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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Reimagining higher education in the post-pandemic world

by Anastasia Olga Tzirides, Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope

Anastasia Olga Tzirides
Mary Kalantzis

Bill Cope

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. This statement can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic led higher education institutions to rethink the way that instruction can occur under the newly established circumstances. Many universities in the US and around the world have resumed instruction in hybrid format that is based to face-to-face instruction, coupled with online portions. In the case both of fully remote and hybrid learning, the gold-standard for learning remains traditional face-to-face, where online is modelled on the pedagogical processes and instructional artefacts of face-to-face. In this post, we are presenting the main characteristics of a hybrid format in a big US Mid-Western University and we are providing five ways that could transform it to a completely online format. Not only would this address the current needs set by the COVID-19 crisis; it would also change the concept of higher education by addressing in new ways the needs and the characteristics of contemporary students.

In the selected case of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, given that the health safety circumstances would allow it, the hybrid format of instruction was chosen, considering the significant value of the residential experience for the growth and development of undergraduate students, the training and advancement of graduate students and the production of new knowledge and research.

For the modified on-campus delivery format, the administrators of this institution had to rethink classroom capacities, to accommodate less than 50 students, and better utilisation of the spaces in order to aim for safe instruction with social distancing. They also had to re-evaluate time schedules, by taking advantage of irregular times (eg Friday evenings) and days (eg Saturdays), as well as passing periods, between the start and the end of classes. Online sections were an inevitable addition to the courses, as most lectures would be delivered online and the discussion parts were aimed to be face-to-face. Moreover, the administrators re-structured the calendar of the 2020-2021 academic year, ending the semester remotely to minimize the returns of students on campus after break periods. In the area of course development, instructors were provided with professional development training in order to develop new course modalities deploying different techniques and approaches to online education.

As it can be understood, this is an example where the institution selected to use online education as supplementary to face-to-face by trying to migrate their traditional practices online without really taking advantage of the possibilities that online education can offer. We argue that online can be completely different, and with the right tools, potentially superior to in-person teaching. To reap the benefits of online learning, we need to abandon the current generation educational technologies—systems and processes that mostly do little more than reverse-engineer traditional classrooms. At the University of Illinois, we’ve been researching the transformation of in-person learning and developing and testing online learning solutions (Montebello et al, 2018;  Cope, Kalantzis and Searsmith, 2020)

Here are five reasons why we choose to teach online and why we would never choose to teach in-person again.

1. Scale Up Higher Education and Scale Down Its Costs

In order to make higher education available to all, even workers and people with domestic caring responsibilities, we need to reduce the costs of teaching and learning, by providing access to it without the necessity for the student to leave their communities and homes. This can only be achieved with online education as a thoroughly renovated version of distance learning, which would be affordable to people from all social and economic conditions.

2. Develop Pedagogies of Social Knowledge and Collaborative Intelligence

In-person instruction is considered so valuable by its supporters, due to the element of human interaction. Nevertheless, in lecture theatres we hardly ever see interaction among students and even in classroom discussions, only one person is talking, and the rest have to listen. On the other side, with online learning and specifically with simple video lectures that contain prompts, students can engage in synchronous or asynchronous interactions below the videos in the platform used. Therefore, every student can comment and be part of the classroom discussion in this format. Moreover, learning analytics can track every learner’s engagement and this format is simply a far superior communication and pedagogical architecture than traditional in-person classroom interactions.

3. Create Pedagogies of Intense Engagement

In traditional models, learners are knowledge consumers and they demonstrate the acquired knowledge though end-of-course, summative assessments. In online learning architectures, it is possible to position learners as knowledge producers and co-contributors to knowledge communities. A simple way to do this is to have students research and make posts into the class activity stream that exemplify themes prompted by instructors. Another is to create peer-reviewed projects, where interim feedback in the knowledge production process comes from multiple perspectives: peer, instructor and machine feedback. Then projects can be published and shared by the instructor to the community as collective knowledge. Embedded, on-the-fly formative assessments can track community engagement and personal progress (Haniya et al, 2020). An example: in one of our recent 8-week courses with 54 students, using our CGScholar platform there were 14,500 pieces of actionable feedback on 3.3m datapoints, giving students and instructors a far richer and more reliable picture of learning than ever possible with a traditional test.

4. Focus on Higher Order Thinking

In the current world, the digital devices that we use everyday function as cognitive prostheses. They remember things for us, and they can provide us with a vast amount of knowledge that we don’t have to remember. So, the foundational objectives of education change. In reality, learning should be about careful navigation of at-hand knowledge resources and appropriate application of machine-supported procedures. Thus, the goal of education should be higher order thinking, including critical, creative and design thinking. Online environments can uniquely achieve this, by leveraging collaborative knowledge processes. Instead of individual minds, the social mind is acknowledged in the provenance of knowledge and the collaborative contributions of peers in the learning process. Artificial intelligence can track and offer suggestions on the basis of what we term “complex epistemic performance”. Machine learning works synergistically with human learning.

