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Silver linings but no silver bullet: Graduate careers in (times of) crisis

by Andrew Dorrance and Daria Luchinskaya

It should come to no-one as a surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of students and graduates alike in an unprecedented way. The recent SRHE event Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis, jointly organised by the Student Access and Experience and Employability and Enterprise and Work-based Learning Networks, explored the impacts of the pandemic on graduates’ transitions to work. While there have been scattered silver linings for students and graduates, many challenges remain. This blog summarises the key themes emerging from the event and discusses potential steps forward.

Introduction

The ‘Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis’ event aimed to discuss the early impact of the pandemic on graduates’ experiences, to explore how careers advice, information and guidance has changed with physical distancing requirements, and to reflect on the broader labour market context (please see the section at the end for more details). The speakers contrasted findings from the ‘Class of 2020’ Graduating in a Pandemic project, that tracked the experiences of recent graduates with the longer-term experiences of the 2009/10 ‘Recession graduates’ from the Futuretrack project. Careers professionals discussed their responses to the pandemic and highlighted different projects aimed at helping students and graduates. There was a general sense, too, that the pandemic seems to have acted as a catalyst for reflection, among students, graduates, careers staff and other stakeholders.

Pandemic challenges

The pandemic seems to have exacerbated existing inequalities among students and graduates that then had different effects on their transitions to employment.

Digital inequality, where students and graduates struggle with access to sufficiently high-quality internet connections and personal devices, accentuates barriers to accessing education, job interviews and jobs that have moved online. Both Futuretrack and Graduating in a Pandemic found that there was vast difference between people’s experiences of working from home, accentuated by digital inequality and potentially the environment in which they can work.

There was also qualitative evidence of work placements, interviews and job offers ‘falling through’, with graduates reporting difficulties in doing their jobs and some even saying they lost their ‘perfect’ job offer. College graduates who undertook vocational courses orientated towards the service sector were particularly affected, and reported difficulties in finding or doing their jobs when in industries that were particularly affected by Covid-19 – for example, in events management or beauty therapy.  College graduates were also more likely to come from less advantaged backgrounds than university graduates.

Some graduates who would have, in other circumstances, joined the labour market, have been opting to go into education (eg graduate to postgraduate or college to degree-level) as a temporary solution to a lack of graduate job opportunities.

Ultimately, the labour market impact of the pandemic contributed to an increase in anxiety amongst students and graduates, particularly those studying subjects that required placements to complete their degrees, and those who were already facing disadvantages. These findings are consistent with what we know from the experiences of ‘recession graduates’ of 2009/10. Futuretrack and related research found that existing inequalities structured access to careers information, networks and useful resources and the ability to navigate the recession stemming from the crisis, and that these educational and social (dis)advantages were cumulative.

Silver linings

Despite these challenges, Graduating in a Pandemic found that around a third of graduates from 2020 were employed in or had been offered a job that was related to their intended career path (although such graduates were more likely to be from more advantaged backgrounds). For those working in the so-called ‘non-graduate’ jobs, it may be a matter of time before they move to more appropriate employment, although it remains to be seen hoe Covid-19 will affect different industries over the longer term.

The majority of Futuretrack’s ‘recession graduates’ had moved to ‘graduate’-level employment 9-10 years after graduation. Over half of those reported that it was exactly the type of job they wanted to do and over three quarters were generally satisfied with their jobs. However, even 9-10 years on from graduation, a substantial minority of Futuretrack graduates were not well integrated into the labour market and unsatisfied with their jobs. This less-well integrated group of graduates, as well as those who recently changed work and those working freelance and the self-employed, were perhaps more vulnerable to the (indirect) effects of Covid-19, for example, regarding job security or eligibility for furlough.

Reflection

The pandemic had also offered people a chance to reflect. Futuretrack graduates reported taking time to re-evaluate career priorities and life values. A small number of 2020 graduates whose job offers were impacted had indicated that the pandemic had given them the time to rethink their career path and look for and attain their ‘dream’ job rather than the ‘graduate’ job they would have done otherwise.

Careers services professionals found themselves in a ‘unique’ role as a link between HE, students, graduates and employers, and stepped up to the pandemic challenges. They worked hard to develop inclusive and innovative ways in supporting students and graduates. For example, online workshops and events improved accessibility and speaker availability. However, there were also challenges in attaining consistently high levels of attendance and ensuring that the services reached the students and graduates most ‘at risk’ of falling through careers service provision.

Careers services also developed new resources, for example focusing on virtual recruitment practices and work placements to address the changes to the recruitment and placements process as a result of the pandemic. Over the pandemic period, careers services were also able to learn what services work better online (eg using the shared screen feature to look at students’ CVs) or in-person, and to adapt as the pandemic unfolded, and continues to do so.

Looking forward

Fortunately, going forward there are perhaps tentative grounds for positivity, as student recruitment had seen an uplift and employers were becoming optimistic about growth in the short-term with opportunities for graduates coming into the labour market. However, there were also concerns around the ongoing uncertainty around the unfolding impact of the pandemic. It was also clear that not all graduates were motivated by financial gain, which led to a discussion about including social returns in measuring the value of higher education in addition to the current focus on individual labour market outcomes.

