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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Understanding the value of EdTech in higher education

by Morten Hansen

This blog is a re-post of an article first published on universityworldnews.com. It is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

EdTech companies are, on average, priced modestly, although some have earned strong valuations. We know that valuation practices normally reflect investors’ belief in a company’s ability to make money in the future. We are, however, still learning about how EdTech generates value for users, and how to take account of such value in the grand scheme of things.


Valuation and deployment of user-generated data

EdTech companies are not competing with the likes of Google and Facebook for advertisement revenue. That is why phrases such as ‘you are the product’ and ‘data is the new oil’ yield little insight when applied to EdTech. For EdTech companies, strong valuations hinge on the idea that technology can bring use value to learners, teachers and organisations – and that they will eventually be willing to pay for such benefits, ideally in the form of a subscription. EdTech companies try to deliver use value in multiple ways, such as deploying user-generated data to improve their services. User-generated data are the digital traces we leave when engaging with a platform: keyboard strokes and mouse movements, clicks and inactivity.


The value of user-generated data in higher education

The gold standard for unlocking the ‘value’ of user-generated data is to bring about an activity that could otherwise not have arisen. Change is brought about through data feedback loops. Loops consist of five stages: data generation, capture, anonymisation, computation and intervention. Loops can be long and short.


For example, imagine that a group of students is assigned three readings for class. Texts are accessed and read on an online platform. Engagement data indicate that all students spent time reading text 1 and text 2, but nobody read text 3. As a result of this insight, come next semester, text 3 is replaced by a more ‘engaging’ text. That is a long feedback loop.


Now, imagine that one student is reading one text. The platform’s machine learning programme generates a rudimentary quiz to test comprehension. Based on the students’ answers, further readings are suggested or the student is encouraged to re-read specific sections of the text. That is a short feedback loop.


In reality, most feedback loops do not bring about activity that could not have happened otherwise. It is not like a professor could not learn, through conversation, which texts are better liked by students, what points are comprehended, and so on. What is true, though, is that the basis and quality of such judgments shifts. Most importantly, so does the cost structure that underpins judgment.


The more automated feedback loops are, the greater the economy of scale. ‘Automation’ refers to the decoupling of additional feedback loops from additional labour inputs. ‘Economies of scale’ means that the average cost of delivering feedback loops decreases as the company grows.


Proponents of machine learning and other artificial intelligence approaches argue that the use value of feedback loops improves with scale: the more users engage in the back-and-forth between generating data, receiving intervention and generating new data, the more precise the underlying learning algorithms become in predicting what interventions will ‘improve learning’.


The platform learns and grows with us

EdTech platforms proliferate because they are seen to deliver better value for money than the human-centred alternative. Cloud-based platforms are accessed through subscriptions without transfer of ownership. The economic relationship is underwritten by law and continued payment is legitimated through the feedback loops between humans and machines: the platform learns and grows with us, as we feed it.


Machine learning techniques certainly have the potential to improve the efficiency with which we organise certain learning activities, such as particular types of student assessment and monitoring. However, we do not know which values to mobilise when judging intervention efficacy: ‘value’ and ‘values’ are different things.


In everyday talk, we speak about ‘value’ when we want to justify or critique a state of affairs that has a price: is the price right, too low, or too high? We may disagree on the price, but we do agree that something is for sale. At other times we reject the idea that a thing should be for sale, like a family heirloom, love or education. If people tell us otherwise, we question their values. This is because values are about relationships and politics.


When we ask about the values of EdTech in higher education, we are really asking: what type of relations do we think are virtuous and appropriate for the institution? What relationships are we forging and replacing between machines and people, and between people and people?


When it comes to the application of personal technology we have valued convenience, personalisation and seamlessness by forging very intimate but easily forgettable machine-human relations. This could happen in the EdTech space as well. Speech-to-text recognition, natural language processing and machine vision are examples of how bonds can be built between humans and computers, aiding feedback loops by making worlds of learning computable.


Deciding on which learning relations to make computable, I argue, should be driven by values. Instead of seeing EdTech as a silver bullet that simply drives learning outcomes, it is more useful to think of it as technology that mediates learning relations and processes: what relationships do we value as important for students and when is technology helpful and unhelpful in establishing those? In this way, values can help us guide the way we account for the value of edtech.

Morten Hansen is a research associate on the Universities and Unicorns project at Lancaster University, and a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Hansen specialises in education markets and has previously worked as a researcher at the Saïd Business School in Oxford.


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“Levelling Up the United Kingdom”: Examiner’s report

By Paul Temple

This thesis deals with a topic – the large variations in economic and social conditions across the UK – that is of great interest both to policy-makers and to researchers. Although the present submission unfortunately falls some way short of the standard required for doctoral research, in terms of content, analysis, and presentation, I hope the author can be encouraged to pursue his work to produce a thesis that will do justice to the significance of the topic.

