The Society for Research into Higher Education

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What are the experiences of deaf academics working in UK HEIs?

By Dai O’Brien


This year, there have been several media reports on Kate Sang’s work on the effects of disability on academic careers, with many picking up on the idea that being a disabled academic is akin to working two jobs at once – the academic job you are paid for, and the extra time and effort of fighting for the support and access provisions you need to actually perform that job (see, for example, Pain 2017).

Sang points out that there has been very little work on the experiences of disabled academics working in the UK, but there has been even less focusing specifically on the experiences of signing deaf academics. One of the earliest was published by Jones and Pullen in 1992. Others include Trowler and Turner (2002), O’Brien and Emery (2014), De Meulder (2017), and Gulliver (2017). There are others which look at the experiences of non-signing deaf academics, or at deaf students, but these are not related to the main focus of this research. The project I am currently running, thanks to the award of the SRHE Newer Researchers prize this year, attempts to explore the experiences of signing deaf academics in the UK through gathering data on both how they navigate the physical space of their institution, and also how they navigate the social relations and networks which exist both within and between different HEIs in the UK and overseas.

The research is using a combination of two methods. Firstly, walk-through interviews in deaf academics’ places of work, to see how they navigate and relate to the physical spaces and places in which they work on a day-to-day basis. Secondly, participatory mapping interviews will be used to create maps which show the social networks and spaces of collaboration/communication they have both within and outside their own HEI. So far, a number of walk-through interviews have been conducted around the UK, with the mapping interviews to take place in the New Year. A number of interesting themes have already arisen from the data gathered so far.

Signing deaf academics face a number of additional challenges in their professional lives in HEIs. One of the most obvious is that of communication. They use a language which is not only a minority language, but one which has been actively oppressed for the last 130 years. Communication with other staff and students who cannot sign relies on the work of BSL/English interpreters, the booking of whom often becomes part of the ‘second job’ mentioned by Sang, above. Use of sign language brings with it a host of additional differences compared to the experience of academics using a spoken language. As a visual language, it can be very difficult to hold a private conversation anywhere you could be overlooked. On the other hand, as a minority language, it is also perfectly possible to hold a private conversation in clear sight, if no-one else around understands the language. Use of sign language can also mean physically navigating the space of the HEI in a different way to that of hearing people, for example, if a corridor is too narrow to pass along two abreast, signing people cannot easily hold a conversation when walking together. On the other hand, sign language is more easily transmitted across large distances than speech, so it becomes possible to hold conversations on very different spatial scales.

Differences in communication can also lead to different feelings of belonging, or not belonging, to a team, department, or HEI as a whole. Without regular, unproblematic communication with their hearing, non-signing peers in their home HEI, it is possible that signing deaf academics form much stronger bonds, both personal and professional, with their signing deaf peers who work at other HEIs, either elsewhere in the UK, or internationally. If this is the case, then the concept of what is academic space, and what sort of area it covers, can be very different for a signing deaf academic compared to their hearing peers, or to their managers’ expectations. Navigating these academic spaces can become very complex. Navigating the space of their home HEI can become almost entirely virtual, in which most communication is done via email or over the phone using interpreters (in contrast to hearing academics, whose everyday interactions in their home HEI are more dependent on physical co-presence and face to face interaction), whereas national and international meetings with signing deaf peers and mentors are much more likely to be in shared physical space, due to the importance of face-to-face interaction when using a visual-spatial mode of language.

These are just some of the themes which have come from my research so far. The ultimate aim of the project is to be able to publish some guidelines for HEIs which will offer some advice on how to ensure that signing deaf academics are valued (and are made to feel valued) and are included at both personal and institutional level within their home HEI.

Dr Dai O’Brien is a Lecturer in BSL and Deaf Studies in the School of Languages and Linguistics, York St John University. 


