srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Reflecting on a second virtual conference…and looking ahead

by Camille Kandiko Howson

I had the honour of being asked to give some closing remarks at the Society for Research into Higher Education’s Annual Conference this year, alongside Prof Chris Millward and the SRHE team. ‘Mobilities in Higher Education’ was the theme of the Society’s second virtual conference. First some reflections.

Mobilities in higher education refer to the movement of students, faculty, and staff within and across national borders for the purpose of pursuing education and research opportunities. This phenomenon has increased significantly in recent years, driven by factors such as globalization, advances in technology, and the growing demand for a highly skilled workforce.

The impact of mobilities on higher education institutions (HEIs) is complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, mobilities can bring benefits such as diversity and internationalization, enhanced research and teaching capabilities, and increased funding and partnerships. On the other hand, mobilities can also pose challenges such as language and cultural barriers, issues with accreditation and recognition of qualifications, and unequal access and participation.

To address these challenges and maximize the benefits of mobilities, HEIs need to develop strategies and policies that support the mobility of students, faculty, and staff. This includes providing adequate support services, facilitating credit transfer and recognition of qualifications, and promoting intercultural competence and global citizenship.

In conclusion, mobilities in higher education are a crucial aspect of the contemporary global education landscape. HEIs need to carefully consider the opportunities and challenges posed by mobilities and develop strategies to support and enhance this phenomenon.

I’ll pause here, because I did not write the previous four paragraphs. I put the title into the ChatGPT open AI chatbot and it spit out the abstract above instantly. This tool launched during the conference week, exciting many delegates and kicking off worries about the future of assessment and feedback in higher education. The possibilities also reminded me why we like to meet up as a community -virtually and physically – to share what is happening and how we can actively shape the future. The conference theme was widely adopted across presentations, showing our desire to come together to learn, teach and research higher education. Now on to my (human) thoughts.

Last year in summarising the conference I highlighted the following:

  • the focus on belonging
  • the increased internationalisation of the programme
  • lack of research on policy in HE in England

The second and third of these themes seemed strong again, and in addition I would note the dominance of the conference theme of ‘Mobilities’ (irony not lost for an on-line conference!). The pandemic has not stopped academics collaborating across institutions. I also noticed powerful research and focus on researchers in conflict-afflicted regions. There was also increased interest in international students – across UG, PGT and PRG levels. Topics included notions of quality and murmurings of geopolitical influences for international students.

Some other themes of note were researchers drawing on contemporary theories (eg the ‘Ideal Student’ research by Billy Wong and Tiffany Chui), moving beyond a Bordieusian dominance. In this vein, I was pleased to see the strength of research involving liaising with target student groups, as partners, in steering groups and in evaluating research.

In credit to the SRHE team, there were great links between papers in sessions, with many feeling more like symposia than separate research papers. It was also amazing to see so many outputs from SRHE-funded research projects being presented.

Reflecting on some of the specific sessions I was able to attend, in Session 2d I was intrigued by the term ‘studiability’: the ability to complete courses on time and with appropriate workload. This is not addressed much in the UK and it would be interesting to see more on this. Another paper explored the recursive relationship between public policy degrees and the jobs graduates go on to do. There were different histories and trajectories across countries – always fascinating insights from comparative research.

A theme across a number of sessions came out in 3b exploring racialised impostor phenomenon, and the importance of role models for students. Similarly, in 11f the impostor phenomenon and explorations of race and gender arose, alongside the importance of students (and others) in self-identifying themselves versus being categorised in identity research. Session 12a had a focus on care leavers, care experienced students and those with caring responsibilities and the challenges working across institutions and social services. This topic was explored in a number of sessions – which is really important in an under-researched area.

These sessions really highlighted the passion researchers have and the change people want to see from their research. And to mention what I did not see much of, there was a lack of research on climate change and cost of living – maybe these current issues have not caught up with the pace of research, or maybe they do not fit well with current research paradigms.

I also did a word cloud analysis of the programme. Interestingly, ‘Students’ trumps ‘Research’ but ‘Academics’ beat ‘Learning’. Make of that what you will. Closing on the theme of mobilities, the top three cities listed in the programme were London, Manchester and Birmingham, and the second most common country in the programme was Australia.