The first difficulty with this thesis is its lack of a clear research question. I think that the author has mistaken the collection of data of a vaguely relevant kind (12 tables and 80 diagrams of various sorts) for research which properly informs the topic under review. The author also makes the basic error of presenting data without showing its relevance: telling us, for example, that Jericho was the largest city in 7000 BC might be relevant if the topic was to do with ancient civilisations, but it verges on the bizarre when the topic is modern Britain. The purpose of the un-captioned pictures of apparently random urban scenes is unclear.

The central research question that might be inferred appears to be something about getting the various intangible “capitals” – human, social, institutional, and so on (as well as the tangible ones) – that social scientists have been developing for nearly half a century to work together more effectively. One of the important policy implications that the thesis then identifies is that achieving this integration requires some serious devolution of power: it notes that levelling-up “requires a further devolution of decision-making powers to local leaders where decisions are often best taken” (Foreword); and that “levelling up will only be successful if local actors are empowered to develop solutions that work for their communities” (133) – and much more in the same vein.

The thesis shows all too clearly, however, that centralised decision-making is so embedded in government thinking that the resulting policy contradictions which are reported on here are seemingly invisible to the author – at least, he does not comment on them. So although the planning of schools is a fundamental task devolved downwards in nearly all countries, here we read that “The UK Government will drive further school improvement in England through 55 new Education Investment Areas (EIAs )in places where educational attainment is currently weakest. The Department for Education (DfE) will support strong multi-academy trusts to expand into these areas” (xxii). In other words, micro-level educational change is still to be controlled centrally, despite the fine words about local devolution of powers. There are many other examples of central decision-making supposedly supporting local initiative when actually it will undermine it. It appears also that simply relocating central government functions from London is regarded as devolution: for example, “taking decision-making closer to the communities the Government serves, including…[moving part of, presumably,] the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to East Kilbride” (xiii). Quite how the people of East Kilbride might influence international policy is not made plain, nor why their voices should be heard in preference to those of other UK citizens. This kind of unreflective thinking undermines the claims of the thesis.

The academic study of social capital has struggled with the problems of direction of causation and circularity: in other words, are better health outcomes (for example) caused by higher levels of social capital, or do we identify levels of social capital by reference to health outcomes? This difficulty is not mentioned in the thesis: so although we are told that “Smoking rates in England range from 8% in Richmond upon Thames to 23% in Blackpool” (63), it is not clear if the implication is that reducing smoking in Blackpool will cause it to become more like Richmond in other respects; or whether making Blackpool more like Richmond, perhaps economically, will reduce the level of smoking there. Clearly, the policy implications will be different depending on which alternative is favoured; but we are not told which way round the causation works.

The role of higher education in levelling-up is mentioned only in passing, and the institutional significance of universities in their cities – as employers, as forces for internationalisation, and as contributors to the cultural lives of their cities – is not discussed at all. Graduate mobility is examined (90), but the implications of these movements are not explained. The significance of “the Cambridge phenomenon”, and the possibilities of replicating it, are not discussed.

The thesis presents a large number of maps and diagrams showing the concentration of high-value-added economic activities in London and the south-east. What is nowhere mentioned is what has been a truism of economic geography for over half-a-century, namely that the strength of this region derives in substantial part from its proximity to the European economic heartland of north-western Germany, the Low Countries, and the Paris region. The proverbial visitor from Mars, on reading this thesis, might be excused for assuming that Kent looks out on an empty ocean. This obvious omission is hard to explain, and further weakens the argument of the thesis.

Examiner’s decision: resubmit within twelve months, with major amendments.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.


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What makes a good SRHE Conference abstract? (some thoughts from a reviewer)

by Richard Davies

Dr Richard Davies, co-convenor of SRHE’s Academic Practice network, ran a network event on 26 January 2022 ‘What makes a good SRHE Conference abstract?’. A regular reviewer for the SRHE Conference, Richard also asked colleagues what they look for in a good paper for the conference and shared the findings in a well-attended event.

Writing a submission for a conference is a skill – distinct from writing for journals or public engagement. It is perhaps most like an erudite blog. In the case of the SRHE conference, you have 750 words to show the reviewer that your proposed presentation is (a) worth conference delegates’ attention, and (b) a better fit for this conference than others (we get more submissions than the conference programme can accommodate so it is a bit competitive!).

Think of it as a short paper, not an abstract

It is difficult to summarise a 5-6000 word paper in 750 words and cover literature, methodology, data and findings. As a reviewer, I often find myself unsatisfied with the result. It is better to think of this as a short paper, that you can present in 15 minutes at the conference. This means focussing on a specific element of your study which can be communicated in 750 words and following the argument of that focus through precise methodology, a portion of your data, and final conclusions. Sure, tell the reviewers this is part of a large study, but you are focusing on a specific element of it. The short paper will then, if well written, be clear and internally coherent. If I find a submission is neither clear nor coherent, then I would usually suggest rejecting because if I cannot make sense of it then I will assume delegates will not be able to as well.

