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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Making admissions better in Australia

By Marcia Devlin

In Australia, the federal government has been focused on improving the transparency of higher education admissions. I’ve been concerned and written about this matter for some years, particularly the confusion in prospective students and their families around exclusive admissions criteria being used as a proxy for quality.

The government-appointed Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) were asked to consider and report on how the admissions policies and processes of higher education providers could be made clearer, easier to access and more useful, to inform the choices and decisions of prospective students and their families.

In the context of an increased variety of pathways through which a prospective student can apply or be accepted into higher education in Australia, the HESP found that prospective students, their families and others, including schools, are finding it increasingly difficult to understand the full range of study options and opportunities available, and to understand how they can best take advantage of these options to meet their education and career objectives.

The HESP made 14 recommendations Continue reading

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Be careful what you wish for

By Paul Temple

At an SRHE conference session not long ago, I remarked on the hostility shown at any mention of neoliberalism. As I recall, the neoliberal charge-sheet included the commodification of higher education, cuts in funding, the proletarianisation of academic staff, an obsession with metrics and targets replacing a culture of standards and quality … the list went on. My response was that while these were all no doubt bad things, neoliberalism was merely a bystander at the crime scene, not the perpetrator. Politicians and their agencies, wishing to exert ever-tighter control over higher education through half-baked ideas about markets and business methods, were the ones wielding the blunt instruments. A proper neoliberal would no more have a view on the size, shape and methods of higher education than they would want to determine the types and quantities of cars produced by the motor industry.

Neoliberals would instead want to reduce government controls on universities (or car makers) to allow them to meet the needs of students (or car buyers) in the ways they judged best. They would want governments to concentrate on Continue reading

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Post-Truth and the Higher Education and Research Bill

By Rob Cuthbert

The Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) has begun its Committee stage in the House of Lords. With 500 amendments tabled for line-by-line scrutiny, six days were set aside through to 25 January 2017, but on the first day, 9 January, only one amendment was considered. It was however a pivotal proposal, about the nature and purpose of universities, with the rarity of being taken to a vote – the first time since 2012 (on a health bill) that there had been a vote at this stage in the Lords. Debate is likely to be both heated and confused, because the Bill embodies two key contradictions – between centralised control and free market forces, and between two very different appeals to legitimacy: emotion and personal belief, or evidence.

In HE the neoliberal tendency often gets the blame, but, as Paul Temple points out in this issue of News, neoliberalism is not easily reconciled with the centralising and controlling inclinations which are a key part of the Bill. Times journalist Matt Ridley departed from his usual science and environment beat to devote a column on 9 January 2017 to the Bill, headlined ‘Universities are being nationalised by stealth’.  As a hereditary peer Viscount Ridley was no doubt heading for the House of Lords for the Bill’s first day. The Bill is indeed ‘a Whitehall power grab’, as he argued.

So far, so easy to understand. Whitehall’s civil servants always want more control. But why would politicians enamoured of the market choose to go along with it? Continue reading


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Max Weber and the rationalisation of education

By Geoff Hinchliffe

In order to understand our own times, it can be beneficial to go back in time, in order to take advantage of a fresh perspective from afar. One thinker who was uncannily prescient about some of our current concerns in higher education was Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber has always been held in high esteem, of course, by sociologists. But I think what he has to say about the effects of bureaucratisation are of interest to anyone working in higher education at the moment.

Weber thought that the methods and techniques of bureaucracy were all-pervasive in a modern industrial society. These techniques were by no means confined to the state: bureaucracy colonised all forms of commercial and institutional behaviour – including education. And these techniques were also accompanied by a certain habit of mind which Weber called rationalisation.  In his book, the Protestant Ethic, Weber famously invokes the ‘iron cage’ which modern man had constructed for himself, signifying the development of procedures and behaviours necessary for a modern economic order whilst “the rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems to be irretrievably fading” (Weber, p. 181-2).

This ‘iron cage’ – the cage of rationalisation – includes : Continue reading


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Fear and Loathing in the Business School

By Jacqueline Aldridge

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

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

Business is a dirty word

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


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Launch of Policy Reviews in Higher Education

Bruce Macfarlane

Bruce Macfarlane

William Locke

William Locke

The first issue of the new SRHE journal, Policy Reviews in Higher Education, was launched at the Annual Conference on 8th December 2016, with a cake and after dinner speeches from the Editors, William Locke and Bruce Macfarlane.  The first issue (January 2017) is free to view for a limited period on the journal web site.

The following is an extract from the Editorial to the first issue of the journal.

In 1976, the first issue of Studies in Higher Education was published. According to its founding editor, the late Tony Becher, its purpose was to ‘demonstrate that higher education is a worthwhile field of intellectual enquiry’ (Becher, 1976:2). If judged by reference to current levels of publication activity in the higher education field, this modest goal appears to have been largely met. Studies, started with just 2 issues in 1976, with 27 authors contributing 24 papers. By 2014, it had expanded to 10 issues publishing 126 papers from 275 contributing authors.

Forty years on from the founding of Studies there is a substantial number of well-established academic journals devoted to higher education studies or specialist areas of interest such as teaching and learning, quality and policy. Policy Reviews in Higher Education joins Studies and Higher Education Quarterly as journals of The Society for Research into Higher Education. Why then, it might reasonably be asked, do we need another journal about higher education? This is a perfectly fair question, but we think we have a good answer.

First, Policy Reviews has an avowedly international and comparative orientation and encourages in-depth analyses of policy issues and developments relevant to any aspect of higher education. The internationalisation of higher education has been accompanied by the globalisation of higher education policy, policy transfer and borrowing. While nations and their national and local systems have different histories and configurations, many are facing similar issues and drivers, for example, around high participation, financial sustainability, equity, and the integration of higher education with other key components of political economy. These challenges demand fresh thinking and new perspectives, which are also based on historical understanding and a willingness to look forward, which the broad scope of this new journal will seek to encourage.

