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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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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


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Extracurricular activities: does paid work count?

by Teri-Lisa Griffiths, Dr Jill Dickinson, and Catherine Day

The continued diversification of the student body means that students are engaged with a range of extracurricular activities, both on and off-campus. Our recently published research explores how these experiences impact student self-efficacy, that is participants’ perceptions of their ability to carry out a range of tasks associated with academic success. Here we discuss some of the key findings from the research and pose additional questions in the context of recent events.

Context

With the continued focus on graduate employability and outcomes, the benefit of extracurricular activity (‘ECA’) engagement is often promoted as a way for students to strengthen applications for opportunities following graduation. ECAs are considered useful for the development of students’ ‘soft skills’; those skills which are transferable, and which may help at the beginning of students’ graduate careers. The authors’ previous research illustrated how students have absorbed this message, and they often seek out opportunities which they perceive as valuable for their future career as a result. Students tend to be engaged in a variety of ECAs including: student activist and representative activity, work experience and internships, sport, and special interest groups. Following calls to expand understanding of what constitutes a legitimate ECA, and to include those who engage with activities necessitated by their personal circumstances, our study accepted any activity undertaken outside of timetabled classes as an ECA. To expand on this approach, we will explore the activity of paid work in some detail in this blog, as well as outlining some of the key findings of our study.

Student self-efficacy

Our study drew on the concept of self-efficacy, a person’s own belief in their ability to carry out particular tasks within specific domains, to understand more about how ECAs might confer benefits to students in higher education. Utilising and adapting a measure by Bandura, we asked respondents to rank their ability to carry out tasks related to success at university, including academic self-efficacy (eg I can get myself to study when there are more interesting things to do), external reach (I can make contact with professionals working in careers which interest me), relatedness (I can work well in a group) and help seeking (I can get tutors to help me when I get stuck on coursework). Although self-efficacy is believed to be restricted to specific domains, there is a hypothesis that high self-efficacy in one domain may positively influence self-efficacy in other domains, provided that the individual sees similarities between the activities carried out within each. We measured respondents’ student self-efficacy at two separate points in the academic year to understand more about how ECA engagement may influence student self-efficacy beliefs over time.

The impact of extracurricular activities on student self-efficacy

Our findings demonstrated a moderate relationship between higher self-efficacy and engagement with ECAs. All respondents experienced an increase in their student self-efficacy over the two time points, which is to be expected as they progressed through their studies. However, when comparing the engaged and non-engaged groups, those who engaged with ECAs reported higher self-efficacy at both points. We were unable to draw conclusions regarding causation from the results. We cannot be sure if engagement in ECAs supports the development of student self-efficacy or if those with higher student self-efficacy are more likely to be engaged with ECAs. For example, we found evidence of a small number of participants who were engaged with several ECAs and reported very high levels of student self-efficacy. Bringing together evidence from previous studies, it may be that those students who are already assured in their academic ability are the most likely to be comfortable with introducing additional responsibilities into their student experience. Furthermore, the authors have previously explored students’ conceptions of ECAs and found that worries about negative impacts on studies were one of the reported barriers to engagement.

Problematising paid work

The inclusion of paid work as a recognised ECA was important to this study for a number of reasons. Our previous research demonstrated that students tend to trivialise their paid work experience in the context of their graduate ambitions and the potential for skill development. There are also social justice implications which merit their inclusion, as most students from lower socio-economic backgrounds may find it necessary to undertake paid work to fund living expenses.

The results of our study strengthen the evidence that students undervalue paid work experiences. First, there were two questions on the survey which pertained to paid work. One question asked how many hours respondents engaged in paid work, and the second asked respondents to indicate whether they were involved with ECAs. Seventy-five respondents in total answered that they were engaged with paid work but did not subsequently give an affirmative response to the question of ECA engagement, even though paid work was explicitly included on the list of example ECAs on the survey. This gives a clear indication of respondents’ attitudes to their paid work experiences (and perhaps an insight into how closely respondents read survey questions!).

Second, part-time work participation had no impact on student self-efficacy overall, or on any of the domains we measured, including external reach. As a result of this, we can assert that respondents did not perceive the domains of their paid work activities to be sufficiently similar to their student tasks to have an impact on their reported self-efficacy. Some of the external reach questions included, ‘I would feel confident arranging to meet a professional’ and ‘I would feel confident applying to a new opportunity’, but the results demonstrate that respondents did not feel that their paid work experiences prepared them sufficiently for external reach tasks.

Implications

Our research demonstrates the importance of student self-efficacy to the wider student experience. Regardless of whether engagement with ECAs results in, or relies on, high student self-efficacy, we recommend that universities explore ways within which they can explicitly support students to develop their student self-efficacy to take advantage of the range of benefits to the student experience. Furthermore, we believe that the topic of paid work warrants further exploration. It is our intention to undertake an additional study to understand how universities might support students to make the connections between paid work experiences and their personal and professional development.

Teri-Lisa Griffiths is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology. As a former careers adviser, her teaching is focused on the development of employability and academic skills. Her research interests are centred on the student experience and professional development.

 Jill Dickinson is a Senior Lecturer in Law and Senior Fellow of Advance HE. After spending 10 years working as a solicitor in private practice, Jill moved into academia. Alongside various Course and Research Leadership roles, she has collaborated with both internal and external partners to develop student employability initiatives.

Catherine J. Day is Principal Lecturer in Psychology. She is departmental lead for student experience, engagement and employability. Her teaching portfolio includes personality and psychometrics at undergraduate level and individual differences at postgraduate. Her research interests focus on individual differences and personality, and student well-being. She is a qualified personality and ability Test User registered by the British Psychology Society.


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Silver linings but no silver bullet: Graduate careers in (times of) crisis

by Andrew Dorrance and Daria Luchinskaya

It should come to no-one as a surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of students and graduates alike in an unprecedented way. The recent SRHE event Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis, jointly organised by the Student Access and Experience and Employability and Enterprise and Work-based Learning Networks, explored the impacts of the pandemic on graduates’ transitions to work. While there have been scattered silver linings for students and graduates, many challenges remain. This blog summarises the key themes emerging from the event and discusses potential steps forward.

Introduction

The ‘Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis’ event aimed to discuss the early impact of the pandemic on graduates’ experiences, to explore how careers advice, information and guidance has changed with physical distancing requirements, and to reflect on the broader labour market context (please see the section at the end for more details). The speakers contrasted findings from the ‘Class of 2020’ Graduating in a Pandemic project, that tracked the experiences of recent graduates with the longer-term experiences of the 2009/10 ‘Recession graduates’ from the Futuretrack project. Careers professionals discussed their responses to the pandemic and highlighted different projects aimed at helping students and graduates. There was a general sense, too, that the pandemic seems to have acted as a catalyst for reflection, among students, graduates, careers staff and other stakeholders.