Practical point: get a friend or colleague to read the short paper – do they understand what you are saying? They don’t have to be an expert in higher education or even research. As reviewers, most of us regularly read non-UK English texts, as an international society we are not expecting standard English – just clarity to understand the points the author is making. Whether UK-based or international, we are not experts in different countries’ higher education systems and so do not assume the reviewer’s prior knowledge of the higher education system you are discussing

Reviewer’s judgement

Although we work to a set of criteria, as with most academic work, there is an element of judgement, and reviewers take a view of your submission as a whole. We want to know: will this be of interest to SRHE conference delegates? Will it raise questions and stimulate discussion? In my own area of philosophy of education, a submission might be philosophically important but not explicitly about higher education; as a result I would tend to suggest it be rejected. It might be suitable for a conference but not this conference.

Practical point: check you are explicitly talking about higher education and how your paper addresses an interesting area of research or practice. Make sure the link is clear – don’t just assume the reviewers will make the connection. Even if we can, we will be wary of suggesting acceptance.

Checking against the criteria

The ‘Call for Papers’ sets out the assessment criteria against which we review submissions. As a reviewer, I read the paper and form a broad opinion, I then review with a focus on each specific criterion. Each submission is different and will meet each criterion (or not) in a different way and to varying degrees. As a reviewer, I interpret the criterion in the light of the purpose and methodology of the submission. As well as clarity and suitability for the conference, I also think about the rigour with which it has been written. This includes engagement with relevant literature, the methodology/methods and the quality of the way the data (if any) are used. I want to know that this paper builds on previous work but adds some original perspective and contribution. I want to know that the study has been conducted methodically and that the author has deliberated about it. Where there are no data, either because it is not an empirical study or the paper reports the initial phases of what will be an empirical study, I want to know that the author’s argument is reasonable and illuminates significant issues in higher education.

Practical point: reviewers use the criteria to assess and ‘score’ submissions. It is worth going through the criteria and making sure that you are sure that it is clear how you have addressed each one. If you haven’t got data yet, then say so and say why you think the work is worth presenting at this early stage.

Positive news

SRHE welcomes submissions from all areas of research and evaluation in higher education, not just those with lots of data! Each submission is reviewed by two people and then moderated, and further reviewed, if necessary, by network convenors – so you are not dependent on one reviewer’s assessment. Reviewers aim to be constructive in their feedback and to uphold the high standard of presentations we see at the conference, highlighting areas of potential improvement for both accepted and rejected submissions.

Finally, the SRHE conference does receive more submissions than can be accepted, and so some good papers don’t make it. Getting rejected is not a rejection of your study (or you); sometimes it is about clarity of the submission, and sometimes it is just lack of space at the conference.

Dr Richard Davies is an academic, educationalist and informal educator. He is primarily concerned with helping other academics develop their research on teaching and learning in higher education. His own research is primarily in philosophical approaches to higher educational policy and practice. He co-convenes SRHE’s AP (Academic Practice) Network – you can find out more about the network by clicking here.


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Beware efficiencies! Assetisation as the future defraying of costs savings in the present

by Kean Birch

This blog is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

What makes learning more efficient? And what makes teaching more effective? According to EdTech providers and their champions, it is the digital transformation of higher education. The consulting company Gartner – which releases regular EdTech industry reports – defines this transformation as a shift from a ‘collectively-defined’ quality model in which universities provide their services – theoretically – to anyone, to a model in which quality is personally defined and delivered at scale through MOOCs or other means. In fact, Gartner emphasize the importance of EdTech providing scalable technologies for ensuring ‘cost effective education for the benefit of society’. And this seems to be the concern of many EdTech firms themselves; they aim to provide technologies that make life and work more efficient and effective for higher education institutions, managers, faculty, students, and staff.

But what does this actually mean?

I am part of a project, led by Dr Janja Komljenovic, looking at how value is increasingly being created in the higher education sector through the transformation of ‘things’ into digital and other assets – it could be students’ data, it could be research, it could be lectures, and so on. Part of our concern about these changes is the way they can end up reconfiguring societal, public, or commonly held resources as private assets from which companies can exact an economic rent. An important reason for examining this assetisation process is to analyse exactly how things are turned into private assets as a way to open them up to public scrutiny, and political intervention, should we so desire. While assets are constituted by legal forms, like property rights, and technical changes, like digital rights management, they are also the result of broader narratives about how we should or should not understand the world. Epistemic justifications matter. The World Economic Forum highlights what I mean here. They support the deployment of education technology as a way to “create better systems and data flows”. And this means more efficient and effective learning and teaching. But, what does efficiency and effectiveness mean in the case of higher education?