5. Lifelong and Lifewide Learning

Online learning, by contrast to the monastic origins of the residential experience of university and college education, can be embedded in the real world. It can be continuous, lasting for as long as life and stretching as wide as social and personal needs. The students in our online courses are in the world, contributing as partners in our knowledge communities and testing live in real-world contexts, the new things they have learned in our classes.

We argue that online instruction can be completely different, and with the right tools, it can potentially be superior to in-person teaching. The real problem is that none of the commercial or open source learning management systems can do what we have just outlined (check here for a comparison of the most popular learning management systems). Thus, in this time of crisis, we must seize the day and imagine a different future for higher education, by abandoning the back-to-the-future learning management systems and looking for or designing alternatives that address the future of education. With focused investment in people and technology we can renew and revitalize our pedagogical and social values. If nothing else, this crisis should lead to that.

Anastasia-Olga (Olnancy) Tzirides is a PhD candidate in the Learning Design and Leadership Program at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on exploring the potential of using digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence combined with a multimodal and translanguaging approach to language learning. Currently, she is as a teaching assistant for online graduate courses in the Learning Design and Leadership Program at the College of Education. In the past, she has worked as a graduate assistant designing online courses for the International Studies Program at the College of Education and as an instructor at the Modern Greek Studies program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Anastasia-Olga holds a master’s degree in “Teaching of Multilingualism and Linguistic Policies: Language and Culture Dissemination in Multilingual Settings” from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and Université du Maine, France, and a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.  

 Mary Kalantzis is a Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She was from 2006 to 2016 Dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Before this, she was Dean of the Faculty of Education, Language and Community Services at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, and President of the Australian Council of Deans of Education. With Bill Cope, she has co-authored or co-edited: New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education, Cambridge University Press, 2008 (2nd edition, 2012); Ubiquitous Learning, University of Illinois Press, 2009; Towards a Semantic Web: Connecting Knowledge in Academic Research, Elsevier, 2009; Literacies, Cambridge University Press 2012 (2nd edition, 2016); A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies, Palgrave, 2016; and e-Learning Ecologies, Routledge, 2017.

Bill Cope is a Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include theories and practices of pedagogy, cultural and linguistic diversity, and new technologies of representation and communication. His and Mary Kalantzis’ recent research has focused on the development of digital writing and assessment technologies, with the support of a number of major grants from the US Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation. The result has been the CGScholar multimodal writing and assessment environment.

Ian Mc Nay


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SRHE News Quiz 2020

Ian McNay, bereft at the news that the SRHE Cryptic Crossword was no more, decided to invent an alternative challenge for the festive season. Here, with suitably global reach, is the result – the SRHE News Quiz 2020. Each answer is the name of a university. We could have called it University Challenge, but that might have been misleading – University Challenge is a TV programme. However we do recognise that the name may still be misleading. This is a quiz in SRHE News (and Blog), but it is not a news quiz. The News Quiz is a radio programme. This isn’t a radio programme (or a TV programme), and it’s not about news. But it is a quiz. We hope that’s cleared things up.

The answers will appear in the January issue of SRHE News, so you have just a couple of weeks to find all 20. If you email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk with the answers before 7 January we’ll mention your name in the January issue.  

  1. Was it locked down or up for Covid?
  2. The Queen’s prison?
  3. NOT an historically black university
  4. The original European saucy source
  5. Generally sunk by Thatcher
  6. A Great Easterner in West London
  7. Where Polly sat among the Ashes
  8. Martin? Or Midlands triangle?
  9. Gillian’s Celtic clan in the new world
  10. Could be a mere rake
  11. Helen’s lover with many numbers
  12. 1952 Olympics
  13. Another aristocrat, but not ‘of Edinburgh’
  14. Shakespeare’s kingmaker
  15. Don Quixote’s home region
  16. Now Ghana but it seems to have moved
  17. In England and Canada, battling in vain
  18. Italian wisdom
  19. Do its graduands wear cowboy hats?
  20. An objective Latin female?
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On not wasting a good crisis

by Rob Cuthbert

Editorial from SRHE News Issue 41 (July 2020)

It seems that in English higher education, some people have been determined not to waste the Covid19 crisis, either as an opportunity or as a threat. How well have they done? Consider the efforts of the Office for Students, Universities UK, and the government in England.