Pandemic challenges

The pandemic seems to have exacerbated existing inequalities among students and graduates that then had different effects on their transitions to employment.

Digital inequality, where students and graduates struggle with access to sufficiently high-quality internet connections and personal devices, accentuates barriers to accessing education, job interviews and jobs that have moved online. Both Futuretrack and Graduating in a Pandemic found that there was vast difference between people’s experiences of working from home, accentuated by digital inequality and potentially the environment in which they can work.

There was also qualitative evidence of work placements, interviews and job offers ‘falling through’, with graduates reporting difficulties in doing their jobs and some even saying they lost their ‘perfect’ job offer. College graduates who undertook vocational courses orientated towards the service sector were particularly affected, and reported difficulties in finding or doing their jobs when in industries that were particularly affected by Covid-19 – for example, in events management or beauty therapy.  College graduates were also more likely to come from less advantaged backgrounds than university graduates.

Some graduates who would have, in other circumstances, joined the labour market, have been opting to go into education (eg graduate to postgraduate or college to degree-level) as a temporary solution to a lack of graduate job opportunities.

Ultimately, the labour market impact of the pandemic contributed to an increase in anxiety amongst students and graduates, particularly those studying subjects that required placements to complete their degrees, and those who were already facing disadvantages. These findings are consistent with what we know from the experiences of ‘recession graduates’ of 2009/10. Futuretrack and related research found that existing inequalities structured access to careers information, networks and useful resources and the ability to navigate the recession stemming from the crisis, and that these educational and social (dis)advantages were cumulative.

Silver linings

Despite these challenges, Graduating in a Pandemic found that around a third of graduates from 2020 were employed in or had been offered a job that was related to their intended career path (although such graduates were more likely to be from more advantaged backgrounds). For those working in the so-called ‘non-graduate’ jobs, it may be a matter of time before they move to more appropriate employment, although it remains to be seen hoe Covid-19 will affect different industries over the longer term.

The majority of Futuretrack’s ‘recession graduates’ had moved to ‘graduate’-level employment 9-10 years after graduation. Over half of those reported that it was exactly the type of job they wanted to do and over three quarters were generally satisfied with their jobs. However, even 9-10 years on from graduation, a substantial minority of Futuretrack graduates were not well integrated into the labour market and unsatisfied with their jobs. This less-well integrated group of graduates, as well as those who recently changed work and those working freelance and the self-employed, were perhaps more vulnerable to the (indirect) effects of Covid-19, for example, regarding job security or eligibility for furlough.

Reflection

The pandemic had also offered people a chance to reflect. Futuretrack graduates reported taking time to re-evaluate career priorities and life values. A small number of 2020 graduates whose job offers were impacted had indicated that the pandemic had given them the time to rethink their career path and look for and attain their ‘dream’ job rather than the ‘graduate’ job they would have done otherwise.

Careers services professionals found themselves in a ‘unique’ role as a link between HE, students, graduates and employers, and stepped up to the pandemic challenges. They worked hard to develop inclusive and innovative ways in supporting students and graduates. For example, online workshops and events improved accessibility and speaker availability. However, there were also challenges in attaining consistently high levels of attendance and ensuring that the services reached the students and graduates most ‘at risk’ of falling through careers service provision.

Careers services also developed new resources, for example focusing on virtual recruitment practices and work placements to address the changes to the recruitment and placements process as a result of the pandemic. Over the pandemic period, careers services were also able to learn what services work better online (eg using the shared screen feature to look at students’ CVs) or in-person, and to adapt as the pandemic unfolded, and continues to do so.

Looking forward

Fortunately, going forward there are perhaps tentative grounds for positivity, as student recruitment had seen an uplift and employers were becoming optimistic about growth in the short-term with opportunities for graduates coming into the labour market. However, there were also concerns around the ongoing uncertainty around the unfolding impact of the pandemic. It was also clear that not all graduates were motivated by financial gain, which led to a discussion about including social returns in measuring the value of higher education in addition to the current focus on individual labour market outcomes.

We know that it is taking longer for graduates to find an ‘appropriate’ job in the labour market. Time will tell whether graduates of the pandemic will settle into the labour market like the graduates of the 2009/10 recession eventually did. For the moment, offering accessible careers support to students and graduates, while highlighting areas of inequalities in labour market entry, the experience of work, and the mental and physical health of students and graduates to inform policy, remain ways in which we can help pandemic graduates navigate their post-graduation transitions.

Andrew Dorrance is an Undergraduate Student in Economics in the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, and Research Assistant for the Graduating in a Pandemic research project.

Daria Luchinskaya is a Lecturer at the Department of Work, Employment and Organisation, University of Strathclyde, co-convener of the SRHE Employability, Enterprise And Work-Based Learning Network, and a member of the Graduating in a Pandemic research team. Follow Daria on Twitter @DariaResearch.

Further links and resources

The Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis event was co-hosted by the Student Access and Experience and Employability and Enterprise and Work-based Learning Networks and took place on 16 June 2021. The aim of the event was to provide evidence from the UK on the early impact of the pandemic on graduates’ experiences, and to explore how careers advice, information and guidance has changed with social distancing, as well as reflecting on the broader labour market context. Presentations by Scott Hurrell (Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow) on the class of 2020 (Graduating in a Pandemic) and Kate Purcell (University of Warwick Emeritus Professor) on the class of 2009/10 (Futuretrack) highlighted research findings about graduates’ early and mid-careers. Susan Bird (Careers & Employability Manager, University of Edinburgh) and Rachel Firth (Employability Consultant, Sheffield Hallam University) presented the experience of careers professionals’ responses to the pandemic. The event attracted a diverse audience, including academics, careers professionals, and representatives from think tanks and employer organisations.