We know that it is taking longer for graduates to find an ‘appropriate’ job in the labour market. Time will tell whether graduates of the pandemic will settle into the labour market like the graduates of the 2009/10 recession eventually did. For the moment, offering accessible careers support to students and graduates, while highlighting areas of inequalities in labour market entry, the experience of work, and the mental and physical health of students and graduates to inform policy, remain ways in which we can help pandemic graduates navigate their post-graduation transitions.

Andrew Dorrance is an Undergraduate Student in Economics in the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, and Research Assistant for the Graduating in a Pandemic research project.

Daria Luchinskaya is a Lecturer at the Department of Work, Employment and Organisation, University of Strathclyde, co-convener of the SRHE Employability, Enterprise And Work-Based Learning Network, and a member of the Graduating in a Pandemic research team. Follow Daria on Twitter @DariaResearch.

Further links and resources

The Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis event was co-hosted by the Student Access and Experience and Employability and Enterprise and Work-based Learning Networks and took place on 16 June 2021. The aim of the event was to provide evidence from the UK on the early impact of the pandemic on graduates’ experiences, and to explore how careers advice, information and guidance has changed with social distancing, as well as reflecting on the broader labour market context. Presentations by Scott Hurrell (Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow) on the class of 2020 (Graduating in a Pandemic) and Kate Purcell (University of Warwick Emeritus Professor) on the class of 2009/10 (Futuretrack) highlighted research findings about graduates’ early and mid-careers. Susan Bird (Careers & Employability Manager, University of Edinburgh) and Rachel Firth (Employability Consultant, Sheffield Hallam University) presented the experience of careers professionals’ responses to the pandemic. The event attracted a diverse audience, including academics, careers professionals, and representatives from think tanks and employer organisations.

Graduating in a Pandemic is investigating the post-graduation activities of the class of 2020 and 2021. It is run by researchers at the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde (PI Dr Scott Hurrell). See the project website at: https://graduatinginapandemic.wordpress.com/

Futuretrack is a nationally-representative longitudinal survey of applicants to full-time HE in 2005/06, run by Professors Kate Purcell and Peter Elias at the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick. Findings from the longitudinal projects and published reports, including research reports from Stage 5 (2012 – 2019) and Stage 6 (2019 – 2020), can be accessed via https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/futuretrack/findings

A report co-authored by Shelagh Green, Director, University of Edinburgh Careers Service, ‘Careers Services in times of Covid-19’ (March 2021), COIMBRA Group can be accessed at: https://www.coimbra-group.eu/wp-content/uploads/Career-services-in-times-of-Covid-19.pdf

The University of Edinburgh Careers Compass resources: https://www.ed.ac.uk/careers/students/undergraduates/careers-compass

Sheffield Hallam University careers services resources: https://www.shu.ac.uk/careers/


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Offering a curriculum change evaluation tool

by Camille Kandiko Howson and Martyn Kingsbury

This blog offers an overview of a curriculum evaluation tool, part of a recently published article ‘Curriculum change as transformational learning’, in Teaching in Higher Education.

A decade ago, one of us led a strand of work exploring global best practice in whole-institution curriculum change, as part of a wider Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) project. The resulting book, Strategic Curriculum Change, identified that while huge amounts of time and money were spent doing large-scale curriculum change, as well as vast costs on the subsequent marketing of it, next to nothing was invested in evaluating it.

One of the main challenges is that while a curriculum change initiative starts off as a separate project, it eventually becomes business as usual. Such change efforts often come at a high political cost as well, with senior leaders often moving on and leaving the implementation to others. Many efforts never really get off the ground, instead lingering and taking on board new ideas, blending the old and the new. These may water down the original vision and drive for change, further hindering evaluation.

Evaluating change

We have recently had the opportunity to remedy this gap, through evaluating a whole-institution curriculum review project, part of a comprehensive nine-year investment plan to reposition teaching and learning within an institution. While it is easy to check the administrative side of a change effort (were boxes ticked, forms filled out), analysing the whether the ethos, purpose and guiding principles were adopted requires a much more nuanced approach.

We designed a multi-stage evaluation plan to explore to what extent were the principles of a Learning and Teaching Strategy embedded within new curriculum structures, as well as the impact on personal and disciplinary culture.

This output provides insight into the first stage of curriculum change – taking new ideas and pedagogical approaches and building them into the bricks and mortar of the educational experience and into the minds and practices of those delivering the curriculum. This approach allows for evaluating to what extent a change effort is just words on a slick new webpage, or whether there has been a transformation of the curriculum.

The review in context

The review is based in a highly devolved, mid-size urban research-intensive institution in the UK. The institutional change programme is based on four pillars:

1) Assessment Reform: A review of curricula with the objective of reducing over-assessment

2) Active Learning: An evidence-based transformation of pedagogy, to make teaching more discovery-based

3) Diversity and Inclusion: The fostering of an inclusive and diverse culture and sense of belonging

4) Digital and Technology Enhanced Learning: The development of online and digital tools to enhance curricula, pedagogy and community

We evaluated the degree of departmental engagement with the institution-wide curriculum review policy through a discourse analysis of three sources: 1) a public Learning and Teaching Strategy; 2) internal Curriculum Redesign Forms, the quality assurance process stating changes, rationale and engagement; and 3) external Programme Specifications, detailing the educational offer for prospective students.

The evaluation tool

We designed an evaluation rubric, and in the paper we cover two aspects of it. The first explores engagement with the four pillars of the Strategy in the Curriculum Redesign Forms, through the adoption of language, intent and application, resulting in 12 indicators. This allowed us to evaluate the degree to which words and meaning of the Strategy were embedded within the new curriculum structures of the departments.

