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Sir Gavalad, the Knight of the Wholly Failed

by Rob Cuthbert

There was a time when knighthood meant something. It started out as a career path for the elite, for those headed for the cavalry, but: “As knighthood evolved, a Christian ideal of knightly behaviour came to be accepted, involving respect for the church, protection of the poor and the weak, loyalty to one’s feudal or military superiors, and preservation of personal honour.” The concept may have peaked in medieval times, but myths and legends continue to frame the knight as someone whose exemplary conduct has won them distinction. The “most perfect of all knights” was Sir Galahad, one of the three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table who achieved the Holy Grail.

Knighthood continues as a reward bestowed by the monarch for supposedly meritorious service. The British Honours system has many faults and some would like to abolish it completely. Its structure and nomenclature still embodies class privilege and explicit echoes of empire, even in HE, where VCs and professors of ‘elite’ universities aspire to knighthoods while the best of the rest will usually go no higher than CBE. But with the announcement of a knighthood for Gavin Williamson the government has once again plumbed depths which would not long ago have seemed unimaginable.

There might be some embarrassment involved, even for this apparently shameless government, given that the announcement was sneaked out as the war in Ukraine was dominating newspapers and airwaves. For years Williamson had been by a country mile the least respected, least popular and least successful member of the Cabinet – and that was the view of the Conservative Party. He finally lost his ministerial post in the reshuffle in September 2021. For reasons known only to himself, the Prime Minister decided at the time to soften the blow of Williamson’s dismissal by giving him a knighthood, as Camilla Tominey’s column in The Telegraph on 5 March 2022 made clear. Presumably he could not be given a peerage, either because he did not have enough roubles, or because, against all reasonable expectation, the 46-year-old harboured ambitions of yet another political comeback. So a knighthood was the sweetener of choice. But what did he do to ‘merit’ it?

Gavin Williamson had risen without trace to become Chief Whip in Theresa May’s Cabinet. When Sir Michael Fallon resigned as Secretary of State for Defence in November 2017 the Prime Minister followed standard practice and turned to the Chief Whip for suggestions about his replacement. Williamson, to widespread astonishment, proposed himself and May, weakened after the 2017 general election, agreed. He was not successful, not respected by senior service personnel, and attracted widespread ridicule for telling Russia to “go away and shut up” in 2018. Vladimir Putin obviously took careful note. He was fired as defence secretary in 2019 for allegedly leaking details from a National Security Council meeting about Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G network, which he denied.

He then supported Boris Johnson’s campaign for leadership of the Conservative Party and was rewarded by a return to Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education. It was, then, the education sector that bore the brunt of his incompetence at a time in the pandemic when effective leadership was desperately needed. Williamson stumbled from one disaster to the next, issuing vague or ambiguous advice to schools, or clear instructions just hours before they were meant to take effect, making school staff scramble to work out their implications. He announced that schools must stay open and then reversed his decision just days later. And, worst of all, he made the difficult problem of handling national examinations in 2020 far worse than it needed to be, with profound effects on schools, HE, individual students and their future careers. Policymaking in a pandemic needed to be decisive, transparent and inclusive. Instead it was indecisive, obscure and included only those outside the DfE who would be later blamed for getting it wrong. Higher education institutions did the best they could to cope with the flood of proportionately much better-qualified applicants, with no thanks to the flipflopping by the Secretary of State for Education and Ofqual which repeatedly changed the admissions arithmetic, right up to the last minute. Even so tens of thousands of young people were dissatisfied or destroyed by the results that finally emerged from the abandoned algorithm and centre-assessed grades, and denied any realistic chance of appeal. The surge in numbers in unexpected places changed institutional strategies for several years and immediately jeopardised the prospects of the next cohort of applicants.

The gratuitous damage to so many students brought to mind the last time a senior Cabinet minister had made a major promise affecting higher education and then completely reversed his decision. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg pledged before the general election in 2010 to abolish student fees, then went into coalition with the Conservatives, He did not simply abandon his pledge – as Deputy Prime Minister he was party to the decision to treble student fees instead. A ‘National Scholarships Scheme’ was supposed to be some compensation but was, unsurprisingly, an insignificant damp squib; it had to be quietly abandoned. Mealy-mouthed protestations about the ‘compromises’ necessary in coalition did not dissuade the electorate from destroying the Liberal Democrats at the next general election. Clegg’s complete failure led, naturally, to a knighthood; he became Sir Nick and departed to make his fortune in the Metaverse.