The Office for Students

The OfS were quick off the mark with their ‘Consultation on the integrity and stability of the English HE system’. They had not hitherto seemed too concerned about integrity and stability, given the government’s advertised willingness to let universities close as a consequence of the market established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA). Nevertheless the OfS drafted proposals to prevent “any form of conduct which, in the view of the OfS, could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector.”

The proposals, aimed at controlling the behaviour of HE institutions, brought an instant storm of criticism. They were condemned as draconian, excessively broad, vague and retrospective. OfS Chair Michael Barber claimed to the House of Commons Select Committee that they were an appeal to universities’ ‘generosity of spirit’, but no-one was convinced. Indeed, in terms of the original proposals there did seem to be breaches of good conduct, but they were mostly by Government, the media and the OfS itself, not by HE institutions.

As governments of different parties introduced progressively higher fees, students taking out loans for fees and living expenses began to graduate and begin their careers with large debts. Did this “have a material negative effect on the interests of students”? Quality assurance shows that the overwhelming majority of HE provision has been and remains satisfactory or better; government has encouraged new ‘alternative providers’, but a significant number of these new entrants provided inappropriate courses of dubious quality. Did these market initiatives destabilise the HE system and jeopardise its integrity and quality?

Recent HE ministers have repeatedly referred to ‘low quality courses’. Jo Johnson called for: “… the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” (The honourable exception to this ministerial failure is Chris Skidmore, who tweeted on 16 April 2020: “Might invent Skidmore’s law- anyone who mentions low quality/value in HE without specific reference to a real institution/course are themselves creating low quality/value arguments which should therefore be discounted.”) Most mainstream media reinforced the ‘low quality courses’ narrative, with The Times prominent: an egregious example by Ross Bryant, ‘Underperforming universities should be allowed to fail’, on 27 April 2020;  Alice Thomson on 31 March 2020: “Institutions panicking about finances have to shift their focus away from expansion and back to gold-standard teaching”. Camilla Turner in The Daily Telegraph on 10 May 2020 fuelled the narrative: ‘’Mickey Mouse’ degrees could be weeded out as universities face financial crisis”. Some would say the narrative has “a material negative effect on the interests of students”, whose academic credentials are called into question, and jeopardises the “stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”.  It might even involve “Making false or misleading statements (including comparative claims) about one or more higher education providers with a view to discouraging students (whether or not successfully) to accept offers from, or register with, those higher education providers.”

The Office for Students itself has still not completed its Register of Providers. OfS said in February 2020 the 2019-2020 Register was still incomplete “so if a provider is not registered at the moment, no conclusions should be drawn about it based upon that fact.” Could that “reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”? At government insistence the OfS has promoted the Teaching Excellence Framework and its advantages for students, presumably on the grounds that it helped their interests. More recently it postponed the next TEF indefinitely, even though there are dramatic changes to the quality of the student experience everywhere – up-to-date information about Teaching Excellence matters as never before. Dropping the TEF at this stage “could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector” – unless TEF never had anything to do with teaching quality in the first place, in which case pursuing it had already damaged the stability and integrity of the system.

The OfS proposals said it was inappropriate for anyone to be “Reacting to a major crisis or emergency affecting the UK in ways which may take advantage of behavioural biases”. However it reacted to the crisis by proposing obligations on individual behaviour, obligations to predict or anticipate the behaviour of others, and sanctions if even in retrospect a pattern of behaviour by others emerges which could not have been predicted. This was indeed to “take advantage of behavioural biases” which might induce people to tolerate, in an emergency, measures which would be unthinkable under normal circumstances. In the event the OfS withdrew and confined itself to outlawing ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, and perhaps unconditional offers more widely. By overreaching itself, OfS seemed to have wasted the crisis.

Universities UK

Universities UK also moved early, in April 2020 making proposals to government for a £2billion crisis package to support universities through the pandemic and beyond. UUK said: “Without government support some universities would face financial failure, others would come close to financial failure and be forced to reduce provision. Some will be in places where they are the only local higher education provider with damaging impact on the local community and economy. Many of those institutions most affected have higher levels of external borrowing, lower levels of cash reserves, and higher proportions of BAME students.” Former UCAS head Mary Curnock Cook blogged for HEPI on 15 April 2020 about ‘A student-centric bailout for the universities’, with a piercing critique of the soft spots and gaps in the UUK proposals. David Kernohan crunched numbers on the UUK proposals in his blog for Wonkheon 10 April 2020. He noted that doubling research funding would do little for many universities, and that the student number proposals would still enable selective universities to create major problems for those lower down the pecking order.