The second distinctive feature of Policy Reviews is that it offers a different sort of academic space for longer, more extended analyses and reflections on policy issues in higher education of between 8,000 and 12,000 words. The overwhelming majority of higher education journals publish relatively short papers of between 5,000 and 7,000 words, often based on small-scale empirical enquiry. At the other end of the scale are opportunities to publish academic monographs in book form that normally range between 45,000 and 70,000 words. Policy Reviews seeks to fill the gap between these formats by offering authors an opportunity to develop an in-depth piece of reflective analysis that can speak to an international readership.  However, we recognise that articles of this length require a different level of commitment (and risk), and so we have introduced a first Review Proposals stage, when authors propose an article in no more than 500 words.  These proposals are evaluated and feedback given by reviewers before any invitation is made to prepare and submit a full paper, which is then peer reviewed in the conventional way.

The breadth of perspective, together with the opportunity for extended contributions, will distinguish Policy Reviews in Higher Education from other higher education academic journals. Part of maintaining this breadth is to ensure that higher education remains a permeable field and not one that discourages contributions from different disciplinary areas. Higher education as a research field would ossify without continuing to draw on fresh ideas and concepts from other academic fields. In this spirit, we would encourage authors from any disciplinary background to consider contributing to the journal.

We also wish to emphasis that we do not regard ‘policy’ as a word that should exclude contributions to this journal focusing on any aspect of higher education that is subject to policy debate and development at any level. Divisions between ‘policy’ research on the one hand, and ‘learning and teaching’ research on the other, may reflect distinct scholarly tribes within the higher education field that participate in different conferences and networks and largely publish in different journals. However, this divide does not make much sense when there are critical areas of policy development, for example, in respect of learning and teaching, such as student engagement strategies and the development of academics as teachers as well as researchers.

We aim for between four and six longer form articles in each issue of the journal and have been very encouraged by the quality and quantity of contributions submitted so far. This has occurred even in advance of the launch of Policy Reviews and before readers can begin to see how our aims and vision might be realised over a number of issues.

A brief glance at the biographies of the authors contributing to the first issue will show that, as editors, we welcome – and have every intention of publishing – contributions from those near the beginning of their academic and publishing careers as well as those with long and distinguished publications records (and those in between).  We also seek a wide international spread of authors, their current locations and their areas of study.  Where gaps emerge, we will seek to encourage and even commission contributions to address these.  We have already drawn heavily on our highly supportive international Editorial Board, with its even more widespread expertise, in promoting the journal, as well as reviewing papers. At this point, we have no initial plans for Special Issues whilst the journal establishes itself, but we may consider this at a later stage.

Tony Becher wanted to win over the ‘retrenched sceptic’ who doubted the value of higher education research. While such critics are still around today there are now far more active scholars who research, write and publish about higher education and should be capable of defending and explaining its importance. The reputation of the field can only be enhanced through more in-depth comparative analysis that looks at how policy has evolved and developed across international contexts. This will, we would hope, boost our collective learning as both scholars and policy makers about higher education as a global phenomenon and the issues central to its future development.

Reference: Becher, T. (1976) Editorial, Studies in Higher Education, 1(1), 1-2

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Constructing the higher education student: a comparative study of six European countries

By Rachel Brooks

We were delighted to give the first proper presentation about our new ‘Eurostudents’ research project at the SRHE annual conference in December 2016. As the project will run over the next five years, we hope that we’ll be able to give further presentations about it at various SRHE conferences in the future. Colleagues can also find regular updates on the project website (www.eurostudents.net) and by following us @eurostudents_ on Twitter.

Below we provide a brief background to the project, and explain what we will be doing over the next few years.

Background

There are currently over 35 million students within Europe and yet, to date, we have no clear understanding of the extent to which understandings of ‘the student’ are shared. Thus, a central aim of this project is to investigate how the contemporary higher education (HE) student is conceptualised and the extent to which this differs both within nation-states and across them. This is significant in terms of implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumptions that are made about common understandings of ‘the student’ across Europe – underpinning, for example, initiatives to increase cross-border educational mobility and the wider development of a European Higher Education Area. It is also significant in relation to exploring the extent to which understandings are shared within a single nation and, particularly, the degree to which there is congruence between the ways in which students are conceptualised within policy texts and by policymakers, and the understandings of other key social actors such as the media, higher education institutions and students themselves.

Research questions and methods

The empirical project is guided by four main research questions:

(i) How are understandings of the higher education student produced, shaped and disseminated by (a) policymakers, (b) the media and (c) higher education institutions?

(ii) To what extent do these understandings differ within and across European nations?

(iii) How do students of different national and social backgrounds understand the role of the higher education student?

(iv) To what extent are their understandings consonant with those produced, shaped and disseminated by policymakers, the media and higher education institutions?

To answer these questions, data will be collected from six different European countries – Denmark, England, Ireland, Germany, Poland and Spain (chosen to give variation in welfare regime, relationship to the EU, and mechanisms for funding HE) – and through four strands of work, each of which focuses on a different social actor i.e. policymakers, the media, higher education institutions and students themselves.

new-picture-3The research is funded by the European Research Council, through a Consolidator Grant awarded to Rachel Brooks (Surrey), and runs from August 2016 until July 2021. The project researchers, working with Rachel, are Jessie Abrahams, Predrag Lažetić and Anu Lainio.

SRHE Member Rachel Brooks is Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey and has edited one of the latest books in the SRHE/Routledge series entitled Student Politics and Protest