Graduating in a Pandemic is investigating the post-graduation activities of the class of 2020 and 2021. It is run by researchers at the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde (PI Dr Scott Hurrell). See the project website at: https://graduatinginapandemic.wordpress.com/

Futuretrack is a nationally-representative longitudinal survey of applicants to full-time HE in 2005/06, run by Professors Kate Purcell and Peter Elias at the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick. Findings from the longitudinal projects and published reports, including research reports from Stage 5 (2012 – 2019) and Stage 6 (2019 – 2020), can be accessed via https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/futuretrack/findings

A report co-authored by Shelagh Green, Director, University of Edinburgh Careers Service, ‘Careers Services in times of Covid-19’ (March 2021), COIMBRA Group can be accessed at: https://www.coimbra-group.eu/wp-content/uploads/Career-services-in-times-of-Covid-19.pdf

The University of Edinburgh Careers Compass resources: https://www.ed.ac.uk/careers/students/undergraduates/careers-compass

Sheffield Hallam University careers services resources: https://www.shu.ac.uk/careers/

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SRHE News on research and publishing

by Rob Cuthbert

One of the benefits of SRHE membership is exclusive access to the quarterly newsletter, SRHE News, archived at https://www.srhe.ac.uk/publications/. SRHE News typically contains a round-up of recent academic events and conferences, policy developments and new publications, written by editor Rob Cuthbert. To illustrate the contents, here is part of the January 2021 issue which covers Research and Publishing.

Research integrity

George Gaskell (LSE) wrote on the LSE Impact Blog on 16 October 2020 about the multi-authored Horizon 2020 study which distilled findings about research integrity into three areas and nine topics:

  • Support: research environment; supervision and mentoring; research integrity training
  • Organise: research ethics structures; dealing with breaches of research integrity; data practices and management
  • Communicate: research collaboration; declaration of interests; publication and communication

Eight common problems with literature reviews and how to fix them

Neal Haddaway (Stockholm Environment Institute) wrote for the LSE Impact Blog on 19 October 2020.

How to write an academic abstract

PhD student Maria Tsapali (Cambridge) offered some advice on the Cambridge Faculty of Education Research Students’ Association blog. Top of the list: avoid spelling or grammatical mistakes …

How to reward broader contributions to research culture

Elizabeth Adams and Tanita Casci (both Glasgow) explained on the LSE Impact Blog on 8 December 2020 how they designed and implemented a programme “for recognising often unseen work that colleagues do to build a positive research culture? Supporting careers, peer reviewing grant applications, mentoring and running skills development workshops for ECRs, championing open and rigorous research practices…”.

The following is an excerpt from SRHE News, the SRHE newsletter and Higher Education digest. Issue 43 of SRHE News was published in January 2021. SRHE News is a members only publication and can be downloaded from the Members Area. To become a member of SRHE visit the SRHE website.

The synthesiser’s synthesiser

SRHE Fellow Malcolm Tight (Lancaster) climbed even higher on the mountain he has largely built himself, assembling research into HE, with his new book, Syntheses of higher education research, published by Bloomsbury on 24 December 2020: “… systematic reviews and meta-analyses give an account of where we are now in higher education research. Malcolm Tight takes a global perspective, looking beyond Anglophone originating English Language publishing, particularly Africa, East and South Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, bringing together their findings to provide an accessible and practical overview. Bringing together over 96 systematic reviews and 62 meta-analyses focusing on … key topics: teaching and learning, course design, the student experience, quality, system policy, institutional management, academic work, and knowledge and research.”

Academic development in times of crisis

The International Journal for Academic Development has issued a call for proposals for a special issue to be published in 2022, inviting research, theory, and reflection on academic development in times of crisis. “We encourage scholarly and creative submissions that offer insights, methodologies, and practices that are firmly grounded in a particular context and crisis but that also have implications for academic development more broadly. … We encourage submission of a 500 word proposal by 1 February 2021 … full manuscripts to be submitted by 1 June 2021 … For inquiries about this Special Issue, please contact Henk Huijser, h.huijser@qut.edu.au.”

Theories of academic identity

Mark Barrow, Barbara Grant and Linlin Xu (all Auckland) analysed how academic identity had been theorised in their article in Higher Education Research and Development (online 30 November 2020): “Our analysis of 11 works suggests a small set of related (constructivist) theories provides the core resources for academic identities scholarship, although somewhat varied understandings of agency and power/politics surface in the discussions and implications advanced by different authors.” 

Governance and freedom in British academia

That was the title of SRHE member Rosalind MO Pritchard’s (Ulster) review for Higher Education Quarterly (online 18 December 2020) of The governance of British higher education: the impact of governmental, financial and market pressures, the 2020 book by SRHE Fellow Michael Shattock (UCL) and Aniko Horvath (Oxford) arising from their Centre for Global Higher Education research: “Two ideas permeate the content and are stated at the outset: the British state is playing a much more proactive role in higher education than in the past; and the uniformity of the higher education system is fragmenting under the impact of devolution and market pressures”.

From marketisation to assetisation

The article by Janja Komljenovic setting out her arguments for reframing the HE debate about markets and digitisation was in Higher Education (online 5 October 2020): “… we urgently need public scrutiny and political action to address issues of value extraction and redistribution in HE.”.

Theory and Method in Higher Education Research

Volume 6 of the Emerald series was published on 9 November 2020, edited by SRHE Fellows Jeroen Huisman (Ghent) and Malcolm Tight (Lancaster). Chapters: Prelims; Theorising Practices of Relational Working across the Boundaries of Higher Education; Uses of Corpus Linguistics in Higher Education Research: An Adjustable Lens; Dialogues with Data: Generating Theoretical Insights from Research on Practice in Higher Education; The Use of Instrumental Variables in Higher Education Research; Participatory Pedagogy and Artful Inquiry: Partners in Researching the Student Experience; Rolling Out the Mat: A Talanoa on Talanoa as a Higher Education Research Methodology; Rethinking Diversity: Combining Sen and Bourdieu to Critically Unpack Higher Education Participation and Persistence; Deleuzian Approaches to Researching Student Experience in Higher Education; Investigating Policy Processes and Discourses in Higher Education: The Theoretical Complementarities of Bernstein’s Pedagogic Device and Critical Discourse Studies; Framing Theory for Higher Education Research; Research into Quality Assurance and Quality Management in Higher Education; Knowledge with Impact in Higher Education Research

Literature reviews

Perspectives: Policy and Practice had two literature reviews in Vol 24(4): Orla Sheehan Pundyke on change management and Kelli Wolfe (Roehampton) on service design.

SRHE News is edited by Rob Cuthbert. Rob is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com.


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Connections, Collage and Collaboration during Covid19 and beyond…

by Suzanne Culshaw

Earlier this year I became aware of an SRHE sponsorship opportunity, which, if successful, would allow me to attend an Early Career Researcher’s conference in Hamburg, organised by the GfHf (SRHE’s German ‘sister’ association). I submitted my proposal and crossed my fingers. It turned out that my application – to lead a methodological workshop using collage, a method I used in my PhD research – had sparked some interest and I was being offered an all-expenses trip to Germany! But then Covid19 crept onto the scene and I received the sad news that the trip couldn’t go ahead and the ECR conference was on hold. A few months later and my contact in Germany, Lisa Walther, got in touch asking whether I’d still like to present my work, this time within an Ideas Forum, online. I jumped at the chance, and, as a fluent German speaker, even found myself offering to do the presentation in German!

