. However, recent evidence suggests that there is no great eagerness on the part of management to seize the opportunity. Indeed, Covid-19 could change next to nothing, allowing sector leaders and institutional managers to distract from previous failings and double down on a failed corporate leadership model. At the national level, campuses have become battlefields for unwinnable ‘culture wars’, as right-wing politicians and media commentators take pot-shots at a sector lacking the confidence or guile to defend itself. At the institutional level, the cost-of-living crisis is already being used to vindicate new survivalist discourses that will later be used to rationalise further reconfigurations and cuts.

Covid-19 exposed the vulnerability of a heavily marketised university sector. As student loan interest rates rocket and staff pensions crumble, our sector leaders say almost nothing. Markets in higher education do more than monetise students’ learning; they co-opt and silence those whose primary duty it is to defend the universities that they manage.

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester. Steven’s new book, Universities Under Fire: hostile discourses and integrity deficits in higher education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) will be published in the summer.


Leave a comment

Pathways to inclusivity and diversity: building communities for women in science

by Jennifer Leigh and the Board of WISC

Talking about the gender imbalance in STEM is not new. Patricia Fara wrote a book on the history of women’s participation in science and explained clearly that women have always been interested in science – the fact is they have not always been given the opportunities to be scientists.

These days we can look at the lack of diversity in science and see that as well as barriers for women and other marginalised genders, there are barriers for anyone who does not fit the mythical stereotype of what a scientist might be. This might be because they are Black, or because they are disabled, or from a minority ethnic group, because of their sexuality, religion, or because they are the first in their family to enter higher education. Kimberlé Crenshaw described the way that these barriers accumulate and multiply as intersectional.

There has been a plethora of programmes designed to increase numbers of women in science, from the ADVANCE programme in the USA to the Athena Swan Charter used in the UK and globally. But there is still underrepresentation of women. Leading scientists such as Professor Rita Colwell, and advocates for women in science like Professor Sue Rosser, would say that in fact progress towards gender equity has stagnated. So, what can we do?

The approach taken by the International Women in Supramolecular Chemistry (WISC) network was to do things differently in order to effect immediate change. WISC was launched in November 2019 by Dr Jennifer Hiscock and colleagues after they realised the invaluable support they gained from an informal peer-support network. Chemistry has particular issues around the retention and progression of women. Whilst outreach has been successful, with women making up around 50% of all undergraduates choosing to study chemistry, less than 9% are full professors. This is a similar proportion to Physics, where fewer than 25% of A level students are girls. Rather than do yet more research that quantifies the numbers that make up the problem, WISC decided to use a novel area-specific approach that embedded qualitative and creative research methods more commonly associated with social sciences and arts. Rather than working on scientists, WISC chose to work with them, to gain understanding of the lived experiences of women who chose to stay in science.

The barriers to retention and progression that face women in chemistry are not new. Senior women and those who have left science have spoken up about dealing with sexual harassment, misogyny, and microaggressions. About balancing the chance to have a family with a career that places pressure on individuals in their late 20s to late 30s to travel, work excessively long hours, and be hyper-productive. They have spoken about the ‘old boys network’ in science where men use their positions of power and influence to help others, and the threat of losing their job or having to leave the field if they were to complain. In this last, science is probably no different from other parts of academia.

What WISC has done is to create a means by which women in the field now have been supported to share their stories with each other, to build a sense of community, kinship and mutual support through using creative and reflective means such as collaborative autoethnography. Then, together with data from qualitative surveys with a wider body of members, and ongoing reflective work with international research groups, they used narrative fiction to create a series of vignettes drawing from the research data. These vignettes allowed WISC to share the lived experiences and embodied responses of women in chemistry with a wide audience, whilst protecting all the participants from the dangers of being seen to complain or whistleblow. They collected these vignettes together in a forthcoming book from Policy Press. Dave Leigh FRS, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Manchester, wrote in the foreword to the book:

“Over my career I have seen many things change for the better in academia: Recruitment and promotion committees take genuine steps to avoid conscious and unconscious bias; schemes have been introduced that target women and other disadvantaged groups for independent positions; the increase in the number of women in chemistry departments has drastically changed the ‘macho’ culture that was prevalent 25 years ago. But the text and vignettes in this book, the latter composed from real experiences of women in supramolecular chemistry, paint a vivid, troubling picture that shows just why further significant change is still needed. The playing field is still not level. Whether that’s the fault of society, academia or supramolecular chemistry itself, I don’t know. But I suspect it’s all three. In reading this the most uncomfortable part of all was the persistent wondering if and how my own behaviour contributes to the inequality and experiences I was reading about. What do I do, or not do, that makes academia less fair on my women colleagues? And my questioning of that is, perhaps, the best reason of all for this book.”