We also explored the alignment of the Curriculum Redesign Forms and the Programme Specification, focusing on the sections on Programme Overview, the Learning Outcomes, the Learning and Teaching Approach and the Assessment Strategy. This led to another 16 indicators. This offered insight into the extent the internal changes had made it into the public ‘offering’ of the course.

These 28 indicators were judged on a scale of Absent, Vague, Implicit, Present, Explicit. Scores were assigned and each department in the institution was reviewed by the researchers. We found varying engagement across the pillars of the Strategy and the challenge of applying principles in practice. We identified three different patterns of engagement across departments, with ‘active’ departments integrating the aims of the Strategy with disciplinary knowledge and pedagogy, ‘engaged’ departments adopting much of intent of the strategy, and group of ‘passive’ departments with minimal engagement and a focus on structural changes.

We hope this research and evaluation tool help others conduct evaluation of curriculum change. We found this approach uncovered both structural and cultural change. This is just the start of our research on curriculum change, and we hope it kickstarts other curriculum change research and evaluation, whether at the institution, faculty or departmental level.

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London. Follow Camille on Twitter @cbkandiko

SRHE member Professor Martyn Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London.


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Reimagining academic conferences: toward a federated model of conferencing

by Dror Etzion, Joel Gehman and Gerald F Davis

In the wake of the COVID pandemic, most academic conferences have shifted to online formats. This disruption to our routines presents a unique opportunity to consider alternative conference configurations. One possibility is that the momentum behind the shift to online conferencing is leading to a future in which gatherings are entirely virtual. At the same time, old habits die hard, and many in the academic community are assuming that a travel-free world is a temporary anomaly, and that very soon researchers will resume convening in person.

Several scenarios for the future of conferencing are possible, and most seem to have benefits but also drawbacks. We begin by identifying some pros and cons of in-person and online conferences. To maximize the positives, we propose a federated model of conferencing that thoughtfully integrates both in-person and online events. This model may help scholars not only to share academic knowledge but also to pursue values of inclusion, diversity, community, and environmental stewardship.

In-person conferences

For those attending, in-person conferences have four basic functions. First, they provide opportunities for intellectual development. Presenters are able to receive feedback on works in progress and are exposed to nascent ideas being pursued by other scholars. Early-career scholars are able to solicit advice, and more established ones are able to test the waters with riskier ideas before investing significant time and effort in preparing journal articles. Second, in-person conferences provide career development opportunities and constitute an important part of the academic job market. Conference presentations add heft to a CV, and provide valuable networking opportunities. Third, in-person conferences provide ample opportunities for ancillary professional activities such as editorial board meetings, professional association gatherings, and in-person collaboration. Fourth, in-person conferences provide opportunities for non-professional activities, such as socializing and sightseeing.   

At the field level, conferences can focus scholarly attention on specific topics, theories, or ideas. They can serve a coordinating function and facilitate collective sensemaking. Sometimes, powerful conference experiences can become field-configuring events that trigger meaningful academic advances. In addition, conference revenues are often the main source of funding for sponsoring associations, providing them the means to pursue other worthy initiatives.

Despite these benefits, in-person conferences do have some notable downsides. Large conferences can be overwhelming and take a significant physical toll due to disrupted biorhythms and jet lag, not to mention long and tightly packed days. Instances of sexual harassment and assault are all too common. Beyond these criminal activities, gender inequality continues to affect conference participation. Conferences also strengthen the status hierarchy, and many lower status participants find themselves on the receiving end of microaggressions and slights. Accessibility also continues to be an issue. Many venues are not easy for disabled academics to navigate. Travel bans prevent many scholars from attending conferences, and travel costs limit attendance to well-resourced scholars, primarily from the Global North. In-person conferences also produce a massive carbon footprint.

Online conferences

The forced shift to online platforms during COVID has addressed some of these downsides of conferences. Online formats promote accessibility by removing barriers associated with travel costs and physical impairment. They also help remove social barriers to participation, as some of the traditional markers of status do not translate well to the online format. Online platforms also promote inclusivity and content-richness. On platforms such as Zoom, it is easier to implement practices to ensure that conversations are not dominated by a few high-status people. For example, text-based chat functions enable participants to formulate questions at their own pace and provide links to helpful materials. They also serve as an archive that can be revisited when participants have more time to engage with the material.

Moreover, because online conferences are not constrained by time and place, they have the potential to promote ongoing engagement. Rather than several intense days, a series of shorter events, spread out over time, might facilitate greater reflection. Online conferences also promote diversity of session formats. Rather than 90-minute panel sessions, it is possible to have sessions as short or as long as people desire. Presentations could be live streamed from research settings, and practitioners who normally do not attend academic conferences could login to sessions that interest them. Online conferences also have timeliness benefits, as researchers do not have to wait to present their work. Likewise, meetings can be convened immediately to address urgent topics (eg COVID).

