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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Fake Research and Trust in the Social Sciences

By Rob Cuthbert (Editorial from SRHE News, October 2018)

In 1996 physics professor Alan Sokal (New York/UCL) submitted a hoax article to Social Text, a postmodern cultural studies journal. ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ argued nonsensically that quantum gravity was a social and linguistic construct. The journal did not at that time practise peer review and the article was not submitted for expert consideration by any physicist. Sokal revealed his hoax on the day of publication and it was understandably seized on by conservative science academics as evidence that some social science academics are predisposed to accept arguments that fit their ideological preferences, a thesis put forward by biologist Paul Gross (Virginia) and mathematician Norman Levitt (Rutgers), in their 1994 book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, which Sokal said had inspired his hoax.

The Sokal affair prompted much comment, ranging from support of his hoax as a legitimate exposure of academic shortcomings to severe criticism of the questionable ethics of his manoeuvring. Social Text editors at Duke University, Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, wrote a long response in attempted justification, which variously said the piece had at first been rejected, that it had been accepted in the sense of being a well-meaning attempt by a scientist to engage in an outdated way with a different discipline, that their journal was more like a magazine than an academic journal, and that it was ethically unacceptable for Sokal to behave as he had.

Twenty years on, Continue reading

Lewis Elton


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Lewis Elton 1923-2018

By Ian McNay

Lewis died on 29 September. I have missed him, as have many people, since he withdrew from public life when he spotted the early symptoms of dementia a few years ago. What follows is not an obituary but more a written memorial service, a celebration of the admiration and affection we had for him, with contributions from Society members influenced by him.

The first contribution is from Harriet Croft (formerly Greenaway) whose period as Vice-Chair of the Society overlapped with Lewis’s period as Chair, at a challenging time. She also gives some basic background for younger members who may not be familiar with it. So, new readers start here.

Lewis Elton

Lewis Elton, who has died at the age of 95, was one of the founders of the SRHE. He was Chair for 1976 and 1977.  He had an interesting history. His German Jewish father had obtained a post in the UK shortly before the Second World War and, after some difficulty, the rest of the family also made it to London. Lewis and his brother Geoffrey also became academics.

Lewis was a physicist, working at the Battersea College of Advanced Technology. When it became the University of Surrey, he moved to Guildford where he later shifted his career emphasis and set up an Institute for Educational Technology. He defined ‘educational technology’ as ‘research-based practice’ and it was from this base that his work on teaching methods developed.

Lewis was short of stature but large of personality. He could always be relied upon to be the first person to ask a question, or make a comment, when that awkward pause came at the end of a presentation of a paper. His observations were always thoughtful. For instance, at the SRHE Annual Conference in December 1971 when Innovation in Higher Education was the theme, he drew on analogies of both nuclear physics and then on his Jewish awareness. The conference report states that ‘he thought that a university might well be compared to a factory housed in a country house in a kibbutz’. Commenting on another paper, on educational technology, he argued Continue reading


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The ‘Holy Grail’ of pedagogical research: the quest to measure learning gain

by Camille Kandiko Howson, Corony Edwards, Alex Forsythe and Carol Evans

Just over a year ago, and learning gain was ‘trending’. Following a presentation at SRHE Annual Research Conference in December 2017, the Times Higher Education Supplement trumpeted that ‘Cambridge looks to crack measurement of ‘learning gain’; however, research-informed policy making is a long and winding road.

Learning gain is caught between a rock and a hard place — on the one hand there is a high bar for quality standards in social science research; on the other, there is the reality that policy-makers are using the currently available data to inform decision-making. Should the quest be to develop measures that meet the threshold for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), or simply improve on what we have now?

The latest version of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) remains wedded to the possibility of better measures of learning gain, and has been fully adopted by the OfS.  And we do undoubtedly need a better measure than those currently used. An interim evaluation of the learning gain pilot projects concludes: ‘data on satisfaction from the NSS, data from DHLE on employment, and LEO on earnings [are] all … awful proxies for learning gain’. The reduction in value of the NSS to 50% in the most recent TEF process make it no better a predictor of how students learn.  Fifty percent of a poor measure is still poor measurement.  The evaluation report argues that:

“The development of measures of learning gain involves theoretical questions of what to measure, and turning these into practical measures that can be empirically developed and tested. This is in a broader political context of asking ‘why’ measure learning gain and, ‘for what purpose’” (p7).