WISC have created a means by which their members and participants can share their own experiences, and then utilise these safely to raise awareness of the challenges and barriers they face as they choose to stay in science. Their aim is not only to connect with women and other marginalised groups, but to use fiction to reach out to men as well, and from there to make change.

SRHE member Jennifer Leigh is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education and Academic Practice at the University of Kent. She is Vice Chair of Research in WISC, Co-Lead of the NADSN STEMM Action Group, and sits on the SRHE R&D committee. At Kent she is a Co-Chair of the Disabled Staff Network, Co-Chair of the Visual and Sensory Research Cluster, runs the Summer Vacation Research Competition, and is on the Thriving@Work Working Group. Her books include Ableism in Academia, Embodied Inquiry: Research methods, Conversations on Embodiment and the forthcoming Women in Supramolecular Chemistry: Collectively crafting the rhythms of our work and lives in STEM. See also recent article in ScienceDirect Managing research throughout COVID-19: Lived experiences of supramolecular chemists


Leave a comment

Are higher education managers becoming more professional and if so, how?

by Susan Harris-Huemmert, Julia Rathke, Anna Gerchen and Susi Poli

How well are HEIs being managed? Who are those in charge? Can we really be confident in their abilities? At a time in which the HE sector appears more complex and diverse, how sure can we be that those at the top are ‘professional’? How are they being prepared (or actively prepare themselves) for these positions, and if they get to the top, are they themselves making sure that staff members, too, are being ‘professionalised’? Especially in terms of new areas of employment within the HE sector, how are these staff members qualifying themselves? These seem pertinent questions and the ongoing lack of empirical work into HE governance reveals that there are considerable gaps in our knowledge. To address this, we bring together empirical data from ongoing research projects in the UK, Germany and Italy, which, from various angles and viewpoints, explore how professionalism within the HE sector is being developed to meet present and future needs and challenges.

A current German research project, financed by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) – KaWuM – is examining the career trajectories and qualification requirements of so-called higher education or science managers (www.kawum-online.de). Qualitative work has been undertaken to explore in depth the viewpoints and experiences of this particular group of staff, who work at the interface between research, teaching and administration (Whitchurch, 2010). A sample of 32 qualitative interviews has been drawn upon here from the project by Susan Harris-Huemmert and Julia Rathke, who examine the roles of German HE leaders from two vantage points. Firstly how do they prepare for and become more professional as institutional heads, and secondly: how do these leaders ensure that their academic or administrative staff members are also being professionally trained and developed? (Thoenig and Paradeise, 2016: 320). Interviews were conducted with both formal (presidents/rectors/chancellors/VPs) and informal leaders (science managers) and analysed in MaxQDa according to Kuckartz (2018). Findings suggest that formal HE leaders are encountering ever more complex management tasks, with little management training or ‘other’ work experience outside academia. They mainly learn by doing and often lack the time and/or motivation for professional training. It appears that formal HE leaders are seldom professionalised, although management tasks are their main responsibility. However, they are relying increasingly on professionalised science managers and their expertise, who can advance their professionalisation via personnel development.

In her work from within the BerBeo project, which also stems from the same BMBF funding thread as the above-named KaWuM project, Anna Gerchen is examining how the influence of New Public Management, academic reforms and increasing competition between universities have changed the demands on recruitment processes in German HE, in particular those regarding professorial appointments. Professorships in Germany are characterised by a particularly high degree of autonomy and prestige (Hamann, 2019). Almost all full professors are civil servants and hold tenured, safeguarded lifetime employment. This emphasises the importance of professorial personnel selection for which German universities use highly formalised procedures. To professionalise these procedures, Germany’s Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat) called for the creation of officers for professorial appointments to take responsibility for the “proper and smooth running of the procedure” (WR, 2005, p5). Following this recommendation and the subsequent legal revisions, many German universities have introduced officers for professorial appointment procedures – non-professorial staff members appointed specifically for quality assurance and decision-making support. These appointment managers – as shown on the basis of a quantitative survey (Gerchen, 2021) – are predominantly female, relatively young, highly educated and from the social sciences; in particular they show a background in administrative science or in law. Informing and advising the university management is reported by 94% of the respondents to be central to their work. This shows that the purpose of supporting the university management in appointment matters, as stated by the Council of Science and Humanities, actually represents the core function of this new position in practice.

In her research Susi Poli turns the lens towards Italy and a number of other countries to investigate the role of research managers (RMAs), as one of the most hybrid or blended groups that can be found in today’s HEIs among staff in professional services. She asks to what extent these managers are qualified for this specific role, even in relation to qualifications, training, and any sort of network provided by their professional associations. Is what they have, and do, enough? Or is there much more than that coming up in the RMAs’ community, even as creators of new discourses in today’s HE management? She draws on Barnett’s notion of supercomplexity, in which he suggests the re-creation of discourse on competences, qualifications, and professional frameworks (Barnett, 2008: 191). In this new age, research managers should be “pioneers or the creators of these new discourses” (Barnett, 2008: 206). Susi’s work includes an analysis of professional networks and supporting bodies in countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Norway, the US, Portugal, Japan, South Africa (Romano et al, 2021). She concludes that there is a growing awareness of the identity and purpose of research managers and that the literature is now paying more attention to this staff group.