It was perhaps the most egregious example of a complete failure in HE policy leading to ennoblement – until now, as Sir Gavalad becomes the second Knight of the Wholly Failed. This is not just failure, it is Massive and Shameful (M&S) Failure. But some politicians have no shame.

Such knighthoods deserve a special ceremony. Perhaps Prince Andrew could be persuaded to do the honours.

Rob Cuthbert is the editor of SRHE News and Blog, emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.


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Critically analysing EdTech investors’ logic in business discourse

by Javier Mármol Queraltó

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

In the context of the current SARS-COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing process of digitalisation of education has become a prominent area for social, financial and, increasingly, (critical) educational research. Higher education, as a pivotal social, economic, technological and educational domain, has seen its activities drastically affected, and Universities and the multitude of people involved in them have been forced to adapt to the unfolding crisis. HE researchers agree both on the unpreparedness of countries and institutions faced by the pandemic, and on its potential lasting impact on the educational sector (Goedegebuure and Meek, 2021). In as much as educational technologies (EdTech) have been brought to the fore due to their pivotal role in the enablement and continuation of educational practices across the globe, EdTech companies and investors have also become primary financial beneficiaries of these necessary processes of digitalisation. The extensive use and adoption of EdTech to bridge the gap between HE professionals and students due to the application of strict social distancing measures has been welcomed by investors as an opportunity for EdTech to establish themselves as key players within an educational landscape under a process of assetisation (Komljenovic, 2020, 2021). Investors and EdTech are scaffolding new digital markets in HE, reshaping the conceptualisation of universities, HE and the sector itself more generally (Williamson, 2021; Komljenovic and Robertson, 2016). In this brief entry, I focus on EdTech investors’ discourses, owing to the potential of such discourses to shape the future of educational practices broadly speaking.

Within the ‘Universities and Unicorns’ ESRC-funded project, this exploratory research (see full report) aimed at unveiling the ideological uses of linguistic, visual and multimodal devices (eg texts and charts) deployed by EdTech investors in a variety of texts that have the potential, due to their circulation and goals, to shape public understandings of the role of Educational Technologies in the unfolding crisis. The research was conducted deploying a framework anchored in Linguistics, specifically cognitive-based approaches to Critical Discourse Studies (CL-CDS; eg Mármol Queraltó, 2021b). A central assumption in this approach is that language encodes construal: the same event/situation can be alternatively linguistically formulated, and these can have diverse cognitive effects in readers (Hart, 2011). From a CL-CDS perspective, then, texts can potentially shape the way that the public think (and subsequently act) about social topics (cf Watters, 2015).

In order to extract the ideologies underlying discourse practices carried out by HE investors, we examined qualitatively a variety of texts disseminated in the public and semi-private domains. We investigated, for example, HolonIQ’s explanatory charts, interviews with professionals and blog entries (eg Charles MacIntyre, Alex Latsis, Jan Lynn-Matern), and global financial reports by IBIS Capital, BrightEye Ventures, and EdTechX, among several others. Our main goal was to better understand how EdTech investors operationalised discourse to shape the imageries of the future in the relationship between HE institutions, EdTech and governance. In line with CDS approaches, we examined the representations of social actors in context using van Leeuwen’s (2008) framework, and more in line with CL-CDS, we also operationalised the analysis of metaphorical expressions indexing Conceptual Metaphors, and Force dynamics. Force-dynamics is an essential tool deployed to examine how the tensions between actors and processes within business discourse are constructed (see Oakley, 2005).

Our study yielded important findings for the critical examination of discourse processes within the EdTech-HE-governance triangle of influences. In terms of social actor representation (whose examination also included metaphor), the main findings are:

  • EdTech investors and companies are rendered as opaque, abstract collectives, and are positively represented as ‘enablers’ and ‘disruptors’ of educational processes.
  • Governments are rendered as generic, collective entities, and depicted as necessary funders of process of digital transformation.
  • Universities or HE institutions are mainly negatively represented as potential ‘blockers’ of processes of digital transformation, and they are depicted as failing their students due to their lack of scalability and flexibility.
  • Individuals within HE institutions are identified as numbers and increasing percentages within unified collectives, students routinely cast as beneficiaries in ‘consumer’ and ‘user’ roles, while educators are activated as ‘content providers’.
  • Metaphorically, the EdTech sector is conceptualised as a ‘ship’ on a ‘journey’ towards profit, where HE institutions can be ‘obstacles along a path’ and the global pandemic and other push factors are conceptualised as ‘tailwinds’.
  • The EdTech market is conceptualised as a ‘living organism’ that grows and evolves independent of the actors involved in it. The visual representations observed reinforce these patterns and emphasise the growth of the EdTech market in very positive terms.