Early August soon came around and I joined the Zoom room, to find about 15 other people all looking forward to a stimulating afternoon of presentations, discussion and networking. Having only ever presented my research in German once, I was perhaps more nervous than usual, but was glad to have the chance to ‘warm up’ by listening to and engaging with the earlier presenters before launching into mine.

The focus of my presentation was a provocation that struggling is a particularly English phenomenon. It isn’t, of course, but I wanted to demonstrate that struggling isn’t easily translatable into German, which is interesting in its own right. I outlined the main findings of my PhD research – the various dimensions of the experience of struggling as a teacher – and spent some time sharing my methodological approach. My research participants had the opportunity to express their experience of struggling by creating a collage, using arts and crafts materials which could be placed and moved as their thinking developed (Culshaw, 2019a and 2019b).

I shared the challenges I faced when intermingling the verbal (interview) and visual (collage) data, highlighting the ambiguities and inconsistencies in the complex stories which were shared with me.

With the presentation over, I fielded a number of questions, with some focussing on the method and whether I had considered videoing the process of collage-creation. Others asked about whether struggling is a phenomenon experienced by educators in higher education (my research is situated in the secondary school context). This is something I am hoping to explore in the coming months, as part of a new research proposal. I was also recommended people to follow on twitter, whose work resonates with mine.

On the following day, I received an email from Lisa Walther, inviting me to lead an online workshop in the autumn. I’ve also been approached by a colleague in Luxembourg who is interested in a collaborative project, focussing on the experience of struggling in the light of the current pandemic. I am thrilled to have made these connections and embrace the opportunities that are emerging! Whilst I’d still like to have visited Hamburg in person, connecting online with a group of German academics has been a real highlight of my nascent ECR career.

So, if you’re wondering whether to apply for a sponsorship or a grant, or similar, then what’s stopping you? Look at what my application has led to … and who knows what else might come of these connections I’ve made. I’m very grateful to SRHE for supporting my proposal and to the German team for making me feel so welcome in their ECR – #HoFoNa – community. My next step is to try to write a similar blog in German – wünscht mir viel Glück!

Dr Suzanne Culshaw is a part-time Research Fellow in the School of Education, University of Hertfordshire, where she held a PhD scholarship. Her doctoral research explored what it means to be struggling as a teacher; Suzanne’s conceptualisation of struggling takes it out of the capability and performativity arenas and places it well and truly in the wellbeing domain. She is a qualified languages teacher and until recently was teaching part-time in Suffolk. She has a keen interest in wellbeing, educational leadership and professional learning. Suzanne is particularly drawn to creative and arts-based research methods, especially collage. She is currently working on an Erasmus+ project exploring the use of arts-based and embodied learning approaches to leadership development. She tweets at @SuzanneCulshaw.

References

Culshaw, S (2019a) An exploration of what it means to be struggling as a secondary teacher in England. University of Hertfordshire. https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/handle/2299/22082

Culshaw, S (2019b) ‘The unspoken power of collage? Using an innovative arts-based research method to explore the experience of struggling as a teacher’ London Review of Education, 17(3): 268–283 https://doi.org/10.18546/LRE.17.3.03


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Literature reviews and how to do them: an SRHE webinar in the time of Corona

by Akmarzhan Nogaibayeva

For some PhD students attending conferences, research seminars and so on means getting a break from research and it means leaving the library or the lab. During the pandemic everyone has started working remotely and has become only virtually accessible. Cancelling planned face to face events to avoid social contact has made our life extremely quiet and isolated. However, this unusual situation has given me time to reflect on the importance of attending conferences, seminars and other events related to my field. Since the lockdown I have had the chance to attend webinars organized by SRHE. I was lucky to listen to talks on different topics and this  opened new ways of thinking about a topic, giving me access to new ideas that I had previously never thought about. This blog reflects on a webinar I attended recently on ‘Undertaking Literature Reviews’ which took place on 29 April 2020, hosted by SRHE. Even though I had attended a seminar on Literature Reviews (LR) two years earlier, during my first year of study, I still had some remaining questions: What type of review did I carry out in my study? And, Where does my voice come into my review? Hoping to get answers to these questions from the presenter as well as from other researchers I was happy to attend the online webinar without wasting time travelling long distances.

Before the start of the webinar we were provided with slides and articles to discover different approaches to the literature review, which can either shape the chapter for the proposed study or provide a background for an academic article. The material suggested three broad approaches: narrative, systematic and theoretical. The Narrative approach is a review that tries to tell a story, reviewing the extant literature as a way of attempting to summarise what has been written on a particular topic. The systematic approach is a way of reviewing literature by using more objective criteria with a goal of summarising enormous amounts of research, scientifically tracking them for quality control. The theoretical approach is a review that covers the history of different meanings given to key terms in a study that has accumulated evidence in regard to concepts, theories or phenomena. The overall aim of the LR is to persuade other scholars in the field of your command of the relevant literature. My own original LR had been a narrative review in a more traditional way that most doctoral researchers tend to follow, mixing concepts and case studies, organising them under big themes followed by subthemes. I chose this approach to show the research committee what I know about my topic. This type of  narrative LR helped me to understand my topic by focusing precisely on the context of my research and in establishing  the theoretical framework of  the study.  

From the beginning of the seminar I noticed how the presenter warmly welcomed attendees, letting them introduce themselves by asking the reasons for attending this webinar and their expectations. Even though we were all connected online maintaining physical distance, by introducing ourselves and reflecting on the question ‘why we are attending this online seminar’ we softened the boundaries. Participants came from different backgrounds: experienced supervisors; university lecturers; PhD students like me; and people interested in pursuing a PhD in the future. They all had different reasons to join this online event; some of them had professional interests and wanted to get some suggestions for dealing with their own students` questions; some like myself were undertaking doctoral research of their own and were returning to LR in that context. The webinar description on the website was a clear prospectus: by attending this webinar we would be able to answer questions on the objectives of LR, examine epistemological assumptions about LR and engage in discussion by comparing the types of LR.

The facilitator of the webinar, Dr Michael Hammond (Warwick), started his talk by inviting participants to think about the question, ‘Why do we do LR?’ The answer to this question was a major theme that would guide us through the whole seminar. One answer was that it is a way of knowing where you fit in. The LR must not only demonstrate that I understand debates and conversations, but how my research will contribute to the field. In other words I should be able to create an argument as to why my work is relevant to my field by evaluating conversations surrounding my work describing their weaknesses and strengths.