The DfE website reported on 4 May 2020 that “Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced a package of measures to protect students and universities, including temporary student number controls, £2.6bn of forecast tuition fee payments for universities being bought forward and an enhanced Clearing system. … to stabilise admissions, support students and allow universities to access financial support from the Government where it is necessary.” The DfE headline was ‘Universities need our help – we must maintain education’s jewel in the crown’, echoing a 2012 Russell Group publication, but the measures fell well short of the UUK proposals. This made clear the potentially devastating effects on many universities outside the Russell Group, with a probable shortfall in student numbers. It was hard to credit that UUK had suggested student number controls in its own proposals, and even harder to believe that all universities had agreed to the UUK’s skewed package in the first place. Chris Cook wrote a long and careful analysis of the perilous situation facing UK universities for TortoiseMedia  on 26 May 2020.

Here was Wonkhe’s immediate assessment. David Kernohan of Wonkhe  took a look at ‘Clearing Plus’, which was being presented as (but was not) a way for applicants to trade up to a ‘better class of university’. Nick Hillman of HEPI said: ” While we need time to digest the finer details, this seems like a carefully-calibrated package that delivers much of what the higher education sector called for without over-exposing taxpayers.” Well, he probably would, wouldn’t he, as a former special adviser to David Willetts. Former minister Jo Johnson, popping up as President’s Professorial Fellow at King’s College London, said that after the pandemic: “The Office for Students will need to design and put in place a multi-billion pound stabilisation fund to prevent the collapse of scores of vulnerable English universities. Access to this fund should be subject to strict non-negotiable conditions, including the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” Shadow Minister Emma Hardy’s open letter to HE on ResearchProfessional News on 6 May 2020 didn’t add much beyond her disappointment that the government package didn’t accept UUK’s proposals.

A second round of support simply shored up the bail-out of the Russell Group. The support package announced by government on 27 June 2020 provided extra research funding: a mixture of grants and loans for up to 80% of income lost because of a shortfall of international students in 2020-2021, and £280million for stated research priorities. That will be little consolation to the many vulnerable universities less blessed with research funding and less dependent on overseas student fees.

Judged by the effects on all of its members, UUK not only wasted the crisis, they may well have made it worse. 

Government

The long-running ‘low quality courses’ narrative and the almost-forgotten Augar report proved to be groundwork for a series of government initiatives still unfolding, beginning with a blunt Ministerial statement abandoning the 50% HE participation target and proposing to expand technical and vocational provision elsewhere. Jim Dickinson had blogged for Wonkhe on 11 May 2020 that: “… the headlines in the DfE package were all about treating the issues facing the higher education sector as a liquidity crisis rather than a solvency crisis. Optimists figure this is because it’s only Part One of any plan, and Numbers 10/11 of Downing Street prefer to sort things in terms of impacts of immediate problems than assessing the size and scope of modelled/potential problems which they assume a) might not be as bad as they look, and b) discourage efficiencies and sacrifices if “cushioned” too early, or for too long. … And then, as if by magic, David “somewheres or anywheres” Goodhart appears – with a Policy Exchange report that’s officially on “skills”, but is really on reorganising tertiary. … Research funding for the “best”; mergers, shorter strings and localism for the “rest”.”

Jack Grove in THE on 11 May 2020 wrote: “English universities at risk of financial collapse will receive significant government assistance only if they agree to merge or to accept a “further education future”, vice-chancellors have predicted. … some university leaders … fear that the reintroduction of student number controls − which allow universities to recruit 5 per cent more this autumn than they did last year − signals the Treasury’s intention to intervene far more in higher education, which might include denying some institutions access to research funding.”

The doomsayers were vindicated when Minister Michelle Donelan made a speech on 1 July 2020, in the grossly inappropriate context of an online conference about improving HE opportunities for disadvantaged students. Richard Adams reported for The Guardianon 1 July 2020 on her speech: “Since 2004, there has been too much focus on getting students through the door, and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go on to graduate jobs. Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market,” Donelan said. “Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of, particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense. … And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses. We have seen this with grade inflation and it has to stop.”

The government is poised to offer new policies on skills and qualifications for school-leavers in England, rebalancing away from universities and emphasising social mobility through skilled, well-paid jobs secured through further education and apprenticeships. A white paper on further education is promised, along with a green paper on higher education that will limit courses where a high percentage of students drop out or where few go on to graduate-level employment. Donelan’s comments appeared to repudiate her own government’s guidance to the Office for Students. Asked about the use of contextual admissions by universities to help under-represented groups gain entry, Donelan said: “To be frank, we don’t help disadvantaged students by levelling down, we help by levelling up.”