In sum, it appears that there is a developing international trend towards greater professionalism within the HE sector, including the work of formal and informal leaders in various capacities. Networks reveal an increasing level of support, but it appears that professional development per se is still very much in the hands of the individual, and is not the result of any particularly well-structured system. This is a question the sector needs to ask itself, reflecting what Thoenig and Paradeise stated in 2016: “If knowledge gaps remain, this may be to the detriment of the strategic capacity of the whole institution”. Our question should therefore be whether we can afford to allow such knowledge gaps, or whether we as a sector can do more, to fill them.

Susan Harris-Huemmert is Professor of International Education Leadership and Management at Ludwigsburg University of Education. Following her doctoral research at the University of Oxford on the topic of evaluation practice in Germany, she has researched and published internationally on topics such as higher education systems and their governance, quality management and the management of campus infrastructure. Contact: susan.harris-huemmert@ph-ludwigsburg.de

Julia Rathke is research assistant at the German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer in the project “KaWuM – Career Paths and Qualification Requirements in Science and Higher Education Management” since August 2019. In January 2021 she took over charge of the joint coordination and management of the project team KaWuM Central Coordination and Interviews from Prof. Dr. Susan Harris-Huemmert. Contact: rathke@uni-speyer.de; www.kawum-online.de 

Anna Gerchen is a researcher at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) in the research area ‘Governance in Higher Education and Science’. With a background in communication science, sociology and gender studies she currently works on the field of quality assurance and appointment procedures at universities. Contact: gerchen[at]dzhw.eu

Susi Poli is Professional Development Lead in the Education Division at Bologna University, after several years spent as research manager in Italy and abroad. She holds a MBA in HE Management and an EdD in HE from the Institute of Education and her research interests primarily cover research management, staff development, and women’s leadership in HE. Contact here: susi.poli@unibo.it

References

Barnett, R (2008) ‘Critical professionalism in an age of supercomplexity’ in B. Cunningham (ed) Exploring professionalism London: Bedford Way Press pp190-208.

Gerchen, A (in press) Berufungsmanager*innen an deutschen Universitäten. Profilmerkmale eines neuen Stellentypus. Hochschulmanagement 4(16)

Kuckartz, U. (2018) Qualitative Inhaltanalyse. Methoden, Praxis, Computerunterstützung.4th ed. Basel & Weinheim: BeltzJuventa


Leave a comment

The Chair

by Paul Temple

The best novel about university life – and I’m afraid this isn’t up for debate – is John Williams’ Stoner. Published in 1965, its setting is the micropolitics of the English department of a US Mid-Western university, from the 1920s to the 1950s: “A terrific novel of echoing sadness” is how Julian Barnes sums it up on the cover of my edition.

The Netflix series The Chair, with the Korean-American actor Sandra Oh (you may have seen her in Killing Eve) as the newly-elected chair of the English department of a “lower-tier Ivy”, has some similarities with Stoner. The story here also revolves around the micropolitics of an English department, exposing the tensions between older academics whose professional lives have centred on a single narrow (but is it?) topic – Melville in one case – and younger ones, notably Bill Dobson, whose popular classes play around with modish themes. (I assume his use of chalk on an actual blackboard – do they really still exist? – is intended to demonstrate iconoclasm.) But whereas the departmental chair in Stoner is creepily vile, in The Chair she exhausts herself with emotional labour (“playing nice” as an exasperated colleague puts it) trying to help everybody, even when that isn’t possible (Dobson’s joke Nazi salute in class doesn’t go down well).

TV dramas set in workplaces such as police stations or hospitals tend to take a single case which absorbs the characters involved to the exclusion of all other business (Line of Duty or Unforgotten, say), sidestepping what must actually be the complex, confusing reality of these settings. That sort of dramatic plotting can’t easily work with universities, which perhaps helps to explain why campus TV adaptations tend to be satire (The History Man) or knockabout comedy (A Very Peculiar Practice). The Chair, though having elements of both satire and comedy, is more nuanced, with the Sandra Oh character having to deal with declining enrolments, preventing Dobson becoming his own worst enemy (unsuccessfully), supporting a black woman in her struggle to gain deserved tenure, as well as coping with single parenthood. In that it portrays the “one damned thing after another” aspect of university management, The Chair is perhaps a more accurate reflection of university life than Line of Duty is of police work, but what do I know? (The issue of faculty tenure, which features significantly in The Chair, interestingly seems to assume quite a lot of prior knowledge of university processes on the part of the viewer: perhaps the producers think that graduates will be the main audience.)