The formulation of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors is also essential to understand the discursively constructed ‘internal tensions’ within the sector. In order to examine these factors, we operationalised Force-dynamics analysis and metaphor, which allowed us to arrive to the following findings:

  • Push factors identified by investors driving the EdTech sector include the SARS-COVID19 global pandemic, the digital acceleration being experienced in the sector prior to the pandemic, the increasing number of students requiring access to HE, and investors’ actions aimed at disrupting the EdTech market.
  • Pull factors encouraging investment in the sector are conceptualised in the shape of financial predictions. The visions put forward by EdTech investors become instrumental in the achievement of those predictions.
  • The representation of the global pandemic is ambivalent and it is rendered both as a negative factor affecting societies and as a positive factor for the EdTech sector. The primary focus is on the positive outcomes of the disruption brought about by the pandemic.
  • Educational platforms are foregrounded in their enabling role and replace HE institutions as site for educational practice, de-localising educational practices from physical universities.
  • Students and educators are found to be increasingly reframed as ‘users’ and ‘content providers’, respectively. This discursive shift is potentially indicative of the new processes of assetisation of HE.

On the whole, framing business within the ‘journey’ metaphor entails that any entities or processes affecting business are potentially conceptualised as ‘obstacles along the path’, and therefore attributed negative connotations. In our case, those entities (eg governments and HE institutions) or processes (eg lack of funding) that metaphorically ‘stand in the way of business’ are automatically framed in a negative light, potentially affording a negative reception by the audience and therefore legitimising actions designed to remove those ‘obstacles’ (eg ‘disruptions’). EdTech companies and investors are represented very positively as ‘enablers’ of educational practices disrupted by the SARS-COVID19 pandemic, but also as ‘push factors’ in processes of digital acceleration within the ‘speed of action is speed of motion’ metaphor. In the premised, ever-growing EdTech sector, those actors and processes that ‘slow down’ access to profits (or processes providing access to profit) are similarly negatively represented. The conceptualisation of the SARS-COVID-19 global pandemic in this context reflects ‘calculated ambivalence’. This ambivalence was expected, as portraying the pandemic solely as a relatively positive factor for the HE sector would be in extreme detriment to EdTech investors’ activities. Our findings reflect that, while the global pandemic is initially represented as a very negative factor greatly disrupting societies and businesses, those negative impacts tend to be presented in rather vague ways and in most occasions the result of the disruption brought about by the pandemic is reduced to changes in the modality of education experienced by learners (from in-person to online education). We have found no significant mention of social or personal impacts of the pandemic (eg deaths and scenarios affecting underrepresented social groups), where the focus has been mainly on the market and the activities within it. Conversely, while the initial framing of the pandemic is inherently negative, we have seen in several examples above that the pandemic is subtly instrumentalised as a ‘push factor’, which serves to accelerate digital transformation and is hence a positive factor for the EdTech sector. In a global context of restrictions, containment measures and vaccine rollouts, it is especially ideologically relevant to find the pandemic instrumentalised as a ‘catalyst’, or as an important player in a ‘experiment of global proportions’. Framing the pandemic in such ways detaches the audience from its negative connotations, and serves to depict EdTech companies and investors as involved in high-level, complex processes that abstract the millions of diverse victims to the pandemic. Ultimately, in the ‘journey’ towards profit, the SARS-COVID-19 is a desired push factor, also realised as a ‘tailwind’, which facilitates the desired digital acceleration.

On the whole, our research demonstrated that social actor representation and the distinction between push/pull factors are crucial sites for the analysis of EdTech discourse. EdTech’s primary focus is on the positive outcomes of the disruption brought about by the pandemic. In this context, educational platforms are foregrounded in their enabling role and replace HE institutions as site for educational practice, de-localising educational practices from physical universities. Subsequently, students and educators are found to be increasingly reframed as ‘users’ and ‘content providers’ respectively. We argue that this subtle discursive shift is potentially indicative of the new processes of assetization of HE and reflects more broadly a neoliberal logic.

Javier Mármol Queraltó is a PhD candidate in Linguistics in Lancaster University. His current research deals with the multimodal representations of discourses of migration in the British and Spanish online press. He advocates a Cognitive Linguistic Approach to Critical Discourse Studies (CL-CDS), and is working on a methodology that can shed light on how public perceptions of social issues might be influenced by both the multimodal constraints of online newspaper discourse and our shared cognitive capacities. He is also interested in the multimodal and cognitive dimensions of discourses of Brexit outside the UK, news discourses of social unrest, and the marketisation/assetisation processes of HE.