Yet, online conferences are not without their downsides. Due to low transaction costs, the number of online conferences is proliferating, creating the potential for overload. Online conferences have also led to anomie in the academy. Many yearn for a return to at least some in-person conferences, as the social interaction and random experiences they afford can be energizing. Moreover, the shift to online conferences has exacerbated the digital divide, constraining scholars who live in areas with less well-developed technological infrastructure. Surveillance capitalism is another potential pitfall, as online interactions leave traces that could have repercussions. Gaffes can go viral, and online interactions may be watched and listened to (and misinterpreted) by unintended audiences. Less malicious, but perhaps more insidious, would be a scenario whereby the dreaded teaching evaluation model is applied to conference presentations. Additionally, online conferences may reinforce tribalism in the academy. With a plethora of conferences to choose from, scholars may splinter off into self-reinforcing cliques entrenched around specific research programs, thereby eliminating opportunities for cross-fertilization and creating echo chambers. Gaming the system is another potential problem with the online conference format. Evaluating scholarly impact is a key focus in the academy, and tactics used to boost citation counts or journal ratings could easily translate to online conferences. Winner-takes-all dynamics are likely to ensue.

A federated model of conferencing

Having analysed the pros and cons of both in-person and online conferences, we propose a federated model of conferencing that constitutes the best of both worlds and produces a lighter environmental footprint while promoting equity and inclusion. As an organising principle, federation recognizes the utility of some central authority, but delegates most responsibilities to partially self-governing units which set priorities based on local preferences. Compared to unitary governance, federation embraces experimentation and fosters learning across units, thereby striking an optimal balance between scale and autonomy.

In a federated conferencing model, organising, decision-making, and participation would be pushed to the regional level while maintaining global coherence. Regional conferences that are centrally located and accessible by public transport would be easier on both attendees (by reducing jet lag and travel costs) and the planet (by reducing the carbon footprint of travel). Smaller regional conferences could provide opportunities for human contact that reduce anomie without being overwhelming. They would still enable senior scholars to participate on panels and pursue ambitious research programs while providing junior scholars and PhD students with valuable networking and career opportunities. Regional affiliation that stops short of tribalism also could support the development and adaptation of solutions to local circumstances. For instance, a regional conference in the North American Rust Belt would likely yield scholarship with different underpinnings, datasets, and points of emphasis than one in Central America. Regional conferences also may promote greater engagement across different academic fields and with non-academic participants.

With foresight and planning, such a federated model could strengthen the global academic community. For example, global meetings could be held synchronously across several regional hubs, thereby enabling access to both region-specific and global content. Hybridization within (ie questions submitted in-person and via text) and between (ie global and regional) presentations would enable participants to customise the extent of their physical and virtual participation and support an equitable global community. A federated model also could facilitate the establishment of local communities around research interests or other facets of identity, thereby providing valuable sources of support, particularly for scholars who feel isolated. Robust online platforms could support ongoing engagement among like-minded peers and strengthen their voices within the academy. Finally, a federated model could encourage relatively low-risk experimentation with other formats (eg unconferences, PechaKuchas), and a variety of other online and offline gatherings.

Conclusion

COVID has provided a unique opportunity to reflect on and potentially reshape the current conferencing model to better reflect values of inclusion, diversity, community, and environmental stewardship. As a tangible manifestation of the spirit of the academic community, conferences serve as a bellwether of our profession. A federated conferencing model has the potential to maximize the benefits of the in-person and online formats, thereby strengthening the academy, now and into the future.

Reference: Etzion, D, Gehman, J, Davis, GF (2021) ‘Reimagining academic conferences: Toward a federated model of conferencing’ Management Learning, 41: 429–442 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/13505076211019529

Dror Etzion is an associate professor of strategy and organization at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, and an associate member of the Bieler School of Environment. His research program focuses on grand challenges: the unyielding, intractable problems that characterize the Anthropocene.

Joel Gehman is Professor of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Management and Alberta School of Business Chair in Free Enterprise at the University of Alberta. His research examines strategic, technological, and institutional responses to grand challenges related to sustainability and values concerns.

Jerry Davis is the Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Management and Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. His latest work is on reining in corporate power and alternatives to shareholder capitalism.


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Making space for representations of Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Bargee Communities in higher education

by Natalie Forster and Martin Gallagher

Did you know that June is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month? Chances are, this may have passed you by, as it often goes more un-noticed in society than other awareness raising events. The theme for the month is #MakeSomeSpace and it seems timely therefore to give an update on our SRHE Scoping Study, which considers the representation of Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Bargee (GTRSB) communities in the spaces of higher education and widening participation.

There is growing scrutiny of universities in both the media and the academy for their failure to robustly challenge the racism and inequality which pervades in these settings, and move beyond passive and purely performative gestures (such as black squares posted on social media in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder) to implement concrete action leading to lasting change.

GTRSB communities are minority ethnic communities who are particularly under-represented in higher education. Figures must be treated with caution, as many GTRSB students avoid self-identifying for fear of discrimination. However, the most recent data suggests that 3-4% of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people aged 18-30 participated in higher education in 2014/15, compared to 43% of this age group nationally, and only 70 Gypsy, Traveller or Irish Traveller students entered higher education in 2018 (Atherton 2020). Recent research (Mulcachy et al 2017, Forster and Gallagher 2020) and media coverage also highlights the isolation and exclusion felt by GTRSB staff and students in higher education, due to the invisibility of GTRSB contributions within university environments and curricula.

Initiatives to increase representation of GTRSB communities in higher education are gaining momentum. A national ‘Good Practice Pledge’ was recently launched for example, through which institutions can demonstrate and enact their commitment to supporting GTRSB communities into and within higher education. However, work in this area is still in its infancy, and confusion surrounding the appropriate definition and targeting of GRT communities in widening participation schemes forms a key barrier to progress (Forster and Gallagher 2020).