Departmental chairs, or heads of departments in the UK, are classic middle-management jobs, an insulation layer between senior management and the workforce, but usually without the authority or resources to respond effectively to the needs of those for whom they’re supposedly responsible. It’s significant that in both Stoner and The Chair the university top brass feature only as distant, vaguely threatening, entities, divorced from the action at the departmental battlefronts. The main exception in The Chair is the man from Communications, sent over to the department to deal with the “reputational management” issues that Dobson has supposedly created: Dobson here shows hitherto unexpected reserves of restraint by not punching him in the face.

The Chair can be viewed as a case-study of institutional change, with structural pressures of declining enrolments, changing expectations of academic life, and student activism coming into sharp focus at the micro-level of the department. The chair herself becomes the personification of all this, the point around which swirl the conflicting pressures of institutional structures, power distribution, and individuals’ goals. In university life, it’s the detail that counts, and The Chair gets this brilliantly.

They’re apparently thinking of a second series: I’ll be watching.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London. His latest paper, ‘The University Couloir: exploring physical and intellectual connectivity’, will appear shortly in Higher Education Policy.


Leave a comment

Generous scholarship: a vision for academic life

by Ruth McQuirter Scott, Dragana Martinovic, Snežana Obradović-Ratković and Michelle K McGinn

The life of a scholar is often portrayed in popular culture as one of lonely struggle and pressure. It starts at the postgraduate level, when students work to meet the expectations of their programs and supervisors, jumping one hurdle after another until they complete their studies. If they are fortunate enough to land an increasingly rare full-time academic position, they discover a new set of expectations to fulfill. In application and renewal processes, most universities favour single-authored publications in tier-one journals, along with a research record that shows how the scholar is carving out a unique niche in their respective field. This portrayal of academic life is supported by studies that report pressure to publish, competition, isolation, and managerial influences on academic work (eg Castro-Ceacero and Ion, 2018; Dakka and Wade, 2019; Kyvik and Aksnes, 2015; McCarthy and Dragouni, 2020).

We believe there is a better way of living as academics, one that nurtures the strengths of colleagues and leads to mutual growth for novice and seasoned scholars.

Our group of four academics from two Canadian universities has been collaborating as writers for over 10 years. We represent a variety of roles in academia: professors, a research officer, and a university senior administrator. Since 2007 (until interrupted by the pandemic), we have facilitated residential academic writing retreats, bringing together new and experienced academics, postgraduate students, and outside experts for a week-long writing experience in a rural setting.

At our first writing retreat, we were introduced to the term “generous scholarship” as proposed by Constance Russell (2006). We were intrigued and excited by this term, which we felt captured a central component of the writing retreat and resonated with our approach to scholarly life. Sally Stewart Knowles, a retreat co-facilitator from Australia, was also inspired by the conversation at that 2007 retreat to argue that residential writing retreats foster generous scholarship (Knowles, 2017). Although neither Russell (2006) nor Knowles (2017) provides a clear definition of generous scholarship, we continued to be enticed by the term’s potential. This emerging concept seemed to suggest an intentional, collegial approach to scholarly endeavours that departs from the market-driven, individualistic view of scholarship so commonly present in academia.

To understand what generous scholarship could mean, we systematically examined these and other publications in which “generosity” was mentioned in the context of academia and elicited five key principles that characterize generous scholarship: social praxis, reciprocity, generous mindedness, generous heartedness, and agency.

To illustrate these five principles of generous scholarship, we use the example of our residential academic writing retreats. We provide a short overview of our writing retreat structure, define the five principles, and discuss the ways in which retreat participants enact these principles.

Writing Retreat Structure

Inspired by Barbara Grant’s (2008) model of residential academic writing retreats, our retreats consist of five days dedicated to individual writing projects, workshops, work-in-progress groups, and one-on-one consultations with shared meals and informal gatherings in a natural environment. Although most of the days are spent writing, we carve out time for discussions, reviewing each other’s work, and socializing. Accountability and on-site collegial support are embedded in the retreat structure, which promotes writing process and productivity, fosters learning with and from others, and builds a community (McGinn et al, 2019; Ratković et al, 2019).

Principles of Generous Scholarship

The five working principles frame generous scholarship as intentional, reflective, and collegial academic praxis.

Social praxis. Generous scholarship emerges within collaborative and collegial communities of scholarly practice. Our writing retreats enable participants to live and work together in a shared space. A sense of community is built through scheduled work-in-progress groups and workshops as well as meals, informal conversations, and walks in nature. Many new connections, relationships, and collaborative research and writing teams are established as people meet colleagues at various career stages and from different disciplines, departments, and institutions.