Chris Husbands (VC, Sheffield Hallam) spoke for many in a powerful rejoinder in The Guardian on 2 July 2020: ‘University changed my family’s life. So why do ministers want fewer people to go?’ As Alison Wolf, now once again a government adviser, pointed out long ago, the oft-mooted expansion of non-university technical education is always regarded as a good thing – ‘for other people’s children’. We must wait and see whether this time the government initiative will be any different from the many other times similar things have been attempted. This time her daughter Rachel Wolf, another long-term adviser to the Prime Minister who co-wrote the 2019 Conservative manifesto, is also making the running. Whether the government has wasted the crisis remains to be seen.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics

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And now for something completely different

by Rob Cuthbert

This cryptic crossword is offered as a diversion for the longueurs of lockdown – familiarity with SRHE and its journals, SRHE News and Blog will be a big advantage, perhaps even essential. There are some proper names; other words are in any good dictionary (Chambers, of course, is recommended). Cryptic clues follow Ximenean principles, except for some liberties taken with capital letters.

Celtic Manor is the venue of the Society’s annual Research Conference and its Newer Researchers Conference.

Email your solution to Rob.Cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk. The Society will offer a meagre prize (to SRHE members) for the first correct solution drawn after 1 May 2020. The solution will appear in the next issue of SRHE News, July 2020. If you can’t wait that long, email Rob.Cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk after 1 May for solution and explanations.

To download an editable version of this crossword click here.

Across

1. Good place for informal conference? Perhaps this conflates prior muddled papers, if for Celtic Manor. (8)

5.  Earning gain? Most universities are not for this. (6)

10. Beginning translation of new academic literature – some languages are like this. (5)

11. Problem with just deserts? Can’t see anything in this. (9)

12. Middlehurst, for one, could not be this talented sidekick. (3,6)

13. Yearly publication loses one article – strike it from the record. (5)

14. With drink at stake he might take the case. (7)

16. The velocity you need to get away from appearing before committee, perhaps. (6)

18. Put in, continuing to bat endlessly. (6)

20. Scottish tutor takes notes, German one withdraws. (7)

22. Could be hurried literature search in Winchester, for example. (5)

23. Number, many in this way behind the scenes. (3,2,4)

25. Takes out one of the Society’s publications. (9)

26. How bald man thinks about barnet, eg Ron, perhaps. (5)

27. Editor works in Dublin and studies in higher education. (6)

28. The Sun, for example, allows newer researchers to shine. (8)

Down

1. Shirker responsible for all of this. (8)

2. Starting Magdalen College’s new academic year, in Greenwich meantime? (5)

3. Researching FHE? Hotel, flowers – for celebration at Celtic Manor. (6,2,3,4)

4. Live outside university – that makes a difference. (7)

6. What could this person possibly arrange? Search me! (8,7)

7. Disapprove of grown-up on losing head after fight starts. (5,4)

8. US university always in the news. (6)

9. European at trans-national university comes up with something like fake news. (6)

15. Politicians’ policies prove nothing. (9)

17. Old boys getting together to promote special interests, that’s how society is organised. (8)

19. New York and California university merger restructuring, that’s madness. (6)

20. What might be held by 6dn, from which others make deductions. (4,3)

21. Society’s view of a number of 3dns could be a matter of course. (6)

24. Helping to go round without disc. (5)

Rob Cuthbert is editor of SRHE News and Blog.


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“What I wish I’d known” – academic leadership in the UK, lessons for the next generation

by Fiona Denney

This blogpost presents findings from a research project funded by the UK’s Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s (LFHE) Innovation and Transformation Fund in 2015. 18 academics in leadership positions across 5 universities were interviewed about their leadership experiences and what they wished they had known before taking up their leadership posts. Eight key themes about the context within which they lead were identified. The themes are presented here along with a discussion of how this contributes to our understanding of the development of those who aspire to leadership positions in higher education.

Although much exists in the education literature and wider management and leadership literature about the qualities of “good” or “effective” leaders (Steffens et al, 2014) there is relatively little that considers the experience of leaders in the academic field (Peters and Ryan, 2015). Those in academic leadership positions are interesting to study because they have usually reached their leadership position as a result of being highly successful in their discipline area – particularly with regards to research – but not necessarily because they exhibit the characteristics or skills necessary for their leadership role. Research on the role that prestige plays in academic progression indicates clearly that esteem factors such as obtaining grants and publishing are important for progression to a leadership position, but that the role itself may require the individual then to prioritise other aspects which can cause identity conflict and dissatisfaction (Blackmore and Kandiko, 2011; Coate and Howson, 2016).

The themes from the study presented here have been developed into training materials which are freely available across the UK HEI sector here. The research provides an evidence base for focusing training and developing the next generation for the challenges of leadership ahead of them actually attaining a leadership position, and takes the literature beyond prestige factors to encompass the other aspects that aspiring leaders need to consider in their career.