Our SRHE scoping project aims to provide clarity around how Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are currently defined and represented in widening participation policy and practice, and arrive at some common recommendations for future work in this field. The project involves three arms: a systematic literature review; a documentary analysis of Access and Participation Plans (APPs); and a Delphi study involving GRT students, widening participation specialists, and academics.

Headline findings point to the dominance of an individual hero type narrative which represents GTRSB students as ‘trailblazers’ and positions GTRSB participation in HE as an atypical event, requiring personal triumph over adversity. While this narrative recognises the determination of GTRSB students in overcoming barriers to higher education access and participation, it may also serve to reinforce the falsity that that GTRSB culture is incompatible with academic success, and downplay the need for structural change, instead placing the onus on GTRSB students to act as ‘role models’ and ‘give back’ to the broader community.

Narratives of GTRSB participation in HE as an unusual event are reflected in, and potentially reinforced through the treatment of these groups in Access and Participation Plans. Only 86 of the 245 plans reviewed (35%) make any reference to GTRSB communities, and of these, only 14 (16%) target GTRSB communities explicitly. Reasons for a lack of action to address inequalities experienced by GTRSB communities included the absence of data to assess performance for these groups; the small size or limited resources of institutions; and/or low numbers of GTRSB students. However, without systemic action, barriers to self-identification and the low numbers of GTRSB students in higher education are likely only to be reproduced. These findings reflect current Office for Students guidance, which frames the inclusion of GTRSB communities in APPs as optional, and experts consulted in our study strongly supported the addition of GTRSB communities as groups that higher education institutions must assess their progress for.

Our work highlights important and potentially troubling absences of GTRSB experiences within discourses on widening participation. This GRTHM and beyond, we urge higher education and widening participation professionals to #MakeSomeSpace to reflect on their current understandings and representations of GTRSB communities, and the ways these may promote or hinder the realisation of GTRSB educational rights.

Dr Natalie Forster is a Research Fellow in the Department of Social Work, Education and Community Wellbeing at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Follow Natalie on Twitter @ForsterNatalie

Martin Gallagher is a PhD Candidate and Research Assistant in the Department of Social Work, Education and Community Wellbeing at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Follow Martin on Twitter @GallagherGRT

References

Atherton G. (2020) More than Luck: enabling access and success in Higher Education for Gypsy, Romany and Traveller (GRT) communities. London: Sir John Cass’s Foundation.

Forster N, and Gallagher M. Exploring how Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students can best be supported to participate and thrive in higher education. Newcastle: Northumbria University. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342570864_Exploring_how_Gypsy_Roma_and_Traveller_students_can_best_be_supported_to_participate_and_thrive_in_higher_education

Mulcahy E, Baars S, Bowen-Viner K, Menzies L. (2017) The underrepresentation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils in higher education: A report on barriers from early years to secondary and beyond. London: Kings College London


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Learning from lockdown: how outreach can respond to the needs of today’s learners

by Neil Raven

The teacher perspective

One of the challenges widening participation practitioners have faced in recent times has been in maintaining regular contact with schools and colleges, as these institutions wrestle with the uncertainties wrought by the pandemic. Yet, the teacher perspective is central to understanding local outreach needs, as well as what works and, indeed, could work.

Over the last few months, I have been fortunate to have remained in regular contact – albeit virtually – with a highly experienced teaching professional. Andy McMurray is a teacher and member of the senior management team at an inner city comprehensive with a predominantly white working class catchment. He is also the academy’s outreach lead and, in this capacity, can offer a perspective based on many years of supporting fair access initiatives at a number of schools and colleges.

Conversations with a purpose

Our discussions during this period can best be described as ‘conversations with a purpose’, or motive. Swain and Spire describe this approach to data gathering as one that has been rather ‘under-used’ in educational research. Yet, such conversations have the potential to produce rich, in-depth insights, which, given the more free-flowing nature of the interaction, can be ‘more authentic’ than those generated through more formal and staged interviews. Moreover, through the process of exploring and assessing concepts and ideas, and ‘generating knowledge and understanding’, Feldman suggests that these conversations can also serve as the research ‘methodology.’ Our initial discussions related to the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on young peoples’ educational ambitions and intentions. However, our more recent set of conversations have been concerned with what outreach interventions have worked during the last academic year, and, looking ahead, what initiatives could work.

What has worked during recent months

Although a number of planned university visits during the winter and spring terms had to be ‘abandoned’, Andy discussed the positive reaction that a series of online lectures offered to year 12s and 13s (sixth formers) had received. Described as ‘very powerful’, these had proved successful because they were ‘not just one-off lectures’. Instead, they involved the students taking part in a course linked to the subjects they were studying for their A-level, and which involved them ‘sending in an essay’ and receiving feedback. The impact, it was added, was that the course cultivated a sense that ‘they are university students.’ As evidence of this intervention’s effectiveness, Andy talked about how ‘the students were keen to discuss what they had been doing. Moreover, through engaging with the course the students had acquired ‘subtle’, and transferable, ‘skills in how you learn online’. In this respect, Andy’s expectation – shared by a number of commentators – is that that ‘more online learning’ will be built into future undergraduate programmes.