Reciprocity. Interrelations within generous scholarship are based on reciprocity through peer-to-peer learning and non-hierarchical mentoring. A key component of our writing retreats is the work-in-progress groups that meet each evening to present and respond to written work. The groups are mixed in terms of fields of expertise, academic roles, and career stages to provide multiple perspectives and rich discussions. When a writer’s work is being featured, another participant acts as a note taker, enabling the writer to focus on comments and suggestions from the others. Participants take turns over subsequent evenings, with each participant serving as writer, contributor, and note taker. The participatory and interactive workshops provide further evidence of reciprocity in action as participants exchange ideas, knowledge, and experiences.

Generous mindedness. Generous scholarship involves acknowledging other people’s situations or perspectives and committing cognitive resources to advance those individuals and their scholarly work. The workshops during our writing retreats foster generous mindedness as workshop facilitators and participants draw from their varied backgrounds and disciplines to inspire and inform each other’s academic practice. During work-in progress groups, writers are asked what type of feedback they wish to receive. Readers are asked to focus on specific aspects of the draft, or to respond to the overall piece. This practice helps readers to focus their responses and to make their feedback meaningful.

Generous heartedness. Generous scholarship requires empathy and emotional support for others. Generous heartedness has been a key feature of our writing retreats. We are open to adapting workshop content and the retreat structure to the needs of participants, and are flexible in expectations (eg participants spend parts of each day in ways that they deem most useful: reading, resting, or taking walks in nature). Emphasis is placed upon the importance of careful listening and attending to the emotional needs of writers as they share unfinished work during work-in-progress groups. A generous spirit is also fostered among participants through communal meals, informal walks, and evening activities.

Agency. Generous scholarship involves deliberately choosing and taking action to contribute to the scholarly community, the field, and society. It demands consciously embracing and modelling all the principles of generous scholarship. As organisers, we use our agency to structure and facilitate the writing retreats. We also engage as writers and participate in all workshops and work-in-progress groups. Many retreat participants demonstrate their commitment to generous scholarship by returning year after year to this community of scholars. Participants often report creating their own writing groups and retreats. Some have published scholarly work about writing retreats (Winters et al, 2019).

Conclusion

We acknowledge that following the principles of generous scholarship may challenge institutional structures that reward individualistic, competitive approaches; it can be difficult to navigate the logistical and human factors inherent in building a community of scholars. Our own writing retreats face an annual financial challenge, as we must repeatedly convince internal funding providers of their value. However, we are determined to overcome such barriers to enact and enable generous scholarship, and we look forward to returning to our residential writing retreats when pandemic restrictions allow. We have also found that following the principles of generous scholarship enhances, rather than undermines, academic productivity and personal satisfaction (Ratković et al, 2019). Furthermore, we are encouraged by the structures recently built into academia that might provide opportunities and spaces for enacting generous scholarship, such as open-access publishing and knowledge mobilization.

We invite you to consider generous scholarship in your own academic life and to share with SRHE blog readers examples of generous scholarship already present in your practice.

Ruth McQuirter Scott is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, Ontario, Canada, where she is Assistant Director of Teacher Education and teaches Junior/Intermediate Language Arts. Ruth’s research interests are in the effective infusion of technology in education. Connect via rmcquirter@brocku.ca or on Twitter @wordstudy

Dragana Martinovic is a Professor at University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and a Fields Institute Fellow. In her research, Dragana explores knowledge for teaching mathematics, ways in which technology can assist in teaching and learning of mathematics, and epistemologies of STEM disciplines in relation to teacher and K–12 education. Connect via dragana@uwindsor.ca

Snežana Obradović-Ratković is Research Officer and Instructor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, Ontario, Canada. Her research interests include migration, indigeneity, and reconciliation; transnational teacher education; research education; decolonizing arts-based methodologies; mindfulness and well-being in higher education; academic writing and publishing; and generous scholarship. Connect via sratkovic@brocku.ca

Michelle K McGinn is Associate Vice-President Research and Professor of Education at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. Her primary interests include research collaboration, researcher development, scholarly writing, and ethics in academic practice. She is a co-investigator for Academic Researchers in Challenging Times. Connect via Twitter @dr_mkmcginn or mmcginn@brocku.ca

References

Grant, B (2008) Academic writing retreats: A facilitator’s guide. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia

Knowles, SS (2017) ‘Communities practising generous scholarship: Cultures of collegiality in academic writing retreats’ in McDonald, J and Cater-Steel, A (eds), Implementing communities of practice in higher education (pp 53–80) Springer

McGinn, MK, Ratković, S, Martinovic, D, and McQuirter Scott, R (2019) ‘Creating and sustaining a community of academic writing practice: The multi-university residential academic writing retreat model’ in Simmons, N and Singh, A (eds) Critical collaborative communities: Academic writing partnerships, groups, and retreats (pp 136–148) Brill/Sense

Winters, K-L, Wiebe, N, and Saudelli, MG (2019) ‘Writing about writing: Collaborative writing and photographic analyses from an academic writing retreat’ in Simmons, N and Singh, A (eds), Critical collaborative communities: Academic writing partnerships, groups, and retreats (pp 149–168) Brill/Sense.