As was mentioned throughout the conference, many of us missed getting together in person. We hope to manage that in some form next year, continuing to build our connections (physical and virtual). And to finish, I asked the ChatGPT bot for the theme for next conference and it suggested: “Innovation, equity and the future of higher education.” Another one to go in the mix, and further (human) ideas welcome.

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London. Follow Camille on Twitter @cbkandiko


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Research co-creation may be the key to impact

by Finley Lawson

I have been using a design-based implementation approach to co-creating educational research since 2019 at Canterbury Christ Church University, where a cross-institutional team of teachers, researchers, and school senior leaders grapples with where and how to provide opportunities for students to become ‘epistemically insightful’ (equipped with an understanding of the nature of knowledge within disciplines and across disciplinary boundaries). Previous research by the Centre discovered that pressures within schools dampen students’ expressed curiosity in questions about the nature of reality and human personhood and limit the development of their epistemic insight into how science, religion and the wider humanities relate. We developed the Epistemic Insight Initiative to understand the kinds of interventions, tools, and pedagogies that would address the current challenges posed by a compartmentalised curriculum. The challenge we faced was how we could transform whole-school curriculum practice without removing teacher agency. We wanted to ensure that the intervention(s) met the needs and experiences of each school community, without becoming so contextualised that that the findings and approaches couldn’t be generalised to have wider applicability (and ultimately impact).

Part of our role as universities is to produce (and facilitate the production of) knowledge. As the REF puts it we should be “illustrating the benefits research delivers beyond academia, including how it brings tangible changes to aspects of society and life, and the public value it delivers”. Yet within educational research there is a perceived disjunct between the research undertaken by universities (or professional research organisations) and the research used and undertaken by teachers and practitioners in schools and other educational settings. This is highlighted in practitioner-focused literature where evidence-informed practice is often divided between desk based ‘research’ by teachers as separate from ‘academic research’ conducted by universities or research organisations – a model which emphasises the teachers’ role as a consumer rather than creator of research (Nelson and Sharples, 2017). This divide can also border on a dismissal of teachers’ ability to engage with academic research, by insisting for example that we shouldn’t “expect teachers to learn to read research” and our role as researchers should be to create “teacher-friendly research”, with the implication that this is somehow ‘less than’ academic research (Miller et al, 2010). Why is this divide important for SRHE? We are after all focused on higher education so, apart from a call to consider broader dissemination avenues for our research, why does it matter?

My answer is impact. Not solely, or even primarily, in terms of a ‘REF-able’ impact, but because we know that education research has the power to transform students’ experiences of learning and thus broaden their aspirations for higher education. Whilst there is a wealth of literature on the importance of research engagement within initial teacher education and professional development (for example see Hine, 2013; Hagger and Mcintyre, 2000; Murray et al, 2009), the question of how to ensure that the research ecosystem is reciprocal (i.e. that teachers/practitioners are viewed as knowledge producers not just consumers) is still relatively under discussed. A research ecosystem can be seen as analogous to a natural ecosystem where knowledge is transferred between stakeholders in a process that leads to the emergence of systemic change. The current challenge is to ensure that knowledge flows from teachers/practitioners into the system; Pandey and Pattnaik (2015) discuss this within a university and Godfrey and Brown (2019) within a school but there is less research on bringing these “micro-systems” together into a mutually enriching “macro-system” (although research by Connelly et al (2021) in the Irish context is promising). Educational research is about improving the opportunities and outcomes for those in education. For this to happen the change/intervention must continue to be implemented beyond an individual project, and often within the constraints of existing curricula and assessment frameworks. This means that teachers and educators need to be seen not as a resource for ‘local expertise’ but as a crucial part of the research ecosystem.

The establishment and development of a co-creation relationship across a diverse group of primary and secondary schools has taken about three years and has been led by both teachers and school senior leaders. The linchpin for these relationships has been a shared recognition of the challenges identified within the previous research, and an interest in examining how school students can be better equipped to navigate disciplinary and curricula boundaries. This shared goal means that the school and research centre aims are aligned and therefore the core data collected can be standardised across the schools, but with the addition of contextualised questions that address the specific questions of each school. These local questions alongside school-level data for the core questions are shared with the school to support their practice and development plans. As a research centre we analyse data from across the partner schools, with the advantage that, as the research addresses shared concerns, teacher engagement with the research is high. This ensures a 95% plus response rate across multiple data collection points for each cohort. Teachers and school leaders receive training on the philosophical framework underpinning the research and the learning tools but work in collaboration with the centre to develop lessons and curricula that meet the aims of the research. As researchers we act in a quality assurance role during the intervention development, which means that the teachers are at the forefront of shaping the intervention for their students and within their institutional constraints. This close collaboration means that we address two of the key features required in building research in schools (a) “a willingness to embed the research activity into existing school systems” and (b) “access to sources of expertise and advice” (Sanders et al, 2009). In one school this saw a movement from 10 teachers being involved in the initial curriculum design (plus delivery by 7 members of the senior team) to, in the second year, the entire professional development programme being restructured around research-engaged Professional Learning Communities, where staff undertook their own action-research projects.  Now, in the third year, all staff including support staff are in mixed research teams as part of their professional development.

