The notion of ‘excellence’ has become an increasingly important part of the research ecosystem over the last 20 years (OECD, 2014). The drivers for this are traced to the need to justify the investment of public money in research and the increasing competition for scarce resources (Münch, 2015). University rankings have further hardwired and amplified judgments about degrees of excellence into our collective consciousness (Hazelkorn, 2015).
Jong, Franssen and Pinfield (2021) highlight that the idea of excellence is a ‘boundary object’ (Star and Griesemer, 1989) however. That is, it is a nebulous construct which is poorly defined and is used in many different ways. It has nevertheless shaped policy, funding and assessment activities since the turn of the century. Ideas of excellence have been enacted through the Research Excellence Framework and associated allocation to universities of funding to support research, competitive schemes for grant funding, recruitment to flagship doctoral training partnerships and individual promotion and reward.
We can trace a number of recent initiatives at sector level, inter alia, that have sought to broaden ideas of research excellence and to challenge systemic and structural inequalities in our research ecosystem. These include the increase of impact weighting in REF2021 to 25%, trials of systems of partial randomisation as part of the selection process for some smaller research grants, e.g. British Academy from 2022, the Concordats and Agreements Review work in 2023 to align and increase influence, capacity, and efficiency of activity to support research culture and the recent Research England investment in projects designed to address the broken pipeline into research by increasing participation of people from racialised groups in doctoral education.
At the end of June, we are hosting an event at NTU which will focus on redefining cultures of research excellence through the lens of inclusion. The symposium, to be held at our Clifton Campus on Wednesday 28 June, provides an opportunity to re-examine the broad notion of research excellence, in the context of systemic inequalities that have historically locked out certain types of researchers and research agendas and locked in others.
The event focuses on two mutually-reinforcing areas: the possibility of creating more responsive and inclusive research agendas through co-creation between academics and communities; and broadening pathways into research through the inclusive recruitment of PhD and early career researchers. We take the starting position that approaches which focus on advancing equity are critical to achieving excellence in UK research and innovation.
The day will include keynotes from Dr Bernadine Idowu and Professor Kalwant Bhopal, the launch of a new competency-based PGR recruitment framework, based on sector consultation, and a programme of speakers talking about their approaches to diversifying researcher recruitment and engaging the community in setting research agendas.
NTU will be showcasing two new projects that are designed to challenge old ideas of research excellence and forge new ways of thinking. EDEPI (Equity in Doctoral Education through Partnership and Innovation Programme) is a partnership with Liverpool John Moores and Sheffield Hallam Universities and NHS Trusts in the three cities. The project will explore how working with the NHS can improve access and participation in doctoral education for racially-minoritised groups. Co(l)laboratory is a project with University of Nottingham, based on the Universities for Nottingham civic agreement with local public-sector organisations. Collab will present early lessons from a community-informed approach to cohort-based doctoral training.
Our event is a great opportunity for universities and other organisations who are, in their own ways, redefining cultures of research excellence to share their approaches, challenges and successes. We invite individuals, project teams and organisations working in these areas to join us at the end of June, with the hope of building a community of practice around building inclusive research cultures, within and across the sector.
Dr Rebekah Smith McGloin is Director of the Doctoral School at Nottingham Trent University and is Principal Investigator on the EDEPI and Co(l)laboratory projects.
Dr Rachel Handforth is Senior Lecturer in Doctoral Education and Civic Engagement at NTU.
The irritations researchers experience when working with secondary data are exemplified in looking at the REF 2021 results and comparing with 2014. The 2021 results by Unit of Assessment (UoA) on screen are laid out with all four profiles in one line across the page. Four are fitted on to one page. When you try to print, or, at least when I do, they are laid out in a single column, so one UoA takes a full page. To add to that, the text preceding the tabulations takes just enough space to put the name of the HEI at the bottom of the page and the profiles on the next page. I know, I should have checked before pressing ‘print’. So they take 80+ pages, lots of paper, lots of ink, but I can’t work with screen based data. My bad, perhaps.
When I access the 2014 results the four profiles – overall, outputs, impact, environment – are listed on four separate documents, within which English HEIs are listed first, then Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The 2021 listings take a unionist view, starting with Aberdeen rather than Anglia Ruskin. Clicking to get to UoA pages pops up a message saying ‘this page is not currently available’. I do find another route to access them.
I will first give the summary of results, set alongside those from 2014, against advice, but one role of the REF is to demonstrate more and better research. Encouraging that has never been set as an objective – the sole purpose for a long time was ‘to inform funding’ – but the constant improvement implied by the figures is the basis for getting more money out of the Treasury. One of the principles the funding bodies set way back was continuity, yet there has never been an exercise that has replicated its predecessor. This time, following the Stern Report, there were at least 12 major changes in requirements and processes. More are promised after the Future Research Assessment Programme (FRAP) consultation reports. One of those changes was to give greater recognition to inter-disciplinary research. The report of the Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel (IDAP) at the end of June claimed that treatment was more visible and equitable, but that much still needs to be done. Panels are still learning how to treat work beyond their boundaries and institutions are reluctant to submit work because of its treatment in getting lower grades for the disciplines that constitute its elements.
A coincidence of timing led to a disturbing voice in my head as I read the reports from Main Panel C, covering Social Sciences, and the Education panel. The Main Panel asserts that “throughout the assessment process Main Panel C and its sub-panels ensured adherence to published ‘Panel criteria and working methods’ and consistency in assessment standards through a variety of means [and so] has full confidence in the robustness of the processes followed and the outcomes of the assessment in all its sub-panels.” The mantra was repeated in different forms by the Education sub-panel: “Under the guidance and direction from the main panel and the REF team, the sub-panel adhered to the published REF 2021 ‘Panel criteria and working methods’ in all aspects of its processes throughout the planning and assessment phases.” “The protocol requiring sub-panel members [with declared conflicts of interest] to leave panel meeting discussions was strictly followed for all parts of the REF assessment.” “A transparent process on the reconciliation of grades and conversion of grades to the status of panel agreed grades was documented and signed off by panel members”. And so on again and again. The voice in my head? “Any gatherings that took place, did so observing the Covid protocols and regulations at all times. There were no breaches.” Work within Neyland et al (2019), based on interviews with 2014 panel members, suggests that all records were destroyed at the end of the processes and that reconciliation was used to ensure conformity to the dominant view of the elite power holders who define both what research is and what constitutes quality. The brief description of the moderation process in Education suggests that this may have been repeated. There were four members from modern universities on the Education panel, out of 20; and one out of 13 assessors. There were none on Main Panel C, just as there had been none on the Stern Committee, despite a commitment from HEFCE early in the last decade that diversity of membership would reflect institutional base.
Executive Chair of Research England David Sweeney was confident that universities had ‘behaved responsibly’ and also ‘played by the rules’ preventing importing of highly rated researchers from around the globe, and requiring all staff with significant responsibility for research to be submitted. (I should declare an interest: David claims his participation in a programme I ran resulted in his changing the course of his career and led him to HEFCE and now UKRI. I accept the responsibility, but not the blame.)
It is surprising, then, that one easily spotted deviation from the framework, not commented upon by the panels (despite a footnote on intent in the ‘Summary Report across the four main panels’) was on that requirement that ‘all staff with a significant responsibility for research’ should be submitted. I took that to be mandatory, and it led to many staff being moved to ‘teaching only’ contracts. Yet, in Education, only 42 UoAs, out of 83, met that criterion; eight being modern universities. 4 submitted more than 50%, a mix of Liverpool Hope, the OU, Ulster, and Leeds (at 95%). 25 fell between 25% and 49%, and 24 had 24% or below. All those in the last two groups are post-92 designations. Special mention for the University of the Highlands and Islands with … 605%. There were other overshoots: in History, Cambridge submitted 170%, Oxford 120%, perhaps linked to college staff not based in a department. UHI submitted 110%, but that was only 7.3 people.