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge Jeanne Adèle Kentel for first introducing us to Russell’s (2006) use of the term “generous scholarship.” We extend our thanks to the many colleagues who have practised generous scholarship alongside us during the writing retreats and in other academic spaces. Details about our analysis process and an elaborated discussion of the principles of generous scholarship are presented in a paper currently under review for publication. Authorship of this blog and the associated paper has been shared equally.

Marcia Devlin


Leave a comment

Making space for compassion

by Marcia Devlin

As is the case in many countries, the COVID pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Australian universities. While many universities are now beginning to experiment with ‘hybrid’ models that combine online and face-to-face teaching and learning, efforts are tentative. Executives and staff are nervous about committing to what many students are increasingly telling us they want – a ‘normal’ university student experience with on-campus components.

This nervousness is well-founded. Our vaccine rollout is not rolling, the federal and state governments are blaming each other, and we have had to have another snap lockdown just this week. Ensuring ‘COVID-safe’ campuses in these circumstances is tricky and, not to put too fine a point on it, connected to potential life and death scenarios.

International borders remain closed. International students – so important to Australian universities and their finances – are not allowed into the country. The current Education Minister gave a speech about the future of international students this week. It was invitation only but from what can be gleaned from social media commentary from those fortunate enough to secure an invitation, it didn’t leave audience members brimming with confidence about the immediate future.

In this set of circumstances, it is challenging to focus on the core university ‘businesses’ of teaching and research. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that those providing the education and research are human beings who are themselves living in and through the pandemic. The work of academics and professionals in universities is complex, messy, deeply human and relies on individual passion and goodwill as well as qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience.

I attended a seminar recently at one of my alma maters, Macquarie University, led by a well-known Australian author, Hugh McKay: the importance of compassion was central. Arguing that the most significant thing about us as people is that we share a common humanity, that we humans all belong to a social species, that we are “hopeless” in isolation and that we need others to nurture and sustain us, McKay underscored the importance of compassion, kindness and simply being nice to one another in our current shared pandemic context.

I’m not sure about other SRHE readers, but compassion and kindness aren’t topics I’ve often heard discussed in universities in my 30 years in the sector. McKay suggested the pandemic has been a mass experiment around what happens to people when they are isolated. The results have included more anxiety, more suicidal ideation, more domestic violence, among many other negative outcomes. But also more time for introspection and for deep consideration of what is important to us. Many of us have more clearly understood how crucial our social and personal connections are.

McKay proposes that many of us have previously found useful hiding places in ambition, IT devices and consumerism, which have promoted individualism and competitiveness and a greater focus on ourselves than on our role in families, communities and society. As I reflected on university life, and life more generally, I couldn’t help but think he had a point.

As we co-create the ‘COVID-normal’ university, I wonder if we might all find a bigger space for our humanity, our compassion and our kindness to each other. Not only might that bring a better experience of work in universities for ourselves and those around us, the quality and impact of our education and research might also improve as a result.

Former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor Marcia Devlin is a Fellow of SRHE and an Adjunct Professor at Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia.

Marcia Devlin


1 Comment

Let’s not waste any more time

by Marcia Devlin

Last year, I was sent a satirical article about how to sabotage the productivity of your organisation by using a CIA manual from 1944.  It contained advice such as:

  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration’. Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five;
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions; and
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

There’s more and it’s worth a read.

Reflecting on my time in higher education over three decades, the article was both funny and depressing. Funny, because it precisely describes daily life working in a university, which is peculiar and amusing and many of us would have it no other way. Depressing, because it precisely describes daily life working in a university, which is highly bureaucratic and inefficient and often a profound waste of talent, goodwill and time.

The COVID-19 crisis has provided many opportunities to rethink what we have always done and to do things differently. I’m wondering whether universities might eventually benefit from this terrible crisis, including in ways that could be permanent.

Following the scrambling, adjustments and re-learning required for the global mass uptake of online and digital forms of education, our attention has begun to turn to the implications of this move.

Always of interest, academic integrity and the quality and standards of learning are now the subject of increased interest and scrutiny. As the ubiquitous, supervised, closed book exam en masse became impossible, along with other forms of assessment that require physical supervision of students, less frequently used assessment approaches have been considered and deployed.

Academic integrity is having a day or two in the sun as educators in universities consider how to ensure it, when they can’t always see what students are doing, including during electronic classes. Approaches that are being considered and used include: more gentle and/or educative interpretations of existing assessment and academic integrity policies; the use of technological proctoring tools, including homemade solutions using student phones; and so-called ‘alternative’ assessment.