As we have interviewed EdTech providers in our project, we have noticed how they emphasize ‘efficiency’ as one of the key contributions of their technology, where this seems to be equated with producing an outcome at lower cost, whereas this is understood – in common sense terms – as doing something ‘better’ than before. It is important to see how the concept of efficiency is enrolled in the transformation of higher education into a range of assets. Assetisation in higher education depends on the development and promotion of a set of analytics that can identify efficiencies, understood as cost savings that someone or some institution can benefit from. Key to this assetisation process is the characterisation of efficiency as a common-sense goal for universities, managers, faculty, students, staff, and governments; in fact, efficiency can appear to be the very thing that education technologies are turning into an asset. For example, making it cheaper for students to study by enabling them to rent their textbooks, rather than have to buy them. Or making it cheaper for universities to pay subscription only for those electronic texts – or even parts of those texts – that are actually read and used by their staff and students. But this raises an important question: how do EdTech companies make money, if they are simply reducing costs all around?

EdTech companies look to the future for their success. Assets are temporal entities, entailing the creation of a stream of future revenues that can be capitalised in the present, thereby enabling investors to put a value to them that does not depend on being profitable now, or even generate significant revenues now. Efficiencies in the present often end up as defrayed costs in the future as those cost savings today compound into increased revenues for someone (eg EdTech) in the future. The future revenue expectations of EdTech companies come from the illusion of efficiency as cost savings at this point in time; for example, students can save on textbooks now but will be induced to subscribe to lifelong learning resources, or their personal data might be exploited in the future in multiple ways, or their reading habits will be used to sell something to universities, or any manner of revenue generating schemes. Someone is paying in the future.

EdTech companies have to make money somehow, and how they make money is the interesting question. Ideas about the current and future state of higher education and EdTech matter as they provide imaginaries of what is possible and desirable, which we discuss in this report. Claims to efficiency are part of how they make money; they are part of the way that EdTech companies construct new asset classes out of universities and their students, faculty, and staff. Interrogating how these supposed efficiencies are monetised is critical for getting a grip on the implications of EdTech for higher education in the longer term. It is essential we analyse this dynamic now to allow for timely public scrutiny, democratic debate and social intervention.

Kean Birch is Associate Professor at York University, Canada. He is particularly interested in understanding technoscientific capitalism and draws on a range of perspectives from science & technology studies, economic geography, and economic sociology to study it. More specifically, his research focuses on the restructuring and transformation of the economy & financial knowledges, technoscience & technoscientific innovation, and the relationship between markets & natural environments. Currently, he is researching how different things (e.g. knowledge, personality, loyalty, etc.) are turned into ‘assets’ & how economic rents are then captured from those assets – basically, in processes of assetisation and rentiership.


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New higher education institutions: a real chance to innovate?

by Katherine Emms

Since the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, England has seen a surge of new higher education institutions adding to the traditional higher education  landscape. The Act made a number of major changes to the sector, one of which was the introduction of the Office for Students (OfS), which was given responsibility to grant degree-awarding powers to providers and the right to use ‘university’ in their title. The Act was intended to make it easier for more providers to enter the market, and in the words of the 2018 Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, it was “designed to facilitate innovation, avoiding overly-prescriptive, process-focussed approaches that might place limitations on creativity”. The invitation was welcomed by a number of providers and now, a few short years later, some are already taking in their first cohorts of students. But are these institutions truly offering something different to students, facilitating innovation and diversification in a crowded marketplace, or just replicating existing models?

At The Edge Foundation we wanted to investigate the early experiences of these new higher education institutions (HEIs) and understand what their guiding principles and reasons for setting up were, as well as how they were interpreting their visions and putting these into practice. We have conducted a number of semi-structured interviews with founders and staff across several new HEIs, with more dialogue to follow as these institutions move through their early stages of operation.

Employability is increasingly seen as a responsibility of HE, not just as a separate task of the careers services but one which should be an integrated element within academic learning (Crammer, 2006). New HEIs have highlighted the gap between existing provision and employers’ needs, and see their offering as a way to address this issue, claiming that their innovative approaches could better support the employability of students. One way this has been tackled is through strong collaboration with employers from the outset of designing the course and its content. Some new HEIs emphasised the importance of a ‘backwards design’ which is demand (employer)-led rather than supply (academic)-led. Having industry experts involved in skills gap workshops and continuously having employer representatives as part of the validation process were some of the ways that supported this.

Most of the new HEIs we spoke to focus on broadness of provision in a number of senses. First and foremost, they set aside traditional subject silos and instead are looking to offer interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary degrees, or offer a broader notion to a single subject area (e.g. bringing the social science aspect into engineering). The arguments put forward were that complex world problems are not fixed within a single discipline and require a broad knowledge and skill set that spans disciplines in order to be solved. One way to support this broad provision is through staff recruitment at the new HEIs; staff are recruited partly from industry, partly from the world of academia, but ultimately having the right attitude and a team working ethos to work collaboratively across disciplines are considered key.

The broadness theme also plays out in terms of the development of the student. Looking beyond academic and knowledge-based learning, the development of the whole student is seen as core to their provision. All aspects are important – from ensuring the development of transferable skills that are integrated into the curriculum, to ensuring students take part in meaningful placements and have employer interactions to develop the ‘professional’ skills they need after graduation.