The commitment to equity was also not met according to the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Panel: “Although many institutions had successfully implemented several gender-related initiatives, there was much less attention given to other protected groups. The panel therefore had little confidence that the majority of institutional environments would be sufficiently mature in terms of support for EDI within the next few years”.
Statistics: ‘key facts’
Impact case studies
So, more submissions and many more staff submitted fewer outputs and case studies, reducing the evidence base for judging quality. At Main Panel level, Panel C was the only one to have more UoA submissions, more outputs and more case studies. It had the biggest increase in staff submitted – 63%. The other 3 panels all received fewer outputs and case studies, despite staff numbers increasing by between 34% and 47%.
The Main Panel C feedback acknowledges that the apparent increase in quality can be attributed in part to the changes in the rules. It also credits the ‘flourishing research base’ in HEIs, but a recent report from DBEIS making international comparisons of the UK research base shows that between 2016 and 2020, the UK publication share declined by 2.7% a year, its citation share by 1.4% a year, its field-weighted impact by 0.2% a year and its highly-cited publication share by 4.5% a year. The 2020 QS league tables show elite UK universities drifting downwards despite favourable funding and policy preferentiality aiming to achieve the exact opposite. I suggest that better presentation of REF impact case studies and investment in promoting that internally contributed to the grade inflation there.
Note that 4* overall grades are significantly enhanced by ratings in impact and environment, confirming the shift to assess units not individuals. Ratings in both impact and environment are in multiples of either 12.5% (one eighth) or 16.7% (one sixth) in contrast to outputs, where they go to decimal points. The 2014 approach to impact assessment attracted serious and severe criticism from Alis Oancea (Oxford) and others because of the failure to do any audit of exaggerated claims, some of them to an outrageous extent. This time seems to have been better on both sides. There is still some strategic management of staff numbers – the units submitting just under 20 or 30 staff were many times higher than submitting one more, which would have required an extra case study. Some staff may, then, have lost out and been re-classified as not engaged in research.
I won’t claim things leap out from the stats but there are some interesting figures, many attributable to the many changes introduced after Stern. The number of staff (FTE) submitted went up by over 50%, to 2168, but the number of outputs went down by 4.5%, from 5,526 to 5,278. Under the new rules, not all those submitted had to have four outputs, and for 2021, in Education, 1,192 people – 51% of the headcount of 2330 – submitted only one. 200 submitted four, and 220, five. The gaming was obvious and anticipated – get the most out of your best staff, prune the lower rated items from middle ranking output and get the best one from people not previously submitted to get the average required of 2.5 per FTE, and get close to 100% participation. Interestingly, in Education, output grades from new researchers had the same profile as from more longstanding staff though more – 65% – submitted only one, with 21 – 7% – submitting four or five. Across all panels there was little or no change in the numbers of new researchers. 199 former staff in Education also had output submitted, where similar selectivity could operate; 28 had four or five submitted.
Within Main Panel C, Education had the poorest quality profile: the lowest % score of 3* and 4* combined, and by far the highest 1* score (7%), when the Panel C average was 3%. Where it did score well was in the rate of increase of doctoral degree awards where it was clearly top in number and ‘productivity’ per FTE staff member. Between 2013-4 and 2019-20, annual numbers went up from 774 to 964, nearly 20%. I postulate that that links to the development of EdD programmes with admission of students in group cohorts rather than individually.
Impact case studies
Environment obviously posed problems. Income generation was a challenge and crowded buildings from growth in student numbers may have reduced study space for researchers. In 2014 the impact assessors raised queries about the value for money of such a time consuming exercise and their feedback took just over a page and dealt with organisation structures and processes for promoting impact not their outcome. This time it was much fuller and more helpful in developmental terms.
Learn for next time, when, of course, the panel and its views may be different…
Two universities – Oxford and UCL – scored 100% 4* for both impact and environment, moving the UCL 4* score from 39.6% for output to 62% overall quality. That is a big move. Nottingham, which had 2×100% in 2014, dropped on both, to 66.7% in impact and 25% for environment. The total number of 100% scores was seven for impact, up from four; four for environment, down from eight. The two UoAs scoring 0% overall (and therefore in all components) in 2014 moved up. Only two scored zero at 4* for impact, and not other components, one being a pre-92 institution. 17 got their only zero in environment, five being pre-92ers, including Kent which did get 100% … at grade 1*, and Roehampton, which, nevertheless, came high in the overall ratings. Dundee, Goldsmiths and Strathclyde had no 4* rating in either impact or environment, along with 30 post-92 HEIs.
Those getting the highest grades demonstrated originality, significance and rigour in diverse ways, with no strong association with any particular methods, and including theoretical and empirical work. A high proportion of research employing mixed methods was world leading or internationally excellent.
Outputs about professional practice did get some grades across the range, but (as in 2014) some were limited to descriptive or experiential accounts and got lower grades. Lower graded outputs in general showed ‘over-claiming of contribution to knowledge; weak location in a field; insufficient attention to the justification of samples or case selection; under-development of criticality and analytical purchase’. No surprises there.
Work in HE had grown since 2014, with strong work with a policy focus, drawing on sociology, economics and critical policy studies. Also strong were outputs on internationalisation, including student and staff mobility. The panel sought more work on this, on higher technological change, decolonisation and ‘related themes’, the re-framing of young people as consumers in HE, and links to the changing nature of work, especially through digital disruption. They encouraged more outputs representing co-production with key stakeholders. They noted concentrations of high quality work in history and philosophy in some smaller submissions. More work on teaching and learning had been expected – had they not remembered that it was banned from impact cases last time, which might have acted as a deterrent until that was changed over halfway in to the period of the exercise? – with notable work on ICT in HE pedagogy and professional learning. What they did get, since it was the exemplification of world class quality by the previous panel, were strong examples of the use of longitudinal data to track long-term outcomes in education, health, well-being and employment, including world-class data sets submitted as outputs.
The strongest case studies:
Provided a succinct summary so that the narrative was strong, coherent and related to the template
Clearly articulated the relationship between impact claims and the underpinning research
Provided robust evidence and testimonials, judiciously used
Not only stated how research had had an impact on a specific area, but demonstrated both reach and significance.
There was also outstanding and very considerable impact on the quality of research resources, research training and educational policy and practice in HEIs themselves, which was often international in reach and contributed to the quality of research environments. So, we got to our bosses, provided research evidence and got them to do something! A quintessential impact process. Begin ‘at home’.
The panel’s concerns on environment were over vitality and sustainability. They dismissed the small fall in performance, but noted that 16 of the 83 HEIs assessed were not in the 2014 exercise – implying scapegoats, but Bath – a high scorer – was one of those. The strongest submissions:
Had convincing statements on strategy, vision and values, including for impact and international activities
Showed how previous objectives had been addressed and set ambitious goals for the future
Linked the strategy to operations with evidence and examples from researchers themselves
Were analytical not just descriptive
Showed how researchers were involved in the submission
Included impressive staff development strategies covering well-being (a contrast to reports from Wellcome and UNL researchers among others about stress, bullying and discrimination)
Were from larger units, better able to be sustained
Had high levels of collaborative work and links to policy and practice.
But… some institutions listed constraints to strategic delivery without saying what they had done to respond; some were poor on equity beyond gender and on support for PGRs and contract researchers. The effect of ‘different institutional histories’ (ie length of time being funded and accumulating research capital) were noted but without allowance being made, unlike approaches to contextual factors in undergraduate student admissions. The total research funding recorded was also down on the period before the 2014 exercise, causing concern about sustainability.