Sharp et al identify a range of benefits to schools in being research engaged, including teacher retention, raised standards and school development. The biggest impact we have noticed, shared by our partner schools, has been the combined impacts on teacher development/practice and their epistemic agency to investigate the educational questions that matter to them, empowered by an ethos that acknowledges that not every intervention will succeed. 80% of participating teachers in one school agreed that it has improved their understanding of disciplinary methods of their own discipline in relation to one they don’t teach. Across the schools, teachers have changed practice within their teaching and have been empowered to signpost students better to links with other subjects. As researchers, we have seen our work embedded in ways and places that we could not have envisioned and seen a genuine interest from schools to engage in research that required the time and expertise of sometimes the whole staff body (particularly in primary schools). This kind of impact with whole year groups, even whole schools, taking part in research-engaged curriculum interventions and redevelopment would not be possible were we using a ‘traditional’ research model that excluded co-creation. The power of co-creation is that these ‘interventions’, if they can still be called that, will continue far beyond the directly funded projects that started them, because those involved have ownership of what is taking place.

Our role now, outside the continued partnership, is to understand how we, in HE, can use our position to amplify practitioner voices, to share this practitioner research widely within the research landscape. We are still looking for the best way to support those teachers to share their research-engaged practice into teacher education directly (through knowledge exchange opportunities with students on QTS programmes) and with educational researchers. In placing practitioner research within the research landscape, we truly recognise its value within the research ecosystem and can share how generalised interventions/findings can be implemented in practice, in schools or other settings every day. We must ensure that our HE practice includes acting as a knowledge broker, supporting, and enabling the production of knowledge by the communities which HE serves and feeding that back into the wider research environment.

Finley Lawson is the Lead Research Fellow for Outreach and Schools’ Partnership, at the LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion) Research Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent. His recently-submitted PhD examines the implication of scientific metaphysics for incarnational theology (Christ, Creation, and The World of Science: Beyond Paradox). He is interested in the dialogue between STEM, Religion, and the wider humanities, and how this can be fostered in school curricula. Finley is the Lead Researcher on the OfS-funded Inspiring Minds Project. The co-created research with schools discussed here has been funded by the Templeton World Charitable Foundation and forms part of the wider Epistemic Insight Initiative. As a centre we would like to thank all the schools who have been actively involved in our research but in particular the staff and students at Astor School, Bromstone Primary School, and Wilmington Grammar School for Girls, who have been case study schools during the project and have been involved in publicly sharing their work and experiences.

Email: finley.lawson@canterbury.ac.uk; Twitter: @FinnatCCCU



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Research with international students: reflecting on an SRHE 2022 symposium

by Jenna Mittelmeier, Sylvie Lomer, and Kalyani Unkule

We were pleased to lead a symposium of international authors at the 2022 SRHE conference, focusing on Research with International Students: Conceptual and Methodological Considerations. This was an early session linked for our upcoming open access book of the same name, which we aim to publish in late 2023. This book, as well as our research resource website which led to it, focuses on developing critical considerations for researchers who focus their work on international students and their experiences in higher education.

Research with international students is a significant and growing area of research about higher education. This coincides with and derives from the exponential growth in international student numbers worldwide, making more visible an interest in their lived academic and social experiences. This is also an area that continues to attract newer researchers, particularly doctoral and student researchers who may have a vested interest in this topic as current or former international students themselves, and practitioner researchers who teach and support international students in their professional roles. Research on this topic is interdisciplinary (as with most other higher education research topics), attracting researchers from disciplines including education, sociology, psychology, human geography, business, and beyond.

