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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay


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Ian McNay writes …

By Ian McNay

The news from Ukraine is that, at least in Odesa (one ‘s’ in Ukrainian) market, my country is known as ‘Bye, Bye, Britain’. I was there as part of a project on developing leadership training. At the rectors’ round table, we were thanked by the British Council rep. for being honest. We were discussing HE governance, and lessons from the UK, without doing the usual thing of pretending our approach is wonderful and everybody should imitate it. We learn from mistakes more than from things that went well, perhaps because they imply that there is a need to learn.

One challenge in Ukraine is the nostalgia for the old days. When I first went there 20 years ago, I asked an undergraduate class for their models of good leaders. My first three answers were Hitler, Stalin and Thatcher, which led to a discussion of the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘good’. That preference for strength over everything else is still there. In a survey of the ex-Soviet republics, the question was asked: ‘would you rather have democracy or a dictator who solves problems?’ Ukraine topped the table of those opting for the second, with over 50% choosing efficient despotism. The Czech Republic scored only 13%.

This is relevant to us because Theresa May has been claiming to be strong and has resisted the operations of democracy. At organisational level, since power tends to corrupt, the signs are not good: a recent survey of UK managers for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealed that only 8 per cent claimed to have a strong personal moral compass, and so are susceptible to corruption. Even UK university managers would score better than that, despite the disappearance of collegial democracy.

Wouldn’t they?

Did you notice…? The Universities UK blog reported a survey of the teams who prepared the institutional submissions to the Teaching Excellence Framework, and found that even they were dismissive of its validity and reliability – basic requirements for us as researchers. 72 per cent of those most closely involved in the exercise did not believe that it ‘accurately assesses teaching and learning excellence’. Only 2 per cent, 2 per cent, thought it did. Even they might change their view, since the views of students – those ‘at the heart of the system’ and the alleged beneficiaries of the exercise – are to be given a lower weighting, since their voice, through NSS, gave the ‘wrong’ message. More weight will now be given to post-graduation data on jobs and earnings, which are more heavily conditioned by accidents of birth, and employer prejudice, than the quality of teaching and learning. So much for promoting social mobility, another claimed objective. Russell Group universities will benefit, since they scored poorly on NSS, and recruit more of those privileged by birth. That couldn’t be a reason for the change, surely? That would suggest that corruptive pressure had been applied to the reward process, as in the awarding of Olympic Games to cities or the football world cup to countries. Or in awarding Olympic medals – gold, silver, bronze – in boxing. Or bonuses to bankers. Still, footballers and bankers are now our benchmarks, according to the head of the world’s leading university, so we still have some way to fall.

Don’t we?

‘That way madness lies’ (I have just played Lear in a local ‘Best of the Bard’ concoction).

Recent reports from some universities suggest grade inflation is just as much an issue as the cost of living index. UK wide figures are not yet available for the latest batch of graduates, but in 2016, 73 per cent of first degree graduates got a first (24%) or upper second (49%), with the gender split favouring women by 75/71. Four years previously, the figure had been ‘only’ 66 per cent. So, despite expansion lowering entry tariffs, more ‘value’ is added to compensate. If 50 per cent of an age cohort now study for a degree, that means that 12 percent of an age group got a first class degree. A few years ago, when I passed the 11+, only 11 percent of the age group in my home town did so.

Did you notice the figures for ‘alternative providers’ from HESA, interesting in the light of the recent report from the HE Commission? Of the 6,200 graduates they produced (2,000 more than the previous year), 58 per cent got ‘good’ degrees. No Inflation – it was 61 per cent in 2015. 14 per cent got firsts, and women again outperformed men, by nine percentage points – 63/54.

The Commission’s report goes well beyond simply comparing the provision of full-time first degrees, emphasising the potential role of apprenticeships in adding to diversity of routes; urging flexibility of funding to allow flexibility of study patterns across the sector and outlining the greater part employers should play in developing work-related and work-relevant provision. I was interested that, of over 120 names on the attendance list, only 6 were from mainstream universities, and three of those had given evidence to the enquiry. Does the sector not think there is a challenge from the alternatives? Will they just wait for the demographic upturn early in the next decade, and then supply the same-old to a similar sub-set of the market? Are they aware that some of that demographic upturn is of children of EU immigrants who may well choose to return to their parents’ home country to study where fees are much lower, if they exist at all? And that nearly all recent growth in demand has been from BAME applicants, who suffer from admissions decisions which imply unconscious (I hope) decisions, particularly in elitist universities, as work by Vicki Boliver and Tariq Modood and statistics from UCAS show?

Finally, and still on my campaign for equity…I have a plea. At a recent symposium, participants commented on the inequity, at a global level, of the monopoly role of the English language, which has an exclusionary impact on those outside the Anglo-Saxon countries. Some national governments are bothered about its impact on knowledge transfer within the country that sponsored the work that produces journal articles. My suggestion is that any journal with ‘international’ in its title or its statement of aims should publish abstracts in, preferably, three languages, but at least two: the second being the author’s first language or that of the host institution of the research reported; the third another global language, probably Spanish. So, if you are on the editorial board of journals, or review articles submitted, can I urge you to make representation about this. It would enhance awareness across a broader landscape of HE, and allow those beyond the current privileged language enclave initial access to relevant work and to follow up with some contact with authors, since email addresses are now commonly given. It would also support the Society’s role in encouraging newer researchers. Simples!