Another way these new HEIs are pushing back against traditional modes of delivery is through their focus on team work, and problem-based learning or project-based learning. Almost all our participants emphasised that their HEI has no lectures, instead focussing on students working together on authentic real-world issues often set by an external client, making them relevant to industry. Alongside this, exams are not the main form of assessment, instead a range of more ‘authentic’ methods were discussed including reflective portfolios, podcasts, blogs, and pitches to businesses.

These new HEIs vary across their stage of development, their size, mission, and delivery, although some common factors have been set out above. One thing that all the new HEIs have had to navigate was the registration and policy landscape. Some of these were partnering with or being ‘parented’ by an established university to go through the process and some were going at it alone. This brought differing issues and seemed to influence the degree of innovation they could deliver. To some extent working within the parameters of another university can stifle the innovation by having to fit their delivery into traditional and established ways. On the other hand, these established universities have the advantage of bringing credibility to the new HEIs, which can be beneficial both in terms of the registration process and the attractiveness to new students.

Ultimately these HEIs are new and are yet to see a full cohort of students graduate, therefore we have limited markers of success so far on which to evaluate them. Likewise it is difficult to see how innovative these providers are, as one stakeholder remarked: “innovative might be a great idea, but until it’s tested is much harder to understand whether it really is innovative”.Edge will continue with our research over the next year and beyond to understand more about the experiences of these new HEIs and their students.

Katherine Emms is a Senior Education & Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation. Her main areas of research are in higher education, vocational education, skills shortages in the economy and employability skills. Current and published research can be seen here: https://www.edge.co.uk/research/research-team/kat-emms/. Twitter @kat_emms


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Mapping financial investment flows in digital higher education: a focus on data-rich operations

by Janja Komljenovic

This blog is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

Universities worldwide are increasingly interested in digital technologies and how they can support higher education. A recent study by the European University Association found that most European universities are already using or planning to use data-rich products and services, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, learning analytics, big data, and the internet of things (see Figure 18 on page 36). Indeed, it is precisely these data-rich operations that are central to the idea of the disruptive potential of education technology (edtech), as argued by my colleague, Javier Mármol Queraltó, in the recent UU project report. The discourse of investors and edtech companies promises thoroughly improved higher education based on personalisation, automation and efficiency. But how deliverable are these promises? Who innovates in the space of data-rich operations, for which services and for which users? Who profits? These are some of the questions we address in the Universities and Unicorns project, which aims to understand forms of value and ways of creating it in digital higher education. In this blog post, I will address three possible trends that can be identified from the interim findings of our quantitative analysis. But before proceeding to discuss these trends, I will contextualise our analysis.

We used Crunchbase to build three databases covering 2,012 edtech companies, 1,120 investors in edtech, and 1,962 edtech investment deals. We identified those relevant to the higher education sector, and our data reflects the state of the sector as of July 2021. Based on this analysis, we identified four key service models in the higher education edtech industry. First, the business to business (B2B) model includes digital platforms serving universities and companies, such as virtual learning environments. Second, the business to customer (B2C) model includes platforms targeting individuals directly. Third, the business to business to customer (B2B2C) model serves institutions that use or further develop the platform to reach individuals, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) or Online Programme Management platforms (OPM). Finally, the business to the customer to customer (B2C2C) model includes platforms that connect individuals, such as skills and knowledge sharing platforms. B2B2C and B2C2C platforms, in particular, act as the kind of infrastructural intermediaries that are so popular in other sectors of our social and economic lives.

Our analysis found that half of all investment went into B2B platforms, followed by investment into B2C, while B2C2C and B2B2C together received just under a quarter of all investment. However, platforms with the fastest pace of increasing investment are those targeting individuals directly or through intermediation, ie B2C and B2C2C models. This might indicate emerging parallel or alternative higher education products and services that compete with traditional university provision, especially in the context of lifelong learning.

Digital platforms that say they incorporate data-rich operations in their products and services are not the priority area for investors. While we noticed an increasing investment in data-rich platforms, it was still only less than a quarter of all investment going into innovating such products. Nevertheless, we identified three possible trends that are especially worthy of our attention: (1) data-rich operations are being innovated largely in B2B platforms; (2) there is notable unevenness in terms of the location of edtech companies and investments in those platforms who innovate in data-rich operations; and (3) there might be potential for monopolies in data-rich innovation. Let’s delve into each of these possible trends.

Almost all investment in the companies developing data-rich operations in their platforms went to the B2B service model. Looking only at higher education institutions as the target customer, already half of the investment supports data-rich innovation. Most of that went into platforms that act as the institutional digital backbone, indicating that the intention might be to support all institutional functions beyond teaching with data-rich operations, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and various kinds of analytics beyond learning analytics. There seems to be a trend towards data-rich digital ecosystems at universities that harvest all user and other data in the near future.

There is high unevenness in where the investment in data-rich platforms is allocated. Regarding the number of companies, 239 in our database declare that they offer data-rich operations on their platforms. Almost half of those (101) are based in the USA, 21 in the UK and 19 in India. Companies based in Africa are entirely missing from the list. In terms of investment amounts, 88% of all investment in companies offering data-rich services in their platforms went into companies based in the USA, 3% each to those based in Norway and the UK, and 6% to the rest of the world. The discrepancy between the number of companies and investment size indicates that investment amounts are higher in the USA than elsewhere in the world.