We also discussed finding the gap that our research addresses, and the importance of finding models of methodology to orient oneself – in carrying out a literature review can you find a study that follows a methodology that you want to use? A literature review should be a critical examination of what has come earlier. I was inspired by thinking about the value and status of literature and we all got the chance to ask questions. One participant wanted to understand where the researcher’s voice comes in the review and shared her view that the voice of the researcher comes from what you choose to cite. Another participant raised the question of what to do if the researcher finds that an existing literature review has already covered the things that you want to discuss. The presenter explained you can re-present past reviews in ways that are more relevant for your particular research question but there was always the opportunity to update any review. 

Later we were invited to discuss LR in  groups. It was an enjoyable experience, with Zoom creating space for individuals to share their views and experiences of doing reviews. After a while we returned to our main group space. I felt because of this that online events could follow some of the processes common to face to face working. Thanks to the questions raised during the discussion and by sharing my own experience I gained more understanding of LR and had some answers to the questions that I had in my mind.

In conclusion the presenter showed us ways of organising the literature review by using different tools like Endnote and Mendeley. I noticed how the facilitator of the webinar could present his own thoughts, reflecting back again to the questions posed at the beginning of the seminar. As a doctoral researcher I had found answers to my own questions. This event helped me to reflect on my own literature review, carried out two years ago. When I return to it again I will have in the front of my mind the question of how my work will add to the knowledge in my field. 

When I first started writing my LR I tried to briefly point out debates and conversations in what has been published about my topic. As my research is looking at the use of technologies in language teaching and learning I discussed the use of technologies chronologically, organizing them under themes, basically looking at the key ideas and theoretical approaches. However, after attending this webinar I have understood the importance of organizing the LR from the beginning around the key ideas and concepts or theoretical approaches. As the presenter explained, making an example of his students` work, organizing your LR from the beginning might be very useful in setting up a coding process of your interview analysis at the later stages of your proposed work.


Akmarzhan Nogaibayeva is a third-year PhD student at the University of Warwick, researching language teachers` ICT use through the lens of ecological theory, in higher education in Kazakhstan.


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Making space in higher education research: Reporting back from our higher education geographies conference symposium

by Kate Carruthers Thomas and Holly Henderson

Space and place are too often the background and too rarely the central focus of higher education research. This was the argument of our symposium, which offered four ways of theorising the spatial in higher education. The conversation that began in this symposium extends far beyond the time allowed, and so we are continuing that conversation here, with each of the four symposium contributors summarising their use of the spatial in higher education research.

Kate Carruthers Thomas on Massey’s spatial concepts

I work with the spatial concepts of Doreen Massey to research and theorise higher education (HE).  Massey was a radical geographer, bringing a feminist perspective to discussions of space, place and power and her understanding of space as plural, heterogeneous and fluid energises an analysis of dominant forms of space and power in HE. My SRHE 2019 paper drew on two research examples: Gender(s) at Work (2018) exploring ways gender shapes experiences of the workplace and career in a post-1992 UK university, and Dimensions of Belonging (2016) problematising a sector-wide reductive narrative of ‘student belonging’ in relation to part-time students.

Applying Massey’s spatial propositions to HE frames ‘the university’ as a product of social relations shaped by geographies of powersocially-coded masculine. Universities originate from monasteries: elite, male-dominated spaces of knowledge production. The contemporary university remains shaped by the power geometry of patriarchal disciplinary discourses, traditions and cultures as well as male-defined constructions of work and career success. Massey coins the term ‘power geometry’ to describe how individuals and groups are differently positioned in relation to flows of capital and culture, to different geographies of power in particular contexts. How they are positioned shapes how they experience the spaces they are in. Gender(s) at Work extends the notion of geography of power to gender, examining how gender operates as a geography of power to position individuals and groups in relation to the flows and connections (of prestige, reward, status) within that activity space.

I also use Massey’s device of ‘activity space’ – the spatial network of links and activities, of spatial connections, locations within which agents operate (2005: 55). This multiscalar tool enables a view of individual universities as activity spaces (shaped by their own geographies of power) and as nodes in the wider activity space of a stratified HE sector. Dimensions of Belonging theorises four English universities as sites in relationship with locality, economy and the HE sector, with each university campus a complex territory of power and inequality in which belonging is negotiated.

To capture lived experiences of university spaces, I created a methodology of spatial storytelling; one sensitised to ‘the social as inexorably also spatial’ (Massey 1993:80).  This mobilises the idea of power geometry through combining narrative enquiry and visual mapping, disrupting and revealing spaces between organisational rhetoric/corporate narratives and lived experiences. 

Working with Massey in researching and theorizing HE both energises my analyses of space, place and power and leaves room for complexity and contradiction.  Spatial storytelling reveals ‘spaces between’ leaving ‘openings for something new’ (Massey 2005: 107).

Holly Henderson on de Certeau’s spatial stories

Higher education happens in places. It does not, however, happen in all places equally, and nor does it happen equally in any one place. The complexities of how higher education is understood and accessed in different places, and how places themselves are defined in relation to higher education, are multiple. In a previous project, which looked at students studying for degrees in post-industrial towns without universities, and in a current project, which looks at access to and experiences of higher education on small islands around the UK, I have used concepts from social geographies to try to get to grips with what it means to say that higher education happens (unequally) in places.

I use spatial analysis in three ways. Firstly, using the concept of spatial stories (de Certeau, 1984), I see any place as defined narratively through layers of stories. These stories are the ways that a town or street comes to be known as a ‘kind of’ place. Often, we do not notice that we are telling or hearing them, but they are fundamental to the way we understand our surroundings. Secondly, I extend spatial analysis to the relationship between higher education and place. In the UK, and especially in England, the dominant story is of a particular mobility pattern, in which the 18-year old undergraduate leaves the place of the familial home and moves into university accommodation in a new place. Finally, I ask how individuals narrate their own stories in relation to these first two factors; do they see themselves as belonging to the place they are living in, and has that question of belonging affected their decision to move or stay in place for degree education? Does the place they feel they belong to require that they make a decision between staying without studying higher education, or leaving in order to study? And if the place they are living and studying in does not have the same history of providing higher education as that of a well-known university city or town, does higher education fit straightforwardly with the enduring narratives through which the place is defined? These questions, and others that stem from them, position place at the centre of higher education research.