De Meulder, M. (2017) The emergence of a Deaf academic professional class during the British Deaf resurgence. In Kusters, A., De Mulder, M., and O’Brien, D. (Eds) Innovations in Deaf Studies: the role of deaf scholars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gulliver, M. (2017) Seeking Lefebvre’s vécu in a ‘Deaf Space’ classroom. In Ares, N., Buendía, E., and Helfenbein, R. (Eds) Deterritorializing/reterritorializing: critical geography of educational reforms. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Jones, L., & Pullen, G. (1992). Cultural differences: Deaf and hearing researchers working together. Disability, Handicap & Society, 7, 189-196.

O’Brien, D., and Emery, S.D. (2014) The role of the intellectual in minority group studies: reflections on Deaf Studies in social and political contexts. Qualitative Inquiry 20(1) 27-36.

Pain, E. (2017) Survey highlights the challenges disabled academics face—and what can be done to address them. Science May 15 2017 downloaded from Last accessed 21.11.17

Trowler, P. R., & Turner, G. H. (2002). Exploring the hermeneutic foundation of university life: Deaf academics in a hybrid “community of practice.” Higher Education, 43, 227-256.

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Exploring a ‘Sense of Belonging’ and Why It Matters in Higher Education

By Gill Mills and Caroline Jones

This was the first time we had attended an SRHE Event: we were optimistic and excited to experience and develop new knowledge aligned to the subject area of, ‘A sense of belonging within Higher Education’ and we were not disappointed. The SRHE venue provided an intimate but not intimidating environment where we were exposed to speakers covering a range of different elements that linked into the common theme. There was initial insight into the issues of admissions; clearing and contextual data from research delivered by Mansor Rezaian, from the Queen Mary University, then a qualitative exploration of non-traditional students’ journey into an elite university from Debbi Stanistreet of the University of Liverpool. Following these opening speakers there were opportunities for participant questions and answers and whilst we did not pose questions we found great value in listening to the elaborate and interesting discussions that took place. This part of the event created an academic community feel with professionals from across institutions, faculties and disciplines debating contextual dilemmas and experiences.

The latter part of the day Continue reading

Holly Henderson

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Possible selves: One concept, many conversations

By Holly Henderson

One of my favourite things to do is to hear passionate people in dialogue about their research. At the second joint network SRHE event on possible selves earlier this month, it was impossible not to be excited by the quality of this dialogue. The event’s joint hosting by the Post-Compulsory Education and Access and Widening Participation networks set the tone for collaboration across boundaries; speakers included early career researchers and established professors, from the UK and abroad, and from sociological and psychological disciplinary perspectives[1]. Perhaps it is unusual to have a series of events on a single concept, like the possible selves concept[2]. But to see these events as singular in focus would be to misunderstand the complexities of educational research. In fact, thinking about this particular concept has enabled us to bring out the concept’s relationship to discussions of methodological approaches, data analysis, diverse research contexts within the field of Higher Education Research, and different disciplinary perspectives.

The possible selves concept seems, at first glance, disarmingly simple. It accords with an instinctive understanding of the future and its influence on the present, particularly in educational contexts. The concept suggests that we have multiple imagined future selves, which influence and structure our behaviour in the present. In educational terms, the most straightforward way of seeing this is to think about the ways that courses of study, chosen in the present, are seen to lead towards a future goal, whether that is course completion, further study or a career. Look further into the literature Continue reading

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Fear and Loathing in the Business School

By Jacqueline Aldridge

We all enjoy grumbling about the business schools in our institutions.  How their multi-million pound buildings swallow resources. How students are lured from other disciplines with shallow promises of employability. How the serious financial clout of business schools allows them to trample less worldly academic departments.

But what about the intellectual place of the academics and academic disciplines housed within their shiny and expensive walls? My doctoral research examines business schools as university departments that are staffed by conventionally-trained career academics, and considers them in this light. I suggest that there are at least three good reasons why we might pity the poor business school and the academics who work within them.