What needs to be addressed

Yet, Andy was also realistic about the longer-term impact of this intervention. It had certainly ‘stoked students’ enthusiasm and nurtured confidence in their academic abilities’. It had also helped inform them about the choice of post-18 institutions. However, these sessions were directed at those on level 3 (advanced) programmes, who, in many instances, were committed to their studies and were already exploring the HE option. Consequently, there remained a need to focus on those at an earlier stage in their educational journeys and before crucial post-16 study decisions were made. Failure to engage and support these younger people could, it was suggested, be very costly. ‘Unless something is done for them, we could lose a generation to HE. Once they have left at the end of year 11, we will not get a lot of them back.’

What could work

  • Form and format

Asked what would work for younger learners, especially those in years of 9, 10 and 11 – and who had embarked on their GCSEs – Andy’s response was that they need the same type of intervention as that offered to their older peers. Specifically, the suggestion was for a short programme of sessions delivered once a week. Andy was quite clear about the number. Whilst doubts were expressed about the enduring impact of a one-off intervention (an assessment supported by recent research), a series of four to five sessions could have a significant positive and cumulative effect. It would also help cultivate a sense of belonging and being a ‘member of the gang’. In contrast, a larger number of sessions could be judged to be ‘too much’, and may lead to participants being less likely to ‘commit’. In terms of duration, the suggestion was for individual sessions to run for between 40 minutes to an hour, and comprise short, focused segments. In order to support engagement, interactive exercises within these sessions were also emphasised.

  • Content

Andy was equally clear about the content of these sessions. The temptation amongst outreach practitioners might be to offer revision workshops, or cover aspects of the GCSE syllabus. Both of these would likely generate little interest and enthusiasm. If it involves revising ‘GCSE French, they will not want to do that’, and they will ‘push against sessions’ that are based, for example, on the science curriculum, since that is what they do ‘in the classroom’. Instead, it was argued that, whilst subject-focused, these sessions should place the topic being studied in class into a wider context. This could be achieved by exploring its real word application, and informing them of why, for instance, ‘they are covering this subject in physics.’ Yet, this would still have a significant benefit for their GCSEs. It would generate an excitement in what they are doing, and ‘make their teacher’s job easier because they can see a significance to it.’

In sum, Andy argued that such sessions have the capacity to spark participants’ ‘interest in learning.’ However, to do this the content would need to go beyond the simple ‘whizz bang stuff’, and edutainment, which, it was observed, is transient and something ‘the student will see through.’ Rather, they would need to involve ‘actually learning something’. Whilst these sessions should be led ‘by someone with personality’ and who would engage the students, they would also need to be ‘delivered seriously.’

  • The undergraduate experience

Our conversation also acknowledged the value of involving university students in these sessions, ideally comprising those from comparable backgrounds to the participants, who, Andy observed, would ‘talk with an accent they’d recognise’. Exploring this further, it was suggested that this undergraduate component could capture the students when they were learning. For instance, when ‘working in the lab, on a production, or involved in a seminar discussion.’ It could also feature them studying in their ‘dorms’. As opposed to a more conventional tours of students flat, this would be provide an insight into student accommodation ‘in a real life context and from the students’ perspective.’

Whilst one of the underlying intentions of this component would be to communicate I was in your position three years ago, Andy emphasised that this message should be left to the audience to deduce, rather than being stated by some form of accompanying commentary. The young people, it was added, will ‘know that.’ There was also a need to avoid the ‘hard sell’ of HE. ‘Year 9s know what is going on and they will assume you are trying to make money out of them and being paid to say that.’ Instead, the underlying assumption should be that higher education is ‘the expectation’. It should be ‘a given that they will be going to university. If something is really good there, you don’t need to spend time justifying it!’

  • Underpinning the impact

Whilst Andy argued that such an intervention could make a real difference to the outlooks and engagement of the young people involved, its impact could be further enhanced – and underpinned – by awarding participants a certificate denoting their completion of the course and outlining the themes addressed and associated learning outcomes. This, it was added, could then be referenced in their personal statements and the CVs they prepare for both their college and university applications.

  • Follow-up ideas

Whilst the four to five online sessions could represent a self-contained intervention, the potential for a follow-up set of activities was also acknowledged. Should conditions permit, Andy talked about the positive effect that could arise from a visit to the school by the lecturer who had given the virtual talks and the undergraduates that had also featured. Moreover, the lifting of further restrictions associated with the pandemic would present the opportunity for the students to ‘visit the university’ and see the facilities associated with the subjects covered in the online talks. And perhaps witness at first-hand how the students use some of the science and engineering equipment, or even take part in the drama performance they had seen being rehearsed online. This it was concluded, would ensure that it represents a really ‘serious’ intervention.

Whilst our discussions drew to close on this positive note, they concluded with an important proviso, and one that reflects outreach at its best: that it is a collaborative endeavour between schools, colleges and HE providers that requires an ongoing and open dialogue. Arguably, conversations with a purpose afford one mechanism for achieving this.

Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at neil.d.raven@gmail.com

References

Buitendijk, S (2021) ‘If we get it right, digital and online learning will change the world’, WonkHE (7 June) https://wonkhe.com/blogs/if-we-get-it-right-digital-and-online-learning-will-change-the-world/

Feldman, A (1999) ‘The role of conversation in collaborative action research’, Educational Action Research, 7:1, 125-147, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09650799900200076

Moore, J, Sanders, J and L Higham (2013) Literature review of research into widening participation to higher education.  Report to HEFCE and OFFA by ARC Network https://www.raggeduniversity.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Literature-review-of-research-into-WP-to-HE.pdf

Patel, R and L Bowes (2021) Third independent review of impact evaluation evidence submitted by Uni Connect partnerships, Office for Students. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/third-independent-review-of-evaluation-evidence-submitted-by-uni-connect-partnerships/

Raven, N (2021) ‘Teaching and transitions: understanding classroom practices that support higher education progression in England’, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 26:2, 189-211 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13596748.2021.1909924?journalCode=rpce20

Raven, N (2020) ‘Outreach should be tailored to the new normal for schools and colleges’, Higher Education Policy Institute. Blog (7 September), https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/09/07/outreach-must-tailor-itself-to-the-new-normal-in-schools-and-colleges/.

Swain, J and Z Spire (2020) ‘The Role of Informal Conversations in Generating Data, and the Ethical and Methodological Issues They Raise’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research21(1). https://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/3344/4511.

Tzirides, AO, Kalantzis, M and B Cope (2021) ‘Reimagining higher education in the post-pandemic world’, SRHE Blog (11 January). https://srheblog.com/2021/01/11/reimagining-higher-education-in-the-post-pandemic-world/

Paul Temple


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“Look, Viktor, what I meant was…”

by Paul Temple

Viktor Orban is the only autocratic national leader I’ve faced across a meeting table. In those days of course, back in the ‘90s, he wasn’t the Hungarian Prime Minister: he and his Fidesz party had barely emerged from post-communist student politics (the name is an abbreviation of Alliance of Young Democrats – now a deeply misleading title). But the British Council in Budapest had already marked him out as a coming man in Hungarian politics and wanted him to hear, amongst other things, our thoughts on university reform in the country.

Looking back, several things occur. One is to note the impressive talent-spotting abilities of the British Council’s Country Director, who correctly identified Orban’s leadership potential when there wasn’t much to go on. True, the expectation was that his future would be as a progressive politician in a liberal society, rather than as the populist boss of what is close to being a one-party state. Still, you can’t win them all. A second point is that perhaps Orban was paying more attention than we realised as we rabbited on about universities needing autonomy to support both academic effectiveness and their roles in a pluralist society (that kind of thing, anyway). A third point is to be careful what you wish for (or, in this case, propose).

A major restructuring of Hungarian universities is now being planned by the Orban government, with the supposed aim of removing them from direct state control by establishing foundations which will own each university’s resources, to be controlled by independent supervisory boards. This is clever: Hungarian government spokespeople present it as a move to make Hungarian universities resemble leading research universities elsewhere, with greater independence promoted through institutional self-government. In other words, more or less what we were suggesting in that British Council meeting all those years ago.

But in university governance, as in most of life, context is all. What many Hungarian academics expect is that these supervisory boards won’t be independent at all: they will, argues Professor Jozsef Palinkas, former President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, be agents for the “ideological control” of universities by the ruling party. Orban has already made it clear that those with what he calls “internationalist” or “globalist” views will not become board members: only those with “nationalist” views will be eligible, which I think we can take to mean views indistinguishable from Orban’s own. (If you want to know what Orban means by “internationalist”, look up his conspiracy theory-laden feud with George Soros.)

Once established, these boards will become self-perpetuating, appointing future members in the same mould, excluding any possible dissenting voices. This structure has been written into the Hungarian constitution (you can’t say that university governance isn’t taken seriously in Hungary) which means that a two-thirds parliamentary majority will be needed to change it. This is possible of course, but given Fidesz’s control of much of the economy, national media, and the judiciary, unlikely. Expect an outflow of independent-minded Hungarian academics.

Most governments claim to prize university autonomy – who knows, some may actually mean it – but, around the world, there are many recent examples of intervention when this autonomy doesn’t seem to be delivering what the politicians in power consider to be the right answers. Universities might perhaps take increased governmental pressures as a backhanded compliment: governments allowed universities to go their own ways when they thought they didn’t really matter, but now they think they do matter (or at least, can be targeted in a confected culture war), they seek to control them. I expect that Orban does think that Hungarian universities are too important to be left to operate outside his web of state/party control: another piece of civil society’s structure has to be destroyed.

I was going to end with a weak joke about wanting to take back what I said all those years ago about university autonomy – but, truly, there’s nothing amusing in seeing how democracies die.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London. His new book on university space and place will appear next year. Possibly. His blog appears at https://srheblog.com/category/srhe-news-blog/

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The CGHE Annual Conference 2021: Remaking higher education for a more equal world

by Rob Cuthbert

While face-to-face CGHE conferences can be an endless delight, the Zoom-based 2021 Annual Conference on 11/12 May 2021 was more of a mixed blessing, perhaps because we are all jaded now with so much screen time. But, after an uncertain start, well-chosen keynotes lifted the spirits, research projects nearing completion justified their investment, new projects showed their promise, and CGHE Director Simon Marginson inspired a global audience of more than 250 with his encyclopaedic knowledge and the bold sweep of his analysis.