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

 

 


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Comprehensive universities

By Paul Temple

Tim Blackman, the VC of Middlesex University, will, I guess, have been pleased by the interest created by his polemic, The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection, (HEPI Occasional Paper 17, July 2017). One response on Wonkhe (20 July) by fellow VC Edward Peck supports Blackman’s wish to see “comprehensive universities” – in the sense of comprehensive schools, where admission is not determined by exam results – but worries that the result would be a government-directed “complicated and centralised” higher education system. This conclusion soon found (I think, unintended) support from Sonia Sodha writing in The Guardian on 18 August, in a piece I first mentally filed with the “Why don’t other people’s children become plumbers?” literature. But Sodha goes further, with proposals that might have caused a Soviet bloc educational apparatchik to hesitate, including standardising degree classifications across the system and “introducing a [minimum] quota for working-class students at each university”. I began to wonder if the piece was actually a wind-up aimed at Daily Mail columnists.  Continue reading

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The Future of Global HE: more (than) research is needed

By Rob Cuthbert

A high-level Symposium on the Future of Global HE in London on 7 September offered much food for thought, but only those with elitist tastes would have come away completely satisfied. The Symposium assembled a stellar cast, but the narrow HE perspective of most contributors made for a well-meaning dialogue contained within and between some of the world’s self-styled elite universities, which account for only a small proportion of the rapidly expanding global student population.

There were many fine words about the need to respect teaching as well as research, the need to ensure service to society at all levels from local to global, to promote universities’ key role in protecting freedom of expression and the integrity of ideas, and to rethink higher education’s core business as digital technologies continue to transform possibilities for learning. So far, so good. Continue reading

Ian Kinchin


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Why do we need to consider pedagogic frailty?

By Ian Kinchin

For some colleagues, the idea of pedagogic frailty (see post on 20th January 2016) provides a challenging concept. Why focus on what’s wrong (frailty) rather than what’s right (e.g. excellence, resilience etc.)? A good question, and I certainly do not hold the copyright to the correct answer to this. However, I feel there are a number of good reasons to explain why a consideration of pedagogic frailty can be helpful:

  • After talking with various colleagues across the disciplines, the idea of frailty appears to resonate. As I am not using the term to refer to an individual’s characteristics, but with reference to the quality of connections across the wider ‘teaching system’, it has not been perceived by them to be a threatening term.
  • The clinical analogy from which I have drawn heavily provides a starting point that colleagues can relate to. Everyone has either been ill, or knows someone who has, and recognises that the clinical professions are dedicated to promoting health rather than illness. Nonetheless, medicine knows more about disease than it does about health. This is the focus of medical studies. In order to promote health, you need to understand the indicators of illness and the consequences of inappropriate treatment.

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Paul Temple


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End-of-the-peer review?

By Paul Temple

Peer review has been in the news recently (well, what counts as news in our business): which perhaps isn’t surprising considering the effect it can have on academic careers – and much more besides.

Richard Smith, when editor of the BMJ, conducted an experiment by deliberately inserting errors into a paper (presumably one written specially for the occasion – this isn’t made clear!) and sending it to reviewers who were in the dark about what was going on. (A university ethics committee would have had fun with this.) None of the chosen reviewers apparently spotted all the errors: from which (along with other findings) Smith concluded that “peer review simply doesn’t work” (THE, 28 May 2015). But one of the reviewers, Trisha Greenhalgh of Oxford University, presents the same facts in an interestingly different light (THE, 4 June 2015). She spotted a couple of serious errors early in the paper, concluded it was rubbish, told the BMJ so, and read no further. So, for her, peer review was working just fine.

This is an interesting methodological point – Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay


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Excellence and equity

By Ian McNay

This piece is shorter than planned, for which my apologies, though some of you may be grateful. We may get sucked in to the excellence debate over the next few months. My concern is about equity, and what has emerged recently on this.

One of the issues raised by the Green Paper is a commitment to doubling BME entrants to HE, and looking to the white male underclass. The second is urgent, but goes beyond HE. The first is odd, because, overall, participation rates from BME communities in  the UK are higher than for the white population. That is despite the evidence from Vicki Boliver and Tariq Modood about racial imbalance in the profile of offers made, particularly by elite universities, and despite Mary Curnock Cook’s comments.

My regret is that my own university failed to look at impact when the new VC reduced full-time undergraduate intake following higher fees in an attempt to move up league tables by raising the average UCAS tariff of entrants. Continue reading

Ian Kinchin


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Pedagogic paupers: where’s the distinctiveness?

By Ian Kinchin

When you scan a range of university web sites, they all seem to claim their institution offers a distinctive student experience. In many respects, this may be true. However, when it comes to pedagogy, I wonder if there has been a trend towards homogenisation rather than distinctiveness?

Pressures of work and the emphasis on research outputs appears to drive many academics to “play it safe” when it comes to classroom practice. The irony is that these same academics would claim to be serious researchers – people to reflect, innovate, question and experiment. And yet these ‘researcher traits’ don’t seem to be carried over into teaching. The ‘it’ll do’ sentiment of the unenthusiastic amateur seems all too common, though (I would hasten to add) not universal.

I would not for one moment claim that the pressures on university academics are not real, the squeeze on resources and the restrictions posed by accrediting bodies (for example) all appear to drive academics towards a conservative approach to teaching. The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the underpinning philosophy for many.

However, my own undergraduate friends and relatives often provide me with stories and anecdotes that suggest that, if not broken, much university teaching still requires something of an upgrade. Continue reading