The somewhat smug satisfaction of the panels and the principals in the exercise was not matched by the commentariat. For me, the most crucial was the acknowledgement by Bahram Bekhradnia that the REF “has become dysfunctional over time and its days must surely be numbered in its present form”. Bahram had instituted the first ‘full-blown’ RAE in 1991-2 when he was at HEFCE. (Another declaration of interest, he gave me a considerable grant to assess its impact (!) on staff and institutional behaviour. Many of the issues identified in my report are still relevant). First he is concerned about the impact on teaching, which “has no comparable financial incentives”, and where TEF and the NSS have relatively insignificant impact. Second, in a zero sum game, much effort, which improves performance, gets no reward, yet institutions cannot afford to get off the treadmill, which had not been anticipated when RAE started, so wasted effort will continue for fear of slipping back. I think that effort needs re-directing in many cases to develop partnerships with users to improve impact and provide an alternative source of funding. Third, concentration of funding is now such that differentiation at the top is not possible, so risking international ratings: “something has to change, but it is difficult to know what”.
Jonathan Adams balanced good and bad: “Assessment has brought transparent direction and management of resources [with large units controlling research, not doing it], increased output of research findings, diversification of research portfolios [though some researchers claim pressure to conform to mainstream norms], better international collaboration and higher relative citation impact [though note the DBEIS figures above]. Against that could be set an unhealthy obsession with research achievements and statistics at the expense of broader academic values, cutthroat competition for grants, poorer working conditions, a plethora of exploitative short-term contracts and a mental health crisis among junior researchers”.
After a policy-maker and a professor, a professional – Elizabeth Gadd, Research Policy Manager at Loughborough, reflecting on the exercise after results day, and hoping to have changed role before the next exercise. She is concerned that churning the data, reducing a complex experience for hundreds of people to sets of numbers, gets you further from the individuals behind it. The emphasis on high scorers hides what an achievement 2*, “internationally recognised” is: it supports many case studies, and may be an indication of emergent work that needs support to develop further, to a higher grade next time or work by early career researchers. To be fair, the freedom of how to use unhypothecated funds can allow that at institutional level, but such commitment to development (historic or potential) is not built in to assessment or funding, and there are no appeals against gradings. She agonised over special circumstances, which drew little in rating terms despite any sympathy. The invisible cost of scrutinising and supporting such cases is not counted in the costs on the exercise (When I was a member of a sub-panel, I was paid to attend meetings. Time on assessing outputs was unpaid; it was deemed to be part of an academic’s life, paid by the institution, but as I was already working more hours than my fractional post allowed, I did my RAE work in private time).
There are many other commentaries on WonkHE, HEPI and Research Professional sites, but there is certainly an agenda for further change, which the minister had predicted, and which the FRAP committee will consider. Their consultation period finished in May, before the results came out – of course – but their report may be open to comment. Keep your eyes open. SRHE used to run post -Assessment seminars. We might have one when that report appears.
SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.
At a national level in the UK, two Covid narratives vie for supremacy. The first positions the government response to the pandemic as successful, pointing to a world-leading vaccine development and roll-out, a well-received furlough scheme, and an accelerated return to ‘normal’. The second positions the government response as calamitous, pointing to recurring misspends, accusations of corruption, and a death rate among the highest in Europe.
Within UK higher education, two parallel narratives have arisen. On one hand, sector leaders and institutional managers claim against-the-odds victory because most universities emerged reputationally and commercially unscathed from the most unforeseeable of global challenges. On the other hand, for many students and staff, Covid-19 further exposed the limits of market-based approaches to funding universities, and the harm done by corporate governance cultures.
Discursively, Covid-19 laid bare a higher education sector fluent in the language of competition but mostly unable to articulate its underlying value to society. Senior management teams continued to pore over league table performance indicators and rejoice in individual ‘excellence’, but struggled to co-create a narrative of common good and humanity in the face of a deadly virus.
Yet at the local level there was much of which to be proud: university staff listened to their students and put their needs first, recognising that welfare now took priority over academic outcomes. Learning persisted, even during the depths of lockdown, with pedagogies adapting and curricula evolving. The question now is how to reconcile a renewed spirit of collegiality and creativity with top-down policy wedded to the idea that universities are ‘providers’ and their students little more than consumers of a premium product.
The starting point may be to accept that UK universities were struggling long before Covid-19 struck. Many of the sector’s underlying problems were simply brought into sharper focus by the pandemic. This slower-burning crisis in higher education means that:
Relations between senior managers and their staff are broken. During Covid-19, university staff wondered why their efforts appeared to be appreciated more by their students than their employers. For those in positions of authority, the successful response of front-line personnel seemed almost to threaten their authority. Top-end remuneration had raced ahead of median campus pay for decades because governing bodies were convinced that the university’s most important work was undertaken by its executive. Suddenly, it appeared that collegiality at the disciplinary level was what mattered most. Institutional managers would no doubt retort that running a university by consensus is impractical, not least during a worldwide emergency, and that the financial sustainability of the sector was secured by their swift pre-emptive action. But to those on the outside, the simmering resentment between employers and employees remains unfathomable: how can those who lead the university be so far adrift of those who work for the university?
Relations between senior managers and students are also badly damaged. Partly this was the fault of policy-makers, for whom students were at best an afterthought. But instead of fashioning an alternative narrative, institutional management teams mostly followed the lead of a cynical government and framed students as potential individual rule-breakers rather than a vulnerable cohort of young people facing an extraordinary mental health challenge. One vice-chancellor foolhardily suggested that where students were forced into self-isolation it might engender a ‘Dunkirk spirit’. At times, international students were treated like cargo. In August 2021, over fifty UK universities clubbed together to charter flights and import students from China. Home students were also lured back on to campus prematurely, the risks to local communities apparently secondary to income from accommodation, catering and other on-site spending.
Ministers don’t listen to sector leaders. Despite institutional managers and their representative bodies dutifully following the marketisation road-map that policy-makers laid out, Covid-19 exposed a sector that had remarkably little sway over government strategy. Ministers showed no interest in University UK’s proposed bail-out package, with one Conservative peer pointedly suggesting that institutions show ‘humility on the part of those vice-chancellors who take very large salaries.’ This undermined the soft-power strategies of which sector leaders had boasted for decades. Some ‘wins’ for students did emerge, but they were invariably overstated: the government’s announcement of a £50m package of support in February 2021 was met with enthusiasm by sector representatives, leaving it to mental health charities like Student Minds to point out that this amounted to barely £25 per head. Ironically, when the government botched its A-levels algorithm, universities stepped in to bail-out policy-makers.
The business model on which universities operate is brittle. No-one would deny the reliance on overseas student income leaves the sector financially exposed. Many would go further and say that there’s something unethical – neo-colonial even – about charging sky-high fees to foreign students so that other university activity can be cross-subsidised. The most principled long-term approach would be for university leaders to reassert the common value of higher education, and seek to persuade the public that a system funded through progressive general taxation, akin to that of other nations, would be fairer and more robust. With graduates of English universities facing interest charges of 9-12% over four decades, there has never been a better time to make this argument.
In 2020, I wrote an upbeat piece in The Guardian suggesting that Covid-19 could change universities for the better. This is still just about possible. However, recent evidence suggests that there is no great eagerness on the part of management to seize the opportunity. Indeed, Covid-19 could change next to nothing, allowing sector leaders and institutional managers to distract from previous failings and double down on a failed corporate leadership model. At the national level, campuses have become battlefields for unwinnable ‘culture wars’, as right-wing politicians and media commentators take pot-shots at a sector lacking the confidence or guile to defend itself. At the institutional level, the cost-of-living crisis is already being used to vindicate new survivalist discourses that will later be used to rationalise further reconfigurations and cuts.
Covid-19 exposed the vulnerability of a heavily marketised university sector. As student loan interest rates rocket and staff pensions crumble, our sector leaders say almost nothing. Markets in higher education do more than monetise students’ learning; they co-opt and silence those whose primary duty it is to defend the universities that they manage.
SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester. Steven’s new book, Universities Under Fire: hostile discourses and integrity deficits in higher education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) will be published in the summer.