Given the current political climate, this has been answered by the insidious phrase ‘value for money’. This positioning of learning gain will inevitably result in the measurement of primarily employment data and career-readiness attributes. The sector’s response to this narrow view of HE has given renewed vigour to the debate on the purpose of higher education. Although many experts engage with the philosophical debate, fewer are addressing questions of the robustness of pedagogical research, methodological rigour and ethics.

The article Making Sense of Learning Gain in Higher Education, in a special issue of Higher Education Pedagogies (HEP) highlights these tricky questions. Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay


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Universities Ancient and Modern

By Ian McNay

This seems to have been a recurrent theme in my life over the last three months, as well as a constant issue through working in a modern university occupying ancient buildings – anomalous, anachronistic and dissonant. One key factor recently was an invitation to contribute a piece to the Sage International Encyclopaedia of Higher Education on ‘Modern Universities’. I had 1000 words, so assumed it meant within the UK – a focus of other entries, in a publication mainly dealing with Anglo-Saxon countries. A mistaken assumption, but I defy anybody to compose a comprehensive coverage of the topic at global level in 1000 words. It has been accepted. The commission led to surfacing something of which I had been vaguely aware: all universities established or designated in the 20th century were secular. The last one with church links was Aberdeen, founded by papal bull and a charter from the local bishop in 1495, but also given a royal charter. In the 21st century, there have already been designations of 15 state universities which were, originally, church foundations, now labelled the Cathedrals Group, and claiming to be the only group in UK HE ‘based on ethical principles informed by faith-based values’. Heythrop College was also a member, but is now closing down; Trinity St. David’s is the only one outside England, and was formerly part of the University of Wales. Their main emphasis, reflecting history and the churches’ role in their communities, is teacher training, but they also have nearly half of the UK undergraduates studying theology and divinity.

Other newly designated universities also have narrow disciplinary bases, allowed by changes in criteria for designation; eight cover creative and performing arts and agriculture. The four private universities designated are similar – a focus on Law and Business and Management Studies, and mainly sold off to hedge funds based outside the UK, unconstrained by charity law or other checks and balances. As I have reported previously, some private HEIs differ in another way from the normative model: their student body has more men than women, a significant majority of BME students, and a mean entry age in the early thirties, not the late teens, so providing for a market segment under-represented elsewhere in the system, possibly conditioned by fee levels and debt aversion. At Coventry, the private arms in Scarborough, London and elsewhere were set up by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Ian Dunn in a separate structure from the university because the innovative features, enjoyed by students, would have been difficult to get approved.

That raises wider questions: is the current isomorphic state provision fit for all students, or, taking Ansoff’s strategy matrix, is it the same product for a new market for which it is less appropriate? The league tables promote a single model, with a characteristic of exclusionary entry levels preferred over diversity of access, for example. If we/you were establishing a university ab initio [the spell check changed that to ‘ignition’!], what would it be like

– to cope with the rapid growth in the 18+ age cohort in the next decade,

– with a projection by Graeme Atherton (Director of NEON) and colleagues of only 26 per cent of students from London being ‘white’, though higher elsewhere, and

– some of those with parents from elsewhere in the EU, countries with lower fees to which they might return for their higher education experience

– as well as developments in curriculum thinking and technology in learning?

Two ‘recent’ foundations have been very different: the Open University and the University of the Highlands and Islands. Do they offer lessons/models?

As it happens, other summer experiences continued the ancient/modern dichotomy.

A seminar at UCL IoE examined Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, which took it first students in 2010. It has an international academic staff (over 75 per cent are from elsewhere around the world) and student body – there are 20 flags on its website, aiming to get it high in league tables within 20 years. The emphasis is on research and graduate programmes – an MBA and Master’s awards in Education up to now. The only unit on which there are details is the engineering faculty, where all the listed research centres are located. It is also claimed as a ‘template’ university with an objective defined as helping other Kazakh universities to develop. There are about 40 of them, with mainly a regional focus and catchment. There is a problem: most of their staff do not speak English, the lingua franca of Nazarbayev [the university, not the president of the country], so there are communication issues in any ‘trickle down’ model. A second issue is that the new university gets over 25 per cent of the national HE budget. It is autonomous and has no reporting responsibility to the Ministry of Education, but may gain from lack of state control. There are echoes here of a recent article in World University News by Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit, for both of whom I have had a lot of respect. Their thesis is that most university academic staff should stop doing research, or not start, encouraged by closing down journals to make publication more difficult, and so, they claim, less likely to be a major pressure in academics’ lives. So, in Australia, just the Group of Eight, in the UK just the Russell Group [whose past pronouncements suggest they would support such a policy]. But, back to the question, which has system level implications: if you were planning a new university, would it build in research as an essential? Would a hierarchical system be good, or can diversity displace hierarchy, with different excellences recognised and rewarded? Does it have to have a significant international/global ethos?