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Understanding the value of EdTech in higher education

by Morten Hansen

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

EdTech companies are, on average, priced modestly, although some have earned strong valuations. We know that valuation practices normally reflect investors’ belief in a company’s ability to make money in the future. We are, however, still learning about how EdTech generates value for users, and how to take account of such value in the grand scheme of things.


Valuation and deployment of user-generated data

EdTech companies are not competing with the likes of Google and Facebook for advertisement revenue. That is why phrases such as ‘you are the product’ and ‘data is the new oil’ yield little insight when applied to EdTech. For EdTech companies, strong valuations hinge on the idea that technology can bring use value to learners, teachers and organisations – and that they will eventually be willing to pay for such benefits, ideally in the form of a subscription. EdTech companies try to deliver use value in multiple ways, such as deploying user-generated data to improve their services. User-generated data are the digital traces we leave when engaging with a platform: keyboard strokes and mouse movements, clicks and inactivity.


The value of user-generated data in higher education

The gold standard for unlocking the ‘value’ of user-generated data is to bring about an activity that could otherwise not have arisen. Change is brought about through data feedback loops. Loops consist of five stages: data generation, capture, anonymisation, computation and intervention. Loops can be long and short.


For example, imagine that a group of students is assigned three readings for class. Texts are accessed and read on an online platform. Engagement data indicate that all students spent time reading text 1 and text 2, but nobody read text 3. As a result of this insight, come next semester, text 3 is replaced by a more ‘engaging’ text. That is a long feedback loop.


Now, imagine that one student is reading one text. The platform’s machine learning programme generates a rudimentary quiz to test comprehension. Based on the students’ answers, further readings are suggested or the student is encouraged to re-read specific sections of the text. That is a short feedback loop.


In reality, most feedback loops do not bring about activity that could not have happened otherwise. It is not like a professor could not learn, through conversation, which texts are better liked by students, what points are comprehended, and so on. What is true, though, is that the basis and quality of such judgments shifts. Most importantly, so does the cost structure that underpins judgment.


The more automated feedback loops are, the greater the economy of scale. ‘Automation’ refers to the decoupling of additional feedback loops from additional labour inputs. ‘Economies of scale’ means that the average cost of delivering feedback loops decreases as the company grows.


Proponents of machine learning and other artificial intelligence approaches argue that the use value of feedback loops improves with scale: the more users engage in the back-and-forth between generating data, receiving intervention and generating new data, the more precise the underlying learning algorithms become in predicting what interventions will ‘improve learning’.


The platform learns and grows with us

EdTech platforms proliferate because they are seen to deliver better value for money than the human-centred alternative. Cloud-based platforms are accessed through subscriptions without transfer of ownership. The economic relationship is underwritten by law and continued payment is legitimated through the feedback loops between humans and machines: the platform learns and grows with us, as we feed it.


Machine learning techniques certainly have the potential to improve the efficiency with which we organise certain learning activities, such as particular types of student assessment and monitoring. However, we do not know which values to mobilise when judging intervention efficacy: ‘value’ and ‘values’ are different things.


In everyday talk, we speak about ‘value’ when we want to justify or critique a state of affairs that has a price: is the price right, too low, or too high? We may disagree on the price, but we do agree that something is for sale. At other times we reject the idea that a thing should be for sale, like a family heirloom, love or education. If people tell us otherwise, we question their values. This is because values are about relationships and politics.


When we ask about the values of EdTech in higher education, we are really asking: what type of relations do we think are virtuous and appropriate for the institution? What relationships are we forging and replacing between machines and people, and between people and people?


When it comes to the application of personal technology we have valued convenience, personalisation and seamlessness by forging very intimate but easily forgettable machine-human relations. This could happen in the EdTech space as well. Speech-to-text recognition, natural language processing and machine vision are examples of how bonds can be built between humans and computers, aiding feedback loops by making worlds of learning computable.


Deciding on which learning relations to make computable, I argue, should be driven by values. Instead of seeing EdTech as a silver bullet that simply drives learning outcomes, it is more useful to think of it as technology that mediates learning relations and processes: what relationships do we value as important for students and when is technology helpful and unhelpful in establishing those? In this way, values can help us guide the way we account for the value of edtech.