As a sector, we have long known that a student’s ethnicity has a relationship to the average class of degree they are awarded. Students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (or ‘BAME’) backgrounds can expect to leave UK universities with lower classifications than their White counterparts – up to 20% lower (UUK & NUS, 2019). Universities have been paying attention to how institutional factors like curricula, assessment and staffing decisions might contribute to this awarding gap in a welcome shift away from focusing on the role student background might play. But not much is really changing. The OfS (2022) reports that although the gap has somewhat narrowed in the last five years, Black students in particular continue to receive 17.4% lower degree outcomes than White students. At this point, it is clear that sweeping, quick fix, or isolated interventions are not fit for purpose. The mechanisms underpinning awarding disparities are complex and entrenched. It seems more likely that a sharpened focus and multi-pronged approach to unpicking the multiple ways in which we disadvantage certain students would be useful, if we are serious about change.
In this vein, we took as our starting point the need to get granular – to dig into ‘who’, as binary ‘BAME’/White distinctions are uninformative at best, and ‘how’, as a degree award is the culmination of many parts. We focused on understanding differences in awarded marks at the module level. But what’s the best way to operationalise module mark differences between two groups? One obvious option would be, simply, to calculate the difference in means (ie mean of group A – mean of group B). However, this has the potential to be misleading. What if, for instance, there were a lot of variation in students’ marks?
Our solution, as we describe in our 2019 SRHE Research Award final report, was to use the formula for the t-statistic, which is a measure reflecting the difference between two groups’ means scaled to group variation and size. In the context of calculating module mark gaps, we refer to this as the difference index (DI) to avoid confusion with the t-values calculated as part of other statistical testing. The formula for DI is below – here, n is the number of students in a group, s is the standard deviation and x̄ is the group mean.
A larger absolute value indicates a larger difference between the two group means (with group size and variation held constant). A positive value means that group A outperformed group B, while a negative value means that group B outperformed group A. If multiple comparisons are being performed with one common baseline group, it is recommended that the baseline group is consistently positioned as group A.
The DI offers a straightforward yet nuanced way to operationalise module mark gaps using data that universities already routinely collect. As a measure of module-level differences, it also offers a way to characterise, monitor and investigate the awarding gap at a granular level – something which percentage point differences in final degree outcomes are much less able to do.
This said, the DI does have its disadvantages. It is not as intuitively interpretable as a simple difference in means. This is perhaps the trade-off for the added nuance it offers. As an illustration, for two groups each with 10 students and an equal spread of module marks (SD = 10.00), a difference of five marks equates to a DI of 1.12, and a difference of ten marks equates to a DI of 2.24. Another disadvantage of the DI is that it can only be used to compare two groups at a time, meaning separate calculations have to be performed for each pairing. Analyses involving multiple groups (or multiple combinations of groups) could thus quickly become unwieldy. In our case study, which we describe in the report linked above, we used regression modelling to investigate whether module characteristics (eg level, credit value, exam weight) could predict DI. This required us to compute one regression model for each ethnicity pairing (White v Asian, White v Black, White v Mixed, White v Other). One of our findings was that module characteristics significantly predicted DI only between White and Black students, which we note ‘highlight[ed] the importance of recognising the heterogeneity of student experiences and needs’ (Kwok & Alsop, 2021: 16). We hope to conduct similar analyses with a much larger dataset, ideally from multiple institutions, which would enable us to utilise multilevel regression techniques to more elegantly capture and explore granular differences in the marks awarded to different groups of students.
To our knowledge, there is no measure that is systematically being used to operationalise the ethnic awarding gap at a level more granular than final degree outcome. We argue that this limits universities’ abilities to understand the awarding gap and identify what can be done to address it at an institutional level. We believe that the DI offers a solution to this. It can be used by researchers, as we have done, to investigate what curriculum-related factors may be contributing to the awarding gap. Those who teach can use the DI to explore module mark differences in their programmes, both within and between cohorts. Those with access to institutional-level data can investigate these trends on an even larger scale, for instance to explore if there are particular areas or time points where modules have consistently high or low (or negative) DIs. The impact of the pandemic can also be explored in this way, for example by using student cohort data either side of Covid-19. Further, while this article has discussed the DI in the context of investigating the ethnic awarding gap, it can also be used to compare students grouped in other ways. It is important that institutions utilise the data they already have to understand awarding discrepancies in a clear and sufficiently granular way – using the DI would help accomplish this.
Kat Kwok is an Educational Researcher at the Oxford Centre for Academic Enhancement and Development at Oxford Brookes University. She is interested in using quantitative methods to investigate race and gender disparity in higher education, and the student experience. Kat recently started her PhD at Coventry University where she will be using a mixed methods approach to investigate the relationships between feedback and student characteristics, and the impact of feedback.
Dr Siân Alsop is Research Fellow in the Centre for Global Learning at Coventry University. She is a corpus linguist whose research areas include attainment disparities in higher education, feedback, and the language of lectures. Siân was previously a Lecturer in Academic Writing and has worked on a number of projects relating to academic discourse, including the development of the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus and the Engineering Lecture Corpus (ELC).
SRHE Elected Trustee 1999 – 2012 SRHE Honorary Secretary 2004-2008 SRHE Vice President 2008-2013 SRHE President, 2013-2017
The Society for Research into Higher Education is deeply saddened to report the passing of Professor Sir Robert Burgess, always most affectionately known as Bob. During his tenure as Vice Chancellor at the University of Leicester he was also coined ‘Bob the Builder.’ This derived from his commitment to improving facilities at the university, overseeing many new buildings and campus developments.
Bob was an active and engaged President for the Society, meeting often with the Chair of the Society Professor Jill Jameson (University of Greenwich) and myself as Director of SRHE during his tenure, to discuss strategy and current issues and bringing his deep knowledge of higher education and of the Society to bear in his advice and guidance. Bob was a supportive and willing facilitator of others’ work on higher education topics, and his own writing on aspects of social science qualitative research methods, particularly case study, have been widely cited by higher education researchers.
It was a very special pleasure to have Bob preside over the Society’s 50th Anniversary Colloquium, held in June 2015 to mark 50 years from the founding of the Society. It was an occasion to celebrate in every sense, when the Society staged the Anniversary Colloquium at Church House in Westminster on 26 June 2015, 50 years almost to the day on which the society was formally created by a Memorandum of Association on 31 December 1965. The Colloquium then adjourned to a Reception at the nearby House of Lords, hosted by SRHE Vice-President, Baroness Sharp of Guildford and SRHE President Professor Sir Robert Burgess.
It is very sad indeed to lose a great friend, colleague, and supporter of the Society much too soon and our hearts and condolences go out to his wife, Hilary, and to his colleagues at Leicester.
We will share a remembrance message about Bob in the April issue of SRHE News. You are warmly invited to e-mail the editor of SRHE News and the SRHE Blog, Rob Cuthbert (email@example.com) with your thoughts and memories of Bob, or to share these in the comments below this blog post.
The title of the 2021 SRHE International Research Conference was ‘(Re)connecting, (Re)building: Higher Education in Transformative Times’. Chosen as usual after much deliberation by SRHE’s Research and Development Committee, the conference title aimed, as always, to give broad scope for contributions and participation. But does research into HE also need to (re)connect and (re)build? What exactly is the territory for research into higher education now, what needs to be joined up, where should we be building?
There are several maps and guides. SRHE’s Research into Higher Education Abstracts aims for comprehensive coverage, so new editors Roz Collings (Wolverhampton) and Shweta Mishra (Kassel), like their predecessors Gerda Visser-Wijnveen (Anton de Kom University, Suriname) and Roeland van der Rijst (Leiden), constantly review and from time to time modify the categories they use to organise 600 or more abstracts each year. Their recent addition of ‘Contributory Studies and Research Repositories’ points in the same direction as the structure of omniscient SRHE Fellow Malcolm Tight’s (2021) latest book, Syntheses of Higher Education Research: What We Know. Since Tight produced Knowledge and Research: the Developing Field in 2018 his categories remain unchanged but he has added the overarching ‘Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses’. These changes, to Abstracts and to Tight’s œuvre, suggest a field that is maturing rather than one in immediate need of reconnection and rebuilding.