Finally, if we compare different indicators of investment in companies that innovate data-rich solutions for higher education institutions, we notice interesting dynamics. Looking at the money raised, half of B2B investment went into those companies with a platform that included data-rich operations. But this is only 30% of deals and 25% of companies. This indicates that the concentration of investment in data-rich operation platforms for higher education institutions goes into a smaller number of companies who get higher investments. We wonder if this signals potential for monopolies in the future. Moreover, if we compare granted patents, we notice that a higher percentage of companies offering data-rich solution platforms own patents (30%) versus those offering other kinds of service or product platforms (10%). Digital platforms are typically still protected by a licence, but that differs from a more restrictive patent protection. We wonder if such discrepancy in patent share might indicate black-boxing of data-rich operations in higher education?

Our research on digitalising higher education is showing the complex impact of digital technology and datafication on the sector. This impact includes potential positive and supportive measures, but also many potentially worrying trends. However, further research is needed into these trends and the role of different actors, particularly financial investors and edtech companies. Please follow our project in which we will share the findings from this further work as it unfolds.

Janja Komljenovic is a Senior Lecturer and co-Director of the Higher Education Research and Evaluation at Lancaster University in the UK. She is also a Research Management Committee member of the Global Centre for Higher Education with headquarters at the University of Oxford. Janja’s research focuses on the political economy of knowledge production and higher education markets. She is especially interested in the relationship between the digital economy and the higher education sector; and in digitalisation, datafication and platformisation of knowledge production and dissemination. Janja is published internationally on higher education policy, markets and education technology.



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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


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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


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What comes next after Covid 19 in re-setting doctoral education?

by Rosemary Deem

Like many other aspects of higher education teaching, supervising and research worldwide, doctoral education in higher education institutions (HEIs) has been massively affected by the pandemic. The effects include campus closures and lost experimental and fieldwork data, rapid transition to online supervision and viva defences, cancelled or online conferences hampering networking, lack of wellbeing, study progress being hampered by lack of suitable non-campus work spaces, home schooling children and poor or no internet connectivity (Else, 2021 ; European University Association Council for Doctoral Education, 2020 ; Jackman et al, 2021; Levine et al, 2021). As we are still in the throes of the pandemic at the time of writing, it is difficult to know whether some of the changes made in haste to doctoral education, such as remote supervision and examinations, will be permanent or not. Some adaptations, such as online seminars and conferences and a move away from physical international mobility to blended or virtual mobility, will probably continue, as they permit international participation without high costs or environmental damage. The legacy for doctoral researchers caught up in the Coronavirus chaos will certainly live on for quite a while, although hopefully over time the shock of the impact of lockdowns, working from home and universities being very selective over who gets an extension or extra funding may gradually fade.  However, for those with their eye on future academic jobs, the precarity regime of HE posts remains sadly intact in many HE systems (Deem, 2021b). The availability of jobs outside academe has also been affected by the pandemic, as countries struggle to manage politics, promote public health and provide support for the business, public and third sectors.

The experience of doing a doctorate in times of Covid-19 has brought both good and less good elements, from acquiring more resilience and online learning skills to experiencing poverty, poor mental health and having a lack of motivation to finish writing a thesis.  Some supervisors have also struggled to support their doctoral researchers alongside other students and their own research, particularly where HEIs have indicated that doctoral education is not a pandemic priority, a short sighted view sometimes brought about by difficult HEI financial situations and recruitment uncertainty. Despite the avalanche of articles about the Covid-related impact on doctoral education and doctoral researchers submitted to journals during 2020 and 2021, there are still many things we  know less about, such as: how part-time doctoral researchers have fared compared with full-time candidates; how STEM and Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences candidates compare in the obstacles they face; or how the doctoral research experiences of women and people of colour differ from those of men or white doctoral candidates. There has been relatively little investigation about how supervisors have been affected by remote supervision and the pandemic (UK Council for Graduate Education, 2021) compared with the literature on the effects on students. It is also hard to tell at this point whether the percentage of doctoral theses referred for further work, or even failed, has changed, as many of those due to submit in 2020-21 have deferred or interrupted their studies and have not yet been examined. There has been some advice offered to institutions on this (Houston & Halliday, 2021 ) but in quite a few countries, national regulations on doctoral study don’t make flexibility in doctoral submission and examination very easy.