Morten Hansen is a research associate on the Universities and Unicorns project at Lancaster University, and a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Hansen specialises in education markets and has previously worked as a researcher at the Saïd Business School in Oxford.


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“Levelling Up the United Kingdom”: Examiner’s report

By Paul Temple

This thesis deals with a topic – the large variations in economic and social conditions across the UK – that is of great interest both to policy-makers and to researchers. Although the present submission unfortunately falls some way short of the standard required for doctoral research, in terms of content, analysis, and presentation, I hope the author can be encouraged to pursue his work to produce a thesis that will do justice to the significance of the topic.

The first difficulty with this thesis is its lack of a clear research question. I think that the author has mistaken the collection of data of a vaguely relevant kind (12 tables and 80 diagrams of various sorts) for research which properly informs the topic under review. The author also makes the basic error of presenting data without showing its relevance: telling us, for example, that Jericho was the largest city in 7000 BC might be relevant if the topic was to do with ancient civilisations, but it verges on the bizarre when the topic is modern Britain. The purpose of the un-captioned pictures of apparently random urban scenes is unclear.

The central research question that might be inferred appears to be something about getting the various intangible “capitals” – human, social, institutional, and so on (as well as the tangible ones) – that social scientists have been developing for nearly half a century to work together more effectively. One of the important policy implications that the thesis then identifies is that achieving this integration requires some serious devolution of power: it notes that levelling-up “requires a further devolution of decision-making powers to local leaders where decisions are often best taken” (Foreword); and that “levelling up will only be successful if local actors are empowered to develop solutions that work for their communities” (133) – and much more in the same vein.

The thesis shows all too clearly, however, that centralised decision-making is so embedded in government thinking that the resulting policy contradictions which are reported on here are seemingly invisible to the author – at least, he does not comment on them. So although the planning of schools is a fundamental task devolved downwards in nearly all countries, here we read that “The UK Government will drive further school improvement in England through 55 new Education Investment Areas (EIAs )in places where educational attainment is currently weakest. The Department for Education (DfE) will support strong multi-academy trusts to expand into these areas” (xxii). In other words, micro-level educational change is still to be controlled centrally, despite the fine words about local devolution of powers. There are many other examples of central decision-making supposedly supporting local initiative when actually it will undermine it. It appears also that simply relocating central government functions from London is regarded as devolution: for example, “taking decision-making closer to the communities the Government serves, including…[moving part of, presumably,] the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to East Kilbride” (xiii). Quite how the people of East Kilbride might influence international policy is not made plain, nor why their voices should be heard in preference to those of other UK citizens. This kind of unreflective thinking undermines the claims of the thesis.

The academic study of social capital has struggled with the problems of direction of causation and circularity: in other words, are better health outcomes (for example) caused by higher levels of social capital, or do we identify levels of social capital by reference to health outcomes? This difficulty is not mentioned in the thesis: so although we are told that “Smoking rates in England range from 8% in Richmond upon Thames to 23% in Blackpool” (63), it is not clear if the implication is that reducing smoking in Blackpool will cause it to become more like Richmond in other respects; or whether making Blackpool more like Richmond, perhaps economically, will reduce the level of smoking there. Clearly, the policy implications will be different depending on which alternative is favoured; but we are not told which way round the causation works.

The role of higher education in levelling-up is mentioned only in passing, and the institutional significance of universities in their cities – as employers, as forces for internationalisation, and as contributors to the cultural lives of their cities – is not discussed at all. Graduate mobility is examined (90), but the implications of these movements are not explained. The significance of “the Cambridge phenomenon”, and the possibilities of replicating it, are not discussed.

The thesis presents a large number of maps and diagrams showing the concentration of high-value-added economic activities in London and the south-east. What is nowhere mentioned is what has been a truism of economic geography for over half-a-century, namely that the strength of this region derives in substantial part from its proximity to the European economic heartland of north-western Germany, the Low Countries, and the Paris region. The proverbial visitor from Mars, on reading this thesis, might be excused for assuming that Kent looks out on an empty ocean. This obvious omission is hard to explain, and further weakens the argument of the thesis.

Examiner’s decision: resubmit within twelve months, with major amendments.

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


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

by Richard Davies

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

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

Think of it as a short paper, not an abstract

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

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

Reviewer’s judgement

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

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

Checking against the criteria

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

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

Positive news

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

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

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


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Professor Sir Robert ‘Bob’ Burgess, 1947 – 2022

Professor Sir Robert Burgess in front of the David Wilson Library, University of Leicester

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.     