In Australia, assessment policies have been changed, or waived in part, including through the granting of special power to a senior officer of the University in some places. All of these shifts have occurred with the aim of enabling to practical solutions to challenging and sudden changes.

New and streamlined governance arrangements have been created and enacted to ensure appropriate oversight of teaching, learning and assessment changes in the very short timeframes possible at the time. This one might confound any current CIA operatives in universities who are intent on slowing us down.

Considerations of academic matters that used to take one or two long Academic Board discussions and a fair amount of angst, not to mention tension and in some cases ongoing resentments between parties with different views, gave way, at least momentarily.  They were replaced by shorter, more focused considerations, often in single, brief meetings of key people. As far as I observed at my own University and elsewhere, we have made sensible and defensible positions and enacted them, with broad acceptance and little or no negative ripple.

Of course, we were forced to move quickly by the sudden onset of the COVID-19 crisis, which is the defining feature of most of the world’s experience in 2020. As we enter 2021, a ‘new normal’ is emerging in every aspect of human existence. It is understandable that we should hope things to return to the ‘old normal’, at least in some respects. But I’d argue that academic governance is one area in which we should try to retain the new normal, at least to some extent.

Imagine what might be possible if university staff were freed up, even just a little, from the at times tortuous dance of academic consideration that unnecessarily uses up precious talent, goodwill and time.

What if, post this terrible world crisis, we emerged with a commitment to do things differently in universities and in ways that maintained integrity, but did not steal our precious resources?

What if, instead of us doing as a CIA operative would recommend, such as: “Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences”, we simply didn’t do that anymore?

What if we all became more conscious of the time of others that we use up in the pursuit of ancient but no longer purposeful traditions? And what if we all committed to stopping doing this and trying something more respectful instead?

That we have moved many millions of university students to profoundly different ways of learning, teaching and assessment, and created new and efficient ways to consider and govern effectively with academic integrity apparently intact, tells us that anything is possible in the university sector.

When we finally emerge from COVID-19, the world will be a different place and human contact will be more deeply appreciated in many ways. Why don’t we try to respect that contact in our universities by not wasting each other’s talent, goodwill and time any further?

Marcia Devlin is a Fellow of SRHE and former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, now Adjunct Professor at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. An earlier version of this article appeared in Campus Review.


Leave a comment

Reimagining higher education in the post-pandemic world

by Anastasia Olga Tzirides, Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope

Anastasia Olga Tzirides
Mary Kalantzis

Bill Cope

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. This statement can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic led higher education institutions to rethink the way that instruction can occur under the newly established circumstances. Many universities in the US and around the world have resumed instruction in hybrid format that is based to face-to-face instruction, coupled with online portions. In the case both of fully remote and hybrid learning, the gold-standard for learning remains traditional face-to-face, where online is modelled on the pedagogical processes and instructional artefacts of face-to-face. In this post, we are presenting the main characteristics of a hybrid format in a big US Mid-Western University and we are providing five ways that could transform it to a completely online format. Not only would this address the current needs set by the COVID-19 crisis; it would also change the concept of higher education by addressing in new ways the needs and the characteristics of contemporary students.

In the selected case of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, given that the health safety circumstances would allow it, the hybrid format of instruction was chosen, considering the significant value of the residential experience for the growth and development of undergraduate students, the training and advancement of graduate students and the production of new knowledge and research.

For the modified on-campus delivery format, the administrators of this institution had to rethink classroom capacities, to accommodate less than 50 students, and better utilisation of the spaces in order to aim for safe instruction with social distancing. They also had to re-evaluate time schedules, by taking advantage of irregular times (eg Friday evenings) and days (eg Saturdays), as well as passing periods, between the start and the end of classes. Online sections were an inevitable addition to the courses, as most lectures would be delivered online and the discussion parts were aimed to be face-to-face. Moreover, the administrators re-structured the calendar of the 2020-2021 academic year, ending the semester remotely to minimize the returns of students on campus after break periods. In the area of course development, instructors were provided with professional development training in order to develop new course modalities deploying different techniques and approaches to online education.

As it can be understood, this is an example where the institution selected to use online education as supplementary to face-to-face by trying to migrate their traditional practices online without really taking advantage of the possibilities that online education can offer. We argue that online can be completely different, and with the right tools, potentially superior to in-person teaching. To reap the benefits of online learning, we need to abandon the current generation educational technologies—systems and processes that mostly do little more than reverse-engineer traditional classrooms. At the University of Illinois, we’ve been researching the transformation of in-person learning and developing and testing online learning solutions (Montebello et al, 2018;  Cope, Kalantzis and Searsmith, 2020)

Here are five reasons why we choose to teach online and why we would never choose to teach in-person again.