I move on, to a holiday, in Portugal and Spain, which took in ancient universities in Coimbra and Salamanca, and modern, or at least younger ones in the Douro Valley, at Vila Real and a second one in Salamanca. Salamanca’s newer, private, university was founded by the pope when the state closed down the faculties of theology and canon law in the ancient one in 1854, though it did not get a charter until the 1940s. The new one took them over and now offers courses across the range of humanities and social sciences, with about 6,500 students. It has a world expert on dogmatic theology [is there another kind?] who recently won the Ratzinger prize. No science, technology or medicine; you have to go to the Pontifical University in Madrid for those. There is some confusion about identity because the pontifical university occupies old buildings in the city centre beside the cathedrals – the one to be replaced by the second has never been demolished and they are conjoined with entrance to the older [preferred by most visitors] through the newer. The walls of the university have names of doctoral graduates written in bull’s blood from the animal killed, cooked and eaten in celebration of success. Not done now, but a fee allows a name to be painted. ‘Fees’ triggers the memory that they are ten times higher in the private pontifical university than in the state university, now on the outskirts of the city and with approaching 30,000 students.

Coimbra is a major name in HE history in Europe, particularly during the Renaissance. It dominates the town both from its hilltop site and through its role as by far the main employer in the city. It has a Wow! library, where the books cannot be touched without official permission, and a chapel where the organ has 20,000 pipes, regularly played for masses, ceremonies and public events. There is a student uniform [really], of black and white, topped by a calf length black cloak, worn with one end slung over the left shoulder [not the right – that is a basic error]. A cross between Dr Who and Zorro. Personalised by badges showing students’ origins, disciplines and involvement in university life. After graduation, the uniform cannot be worn, except for the cloak on special occasions like selling souvenir pencils to tourists to help pay off debts, and singing Fado, the local folk music.

The modern university in this part of the review is the University of Tras-os-Montes and Alto Douro in Vila Real, Portugal. It was set up as a polytechnic in 1973, and given university status in 1986 because of quality research with relevance [there is still a strong polytechnic sector in Portugal]. It was founded for two reasons – to support regional development in a disadvantaged community; to provide a local institution of higher education, since other provision was difficult to get to – distance and under-developed infrastructure. So, initially, it was strong on agriculture, particularly viniculture, tourism, civil engineering (there are magnificent dams on the river) and such subjects as computing and business management to support them. Now it has 35 Bachelor and 38 Master’s courses across four faculties, and the region seems to be doing well, with EU funded projects very evident.

So, modern, or newer universities with a diversity of driving forces behind their establishment. In the UK, successive English governments have changed/reduced the criteria for designation, which has allowed smaller, specialist institutions to qualify, but also allowed privateers to gain a foothold in the sector. It could be that in the middle future, with demographic decline, the private sector will be enhanced by state universities deemed to be failing being sold off as ‘academies’ as in the school sector. That would accelerate the ‘small state‘ agenda. The other motivations have been the protection of an ideology/theology, also reflected in the rise of faith based universities in the UK, and a catalyst for high tech development and international recognition by an emergent nation and a power and glory driven dictator. I return to my earlier question: if HE continues to expand, possibly rapidly in many countries with increasing numbers of young people, what might be the defining characteristics of a university, to be fit for what purpose?

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich


Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Sam Gyimah MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science

Dear Minister

“Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”

If asked to sum up in a single word the direction of higher education policy from 2010 onwards, I think that many of us who try to follow Government thinking on these matters might say that the word would be “markets”. In successive White Papers and speeches, ministers have insisted that fee-paying students should see themselves as customers buying services from a university provider, which in turn should be competing with other providers in the higher education marketplace to offer the best value for money to student customers. In this way, your predecessors have argued, quality would go up and costs would come down, as happens in most markets for consumer goods. The Government has encouraged this trend by demanding that universities provide more information on which student-customers might base their purchasing decisions – most recently the TEF and the LEO data – and by encouraging new entrants into the marketplace with the aim of sharpening competition further.