We are also beginning to see some big differences in the coping strategies of HEIs. It appears that countries with high degrees of marketisation in their HE systems, and with a significant dependence on international students for income, have not fared particularly well under Covid (Drayton and Waltmann, 2020b ; Le, 2021; Marinoni, Hillijge, and Jensen, 2020 ; Startz, 2020 ), whereas countries with low degrees of marketisation or with previous experience of campus lockdowns, such as in the SARS epidemic, did better (Jung, Horta, & Postiglione, 2020). Furthermore, doctoral education was already in something of a crisis before Covid, with a long running critique of its failings, ranging across: so-called ‘overproduction’ of doctoral graduates relative to academic jobs (Nerad, 2020); completion and dropout rates; access to doctoral programmes for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds; and quality of doctorates and future employment prospects. The state of mental health amongst doctoral researchers is also now a common concern in many contexts (Deem, 2020a; Hazell et al, 2020; Levecque et al, 2017).  However, tackling all these challenges is not straightforward and there is a tendency to tackle each problem on its own in a single HE system or HEI, without thinking how each different challenge relates to all the others.  

What is needed post-pandemic (assuming the world gets there) is a concerted attempt to undertake, certainly at the institutional level, a more holistic approach, but also an approach which relates to the grassroots as well as institutional hierarchies. Such an approach has already been found to be effective in relation to schemes for increasing the numbers of women who get promoted to full professor (Morley, 2013). This initiative focuses first on looking at and fully supporting the people involved (doctoral researchers and supervisors) whilst ensuring their diversity and wide access to doctoral education for those who could benefit from it. Organisational factors are also important, such as valuing doctoral candidates’ academic and social contribution for its own sake, not as a source of cheap research and teaching labour, making doctoral researchers more visible and more important in their institutions, and ensuring organisational processes and procedures reflect this,. Joined-up change also means taking on board issues related to the kinds of knowledge that are valued in doctoral theses: whether that knowledge is from the global north or south; whether it is interdisciplinary or framed in a single discipline; which language or culture it relates to; and encouraging knowledge which values methodological or empirical foci as much as theoretical knowledge, irrespective of whether or not knowledge has immediate economic or social impact. Such an approach, aligned to a clear strategy and implementation process, could in time transform how doctoral education operates, to everyone’s benefit. This is not a change programme for the faint-hearted but unless something like this is adopted, long after the pandemic is over we will still be talking about doctoral crises and the challenges to be addressed, whilst failing to take a more holistic lens to transforming doctoral education than has so far been the norm in many HE systems and HEIs.  We owe it to our current and future doctoral researchers to attempt to develop a more humanistic and more equality-based approach to doctoral study after the rigours of the Corona virus outbreak.    

SRHE Fellow Rosemary Deem OBE is Emerita Professor of Higher Education Management and Doctoral School Senior Research Fellow, Royal Holloway (University of London), UK. She was the first woman to chair the UK Council for Graduate Education and was a member of three UK Research Assessment Exercise Sub-Panels on Education (1996, 2001, 2008).  An Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences since 2006, she is a co-editor of Higher Education (Springer) since 2013, a member of the Peer Review College of the European Science Foundation and a co-convenor of the Higher Education Network in the European Educational Research Association

References (not embedded via URLs)

Deem, R (2020a) ‘Rethinking doctoral education: university purposes, academic cultures, mental health and the public good’ in Cardoso, S, Tavares, O, Sin, C and Carvalho, T (eds), Structural and Institutional Transformations in doctoral education: social, political and student expectations (pp. 13-42). Cham, Switzerland Palgrave Macmillan/Springer Nature

Deem, R (2021b) ‘The early stage academic and the contemporary university: communities of practice meet managerialism?’ in Sarrico, C, Rosa de Pires, MJ and Carvalho, T (eds), Handbook on Managing Academics Cheltenham Edward Elgar

Marinoni, G., Hillijge, V. t. L., & Jensen, T. (2020 ). The Impact of Covid on higher education around the world:  IAU Global Survey Paris International Association of Universities

Morley, L. (2013). Women and Higher Education Leadership: Absences and Aspirations.

Nerad, M. (2020). Doctoral Education Worldwide:  Three decades of change In M. M. Yudkevich, P. G. Altbach, & H. de Wit (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Doctoral Education Worldwide: A Global Perspective (pp. 33-52). London and Thousand Oaks, California Sage.


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How poster competitions can support postgraduates

by Ben Archer and Jill Dickinson

The challenges presented by the higher education environment, including students’ mental wellbeing and doctoral completion rates (Cage et al, 2021; Rooij et al, 2019), have been compounded by Covid-19. Pre-existing concerns around the potential isolation of the doctoral journey have become more prevalent since the pandemic (Börgeson et al, 2021; Pollak, 2017). Within such an environment, opportunities for building postgraduate students’ communities of practice, networks, and self-efficacy have become even more important (Lamothe et al, 2018; Lui et al, 2020; Wazni et al, 2021). In this blog, we examine one such opportunity, a Postgraduate Research Showcase and Poster Competition. After outlining the event, we identify some of the challenges around managing the event, explore the benefits of the event for key stakeholders, and consider the potential for further developing the event both in-house and in collaboration with other institutions.