Despite this growing interest, we note that there have been limited conversations about developing research with international students as a distinct interdisciplinary subfield. Similarly, there have been limited methodological guidance and considerations for how research might critically approach the wide-ranging topics that are being researched in this area. We have written previously about how these omissions perpetuate problems for this subfield and, ultimately, diminish the potential impact of research.

The most significant problem with research in this area is that it tends to frame international students through a deficit lens, depicting them as lower quality students who ‘lack’ skills necessary for success. This is seen through the large numbers of studies which attempt to ‘fix’ or ‘integrate’ international students into expected norms of study in their host institutions, making assumptions about their perceived lack of skills in areas such as critical thinking, language, or writing. International students are also often depicted through research as only experiencing challenges or problems, frequently described as vulnerable rather than capable, managing, or coping. At the same time, research tends to homogenise international students as a collective group or deduce their diversity only to nationality and macro-level cultures. These are among other conceptual concerns we have previously highlighted, which are rooted in limited criticality and nuance through research.

With these issues in mind, our aim in the symposium, as well as through our website and book, was to start a conversation about how research with international students might be designed better, more critically, and more ethically. In particular, we considered the nexus between conceptual criticality and practical methodological designs which can reposition and encourage new discourses about international students. Each of the four presentations highlighted how, within the book, we encourage researchers to develop stronger research designs in the future.

The first paper in the symposium was by Kalyani Unkule, whose presentation represented chapters in our upcoming book where authors re-conceptualise an idea or term that is often taken for granted in research with international students. Here, we argue for the ways that certain ideas within this research topic are often assumed to have a shared, collective meaning, which actually might be more nuanced or complex. Kalyani reflected on the meaning of the word ‘global’ and the tendency for binaries of local and global to limit our thinking in research and practice about international higher education. This is an important critique about the ways that ‘home’ and ‘international’ are seen as opposing binaries in research with international students, ultimately limiting the conceptual nuance of where students’ experiences and histories might intersect these two areas and be more ‘glocal’ in nature.

The second paper was by Tang Heng, whose presentation represented chapters which highlight problematic discourses that shape and frame research with international students. Her chapter focuses on stereotyping and how stereotypes about international students, often through methodological nationalism, are endemic in the ways that research is developed and designed. Tang focused particularly on how theoretical frameworks can perpetuate or relate to stereotyping, but in the book we also focus on other problematic threads through research on this topic: othering, dehumanisation, coloniality, and deficit narratives, among others. This highlights the issues that hold the research subfield back and represent areas for more critical development and reflection in future research.

This was followed by a paper from Vijay Ramjattan, whose presentation represented chapters in the book which show how common stereotypes and discourses about international students might be shifted away from individual deficiencies towards recognition of structural inequalities. Vijay’s presentation focused on deficit framings of language, where international students are often positioned as ‘lacking’ linguistic skills. However, this might be shifted instead to focus on structural oppression of multilingualism and multiple Englishes within institutions. This gives us one example of how researchers can conceptually move away from issues like biases, stereotyping, and deficit narratives by centring the structural roots that cause them.

Finally, the presentation by Samridhi Gupta and Thuy-Anh Nguyen shifted the focus towards practical research designs, demonstrating the section in our book which focuses on how research design choices can purposefully resist existing problems in knowledge creation with (rather than on or about) international students. Their presentation focused on co-designing research with international students, giving practical examples of two research methods which can be designed with students as partners. This demonstrates the ways that methodological choices are fundamentally intertwined with conceptual criticality, highlighting how the method we choose can resist and deconstruct the existing problems set out by previous presenters.

Together, our symposium aimed to open up new reflections and considerations for the historical trajectory of research with international students, considering new ways forward for the research subfield. Both the symposium and our upcoming book aims not to give answers for how to move that path forward, though, but rather to open up questions for individual researchers and the research community more broadly about where we might like to go from here. We ask, then: what should the epistemic space of research with international students look like?

More research resources on this topic can be found at https://researchintlstudents.com/. ‘Research with international students: Critical conceptual and methodological considerations’ will be published open access by Routledge, aiming for late 2023.

Jenna Mittelmeier is Senior Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focuses on the experiences and treatment of international students within the broader internationalisation of higher education.

Sylvie Lomer is Senior Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedagogy and policy enactment. 

Kalyani Unkule is Associate Professor at OP Jindal Global University in India. Her research complements her practice in intercultural dialogue and impact-driven projects in higher education internationalisation and spiritual learning.