Fadia Dakka on Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis

Prompted by Ron Barnett’s claim about the ‘ineradicability of rhythm in university time’ (2015), my reflection extends to the nature of time, place and change in contemporary academia. In keeping with the theme of the Symposium, I emphasise how making space in higher education research subsumes both making time and ‘dwelling’ in it. Therefore, rhythm does not simply refer to the pace of activities within the university, but also to its ontological, epistemological and ethical dimensions. Using rhythm as a critical lens and a pedagogical orientation, I have examined the production of time and space in the everyday life of a teaching-intensive university in the West Midlands (2017-18), drawing inspiration from Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis (2004 [1991]) and Critique of Everyday Life (2014 [1947,1961, 1981]). I am particularly interested in the ethical and political implications that can be drawn from rhythmic analyses of ‘felt’ time and space (Wittman, 2017) in contemporary universities. On this basis, I have empirically explored notions of anticipation, dwelling, appropriation and presence within the contemporary university.

The analysis of the participants’ spatio-temporal experiences within the institution has revealed a plurality of academic rhythms that respond to radically different logics. The logic of accumulation, rooted in temporal linearity, exacerbates procedural anticipation, conflating quantification with educational progress. Within this logic, the emphasis on individual productivity and time-management produces an impoverished educational experience centred on constant adaptation and compliance. Spatially, this coincides with the abstract, conceived grid of institutional timetables, schedules and deadlines, the oppressive repetition of which reinforces a ‘pedagogy of domination’ (Middleton, 2014). On the other hand, the poetic logic, that translates Aristotle’s ‘poiesis’ as the human activity of bringing something new into the world, resonates with ideas of transformation, appropriation and dwelling which, in turn, reaffirm the centrality of imagination-relation-anticipation as a necessary condition for meaningful change.

Appropriation, dwelling and (anticipatory) presence have strong implications for how we inhabit the university space. For instance, the participants’ unorthodox production of space documented in the project epitomizes the Lefebvrian act of subversion whereby the perceived and lived spaces produced by the participants effectively disorientate the conceived space of the institution (Lefebvre, 1991 [1974]). The participants’ refusal to inhabit the homogeneous yet fragmented space of the capitalist institution (Stanek, 2011) contrasts with their dwelling in pockets of autonomous, reflective space/time meticulously carved out in their everyday. These forms of spatio-temporal appropriation need to be increasingly performed as collective, liberating acts of quotidian resistance, in order to subvert the capitalist institution from within. 

Sol Gamsu and Michael Donnelly on the relational construction of place

The moment of entry to higher education (HE) sees major patterns of internal migration within the UK. Accessing HE is, as we know, a process that is deeply implicated in the creation and reproduction of inequalities. Binding these basic points together in an analysis of flows of students between home or school and university allows us to show how the geography of education is central to core debates in geography. Like my colleagues, the work of Massey has been central to how I have conceptualized these processes. Place for Massey (2005: 139) forms ‘where the successions of meetings, the accumulation of weavings and encounters build up a history.’ Regional boundaries are formed through the concentration of particular social practices that become symbolically and spatially associated with certain boundaries and reflect and re-create divisions and hierarchies (Cooke, 1985; Paasi, 2011).

These patterns develop over time and are rooted in particular political economies with HE provision largely instigated, or at least largely financed, by the state. The historical and contemporary geographies of local and national state power, the spatial contexts of regional dominance within England, the relative autonomy of the Welsh, Scottish and (Northern) Irish systems of governance in relation to power of the Anglo-British state – HE has been a central field that has been shaped by and in turn reinforced the spatial hierarchies and divisions created through the state. Beyond these structural geographies though, cultural geographies of regional division are also reflected and created by individual mobilities created by daily or termly movements to and from university and home.

Our paper (Gamsu and Donnelly, forthcoming) explores these theoretical issues, using social network analysis (SNA) methods to highlight how recognizable regional and national boundaries are present in students’ mobility patterns. Taking the example of students moving from Northern Ireland to Liverpool we explore how student mobilities reflect historical patterns of migration across the Irish Sea. Using the same SNA approach, we examine the distinctive hierarchies of schools and universities present in school to university movements. We find a cluster of primarily English elite private and state schools and universities. Quantitative SNA methods are complemented by qualitative interviews and mapping techniques to allow us to show how student mobilities at the micro-level create, reflect and reinforce historical spatial boundaries and socio-spatial hierarchies of institutions.

In Conclusion

To draw these distinctive approaches together we briefly revisit the original aims of our symposium, the first of which was to highlight the often unseen ways that space and place structure higher education, and structure it unequally. Inequalities and difference underpin Henderson’s work with spatial stories working to understand ways in which higher education happens (unequally) in places, while Carruthers Thomas frames the university itself as a complex territory of power and inequality. Spatial analyses throw up difference and relationship in Dakka’s uncovering of a plurality of contradictory academic rhythms in the everyday life within a teaching-intensive university and, in analysing flows of students between home/school and university, Gamsu and Donnelly highlight the shaping of HE through local, regional and national differences reflecting historical and contemporary geographies of local and national state power.

The second aim of the symposium was to demonstrate different possibilities for the use of spatial theory in researching higher education, providing new insights into enduring debates. To this end, each of the four papers foreground particular spatial/temporal concepts or processes. By putting place at the centre of her research into island HE Henderson gains new insights into narratives of HE and belonging. Gamsu and Donnelly frame the moment of entry into HE as a pattern of internal migration, using social network analysis to highlight regional and national boundaries in student mobility patterns.  Carruthers Thomas positions gender as a geography of power within the university as means of examining spaces between organisational rhetoric of equality and lived experience. Meanwhile Dakka introduces opposing logics – the logic of accumulation and poetic logic to challenge the privileging of individual productivity over reflective space/time carved out in the everyday.

Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas is a Senior Research Fellow and Athena SWAN Project Manager at Birmingham City University, UK. She specialises in interdisciplinary enquiry into contemporary higher education, inequalities and gender; in spatial methods and analyses. Kate also uses poetry and graphics as methods of disseminating her research in these fields. 

Dr Holly Henderson is an Assistant Professor in Education at the University of Nottingham. She has previously held positions at the University of Birmingham and began her career teaching in Further Education in London. Her research and teaching focus broadly on sociological issues of inequality in education. In particular, she is interested in access to and experiences of post-compulsory and higher education. Her research is theoretically informed by social geographies, which enable analysis of the ways in which place, space and mobilities structure educational possibility. She is also interested in narrative and its relationship to subjectivity.