Conference offers another guide: it attracted more than 620 researchers from more than 50 countries, at every stage of their academic careers. The chosen domains or themes for the Conference largely mirror the structure of SRHE Networks, reflecting the interests of SRHE members and the foci of their current research into HE. Figure 1 summarises the categories in these three ‘maps’:
Figure 1. Some categorisations of research into HE
SRHE Conference 2021 domains
Syntheses of HE Research
*Contributory Studies and Research Repositories
*Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses
*Knowledge and Research
*Academic practice, work, careers and cultures
*Postgraduate scholarship and practice
*Digital University and new Learning technologies
*Learning, teaching and assessment
*Teaching, Learning, and Assessment
*Teaching and Learning
*The Student Experience
*Technical, Professional and Vocational Higher Education
*Employability, enterprise and graduate careers
*Higher education policy
*National Systems and Comparative Studies
*International contexts and perspectives
*Management, leadership, governance and quality
*Institutional Management *Quality
Conference shows where research is going rather than where it has been: can we infer anything from its rather different categories? Perhaps research into policy, management, quality and comparative perspectives continues unabated but unchanged, whereas the clearer recognition of ‘Postgraduate scholarship and practice’ and (in particular) ‘Digital university and new learning technologies’ signals growing interest in and research into these areas.
Prompted by the SRHE Conference, Wonkhe asked SRHE Research Committee Chair Jacqueline Stevenson (Leeds), Leo Havemann (UCL) and SRHE Director Helen Perkins to reflect on the state of research into HE, publishing their thoughts – emphasising “compassion, openness and impact” – on 6 December 2021. Similarly for Wonkhe on 6 December 2021 SRHE member Camille Kandiko Howson (Imperial), former SRHE Vice-President Peter Scott (UCL) and Liz Austen (Sheffield Hallam) picked out “belonging, history and practice”. Camille Kandiko Howson emphasised belonging and internationalism and noted: “the major shift I saw were numerous papers on China … This signals a maturing of the field, going beyond research about Chinese students coming to Western institutions.” Peter Scott argued that: “HE research should be at the centre of our understanding of modern society … although there is excellent research on the history of universities, HE research still lacks historical perspective. Policy memory is notoriously short … Research should be helping to restore that memory. Closely linked, there is a gap in our understanding of both systems and universities as organisations. The choice too often seems to be close-up analysis/ commentary on the twists and turns of national policies and institutional responses, and highly abstract (and derivative?) systems and organisation theory. Research somewhere in the middle tends to be missing.”
In a November blog for SRHE Ruth McQuirter Scott (Brock, Canada) and her colleagues articulated five principles of ‘generous scholarship’ – social praxis; reciprocity; generous mindedness; generous heartedness; and agency – as a ‘vision for academic life’. These principles were much in evidence at the 2021 Conference. The SRHE Conference has gone from strength to strength in recent years and the great popularity of the Celtic Manor venue in Wales even led in 2020 to some regular attenders organising an online ‘Celtic Manor experience’. Sadly Covid-19 forced cancellation in 2020, and presented major challenges in 2021. However the early decision to stage the 2021 Conference online allowed careful planning and prompted the merging of the previously separate Newer and Early Career Researchers Conference, previously held successfully at Celtic Manor immediately before the main Conference. The quality of submissions in 2021 rose once again, as judged by the 40 or so academic referees; 223 individual papers, 16 symposia, and 17 posters were accepted for an event which had been fundamentally reconceived. It still felt like the Conference: there were still plenary sessions, meet-the-editors, how-to-get-published, SRHE Network events, poster sessions and the parallel themed presentations of groups of papers. But all of these had been thought through from first principles to make them work online. Plenaries were interactive panel sessions with a range of shorter presentations. The grouping of papers in presentation slots was not only exceptionally coherent, it also did all it could to recognise the time zones of the global participants (with some apologies to the night owls and early birds, especially in Australia and New Zealand). There was even an opportunity, exploited by many, for the informal conference mingling which is usually commonplace, via the Wonder.me software and a Mural board on which all participants could post comments and reflections. All this was supported by external specialist IT help which ensured that the week-long event ran smoothly. It was a triumph of design, organisation and presentation, with congratulations and thanks to the entire SRHE team: Helen Perkins, Rob Gresham, Sinéad Murphy, Katie Tindle, Adam Dawson and Franco Carta.
In 2021 all SRHE Network events and seminars have been freely available to global audiences, their reach has exceeded all expectations, and the Conference accelerated and reinforced this internationalisation. In that Wonkhe blog Jacqueline Stevenson emphasised the field’s ‘compassion and criticality’, adding: “What is perhaps different this year, however, and which is evident across the papers, is that the shift to digital ways of working, as well as delivering the conference online, has allowed for even greater global collaboration, and for an even greater and more equitable exchange of international information, ideas and knowledges.” For Helen Perkins the dominant theme was impact, and: “What is markedly different, especially during the course of the last few years, is the much wider range of countries where there are developed centres of research in this area and researcher contributing to journals and conferences.” It seems that, for research into HE, rebuilding and reconnecting has not been the issue. On the contrary, building has been booming across the world and connecting has perhaps never been better. What the 2021 SRHE Conference told us was that, against all odds, research into HE is in good health, worldwide.
Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @RobCuthbert
by Susan Harris-Huemmert, Julia Rathke, Anna Gerchen and Susi Poli
How well are HEIs being managed? Who are those in charge? Can we really be confident in their abilities? At a time in which the HE sector appears more complex and diverse, how sure can we be that those at the top are ‘professional’? How are they being prepared (or actively prepare themselves) for these positions, and if they get to the top, are they themselves making sure that staff members, too, are being ‘professionalised’? Especially in terms of new areas of employment within the HE sector, how are these staff members qualifying themselves? These seem pertinent questions and the ongoing lack of empirical work into HE governance reveals that there are considerable gaps in our knowledge. To address this, we bring together empirical data from ongoing research projects in the UK, Germany and Italy, which, from various angles and viewpoints, explore how professionalism within the HE sector is being developed to meet present and future needs and challenges.
A current German research project, financed by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) – KaWuM – is examining the career trajectories and qualification requirements of so-called higher education or science managers (www.kawum-online.de). Qualitative work has been undertaken to explore in depth the viewpoints and experiences of this particular group of staff, who work at the interface between research, teaching and administration (Whitchurch, 2010). A sample of 32 qualitative interviews has been drawn upon here from the project by Susan Harris-Huemmert and Julia Rathke, who examine the roles of German HE leaders from two vantage points. Firstly how do they prepare for and become more professional as institutional heads, and secondly: how do these leaders ensure that their academic or administrative staff members are also being professionally trained and developed? (Thoenig and Paradeise, 2016: 320). Interviews were conducted with both formal (presidents/rectors/chancellors/VPs) and informal leaders (science managers) and analysed in MaxQDa according to Kuckartz (2018). Findings suggest that formal HE leaders are encountering ever more complex management tasks, with little management training or ‘other’ work experience outside academia. They mainly learn by doing and often lack the time and/or motivation for professional training. It appears that formal HE leaders are seldom professionalised, although management tasks are their main responsibility. However, they are relying increasingly on professionalised science managers and their expertise, who can advance their professionalisation via personnel development.
In her work from within the BerBeo project, which also stems from the same BMBF funding thread as the above-named KaWuM project, Anna Gerchen is examining how the influence of New Public Management, academic reforms and increasing competition between universities have changed the demands on recruitment processes in German HE, in particular those regarding professorial appointments. Professorships in Germany are characterised by a particularly high degree of autonomy and prestige (Hamann, 2019). Almost all full professors are civil servants and hold tenured, safeguarded lifetime employment. This emphasises the importance of professorial personnel selection for which German universities use highly formalised procedures. To professionalise these procedures, Germany’s Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat) called for the creation of officers for professorial appointments to take responsibility for the “proper and smooth running of the procedure” (WR, 2005, p5). Following this recommendation and the subsequent legal revisions, many German universities have introduced officers for professorial appointment procedures – non-professorial staff members appointed specifically for quality assurance and decision-making support. These appointment managers – as shown on the basis of a quantitative survey (Gerchen, 2021) – are predominantly female, relatively young, highly educated and from the social sciences; in particular they show a background in administrative science or in law. Informing and advising the university management is reported by 94% of the respondents to be central to their work. This shows that the purpose of supporting the university management in appointment matters, as stated by the Council of Science and Humanities, actually represents the core function of this new position in practice.