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Do we want social science, or social science-fiction?

By Paul Temple

Because a lot of its research work involves schools and school-age children, research training at the Institute of Education tends to emphasise issues around confidentiality and anonymity in presenting research findings. Anonymity usually happens anyway in large-scale studies with hundreds or thousands of respondents – the National Student Survey, for example – because the point is to get a picture of what a category of people think, rather than the views of particular individuals. Those of us working on higher education research, however, are often in the position of asking relatively small numbers of informants about their professional views – that is, about the knowledge for which their employer is paying them, unrelated to their private lives. A university finance director could of course decline to be interviewed, but it’s hard to see why there should be a confidentiality problem about their explanation of the university’s resource allocation methodology.

When one of my PhD students was planning a study of the closure of the Ripon campus of York St John University, she assumed everything would have to be anonymised. But why?, I asked her. Yes, the closure was controversial, but that’s now history. Your study, I said, will have far more value if you contextualise it in the real-life settings of York and Ripon; just be sure that your respondents know that what they say will be on the record. But will they talk to me on that basis, she wondered: your problem, I said (correctly, as it turned out), will be getting them to shut up when you want to end the interview. Her thesis was fine, and the then YSJ VC seemed pleased that the institution was considered to be an interesting research subject.

The book by John Brennan et al, The University in its Place (2018), which provides four case studies of anonymised UK universities, took me back to these discussions. Brennan and his co-authors actually provide enough context to make it easy to work out the institutional identities: how many Scottish east coast cities have two universities, one of which (“Aspirational U”) obtained university status in 1994 and has about 5000 students? – no Googling, please. But it is the conceptual reason for anonymization that the authors put forward, aside from wanting “to respect the confidentiality of those to whom we talked” about the “sensitive” matter of university-regional relationships (p48), that I find fascinating. Anonymity was apparently necessary because “it is simply not possible to capture all the day-to-day complexity and uncertainty associated with higher education in practice and in place … [the study] necessarily involves selection, both intended and unintended … [so we cannot] present a complete and fully articulated representation either of particular institutions or places” (p48).

But making a selection is the basis not merely for all social science but for all research, of any kind. Show me a piece of research that isn’t the result of making a selection from the infinite variety of natural and social phenomena that initially confronted the researcher. Having then made a selection, no social scientific study will “capture all the day-to-day complexity” of an organisation, or of anything else. This is simply a logical impossibility, as there will always be more facts to be collected, more detail to be recorded, more details of details to be examined – as surely every PhD supervisor knows: “You’ve done enough, just write the thing up!”. What a researcher must do is focus on the chosen detail and (with an explanation) ignore the rest: you want the finance director to tell you about the resource allocation model, not about “the day-to-day complexity” of managing cash flow. In the cases of Brennan et al, no reasonable person would expect a study of university-regional relationships to include “a complete … representation” of, say, the catering arrangements in a particular institution, any more than an account of university catering would be expected to consider the university’s relations with regional public bodies.

I think that removing through anonymisation the context in which the research subject is embedded reduces the quality of understanding: it makes it harder for the reader to create their own view about what the research is saying – they have to go along with what the researchers say. Actually, anonymisation may mislead the reader if they guess wrong about the identity of the subject: “Funny, this doesn’t sound like Aberdeen!”.

It seems to me that Americans take a much more robust view about these matters than we do in Britain: maybe it’s a result of the First Amendment. George Keller’s ground-breaking book on university planning, Academic Strategy (1983), carried weight because he was describing successes and failures by named individuals in named universities. In the same tradition, Mark Kretovics (2020) doesn’t pull his punches, describing named leadership successes and failures (the failures are the best bits), down to the juicy details of expenses scandals. These accounts make you almost feel as if you’re in the room, not wondering if you’ve even got the right city.

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

References

Brennan, J., Cochrane, A., Lebeau, Y. and Williams, R. (2018). The University in its Place: Social and cultural perspectives on the regional role of universiites. Dordrecht: Springer.

Keller, G. (1983). Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Kretovics, M. (2020). Understanding Power and Leadership in Higher Education: Tools for Institutional Change. New York: Routledge.


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

by Richard Davies

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

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

Think of it as a short paper, not an abstract

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

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

Reviewer’s judgement

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

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

Checking against the criteria

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

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

Positive news

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

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

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


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

by Janja Komljenovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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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/