The eight themes that emerged are divided into: Aspects that help career progression; Aspects of leadership that were found to be challenging; and, The “serendipity principle”

Aspects that Help Career Progression

Career Advancement and Planning

Developing and planning a career whilst still being open to unexpected opportunities were highlighted as important aspects of becoming a research leader. In particular, interviewees gave the following advice: learn about roles you are interested in and know the criteria for progression; take time to plan ahead; and, use appraisals to discuss and plan career development. Many of the interviewees did not have linear career paths and some had spent time in other sectors. They also suggested that personal values are factored into career planning. They talked about having a sense of a good ‘fit’ between themselves and the institutions they chose in their careers, concluding that the ‘best’ institution might not always be best for them.

Mentoring and Role Models

Interviewees mentioned the importance of mentoring and role models from two perspectives: reflections on the pivotal roles that effective mentors and role models had played in helping them to develop; and also the role for them, as leaders, to provide mentoring and to act as role models for the people that they lead. They also mentioned the role that informal mentoring can play and that mentors can be identified in a range of different settings.

Building Networks

The interviews revealed the importance of building and maintaining networks as a means of career progression as well as supporting networking activities for their own ECRs. They also acknowledged that social media are increasingly important for the new generation of researchers – although they didn’t always feel that they were the best equipped to advise on how to use it!

Building a Research Profile

All interviewees emphasised the importance of doing the “business” of research in order to progress with their career as research and academic leaders. There was no getting away from this core message – the markers of esteem, such as publishing papers, were key to progressing in their academic careers and, if anything, they felt that the pressure to publish is more intense now than when they started out.

Aspects of Leadership Found to be Challenging

Balancing Work and Life

Many of the leaders interviewed for this study commented on how important it was to put appropriate boundaries in place in their lives to stop work from consuming everything. They reflected on the steep learning curve that they encountered when they stepped into a leadership position and found that the workload increased exponentially. In particular, they emphasised that you can’t do everything and that prioritizing and not saying “yes” to everything were important skills to learn.

Impact of Culture and Environment

It was clear that interviewees perceived that academia has undergone considerable cultural and business change in recent decades and that this has consequences in terms of work-life balance, management, leadership and the balance of teaching and research. Interviewees suggested that the most significant shift has been towards a performance management style in combination with an increased emphasis on the importance of research and grant income.

Working with Others

All interviewees referred to the importance of working with other people to being able to achieve goals and lead well in an academic environment. There were a variety of contexts for this – networking, management, dealing with difficult people, meetings, giving feedback and the development of additional skills such as listening. What was clear in all of this is that academia is not a career option for people who want to work by themselves – working with others in a way that achieves things positively is a key aspect of working in today’s academy.

Challenges of Management and Leadership

It was clear from the interviews that being a leader in a UK university is likely to involve an element of management, and interviewees were responsible for managing people and finances, leading and developing strategy and policies and leading and managing their own research and teaching.  Common themes in the interviews included the challenges of managing and leading within a modern higher education environment, the complexity of meeting organisational goals, working with staff with differing contributions and motivations, and balancing administrative and mechanistic processes with the need to be innovative and creative in research.

Conclusions

“I think I ended up getting where I am through a lot of just hoping I’m doing it right.”

Through asking our interviewees what they wished they’d known before they started in a position of academic leadership, the study found a high level of uncertainty and a lack of knowledge about how to do key aspects of the leadership role. The common thread throughout the interviews was the concept that the leaders were relying on luck, trial and error or ‘serendipity’ to get things right as a leader. In future research, the role of serendipity is important to understand as it identifies key gaps in training and preparation for succession planning and it also raises the question of how much of leadership is due to good instincts and whether it can actually be taught – in line with trait and contingency theories of leadership.

Fiona Denney is a Professor in Business Education in the Brunel Business School at Brunel University. Between 2003 and 2019 she worked in academic staff and researcher development, including as Assistant Director of the Graduate School at King’s College London and heading the Brunel Educational Excellence Centre at Brunel University. Fiona is a member of the Executive Committee of the UK Council for Graduate Education, a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Fellow of the RSA. Her research interests are focused on academic leadership in modern universities. 

References

Blackmore, P, and Kandiko, CB (2011) ‘Motivation in academic life: a prestige economy’, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 16(4), 399–411. https://doi.org/10.1080/13596748.2011.626971

Coate, K, and Howson, CK (2016) ‘Indicators of esteem: gender and prestige in academic work’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37(4), 567–585. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2014.955082

Peters, K, and Ryan, M (2015) ‘Leading higher education: Higher Education Leadership and Management Survey (HELMs)

Steffens, NK, Haslam, SA, Reicher, SD, Platow, MJ, Fransen, K, Yang, J, Ryan, MK, Jetten, J, Peters, K, & Boen, F (2014) ‘Leadership as social identity management: Introducing the Identity Leadership Inventory (ILI) to assess and validate a four-dimensional model’, Leadership Quarterly, 25(5), 1001–1024 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2014.05.002

This is the fifth in a ‘virtual symposium’ series which began with Jane Creaton’s blog on 28 February 2020: Leadership in a Changing Landscape.