Helen Perkins, SRHE Director helen.perkins@srhe.ac.uk  

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 (rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk) with your thoughts and memories of Bob, or to share these in the comments below this blog post.


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Beware efficiencies! Assetisation as the future defraying of costs savings in the present

by Kean Birch

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

What makes learning more efficient? And what makes teaching more effective? According to EdTech providers and their champions, it is the digital transformation of higher education. The consulting company Gartner – which releases regular EdTech industry reports – defines this transformation as a shift from a ‘collectively-defined’ quality model in which universities provide their services – theoretically – to anyone, to a model in which quality is personally defined and delivered at scale through MOOCs or other means. In fact, Gartner emphasize the importance of EdTech providing scalable technologies for ensuring ‘cost effective education for the benefit of society’. And this seems to be the concern of many EdTech firms themselves; they aim to provide technologies that make life and work more efficient and effective for higher education institutions, managers, faculty, students, and staff.

But what does this actually mean?

I am part of a project, led by Dr Janja Komljenovic, looking at how value is increasingly being created in the higher education sector through the transformation of ‘things’ into digital and other assets – it could be students’ data, it could be research, it could be lectures, and so on. Part of our concern about these changes is the way they can end up reconfiguring societal, public, or commonly held resources as private assets from which companies can exact an economic rent. An important reason for examining this assetisation process is to analyse exactly how things are turned into private assets as a way to open them up to public scrutiny, and political intervention, should we so desire. While assets are constituted by legal forms, like property rights, and technical changes, like digital rights management, they are also the result of broader narratives about how we should or should not understand the world. Epistemic justifications matter. The World Economic Forum highlights what I mean here. They support the deployment of education technology as a way to “create better systems and data flows”. And this means more efficient and effective learning and teaching. But, what does efficiency and effectiveness mean in the case of higher education?

As we have interviewed EdTech providers in our project, we have noticed how they emphasize ‘efficiency’ as one of the key contributions of their technology, where this seems to be equated with producing an outcome at lower cost, whereas this is understood – in common sense terms – as doing something ‘better’ than before. It is important to see how the concept of efficiency is enrolled in the transformation of higher education into a range of assets. Assetisation in higher education depends on the development and promotion of a set of analytics that can identify efficiencies, understood as cost savings that someone or some institution can benefit from. Key to this assetisation process is the characterisation of efficiency as a common-sense goal for universities, managers, faculty, students, staff, and governments; in fact, efficiency can appear to be the very thing that education technologies are turning into an asset. For example, making it cheaper for students to study by enabling them to rent their textbooks, rather than have to buy them. Or making it cheaper for universities to pay subscription only for those electronic texts – or even parts of those texts – that are actually read and used by their staff and students. But this raises an important question: how do EdTech companies make money, if they are simply reducing costs all around?

EdTech companies look to the future for their success. Assets are temporal entities, entailing the creation of a stream of future revenues that can be capitalised in the present, thereby enabling investors to put a value to them that does not depend on being profitable now, or even generate significant revenues now. Efficiencies in the present often end up as defrayed costs in the future as those cost savings today compound into increased revenues for someone (eg EdTech) in the future. The future revenue expectations of EdTech companies come from the illusion of efficiency as cost savings at this point in time; for example, students can save on textbooks now but will be induced to subscribe to lifelong learning resources, or their personal data might be exploited in the future in multiple ways, or their reading habits will be used to sell something to universities, or any manner of revenue generating schemes. Someone is paying in the future.

EdTech companies have to make money somehow, and how they make money is the interesting question. Ideas about the current and future state of higher education and EdTech matter as they provide imaginaries of what is possible and desirable, which we discuss in this report. Claims to efficiency are part of how they make money; they are part of the way that EdTech companies construct new asset classes out of universities and their students, faculty, and staff. Interrogating how these supposed efficiencies are monetised is critical for getting a grip on the implications of EdTech for higher education in the longer term. It is essential we analyse this dynamic now to allow for timely public scrutiny, democratic debate and social intervention.

Kean Birch is Associate Professor at York University, Canada. He is particularly interested in understanding technoscientific capitalism and draws on a range of perspectives from science & technology studies, economic geography, and economic sociology to study it. More specifically, his research focuses on the restructuring and transformation of the economy & financial knowledges, technoscience & technoscientific innovation, and the relationship between markets & natural environments. Currently, he is researching how different things (e.g. knowledge, personality, loyalty, etc.) are turned into ‘assets’ & how economic rents are then captured from those assets – basically, in processes of assetisation and rentiership.