Business is a dirty word

The University does not have a happy relationship with ‘business’ and this antipathy has long roots.  Continue reading

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The number of graduates in non-graduate jobs is still high

By Heike Behle

A recent IER report prepared for HEFCE and SRHE shows that the proportion of employed graduates working in non-graduate jobs during their first year after graduation has remained high. Fifteen months after graduation, approximately 36 per cent of all employed graduates from three year courses and 30 per cent of all employed graduates from four year courses were still working in non-graduate jobs, defined as jobs for which a graduate level education is inappropriate.

The definition and empirical classification of occupations in non-graduate or graduate jobs is contested and there is a plethora of different ways to measure the amount of graduates in non-graduate jobs. This report uses a definition from Elias and Purcell (2004 )[1], based on the type of work typically performed in a job and the extent to which such work makes use of the skills and knowledge gained through higher education. This classification varies from that of the recent White Paper [2]  where occupations of the first three major SOC groups are identified as professional jobs.

new-picture-1The report compares the early pathways of graduates from two leaving cohorts: those who graduated in 1999 (‘class of 1999’) and those who graduated from three year courses in 2009 and from four year courses in 2010 (‘class of 2009/2010’) as illustrated in the graph opposite.

On average, all graduates in both cohorts were employed for approximately ten months, in total. However, the proportion of graduates from the class of 2009/2010 who never entered employment during the first fifteen months after graduation was between 26 per cent and 29 per cent, nearly twice the proportion, compared to those who graduated ten years earlier (class of 1999). One explanation could be that many graduates enter further study in order to avoid unemployment or employment in non-graduate jobs.

Age, social background, specific subjects, type of HEI and the class of degree were significant influences in both cohorts while differences existed with regards to gender, mobility and work experience. In line with other current reports (the Shadbolt Review of Computer Sciences degree accreditation and graduate employability, the Wakeham Review of STEM degree provision and graduate employability, and HEFCE analysis of differential outcomes of graduates) , the increasing relevance of work experience was highlighted. For the class of 1999 work experiences did not have a significant impact on the likelihood to work in a graduate job. However, this was the case for those who graduated ten years later.

This was also reflected in a brief qualitative research study in which many graduates reported that employers expected them to have work experience but were not prepared to offer opportunities for graduates. Also, many graduates reported the negative impact of being stuck in non-graduate roles which they defined as a vicious circle, in which their current employment had implications for their self-confidence, which might lead to a degrading of skills and knowledge. As a result, their capacity to leave the non-graduate job and find employment in a graduate position might be limited.

[1] Elias, P. and Purcell, K. (2004) SOC (HE): A classification of occupations for studying the graduate labour market.

[2] BIS (2016) Higher education: success as a knowledge economy: teaching excellence, social mobility, and student choice. Can be downloaded here:

Heike Behle is a Research Fellow at the Warwick Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick ( Heike is also a co-convenor of the SRHE’s Employability, Enterprise and Work-based Learning Network

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The Annual Conference of the German Association for HE Research

By Susi Poli

It was by chance that I sent my application for a sponsored delegate place at the Annual Conference of the German Association for Higher Education Research (GfHF), held in Munich in April. SRHE had called for a student/early career researcher, fully sponsored by GfHF, to engage in their panel discussion at the pre-conference on making the connection between HE research and practice. Surprisingly or not, I was shortlisted and I got the place!

Before leaving for the conference I became aware that there is a distinction to be made between ‘early stage researcher’ as defined by the EU, and ‘early career researcher’ (ECR) based on UK terminology. The first refers to the European Commission’s Charter for Researchers, which clearly states the professional status of the researcher from the early stage, ie from the doctoral phase onwards. In contrast the UK considers its doctoral candidates as ‘students’ and doesn’t afford them professional status (Hancock et al, 2015). However, I was happy to be seen as an early career/stage ‘something’ or researcher, appreciated even more as a woman and an experienced/mature (or both) professional in her mid-40s.

The leading questions in preparation for the panel discussion were: Continue reading