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Leadership in a changing landscape: the role of heads of department

by Jane Creaton and Claire Gordon

This blog post draws on research conducted as part of an ongoing study of the role of heads of department (HoDs) in universities in the UK. In particular, we are interested in the key factors influencing how the role of HoD is experienced and enacted, including disciplinary contexts, institutional structures and type of university. The project is concerned with the extent to which current leadership and management programmes provide adequate preparation and support for the role, which may be particularly vulnerable to work-related stress. It is also concerned with the creative and critical leadership responses that HoDs are adopting in response to the present changing and uncertain higher education environment. Our findings are based on a sector-wide survey and 18 in-depth interviews conducted in 2019, but are also informed by two earlier research projects that explored the role of HoD in teaching-focussed and research-intensive universities (Creaton and Heard-Laureote, 2019).

Uncertainty, change and lack of preparation: becoming a HoD

It is a particularly challenging time to become a HoD in UK higher education. In the external environment, HoDs have to grapple with growing sectoral-level demands and new forms of accountability – while the REF has been in place in one form or another since 1986, TEF, APP and KEF have brought new demands and targets. These are compounded by huge financial uncertainty given the possibility of a change to fee structures following the Augar review and continuing uncertainty over Brexit. The latter is likely to have consequences in future for: the presence of European staff and students at UK universities; the possibilities for student  mobility under Erasmus+; and European research funding. Within institutions, HoDs spoke of experiencing continuous restructuring and centralising, an exponential rise in demands from above and below, limited institutional power and authority compared to the past, and tensions between their academic and managerial identities. It is also worth noting that markers of esteem (Kandiko-Howson and Coate, 2015) – prior to taking on the headship – had been based on academic success indicators which do not translate easily into necessary skill-sets and areas of expertise required for the role. Some HoDs had received no preparation or training for the role and there was considerable variation in what had been received. One HoD took part in an innovative co-created developmental programme with other new HoDs, some participated in generic leadership programmes (which were generally considered to be ill-suited to the specific HE context), and others in formal or informal coaching and mentoring arrangements.

Wellbeing and work-related stress: the lived experience of being a HoD

The importance of staff and student mental health and wellbeing has been a high profile issue in the HE sector over the past few years. Reports from Universities UK, Healthy Universities, Wellcome Trust, and HEPI have indicated high levels of depression, stress and anxiety in universities and recommended institution-wide approaches to tackle support the mental health of their students and staff. In response, many institutions have developed mental health and wellbeing strategies. However, for many HoDs, this has simply added another layer of responsibility for staff and students within their department without addressing the issues which may affect their own mental health and wellbeing. Our interviewees identified the sheer quantity and breadth of daily demands on today’s HoDs. At the micro-level, HoDs were booking rooms, arranging chairs and chasing up Estates and at the macro-level, HoDs were contributing to high-level management committees and strategy development. And for many the most time-consuming and stressful elements of their role related to managing challenging colleagues, which took up inordinate amounts of time and energy.

The HoD job specification often seemed to include responsibility for everything that happened within the department. An expectation that the HoD is also responsible for the mental health and wellbeing of all their students and staff may locate the deficit with the HoD rather than with some of the wider structural and societal factors. While some were able to thrive in this environment, others could not help but be affected by the huge pressures they were operating under.

“There’s an emoticon on Skype for Business which is banging my head against a brick wall. … But it’s not always like that” (Interview with HoD, 2019)

Some HoDs had clearly developed effective coping strategies and support networks inside and outside their university, others spoke of loneliness and isolation including wakeful periods in the night and the constant flow of emails at every hour of the day and night.

‘The sense of shouldering the burden in the sense that it’s all consuming never goes away. You occasionally get called up in the middle of the night …’ (Interview with HoD, 2019)

What might we mean by creative and critical leadership in challenging times?

A quick Google search yields a range of approaches under the ill-defined notion of creative leadership. The fluidity of the term clearly allows rather liberal interpretation. At one end of the spectrum, we see evidence of the notion of creative leadership being co-opted as part of the discourse of the neoliberal university, providing a smokescreen for ever increasing demands on HoDs in face of the increasing metrification of higher education. A different approach to creative and critical leadership also came through in our research, where creativity lay in finding effective ways to subvert institutional expectations and norms. Some HoDs spoke of gate-keeping and others translating up and down the messages that were coming from the senior leadership as well as their departments, others made choices as to what to do and what to ignore.