In her research Susi Poli turns the lens towards Italy and a number of other countries to investigate the role of research managers (RMAs), as one of the most hybrid or blended groups that can be found in today’s HEIs among staff in professional services. She asks to what extent these managers are qualified for this specific role, even in relation to qualifications, training, and any sort of network provided by their professional associations. Is what they have, and do, enough? Or is there much more than that coming up in the RMAs’ community, even as creators of new discourses in today’s HE management? She draws on Barnett’s notion of supercomplexity, in which he suggests the re-creation of discourse on competences, qualifications, and professional frameworks (Barnett, 2008: 191). In this new age, research managers should be “pioneers or the creators of these new discourses” (Barnett, 2008: 206). Susi’s work includes an analysis of professional networks and supporting bodies in countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Norway, the US, Portugal, Japan, South Africa (Romano et al, 2021). She concludes that there is a growing awareness of the identity and purpose of research managers and that the literature is now paying more attention to this staff group.
In sum, it appears that there is a developing international trend towards greater professionalism within the HE sector, including the work of formal and informal leaders in various capacities. Networks reveal an increasing level of support, but it appears that professional development per se is still very much in the hands of the individual, and is not the result of any particularly well-structured system. This is a question the sector needs to ask itself, reflecting what Thoenig and Paradeise stated in 2016: “If knowledge gaps remain, this may be to the detriment of the strategic capacity of the whole institution”. Our question should therefore be whether we can afford to allow such knowledge gaps, or whether we as a sector can do more, to fill them.
Susan Harris-Huemmert is Professor of International Education Leadership and Management at Ludwigsburg University of Education. Following her doctoral research at the University of Oxford on the topic of evaluation practice in Germany, she has researched and published internationally on topics such as higher education systems and their governance, quality management and the management of campus infrastructure. Contact: email@example.com
Julia Rathke is research assistant at the German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer in the project “KaWuM – Career Paths and Qualification Requirements in Science and Higher Education Management” since August 2019. In January 2021 she took over charge of the joint coordination and management of the project team KaWuM Central Coordination and Interviews from Prof. Dr.Susan Harris-Huemmert. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.kawum-online.de
Anna Gerchen is a researcher at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) in the research area ‘Governance in Higher Education and Science’. With a background in communication science, sociology and gender studies she currently works on the field of quality assurance and appointment procedures at universities. Contact: gerchen[at]dzhw.eu
Susi Poli is Professional Development Lead in the Education Division at Bologna University, after several years spent as research manager in Italy and abroad. She holds a MBA in HE Management and an EdD in HE from the Institute of Education and her research interests primarily cover research management, staff development, and women’s leadership in HE. Contact here: email@example.com
Barnett, R (2008) ‘Critical professionalism in an age of supercomplexity’ in B. Cunningham (ed) Exploring professionalism London: Bedford Way Press pp190-208.
Gerchen, A (in press) Berufungsmanager*innen an deutschen Universitäten. Profilmerkmale eines neuen Stellentypus. Hochschulmanagement 4(16)
In this blog we explore the nature of Digital Critical Pedagogies – an emergent field of investigation that considers what happens to critical pedagogies in the context of digital learning environments. We present findings from the first strand of a research project that looks at ‘on the ground’ realities of DCP at Middlesex University. We report five themes that emerged from the first project strand, a collaborative literature review: digitally mediated dialogues; creating ‘safe space’ online; interweaving public pedagogies; digital inclusion; and pedagogical risk-taking. These themes represent useful and practical starting points for advancing DCP practices in higher education.
What are Digital Critical Pedagogies?
Critical Pedagogies are a commitment to learning and teaching that centre on meaningful dialogues with and between learners. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks (1994) presents dialogue as the key way to connect learning in the classroom with ‘real life’ experiences in ways that prompt further inquiry and insight, and are a step towards self-actualisation. What happens to these connections when we attempt to cultivate them in digital learning environments, through forums or Zoom meetings or social media exchanges? This is the question underpinning the emerging field of Digital Critical Pedagogies (DCP): explorations in developing critical pedagogies in the context of digital encounters.
Our Research at Middlesex University
Our research explores the aspirations and realities of DCP at Middlesex University, which like the rest of the higher education sector has made seismic shifts over the course of the pandemic towards digitally mediated learning. We harbour a strong commitment to critical pedagogies and have wondered collectively about the nature of these critical pedagogies in the context of digital learning that can look and feel markedly different.
Our project was designed to develop a better understanding of the platforms and practices that facilitate effective digital critical pedagogies. It is about enabling those working ‘on the ground’ to collaborative in solving problems in response to challenges we face as a university community. It has been supported through funding from the University’s Centre of Academic Practice Enhancement. There are three stages to the project: a collaborative literature review; interview study; and a design workshop to develop recommendations that we can take forward as an institution to realise our commitment to DCP.
The first of these stages, the literature review, was co-produced with an advisory group of 12 Middlesex University academics from across the university’s disciplines. From the literature review five themes emerged which are best conceptualised as areas of special consideration when exploring and designing DCP. They represent elements of practice to reflect on carefully and develop further as part of the practice of DCP. They are:
Digitally mediated dialogues
Creating ‘safe space’ online
Interweaving with public pedagogies
Digitally mediated dialogues
While open dialogues have a special role to play in all critical pedagogies, dialogues are not a neutral social justice mechanism leaving everyone in them feeling empowered. Dialogues ride on power differentials and inequalities whether they take place in physical or digital spaces (Bali, 2014). In digital spaces, we need to be aware of the way that even the most basic of parameters (such as internet connectivity) shape who can have a voice within dialogue, and we cannot underestimate the importance of this as a consideration in digital critical pedagogies.
Creating ‘safe space’ online
Managing a ‘safe space’ for dialogue online is complex. Part of how we think about the safe space in digital critical pedagogies relates back to the previous theme of dialogue, in that how presence is mediated will impact on the capacity to create a ‘safe space’ for dialogue. Boler (2015) warned that in too much online learning and teaching we end up with ‘drive by difference’ rather than deep and meaningful engagements with diversity. When we divorce ourselves from our physical presence – from our facial expressions, body orientation, gesture and so on – the ways in which we can collaboratively construct a safe space for dialogue change. A teacher cannot ‘read the room’ in the way that they might do when they are in a physical classroom. They cannot see who feels uncomfortable or they might not appreciate the vulnerability that a learner is showing by sharing a particular story or perspective. Boler (2015) suggests that embodied multimodal communication is a key component of enabling spaces for genuine and open dialogue, so the question becomes: is it possible to do the necessary communicative work in an online space?
Interweaving with public pedagogies
Public pedagogies are processes of learning that take place in what Hill (2018) calls ‘digital counterpublics’. These are online spaces, often associated with grassroots movements (such as Black Lives Matter) or marginalised groups finding their voice, which are online space in which there are. Hill (2018), Ringrose (2018) and Castillo-Montoya et al (2019) all focus on navigating public pedagogies as part of a digital critical pedagogical approach. They investigate what happens when we open up learning and teaching spaces to engage with wider social movements across the world. In this case, the public pedagogies come first and the classroom pedagogies follow.