Many of us in universities rather doubted that trying to create a straightforward market-type relationship between universities and their students was the best way to organise teaching and learning.  For a start, there is little evidence that students themselves want a relationship on these terms: the great majority of students surveyed in the HEPI 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey, for example, arguably preferred a pre-2004 Act, certainly a pre-2011 White Paper, funding model. I think that one reason for this – paying lower fees is no doubt another – is because they understand that in order to learn effectively they must engage with the academic life of the university in a way that is qualitatively different to, say, my engagement with Sainsbury’s when I go shopping there. Sainsbury’s does not expect its customers to help create the products which appear on its shelves; and if I’m unimpressed with them today, and I can see what Tesco are up to tomorrow. I have made no particular commitment to the Sainsbury’s way of shopping. Forgive me if this seems terribly obvious, but it has not always been clear that ministers fully appreciated this distinction.

Although many of us didn’t much like its implications, we did at least think we knew that Government saw our relationship with our students in these transactional, market-based terms. But then, Minister, along you come saying that, on the contrary, we should be in loco parentis to our students, acting (for instance) as go-betweens with their parents or guardians if we have concerns about their mental health (as reported in The Guardian, 28 June). This is not just overthrowing normal market relationships – Sainsbury’s in truth couldn’t care less about my personal well-being – it is redefining universities’ relationships with their students, and in an unhelpful way. (Having a duty of care towards both students and staff members is a different matter.) If I may say so, this has the distinct feel of political grandstanding, wanting to be seen to be acting decisively in response to – what, exactly? Of course, mental illness is desperately serious for the families and friends of those suffering from its various forms, needing the involvement of skilled professionals. A particular concern may be that suicide could result from overlooking a person’s symptoms. (Though suicide in the UK is actually a good-news story – so to speak – as ONS data show that the number of suicide deaths has been falling steadily over recent decades. Middle-aged, disadvantaged men are most likely to commit suicide – and they don’t constitute a large part of the student demographic.)

But what should be the role of a university in relation to its adult students with mental health problems? Nicola Barden writing for WonkHE on 28 June (do you read it, Minister? – you should) identifies a few of the problems which the proposed opt-in system, allowing universities to contact a student’s parents or other nominated individuals in the event of a mental health crisis, will create. Any social worker will tell you that relationships within families can be difficult in ways that outsiders can’t immediately detect: any member of university staff intruding here must be certain that they will not cause further harm – and how can they know that for sure? Imagine a situation where a parent of a student with mental health difficulties believes that the university will contact them in the event of a crisis – only for the student to have withdrawn that consent subsequently, not wanting their family to be involved. The university will then be in an impossible situation, having made commitments to both parties (as they will see it).

We’re operating, Minister, in a Government-mandated market. Universities should support their students in their academic work, but should not set themselves up to fail as substitute families. That historically never was their role; your Government’s market-focused policies have now put it completely beyond reach.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.


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Are academic papers written with students cited as often as academic papers written with colleagues?

By James Hartley

This note compares the citation rates for publications written by the author alone with (i) those written by the author and fellow colleagues and (ii) those written together with undergraduates. Although the citation rates for publications written by the author alone, or with colleagues, are higher than those obtained for papers written with undergraduates, the data suggest that some teacher-student papers can make a substantial contribution to the research literature.                                                                                                       

Introduction

As an academic author I often wonder whether or not my papers with undergraduates are cited as often as my papers with colleagues.  On the one hand, colleagues are often more experienced and generally more familiar with academic writing and publishing than undergraduates.  On the other, undergraduates in the UK sometimes author papers arising from the research that they carried out in their final year supervised by academic staff.  To answer this query I used the website Google Scholar to examine a sample of how often my single-authored publications were cited with respect to (i) those written with colleagues and (ii) those written with undergraduate students. Continue reading


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It’s all about performance

by Marcia Devlin

The Australian federal government has indicated its intention to introduce partial funding based on yet to be defined performance measures.

The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) by the Australian government updates the economic and fiscal outlook from the previous budget and the budgetary position and revises the budget aggregates taking account of all decisions made since the budget was released. The 2017-2018 MYEFO papers state that the Government intends to “proceed with reforms to the higher education [HE] sector to improve transparency, accountability, affordability and responsiveness to the aspirations of students and future workforce needs” (see links below). Among these reforms are performance targets for universities to determine the growth in their Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding for bachelor degrees from 2020, to be capped at the growth rate in the 18-64 year old population, and from 1 January 2019, “a new allocation mechanism based on institutional outcomes and industry needs for sub-bachelor and postgraduate Commonwealth Supported Places”. Continue reading