‘There’s a translational bit, where I speak two languages, and then on either side they only speak one.” (Interview with HoD, 2019)

One of our HoDs highlighted their commitment to emphasising the intrinsic values of higher education and community as a counter to the ever-greater focus on metrics and accountability, with another purposefully prioritising relationship-building over emails. And finally, perhaps the most radical of all were the HoDs who insisted on prioritising self-care, modelling good work-life balance and ensuring informal support networks for themselves to enable them to flourish in their roles.

Jane Creaton is Associate Dean (Academic) for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and a Reader in Higher Education at the University of Portsmouth. She has been a member of the SRHE Governing Council since January 2019. Claire Gordon is Director of the LSE Eden Centre for Education Enhancement at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

References

Creaton, J and Heard-Laureote, K (2019) ‘Rhetoric and reality in middle management: the role of heads of academic departments in UK universities’, Higher Education Policy https://doi.org/10.1057/s41307-018-00128-8

Kandiko-Howson, C and Coate, K (2015) The Prestige Economy and Mid-career Academic Women: Strategies, Choices and Motivation, Paper presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Research Conference, Newport, UK. 

This is the second in a ‘virtual symposium’ series which began on with Jane Creaton’s blog on 28 February 2020: Leadership in a Changing Landscape.


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Articulating identities – the role of English language education in Indian universities

by Santosh Mahapatra

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

This paper analyses how different kinds of identities are articulated as a part of building and opposing domination in the context of English education in Indian universities. We try to prove that the process of hegemony-making which started during the British rule in India is still shaping English education in India albeit in newer forms. It is not difficult to realise that today, English and English education have lent voice to multiple identities and knowledge systems. In this paper, we have made an attempt to evaluate and present some of the important debates and discussions related to English language education in institutes of higher education in India. We also look into how different groups are taught English and demonstrate how contexts of teaching are defining knowledge systems, imposing patterns and simultaneously, articulating resistance.

English has become the language through which Indians can imagine articulating their identities. It started as a language which was used used for translation and communication purposes in courts and British administrative offices. Later, however, it got turned into a powerful tool of subjugation and hegemonization. Research suggests that initially, the British were unsure about introducing English education. They then adopted a rather cautious approach and made it available to some selected groups of Indians. It would be appropriate to believe that during the mid-19th century, the British had the realisation that the seed of colonialism could be sowed in the education system. It changed the game in the favour of the British. A concept like ‘modernity’ received a colonial makeover and English education got inextricably associated with the term. English-education became synonymous with social mobility and is still continuing to shape social mobility in a major way.

If one analyses the position of English in the HE system, one can observe that it has been often used, misused and abused in India, a country with a multi-layered and complex social set-up. While people belonging to the lowest socioeconomic strata demanded access to more English and found progress and resistance against the upper class in higher education, another section, mainly comprising the elite, strengthened their position in higher education by availing themselves high quality English education. One can find evidence to support the claim that the field of English education in India has been highly political in nature. What acts as a balancing tool in this political game is the constant effort made by a section of the society to access opportunities and create desired identities. Therefore, instead of focusing on how English education has shaped identities in higher education, we must see the larger picture in which different sections of population have utilised English and hammered out contradictory and complementary identities that have catered to their needs, hopes and desires.

Santosh Mahapatra teaches academic English to engineering students and guides doctoral research at BITS Pilani Hyderabad Campus. His current research interests are Critical Pedagogy, Teacher Development and Classroom Assessment.

You can find the full article by Santosh Mahapatra and Sunita Mishra, ‘Articulating identities – the role of English language education in Indian universities’ in Teaching in Higher Education 24(3): 346-360 athttps://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1547277


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Having faith in the university

by Søren SE Bengtsen and Ronald Barnett

A heightened gap between the university and society is now evident. On the policy level, discourses of excellence, world-classness and value-for-money press upon universities while, on the societal level, there are calls for impact, skills, employability and marketable knowledge. Additionally, in a post-truth and fake news era, universities struggle to establish their legitimacy, and some students even report that they may actually be doing themselves a disfavour by taking a higher education degree. All this is symptomatic of a wide societal, and even worldly, sudden loss of faith in the university. Continue reading

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What is a university?

by Marcia Devlin

The right to use the term ‘University’ is under examination in Australia. In the current Australian higher education sector, there are distinctions between providers that may label themselves as a ‘University’ and those who are a non-university ‘Higher Education Provider’.

Currently, the right to use the term ‘University’ is restricted Continue reading