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New higher education institutions: a real chance to innovate?

by Katherine Emms

Since the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, England has seen a surge of new higher education institutions adding to the traditional higher education  landscape. The Act made a number of major changes to the sector, one of which was the introduction of the Office for Students (OfS), which was given responsibility to grant degree-awarding powers to providers and the right to use ‘university’ in their title. The Act was intended to make it easier for more providers to enter the market, and in the words of the 2018 Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, it was “designed to facilitate innovation, avoiding overly-prescriptive, process-focussed approaches that might place limitations on creativity”. The invitation was welcomed by a number of providers and now, a few short years later, some are already taking in their first cohorts of students. But are these institutions truly offering something different to students, facilitating innovation and diversification in a crowded marketplace, or just replicating existing models?

At The Edge Foundation we wanted to investigate the early experiences of these new higher education institutions (HEIs) and understand what their guiding principles and reasons for setting up were, as well as how they were interpreting their visions and putting these into practice. We have conducted a number of semi-structured interviews with founders and staff across several new HEIs, with more dialogue to follow as these institutions move through their early stages of operation.

Employability is increasingly seen as a responsibility of HE, not just as a separate task of the careers services but one which should be an integrated element within academic learning (Crammer, 2006). New HEIs have highlighted the gap between existing provision and employers’ needs, and see their offering as a way to address this issue, claiming that their innovative approaches could better support the employability of students. One way this has been tackled is through strong collaboration with employers from the outset of designing the course and its content. Some new HEIs emphasised the importance of a ‘backwards design’ which is demand (employer)-led rather than supply (academic)-led. Having industry experts involved in skills gap workshops and continuously having employer representatives as part of the validation process were some of the ways that supported this.

Most of the new HEIs we spoke to focus on broadness of provision in a number of senses. First and foremost, they set aside traditional subject silos and instead are looking to offer interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary degrees, or offer a broader notion to a single subject area (e.g. bringing the social science aspect into engineering). The arguments put forward were that complex world problems are not fixed within a single discipline and require a broad knowledge and skill set that spans disciplines in order to be solved. One way to support this broad provision is through staff recruitment at the new HEIs; staff are recruited partly from industry, partly from the world of academia, but ultimately having the right attitude and a team working ethos to work collaboratively across disciplines are considered key.

The broadness theme also plays out in terms of the development of the student. Looking beyond academic and knowledge-based learning, the development of the whole student is seen as core to their provision. All aspects are important – from ensuring the development of transferable skills that are integrated into the curriculum, to ensuring students take part in meaningful placements and have employer interactions to develop the ‘professional’ skills they need after graduation.

Another way these new HEIs are pushing back against traditional modes of delivery is through their focus on team work, and problem-based learning or project-based learning. Almost all our participants emphasised that their HEI has no lectures, instead focussing on students working together on authentic real-world issues often set by an external client, making them relevant to industry. Alongside this, exams are not the main form of assessment, instead a range of more ‘authentic’ methods were discussed including reflective portfolios, podcasts, blogs, and pitches to businesses.

These new HEIs vary across their stage of development, their size, mission, and delivery, although some common factors have been set out above. One thing that all the new HEIs have had to navigate was the registration and policy landscape. Some of these were partnering with or being ‘parented’ by an established university to go through the process and some were going at it alone. This brought differing issues and seemed to influence the degree of innovation they could deliver. To some extent working within the parameters of another university can stifle the innovation by having to fit their delivery into traditional and established ways. On the other hand, these established universities have the advantage of bringing credibility to the new HEIs, which can be beneficial both in terms of the registration process and the attractiveness to new students.

Ultimately these HEIs are new and are yet to see a full cohort of students graduate, therefore we have limited markers of success so far on which to evaluate them. Likewise it is difficult to see how innovative these providers are, as one stakeholder remarked: “innovative might be a great idea, but until it’s tested is much harder to understand whether it really is innovative”.Edge will continue with our research over the next year and beyond to understand more about the experiences of these new HEIs and their students.

Katherine Emms is a Senior Education & Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation. Her main areas of research are in higher education, vocational education, skills shortages in the economy and employability skills. Current and published research can be seen here: https://www.edge.co.uk/research/research-team/kat-emms/. Twitter @kat_emms


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

by Janja Komljenovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Pathways to inclusivity and diversity: building communities for women in science

by Jennifer Leigh and the Board of WISC

Talking about the gender imbalance in STEM is not new. Patricia Fara wrote a book on the history of women’s participation in science and explained clearly that women have always been interested in science – the fact is they have not always been given the opportunities to be scientists.