Presenting research via a poster at the Society for Research into Higher Education Conference inspired Jill Dickinson to apply for funding to devise a new Postgraduate Research Showcase and Poster Competition. The aim was to provide an accessible space for students at all stages of their postgraduate studies to share their research, discuss their ideas, prepare for assessments, develop their employability skills (Disney et al, 2015), and build networks. Jill secured internal funding through both the Graduate School and through her role as a Fellow of the Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies, and worked with a colleague from the Department of Psychology, Sociology and Politics (PSP) to launch the event. Recognising the importance of creating opportunities for postgraduate researchers to develop their research profiles, Jill also secured external funding from key organisations, including Oxford University Press, Palgrave, and Blackwells.

Following the trend towards interdisciplinary collaborations (Bridle et al, 2013), students from the Departments of Law and Criminology, Natural and Built Environment, and PSP, and the Centre for Regional, Social and Economic Research were invited to participate. To reflect the conference process, students were asked to submit abstracts for review. Fourteen students presented their work to an audience that included external organisations, doctoral research supervisors, and fellow students. The posters were judged by a panel who awarded prizes for both academic significance and potential impact. One of the winners noted ‘unlike formal conferences, the SIPS PhD Student Poster Event gave presenters the opportunity to engage with attendees on a relaxed one-to-one level. I received plenty of invaluable advice and suggestions which have shaped my PhD going forward.’ After 93% of delegates rated the event as either good or excellent, the initiative became established as an annual event in the Graduate School’s programme.

Since its launch, the event has been developed:

  • with additional funding provided by other organisations, including Emerald and Policy Press;
  • to provide opportunities for all postgraduate researchers from all disciplines across the University;
  • to include a programme of workshops to provide support for students in developing their posters;
  • to encourage the audience to vote on their favourite poster for a Delegates’ Choice Award; and
  • to become a self-perpetuating initiative that is led by, and for, postgraduate researchers.

Over the past five years, the event has provided notable benefits for those involved, including the development of skills, knowledge and experience around: consolidating and presenting ideas in a creative way (Etter and Guardi, 2015; Rowe and Ilac, 2009); explaining research findings in an accessible format for a lay audience; and strengthening confidence in public speaking, which can be particularly helpful for supporting newer student researchers with their teaching responsibilities. Furthermore, postgraduate students have described the event as a key milestone for developing their self-efficacy, particularly around helping them to prepare for their confirmation and viva stages. More broadly, the event recognises the longevity and challenges of postgraduate studies and provides an opportunity for the wider research community to celebrate research success through encouraging positive reflections on what student researchers have done, not what obstacles remain (Batty et al, 2019; Pyhältö , 2012; Sverdlik et al, 2018).

In line with the Students as Partners model (Healey, Flint and Carrington, 2014), Jill invited postgraduate students who have participated in the event to join the organisational team. For example, Ben Archer, co-author of this blog post and winner of the 2019 Delegates’ Choice Award, co-organised the event in 2020. Ben has since led on the arrangements for the 2021 event, inviting other postgraduate student researchers to join him, and the team are already planning next year’s event.

Navigating the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years has, however, proven tricky. The April 2020 showcase had been thoroughly planned, with poster submissions received, rooms booked and display boards pre-ordered, but the organisation team worked quickly to identify and realise an opportunity to incorporate the event within the University-wide Creating Knowledge online conference programme. Following the success of this format, and given the continuing uncertainties presented by the pandemic environment, the organisational committee decided to retain, and further develop, the event within this virtual format. For example, the team extended the time for this year’s event from one hour to three hours to encourage more discussions between the presenters and all members of the audience. In addition, the posters were made available on the SIPS website for two weeks prior to the event to maximise opportunities for receiving feedback and development of profiles. Against a backdrop of reduced networking opportunities necessitated by the pandemic, the continuation of this event facilitated peer-interaction and community-building which can be particularly important given the potential issues identified earlier around postgraduate students’ feelings of  isolation, lack of confidence, and mental health (Hazell et al, 2020).

Building on the event’s sustained success, and despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the organisational team are exploring opportunities for its further development. One idea is to host a blended event that combines an on-campus poster display with online, follow-up presentations. The aim would be to maximise accessibility and engagement with an increased audience that could further build postgraduate researchers’ confidence, employability skills, networking opportunities, and profiles. Additionally, the organisational team are looking to collaborate with other institutions to host a larger scale event that further recognises the breadth and value of social policy research within higher education.

If you are interested in finding out more about the event and ways within which you could get involved, we would really like to hear from you!

Benjamin Archer is a Lecturer in Law at Sheffield Hallam University. He is a Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies and Doctoral Training Alliance joint-funded PhD student, examining the introduction of Public Spaces Protection Orders. Ben’s research interests include anti-social behaviour and the management of greenspaces and high streets. Twitter @benjaminarcher_

Dr Jill Dickinson is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Sheffield Hallam University, who is currently on secondment with the Student Engagement, Evaluation and Research Team. As a Senior Fellow of the HEA, Jill’s research interests include professional development and employability, and she sits on the England Committee for the International Professional Development Association. Twitter @jill_dickinson1