References

Barnett, R (2015) ‘The time of reason and the ecological university’, in Gibbs, P, Ylijoki, OH, Guzman-Valenzuela, C, Barnett, R (2015) Universities in the Flux of Time London: Routledge pp 121-134
Carruthers Thomas, K (2019) ‘Gender as a Geography of Power’ in Crimmins, G (ed) (2019) Strategies for Resisting Sexism in the Academy London: Palgrave Macmillan

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018) Rethinking Student Belonging in Higher Education: From Bourdieu to Borderlands London: Routledge

Cooke P (1985) ‘Class practices as regional markers: a contribution to labour geography’ in Gregory, D and Urry, J (eds) Social relations and spatial structures London: Macmillan, pp 213-241

De Certeau, M (1984) The practice of everyday life (S Randall trans.) California. University of Berkley Press
Gamsu, S and Donnelly, M (Forthcoming) ‘Social network analysis methods and the geography of education: regional divides and elite circuits in the school to university transition in the UK’ Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie

Lefebvre, H (1991 [1974]) The Production of Space Oxford: Blackwells Publishers Ltd

Lefebvre, H (2004 [1991]) Rhythmanalysis: Space, time and everyday life London: Bloomsbury

Lefebvre, H (2014 [1947,1961,1981]) Critique of Everyday Life London: Verso

Massey, D (1993) ‘Power-Geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place’. In Bird, J, Curtis, B, Putnam, T, Robertson, G and Tuckner, L (eds) Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Chance. Abingdon: Routledge pp 59-69

Massey, D (2005) For space, London: Sage

Middleton, S (2014) Henri Lefebvre and Education. Space, History, Theory New York: Routledge

Paasi, A (2011) ‘The region, identity, and power’ Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 14: 9-16

Stanek, L (2011) Henri Lefebvre on Space. Architecture, Urban Research and the Production of Theory Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press

Wittman, M (2017) Felt Time. The science of how we experience time. Cambridge: MIT Press

The Symposium was held at the 2019 SRHE Research Conference at Celtic Manor. I bet you’re sorry you missed it.


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The potential of automated text analysis for higher education research

by Stijn Daenekindt

Together with Jeroen Huisman, I recently published an article in which we mapped the field of research on higher education. In a previous blogpost we reflected on some key findings, but only briefly mentioned the method we used to analyze the abstracts of 16,928 research articles (which totals to over 2 million words). Obviously we did not read all these texts ourselves. Instead, we applied automated text analysis. In the current blogpost, I will discuss this method to highlight its potential for higher education research.

Automated text analysis holds tremendous potential for research into higher education. This because, higher education institutions—ie our research subjects— ‘live’ in a world that is dominated by the written word. Much of what happens in and around higher education institutions eventually gets documented. Indeed, higher education institutions produce an enormous amount and variety of texts, eg grant proposals, peer reviews and rejection letters, academic articles and books, course descriptions, mission statements, commission reports, evaluations of departments and universities, policy reports, etc. Obviously, higher education researchers are aware of the value of these documents and they have offered a lot of insightful case studies by closely reading such documents. However, for some types of research questions, analysing a small sample of texts just doesn’t do the job. When we want to analyse huge amounts of text data, which are unfeasible for close reading by humans, automated text analysis can help us.

There are various forms of automated text analysis. One of the most popular techniques is topic modelling. This machine learning technique is able to automatically extract clusters of words (ie topics). A topic model analyses patterns of word co-occurrence in documents to reveal latent themes. Two basic principles underlie a topic model. The first is that each document consists of a mixture of topics. So, imagine that we have a topic model that differentiates two topics, then document A could consist of 20% topic 1 and 80% topic 2, while document B might consist of 50% topic 1 and 50% topic 2. The second principle of topic modelling is that every topic is a mixture of words. Imagine that we fit a topic model on every edition of a newspaper over the last ten years. A first possible topic could include words such as ‘goal’, ‘score, ‘match’, ‘competition’ and ‘injury’. A second topic, then, could include words such as ‘stock’, ‘dow_jones, ‘investment, ‘stock_market’ and ‘wall_street’. The model can identify these clusters of words, because they often co-occur in texts. That is, it is far more likely that the word ‘goal’ co-occurs with the word ‘match’ in a document, then it is to co-occur with the word ‘dow_jones’.

Topic models allow us to reveal the structure of large amounts of textual data by identifying topics. Topics are basically a set of words. More formally, topics are expressed as a set of word probabilities. To learn what the latent theme is about we can order all the words in decreasing probability. The two illustrative topics (see previous paragraph) clearly deal with the general themes ‘sports’ and ‘financial investments’. In this way, what topic models do with texts actually closely resembles what exploratory factor analysis does with survey data, ie revealing latent dimensions that structure the data. But how is the model able to find interpretable topics? As David Blei explains, and this may help to get a more intuitive understanding of the method, topic models trade off two goals: (a) the model tries to assign the words of each document to as few topics as possible, and (b) the model tries, in each topic, to assign high probability to as few words as possible. These goals are at odds. For example, if the model allocates all the words of one document to one single topic, then (b) becomes unrealistic. If, on the other hand, every topic consists of just a few words, then (a) becomes unrealistic. It is by trading off both goals that the topic model is able to find interpretable sets of tightly co-occurring words.

Topic models focus on the co-occurrence of words in texts. That is, they model the probability that a word co-occurs with another word anywherein a document. To the model, it does not matter if ‘score’ and ‘match’ are used in the same sentence in a document or if one is used in the beginning of the document while the other one is used at the end. This puts topic modelling in the larger group of ‘bag-of-words approaches’, a group of methods that treat documents as …well … bags of words. Ignoring word order is a way to simplify and reduce the text, which yields various nice statistical properties. On the other hand, this approach may result in the loss of meaning. For example, the sentences ‘I love teaching, but I hate grading papers’ and ‘I hate teaching, but I love grading papers’ obviously have different meanings, but this is ignored by bag-of-words techniques.

So, while bag-of-word techniques are very useful to classify texts and to understand what the texts are about, the results will not tell us much about how topics are discussed. Other methods from the larger set of methods of automated text analysis are better equipped for this. For example, sentiment analysis allows one to analyze opinions, evaluations and emotions. Another method, word embedding, focusses on the context in which a word is embedded. More specifically, the method finds words that share similar contexts. By subsequently inspecting a words’ nearest neighbors — ie which are the words often occurring in the neighborhood of our word of interest — we get an idea of what that word means in the text. These are just a few examples of the wide range of existing methods of automated text analysis and each of them has its pros and cons. Choosing between them ultimately comes down to finding the optimal match between a research question and a specific method.

More collections of electronic text are becoming available every day. These massive collections of texts present massive opportunities for research on higher education, but at the same time they present us with a problem: how can we analyze these? Methods of automated text analysis can help us to understand these large collections of documents. These techniques, however, do not replace humans and close reading. Rather, these methods are, as aptly phrased by Justin Grimmer and Brandon Stewart, ‘best thought of as amplifying and augmenting careful reading and thoughtful analysis’. When using automated text analysis in this way, the opportunities are endless and I hope to see higher education researchers embrace these opportunities (more) in the future.