The literature suggests the need for an expanded vision of digital inclusion and that fostering this expanded digital inclusion is key to digital critical pedagogies. Prata-Linhares et al (2020) document access and use of digital technologies as part of education during the pandemic and the social distancing measures put in place. Seale and Dutton (2012) conceptualise digital inclusion not just as access and use but also in terms of participation, equity and empowerment. This means that it is just whether or not you have access to the physical resources, but also about whether you are empowered to engage digitally as part of your own personal identity and self-expression. Too often, digital inclusion initiatives are having to justify their own existence through showing that they are getting individuals online in order to engage in education or employment, rather than it being about the authentic empowerment of an individual or group.
Pedagogical Risk Taking
The review highlights the need for pedagogical risk-taking as part of the project of articulating and experimenting with digital critical pedagogies. A commitment to risk-taking is already part of the critical pedagogy described by hooks. Pedersen et al (2018) describe a shift to hybrid (rather than digital or online) pedagogies, because the term ‘hybrid’ emphasises the extent to which the pedagogies are always on the cusp of becoming, they are more ‘not quite there’ than ‘there’.
Pedagogical risk-taking involves exposure and this can be intimidating. Communities of practice offer an important way to enable this pedagogical risk-taking so that it is collaborative and supportive and that everyone feels that there is necessary room to fail (as well as succeed).
Anderson (2020), in discussing the digital pedagogy pivot we have seen in response to COVID19, suggests that communities of practice are essential to support collaboration, practice sharing, practice development. Putting communities of practice at the centre of digital critical pedagogies is an active way of pushing back against the discourse of ‘inevitable de-humanisation’ that characterises some writing on digital critical pedagogies (Morris and Stommel, 2018; Boler, 2015).
Across all of the literature, a recurring gap is the voice of learners. Although a few of the articles did carry out interviews with learners, the dominant voice in articulating and understanding digital critical pedagogies is undeniably that of the teacher. There is an urgent need for research that bridges the gap between learner and teacher.
We need careful observational research to identify which learners are heard in different types of digitally mediated communication used in learning and teaching, and to explore some of the following questions:
We need to think about these safe spaces. What does a ‘safe space’ look and feel like in the context of digital critical pedagogies? How do we know if we are in a safe space (as opposed to a sanitised space) for dialogue?
What are the benefits of interweaving with public pedagogies as part of digital critical pedagogies? We need to know far more about the learners’ experiences when they engage with public pedagogies and the ways that this interweaving can be written into learning, teaching and assessment.
Finally, we think of the themes identified from the review as not so much ‘knowledge’ but as points for reflection on practice. We hope to bring the finding to life for both Middlesex academics and further afield and are currently putting together a collaborative innovation workshop with teaching academics at the university to develop concrete recommendations about how DCP can be more systematically advanced in the university and in higher education more broadly.
Faiza Hyder has worked as a Primary School teacher for over ten years in various London boroughs including Barnet and Islington. She recently graduated with distinction as a Master’s student at Middlesex University. Faiza currently works as a researcher for ACT (Association for Citizenship Teaching). Her additional research interests include EAL (English as an Additional Language), Immigration and motherhood in migration. Twitter @HyderFaiza
Dr Mona Sakr is Senior Lecturer in Education and Early Childhood. She researches creative, digital and playful pedagogies in a range of educational contexts, from early childhood education to higher education. In relation to higher education, she has published on the use of social media as part of developing critical pedagogies and the use of creative methods (e.g. drawings) for developing insights into learner experience and student feedback. Twitter@DrMonaSakr
Gareth Williams came from a family of Welsh schoolteachers – both parents, brother and sister. At age 11 he won a scholarship to Framlingham College in Suffolk, from where he later won a place at St John’s College, Cambridge to read economics. On graduation, as the result of an undergraduate paper on the economics of education contributed to the Cambridge Political Economy Society, he was appointed to a research post at the Agricultural Economics Research Unit at Oxford. From there he moved on to his first love, the economics of education, in a post in OECD working on econometric models of education, including the application of forecasting models. In 1968 he became Joint Director of the Higher Education Research Unit, the group which had worked under Claus (Lord) Moser on the statistics and forecasts of the Robbins Committee which had now transferred to LSE. Five years later at the age of 37 he was appointed at Lancaster as Professor of Educational Planning and Director of the Institute for Research and Development in Post Compulsory Education. In 1984 he accepted an invitation to join the Institute of Education (now part of UCL) as Professor of Educational Administration where he established the Centre for Higher Education Studies (CHES) which became a leading centre for research and policy studies in the field. On his retirement Ron Barnett, Paul Temple and Peter Scott edited a festschrift, Valuing Higher Education (UCL Institute of Education Press 2016) which brought together contributions from academic colleagues from around the world stimulated by his work.
Gareth’s move from OECD to LSE gave him the opportunity to broaden his interests in higher education policy from the more technical work on which he was engaged in Paris. A good example of this was his keynote chapter, ‘The scale of expansion to come’ written with Richard (now Lord) Layard in the enormously influential Penguin Special, Patterns and Policies in Higher Education (Brosan, G, Carter, C, Layard, R and Williams, G 1971). A single passage on the value of forecasting – the chapter was mainly concerned with the Department of Education and Science’s (DES) failure in this – captures Gareth’s authentic voice as an economic generalist and policy scholar:
“Forecasting is not an academic pursuit to be judged by whether it gives rise to true or false propositions. It is an operational exercise to be judged by whether it gives rise to better decisions than would have been taken without it. So long as there is planning, that is to say an organised attempt to achieve consistency between the activities of different agents, there must be forecasting.”
While at LSE he also produced, in conjunction with Tessa Blackstone and David Metcalf, the influential The Academic Labour Market. Economic and social aspects of a profession (Elsevier 1974) a far cry from the econometric modelling of countries like Greece which he had undertaken at OECD. Years later his inaugural lecture at the Institute, ‘New Ways of Paying the Piper’ again illustrated how he could employ an exploration of policy, informed by economics, to stimulate fresh ideas.
The editors of the Valuing Higher Education festschrift bring out effectively the extent to which his work extends beyond a narrow economic approach ‘to take a broad and inter connected view’ of policy issues and they list a series of quotations from Gareth’s works which are well worth recalling both from the perspective of when written and from the travails of today:
“The main weakness of the market model results from its possible effects on the supply of educational services ….unrestricted competition can lead to reductions in quality as institutions indulge in price competition and hard selling tactics” (in Clark, BR (Ed) Perspectives in Higher Education, University of California Press 1984, p 97).
“The relationship between higher education institutions and the society which surrounds them is a reciprocal one. It is a partnership … any government that attempts to use its control of the purse as a way of controlling academic life risks having a very mediocre intellectual elite and graduates who are unable to take initiatives” (Williams, G Changing Patterns of Finance in Higher Education Open University Press 1992 p 85).
“A university that divorces itself entirely from society rapidly becomes an irrelevant ivory tower [but] equally, one that only responds to outside pressures cannot perform its proper function of disinterested scholarship, research and criticism….[However] there is no single correct balance between the two extremes” (ibid).
One of Gareth’s great abilities was a facility to disentangle long range policy issues, a skill well demonstrated in the book quoted from above. His views were frequently sought by the Parliamentary Education Select Committee and a good example of his understanding of the issues surrounding system change can be found in a paper he wrote for the Committee in 2000 setting out his thoughts on these long term questions:
“The critical public policy challenges for the next decade are:
To set acceptable ground rules for institutional differentiation so as to continue to meet the claims of international recognised excellence in research and teaching while increasing social inclusion and encouraging lifelong learning.
To seize the opportunities offered by information technology to improve the quality of learning and reduce unit costs further while maintaining and enhancing appropriate standards across the sector.
To improve the funding arrangements and to promote better understanding of the relationship between public and private funding.”
(House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Employment, paper HE27, 2000)
Looking back from a standpoint of now 20 years or so it is difficult to fault his analysis and its continuing relevance.