1. Scale Up Higher Education and Scale Down Its Costs

In order to make higher education available to all, even workers and people with domestic caring responsibilities, we need to reduce the costs of teaching and learning, by providing access to it without the necessity for the student to leave their communities and homes. This can only be achieved with online education as a thoroughly renovated version of distance learning, which would be affordable to people from all social and economic conditions.

2. Develop Pedagogies of Social Knowledge and Collaborative Intelligence

In-person instruction is considered so valuable by its supporters, due to the element of human interaction. Nevertheless, in lecture theatres we hardly ever see interaction among students and even in classroom discussions, only one person is talking, and the rest have to listen. On the other side, with online learning and specifically with simple video lectures that contain prompts, students can engage in synchronous or asynchronous interactions below the videos in the platform used. Therefore, every student can comment and be part of the classroom discussion in this format. Moreover, learning analytics can track every learner’s engagement and this format is simply a far superior communication and pedagogical architecture than traditional in-person classroom interactions.

3. Create Pedagogies of Intense Engagement

In traditional models, learners are knowledge consumers and they demonstrate the acquired knowledge though end-of-course, summative assessments. In online learning architectures, it is possible to position learners as knowledge producers and co-contributors to knowledge communities. A simple way to do this is to have students research and make posts into the class activity stream that exemplify themes prompted by instructors. Another is to create peer-reviewed projects, where interim feedback in the knowledge production process comes from multiple perspectives: peer, instructor and machine feedback. Then projects can be published and shared by the instructor to the community as collective knowledge. Embedded, on-the-fly formative assessments can track community engagement and personal progress (Haniya et al, 2020). An example: in one of our recent 8-week courses with 54 students, using our CGScholar platform there were 14,500 pieces of actionable feedback on 3.3m datapoints, giving students and instructors a far richer and more reliable picture of learning than ever possible with a traditional test.

4. Focus on Higher Order Thinking

In the current world, the digital devices that we use everyday function as cognitive prostheses. They remember things for us, and they can provide us with a vast amount of knowledge that we don’t have to remember. So, the foundational objectives of education change. In reality, learning should be about careful navigation of at-hand knowledge resources and appropriate application of machine-supported procedures. Thus, the goal of education should be higher order thinking, including critical, creative and design thinking. Online environments can uniquely achieve this, by leveraging collaborative knowledge processes. Instead of individual minds, the social mind is acknowledged in the provenance of knowledge and the collaborative contributions of peers in the learning process. Artificial intelligence can track and offer suggestions on the basis of what we term “complex epistemic performance”. Machine learning works synergistically with human learning.

5. Lifelong and Lifewide Learning

Online learning, by contrast to the monastic origins of the residential experience of university and college education, can be embedded in the real world. It can be continuous, lasting for as long as life and stretching as wide as social and personal needs. The students in our online courses are in the world, contributing as partners in our knowledge communities and testing live in real-world contexts, the new things they have learned in our classes.

We argue that online instruction can be completely different, and with the right tools, it can potentially be superior to in-person teaching. The real problem is that none of the commercial or open source learning management systems can do what we have just outlined (check here for a comparison of the most popular learning management systems). Thus, in this time of crisis, we must seize the day and imagine a different future for higher education, by abandoning the back-to-the-future learning management systems and looking for or designing alternatives that address the future of education. With focused investment in people and technology we can renew and revitalize our pedagogical and social values. If nothing else, this crisis should lead to that.

Anastasia-Olga (Olnancy) Tzirides is a PhD candidate in the Learning Design and Leadership Program at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on exploring the potential of using digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence combined with a multimodal and translanguaging approach to language learning. Currently, she is as a teaching assistant for online graduate courses in the Learning Design and Leadership Program at the College of Education. In the past, she has worked as a graduate assistant designing online courses for the International Studies Program at the College of Education and as an instructor at the Modern Greek Studies program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Anastasia-Olga holds a master’s degree in “Teaching of Multilingualism and Linguistic Policies: Language and Culture Dissemination in Multilingual Settings” from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and Université du Maine, France, and a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.  

 Mary Kalantzis is a Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She was from 2006 to 2016 Dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Before this, she was Dean of the Faculty of Education, Language and Community Services at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, and President of the Australian Council of Deans of Education. With Bill Cope, she has co-authored or co-edited: New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education, Cambridge University Press, 2008 (2nd edition, 2012); Ubiquitous Learning, University of Illinois Press, 2009; Towards a Semantic Web: Connecting Knowledge in Academic Research, Elsevier, 2009; Literacies, Cambridge University Press 2012 (2nd edition, 2016); A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies, Palgrave, 2016; and e-Learning Ecologies, Routledge, 2017.

Bill Cope is a Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include theories and practices of pedagogy, cultural and linguistic diversity, and new technologies of representation and communication. His and Mary Kalantzis’ recent research has focused on the development of digital writing and assessment technologies, with the support of a number of major grants from the US Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation. The result has been the CGScholar multimodal writing and assessment environment.