Stijn Daenekindt is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Ghent University (Department of Sociology). He has a background in sociology and in statistics and has published in various fields of research. Currently, he works at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent. You can find an overview of his work at his Google Scholar page.


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The (future) state of higher education research?

by Stijn Daenekindt and Jeroen Huisman

Parallel to the exponential growth of research on higher education, we see an increasing number of scientific contributions aiming to take stock of our field of research. Such stock-taking activities range from reflective and possibly somewhat impressionistic thoughts of seasoned scholars to in-depth reviews of salient higher education themes. Technological advancements (such as easy electronic access to research output and an increasingly broader set of analytical tools) obviously have made life easier for analysts. We recently embarked upon a project to explore the thematic diversity in the field of research in higher education. The results have recently been published in Higher Education. Our aim was to thematically map the field of research on higher education and to analyse how our field has evolved over time.

For this endeavour, we wanted our analysis to be large-scale. We aimed at including a number of articles that would do justice to the presumed variety in research into higher education. We did not, however, want the scale of our analysis to jeopardize the depth of our analysis. Therefore, we decided not to limit our analyses to, for example, an analysis of citation patterns or of keywords. Finally, to forestall bias (stemming from our personal knowledge about and experience in the field), we applied an inductive approach. These criteria led us to collect 16,928 journal articles on higher education published between 1991 and 2018 and to analyse each article’s abstract by applying topic modelling. Topic modelling is a method of automated text analysis and a follow-up blogpost (also on srheblog.com) will address the method. For now, it suffices to know that topic modelling is a machine learning technique that automatically analyses the co-occurrence of words to detect themes/topics and to find structure in a large collection of text.

In this blogpost, we present a glimpse of our findings and some additional thoughts for further discussion. In our analysis, we differentiate 31 research topics which inductively emerged from the data. For example, we found topics dealing with university ranking and performance, sustainability, substance use of college students, research ethics, etc. The bulk of these research topics were studied at the individual level (16 topics), with far fewer at the organisational (5) and system level (3). A final set of topics related either clearly to disciplines (eg teaching psychology) or to more generic themes (methods, academic writing, ethics). This evidences the richness of research into higher education. Indeed, our field of research certainly is not limited in terms of perspectives and unleashes “the whole shebang” of possible perspectives to gain new insights into higher education.

The existence of different perspectives also comprises potential dangers, however. Studies applying a certain approach on higher education — say, a system-level approach — may suffer from tunnel vision and lose sight of individual- and organization-level aspects of higher education. This may be problematic as processes on the different levels are obviously related to one another. In our analysis we find that studies indeed tend to focus on one level. For example, system-level topics tend to be exclusively combined with other system-level topics. This should not come as a big surprise, but there is potential danger in this and it may hamper the development of a more integrated field of research on higher education.

In our analysis, we also find a certain restraint to combine topics which are located at the same level. For example, topics on teaching practices are very rarely combined with topics on racial and ethnic minorities — even though both topics are situated at the individual level. To us, this was surprising as the combination of ethnicity and educational experiences is a blossoming field in the sociology of education. The fact that topics at the same level are only rarely combined is less understandable then the fact that topics on different levels are rarely combined. We hope that our analysis aids others researchers to identify gaps in the literature and that it motivates them to address these gaps.

A second finding we wish to address here relates to specialisation. Our analysis suggests that there is a trend of specialisation in our field of research. We looked at the number of topics combined in articles and we see that topic diversity declines over time. This is, on the one hand, not that surprising. Back in 1962, Kuhn already argued that the system of modern science encourages researchers towards further specialisation. So, it makes sense that over time, and parallel to the growth of the field of research on higher education, researchers specialise more and demarcate their own topic of expertise. On the other hand, it may be considered a problematic evolution as it can hamper our field of research to develop towards further maturity.

But what should we think of the balance between healthy expansion and specialization, on the one hand, and inefficient fragmentation, on the other? We lean towards evaluating the current state of higher education research as moving towards fragmentation. Other researchers, such as Malcom Tight, Bruce Macfarlane and Sue Clegg have similarly lamented the fragmented nature of our field of research. Our analysis adds to this by showing the trends over time: we observe more specialisation (not necessarily bad), but there are also signs of disintegration over time (not good). Other analyses we are currently carrying out also indicate thematic disintegration and suggest clear methodological boundaries. It looks like many researchers focusing on the same topic remain in their “comfort zone” and use a limited set of methods. For sure, many methodological choices are functional (as in fit-for-purpose), but the lack of diversity is striking. Moreover, we see that many higher education researchers stick to rather traditional techniques (survey, interviews, case studies) and that new methods hardly get picked up in our field. A final observation is that we hardly see methodological debates in our field. In related disciplines we often see healthy methodological discussions that improve the available “toolkit” (for example here). In our field, it appears that scholars shy away from such discussions and it suggests methodological conservatism and/or methodological tunnel vision.

There are still many things to investigate to arrive at a full assessment of the state of the art. One important question is how our field compares to other fields or disciplines. But if we were to accept the idea of fragmentation, it is pertinent to start thinking how to combat this. Reversing this trend is obviously not straightforward. But here are a few ideas. Individual scholars could try to get out of their comfort zone by applying other perspectives to their favourite research object and/or by applying their favourite perspective to new research topics. Related, researchers should be encouraged to use techniques less commonly used in our field and see whether they yield different outcomes (vignettes, experimental designs, network analysis, QCA/fuzzy logic, [auto-]ethnography and – of course – topic models). In addition, journal editors could be more flexible and inclusive in terms of the format of the submissions they consider. For example, they could explicitly welcome submissions in the format of ‘commentaries/ a reply to’. This would stimulate debate and open up the floor for increased cross-fertilisation of research into higher education and, in general, signal the maturity of research into higher education. Finally, there is scope for alternative peer review processes. Currently, only editors (and sometimes peer reviewers seeing the outcome of a peer review process) gain full insight in feedback offered by peers. If we would make these processes more visible to a broader readership – e.g. through open peer review, which still can be double-blind – we would gain much more insight in methodological and theoretical debates, that would definitely support the healthy growth of our field.  

This post is based on the article: Daenekindt, S and Huisman, J (2020) ‘Mapping the scattered field of research on higher education. A correlated topic model of 17,000 articles, 1991–2018’ Higher Education, 1-17. Stijn Daenekindt is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Ghent University (Department of Sociology). SRHE Fellow Jeroen Huisman is a Full Professor at Ghent University (Department of Sociology).