As a major figure both in the UK and the international scholarly community it was natural that Gareth would play a leading role in the affairs of SRHE. He was chair of the Society for two periods, 1977-79 and 1986-88, served for a period as General Editor of the Higher Education Quarterly and became an Honorary Fellow of the Society. For 15 years (1984-1999) he and I jointly chaired a bi-monthly SRHE Policy Forum which Gareth hosted at the Institute. But undoubtedly his largest contribution was as Director of the Leverhulme Programme of Study into the Future of Higher Education 1980-1983. This was conceived by Gareth who also took responsibility for leading the campaign to resource the Study.
By 1980 the furthest extension of the Robbins student number forecasts had been reached and the latest publication from the Department of Education and Science had suggested a fall thereafter; the government was showing no interest in any follow up inquiry. Persuaded by Gareth, the Society took up the challenge, an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking for it to have contemplated. The Study, funded by the Leverhulme Foundation with some contribution from the Gulbenkian Foundation, consisted of a series of seminars, each chaired by someone senior from outside higher education, with invited speakers who for a fee presented well researched findings in the specialist topic of the seminar. The Study extended over two and a half years and was concluded by a single policy meeting which made a wide ranging set of recommendations. Each seminar was the subject of a full report in the Times Higher Education Supplement and in book form in the name of the seminar convenor. The success of the Programme lay in the seminars and their related publications, the product of what one American participant described as ‘the rolling Leverhulme crap game’, rather than in the final recommendations, because what it did was to open higher education policy issues to wider discussion and induct a range of participants into the practice of debating them. Peter Brooke, the Minister for Higher Education called it ‘probably the most systematic review of [UK] higher education policy by an organisation outside government that has ever been undertaken’ (Shattock M, SRHE, 1990).
The Leverhulme process of expert seminars showed Gareth at his best. A superb lecturer and teacher, his reputation also depended on his interventions from the audience in conferences, colloquia and seminars up and down the country and internationally. An accomplished debating agent provocateur he was never happier than putting forward alternative and plausible arguments against those advanced by the speaker, and always with good humour, suggesting contrary points of view. He had the unique ability to turn a rather plodding address into a lively discussion bristling with further questions and counter propositions. He brought a sense of intellectual challenge which the higher education community will very much miss.
Gareth was responsible for my invitation to a visiting position at the Institute in 1999. One outcome was the MBA in Higher Education Management in 2002 of which we were Joint Directors and Paul Temple was a key member of the team (and a later Joint Director of the programme with David Watson) The MBA differentiated itself from MA programmes in higher education because it approached topics via a management perspective while retaining a strong scholarly approach. We wanted it to breathe some new life into the running of institutions and higher education systems in these difficult times. As a programme it flourished, with many of its participants going on to high ranking positions in the system. Gareth brought to the programme just those characteristics of robust questioning of established nostra and the need for open discussion of issues that he brought to his academic life as a whole.
The British higher education community has lost a key scholar and communicator of ideas with a unique impact on research, teaching and policy in higher education.
Michael Shattock is a Visiting Professor at the UCL Institute of Education and an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Education at Oxford. His latest book, with Aniko Horvath, is ‘The Governance of British Higher Education: The impact of governmental, financial and market pressures’.
Whatever your degree of experience in chairing meetings, discussions, or conference sessions, the last 18 months or so have likely been a learning curve as we moved rapidly into managing these exchanges in online spaces. We at SRHE have moved all our events, seminars, and training workshops online as of March 2020, and have worked hard to ensure our online sessions are engaging, inclusive, and productive.
With our first ever virtual edition of the annual SRHE International Conference coming up on 6th – 10th December, we would like to share some of the best practice we have learned about chairing. We intend to put this in place at our conference, and look forward to supporting those who may be new to chairing conference sessions, whether online or otherwise. We would love to hear your own tips and ideas on effective chairing in the comments.
Before the session
Chairing online sessions is a far more enjoyable experience when you are not distracted by technical difficulties: we advise meeting your speakers in advance of the session start time to check any audio-visuals and screen-sharing functionality. Ensure that you have some familiarity with the platform you are using, and that you have some knowledge of basic troubleshooting or some technical support available (at SRHE, for instance, one or more staff members are always on hand to provide this during online sessions). For more presenting tips, you might like to take a look at our previous post on online academic presentations here.
Liaising with your speakers on the schedule and session format and factoring in well-timed comfort breaks will help you to run a session which is both punctual and relaxed for everyone involved.
Ensure that you are pronouncing your speakers’ names correctly, and have given them an opportunity to let you know how they prefer to be introduced and addressed.
Decide on the availability of presentation materials in advance, and ensure speakers are aware of and in agreement with this policy.
Taking notes in a session may be useful for participants to reflect on later. Decide in advance whether you as chair have capacity to do this, or if you would prefer to draw on a colleague for support. Could the session be recorded and/or written up afterwards and shared on the relevant website or other virtual platform?
During the session
Begin the session by clearly communicating the format and structure of the event, and the rules of engagement – ensure that participants know how and when they are welcome to turn their cameras/microphones on and off, how and when they can interject or ask for help, and how to address the speakers.
Timekeeping is essential to effective chairing. Although online formats present a promising opportunity to overcome the barriers some participants face in attend some events in person, it’s important to remember that most participants will be juggling competing responsibilities and working from shared or confined spaces. The chair should lead the way in ensuring that both speakers and attendees respect and adhere to the session schedule. Wherever possible, any changes to timings and format should be communicated ahead to all participants.
Managing the discursive aspects of an online session is a key element of productive chairing. In online spaces, the chair will often be required to monitor the written chat as well as being alert to raised hands and other forms of interjection – ensure that you seek support or a co-chair in advance of the session if this is too much juggling for you, or if you are leading a session with a large number of participants. As chair, adding a question to the chat box early on in the session can help to mitigate any reticence among participants about contributing to the discussion.
During discussions, the chair should take the initiative to redirect questions where necessary, whether to engage all the speakers, to avoid the discussion becoming too niche or exclusionary, or to encourage participants to reframe comments into questions. Consider the diversity of the session attendees when you select people to answer questions – for example, if women or BAME attendees are in the minority, try to ensure their voices are heard.
Take care to use gender-neutral language for anyone whose form of address is not known to you.
Software such as Slido or Mentimeter can be useful to facilitate questions in a way that does not require participants to speak individually/aloud.
If a participant elects to use the chat box, avoid calling on them to ask their question aloud; likewise, it’s advisable not to mandate that attendees participate in the discussion with their camera turned on.
Although discussions in online space can be fast-paced and require focussed attention, they also provide opportunities for collaboration. You might consider encouraging participants to share contact information, generate a collaborative reference list, or continue the discussion on social media or other platforms.
Ending the meeting
You may find that there are attendees who feel unable to fully participate at the time for whatever reason, or who require time to process the content of the session and formulate their contribution. These attendees can benefit from mechanisms which allow the discussion to continue beyond the event. The chair might consider collating unasked or unanswered questions and communicating them to the speaker(s) by e-mail, to make the responses available to participants later.
Provided the speakers are comfortable with this, the chair should ensure that attendees are aware of how they can contact the speakers outside of the session.
Closing the session with a summarising statement or a comment which draws the different insights offered during the discussion is a very effective way to leave attendees with food for thought about what could follow from the session.
As well as thanking everyone, you might consider signposting attendees to the next session on the programme, or a subsequent event on the same topic or by the same speaker(s).
Ensure that participants are aware of how they can offer feedback about the session. At SHRE, we circulate an evaluation form after each of our events and these help us to understand what our membership and wider community would benefit from.
We hope you find these guidelines helpful in preparing for our conference and for the online activities you will engage in this coming academic year. We are looking forward to seeing what new opportunities our virtual conference will provide – it takes place 6th – 10th December and registration is open here. We will be updating our conference pages with more information about the programme in the new academic year. If you have your own ideas for a contribution to the blog, we would love to hear from you!
Sinéad Murphy is the Manager, Conferences and Events for the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) and is responsible for SRHE’s events, workshops, professional development programme, and annual international conference. She holds an AHRC-funded PhD in Comparative Literature from King’s College London, and is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.