These days we can look at the lack of diversity in science and see that as well as barriers for women and other marginalised genders, there are barriers for anyone who does not fit the mythical stereotype of what a scientist might be. This might be because they are Black, or because they are disabled, or from a minority ethnic group, because of their sexuality, religion, or because they are the first in their family to enter higher education. Kimberlé Crenshaw described the way that these barriers accumulate and multiply as intersectional.

There has been a plethora of programmes designed to increase numbers of women in science, from the ADVANCE programme in the USA to the Athena Swan Charter used in the UK and globally. But there is still underrepresentation of women. Leading scientists such as Professor Rita Colwell, and advocates for women in science like Professor Sue Rosser, would say that in fact progress towards gender equity has stagnated. So, what can we do?

The approach taken by the International Women in Supramolecular Chemistry (WISC) network was to do things differently in order to effect immediate change. WISC was launched in November 2019 by Dr Jennifer Hiscock and colleagues after they realised the invaluable support they gained from an informal peer-support network. Chemistry has particular issues around the retention and progression of women. Whilst outreach has been successful, with women making up around 50% of all undergraduates choosing to study chemistry, less than 9% are full professors. This is a similar proportion to Physics, where fewer than 25% of A level students are girls. Rather than do yet more research that quantifies the numbers that make up the problem, WISC decided to use a novel area-specific approach that embedded qualitative and creative research methods more commonly associated with social sciences and arts. Rather than working on scientists, WISC chose to work with them, to gain understanding of the lived experiences of women who chose to stay in science.

The barriers to retention and progression that face women in chemistry are not new. Senior women and those who have left science have spoken up about dealing with sexual harassment, misogyny, and microaggressions. About balancing the chance to have a family with a career that places pressure on individuals in their late 20s to late 30s to travel, work excessively long hours, and be hyper-productive. They have spoken about the ‘old boys network’ in science where men use their positions of power and influence to help others, and the threat of losing their job or having to leave the field if they were to complain. In this last, science is probably no different from other parts of academia.

What WISC has done is to create a means by which women in the field now have been supported to share their stories with each other, to build a sense of community, kinship and mutual support through using creative and reflective means such as collaborative autoethnography. Then, together with data from qualitative surveys with a wider body of members, and ongoing reflective work with international research groups, they used narrative fiction to create a series of vignettes drawing from the research data. These vignettes allowed WISC to share the lived experiences and embodied responses of women in chemistry with a wide audience, whilst protecting all the participants from the dangers of being seen to complain or whistleblow. They collected these vignettes together in a forthcoming book from Policy Press. Dave Leigh FRS, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Manchester, wrote in the foreword to the book:

“Over my career I have seen many things change for the better in academia: Recruitment and promotion committees take genuine steps to avoid conscious and unconscious bias; schemes have been introduced that target women and other disadvantaged groups for independent positions; the increase in the number of women in chemistry departments has drastically changed the ‘macho’ culture that was prevalent 25 years ago. But the text and vignettes in this book, the latter composed from real experiences of women in supramolecular chemistry, paint a vivid, troubling picture that shows just why further significant change is still needed. The playing field is still not level. Whether that’s the fault of society, academia or supramolecular chemistry itself, I don’t know. But I suspect it’s all three. In reading this the most uncomfortable part of all was the persistent wondering if and how my own behaviour contributes to the inequality and experiences I was reading about. What do I do, or not do, that makes academia less fair on my women colleagues? And my questioning of that is, perhaps, the best reason of all for this book.”

WISC have created a means by which their members and participants can share their own experiences, and then utilise these safely to raise awareness of the challenges and barriers they face as they choose to stay in science. Their aim is not only to connect with women and other marginalised groups, but to use fiction to reach out to men as well, and from there to make change.

SRHE member Jennifer Leigh is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education and Academic Practice at the University of Kent. She is Vice Chair of Research in WISC, Co-Lead of the NADSN STEMM Action Group, and sits on the SRHE R&D committee. At Kent she is a Co-Chair of the Disabled Staff Network, Co-Chair of the Visual and Sensory Research Cluster, runs the Summer Vacation Research Competition, and is on the Thriving@Work Working Group. Her books include Ableism in Academia, Embodied Inquiry: Research methods, Conversations on Embodiment and the forthcoming Women in Supramolecular Chemistry: Collectively crafting the rhythms of our work and lives in STEM. See also recent article in ScienceDirect Managing research throughout COVID-19: Lived experiences of supramolecular chemists