The opening session, with multiple 4-minute presentations conceived as each presenter’s ‘pitch’ for how to remake HE, didn’t really make the most of the academic talent on display, but the keynotes which followed were ample compensation. First, Dr Roberta Malee Bassett, global lead for tertiary education at the World Bank, gave the 2021 Burton R Clark Lecture, ‘Tertiary education systems and diversification: Adapting the wisdom of Burton Clark in promoting effective and inclusive reforms around the world’. The World Bank’s vision for tertiary education was that it would make “a strong contribution … to equitable growth, social cohesion and societies with strong democratic foundations …”. This suggested that, despite so much emphasis elsewhere on skills and knowledge, perhaps the remaking of higher education should put values as the defining characteristic of universities and tertiary education more broadly.

Immediately afterwards, Chris Millward of the Office for Students offered a case study of the history of access and participation in the UK, especially England. It was, if not quite Panglossian, a story which skated over many policy missteps in the last 20 years and diplomatically avoided a critique of present policy. Millward is slowly and skilfully doing all he can within policy constraints to remake things to be more equal, and he held the attention of the diverse audience by drawing out general lessons from what might have been a parochial story.

The momentum was sustained with a set of reports from near-completed projects in the CGHE stable. Highlights were Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath (both Oxford) redrawing Clark’s triangle after their research into 6 varying European systems of HE governance, and Stephen Hunt (Oxford) arguing on the basis of his extensive research that private HE institutions, sometimes lauded by government for their diversity and innovation, may be doing no more than relocating disadvantage.

Thereafter Zoom fatigue began to take its toll: the promise of CGHE’s new project on ‘The Research Function and Mission of Higher Education’ inevitably remains unfulfilled at its starting point. The final session of the day was something of a reprise of the findings of earlier CGHE projects, asking ‘Too Many Graduates? – Perpetuating or Challenging Inequalities’. Its strong list of contributors – Paul Ashwin (Lancaster), Claire Callender (UCL Institute of Education and Birkbeck), Ariane de Gayardon (Twente) and Golo Henseke (UCL Institute of Education) – also helped to dilute the Oxford-flavoured staff mix which at times was overdone.

The second day began with an intriguing but only just beginning account of planned research into supranational spaces, before Simon Marginson’s keynote on ‘Globalisation: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. He offered an autobiographical vignette first, to ground us for the impossibly broad sweep of his subsequent analysis. Like a tightrope walker crossing Niagara Falls, his ambition seemed ridiculous until you slowly realised that he really was going to make it to the other side, as he assembled successive research findings in a compelling argument. The analysis of global knowledge production was a safe first step, suggesting that global integration had not, yet, worked out so well. Three critiques of Euro-American globalisation led to the suggestion that: “Global knowledge is the hope of the world, but the world is mostly excluded from it.” The unforeseen future would perhaps be dominated by multipolarity, with familiar North-South differences increasingly subordinated to East-West and other axes, and his optimism shone through: there is “a doorway in time” and we have agency, even if structures are difficult to change. He concluded that we need to be more vigorous in asserting support for the values of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, to work for a better definition of valid academic knowledge and renounce any general epistemology, to discard the machinery of exclusion, and give ourselves and others the room to grow and change.

The conference’s final sessions did well to avoid anti-climax. First came three very different perspectives  on HE and mental health, which with its successor illustrated some of Marginson’s argument for an ecology of knowledges. Then Vincent Carpentier (UCL Institute of Education) continued on his distinctive path taking the long view of historic funding patterns in English and French HE, Lili Yang (Oxford) spoke on the possibilities of the Chinese concept of tianxia weigong (all under heaven is for all) and Ka Ho Mok addressed the experience of Asian, mostly Chinese, students in studying abroad and then returning home to work.

Thus the CGHE stars continued their trek to boldly go where no-one had gone before, following CGHE’s 2020 book edited by Claire Callender (Birkbeck/UCL), William Locke (Melbourne) and Simon Marginson (Oxford), Changing higher education for a changing world. My review of that book anticipated that Marginson would aim to address what he called a “frontier problem of social science”, to understand better what higher education “does for the collective” and not just for individuals: “Just as physicists continue the search for a string theory of everything, Marginson commits himself, and perhaps his Centre, to developing a theory of everything in higher education. This first volume is declared as simply mid-range findings. We look forward to some grand theorising as the CGHE’s work unfolds.“

Here it comes …

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. He is current chair of the SRHE Publications Committee.

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SRHE News on academic freedom and freedom of speech

by Rob Cuthbert

One of the benefits of SRHE membership is exclusive access to the quarterly newsletter, SRHE News, www.srhe.ac.uk/publications/srhe-newsletter

SRHE News typically contains a round-up of recent academic events and conferences, policy developments and new publications, written by editor Rob Cuthbert. To illustrate the contents, here is part of the April 2021 issue which covers Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech.

A global academic freedom index

The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), an independent non-profit think tank based in Berlin, has published a report on academic freedom globally, arguing for it to be used to moderate global university rankings. Authors Katrin Kinzelbach, Ilyas Saliba, Janika Spannagel and Robert Quinn have shown all their working and include this map:

“The AFi 2020 includes scores for 175 countries and territories. In this map, the states’ AFi scores are grouped in ranges, with A representing those countries with the highest levels of academic freedom (green on the map) and E representing those with the lowest academic freedom scores (red on the map).”

Free speech in the US

A free speech case on campus reached the US Supreme Court on 8 March 2020, which decided in favour of the student. Chike Uzuegbunam, a former student at Georgia Gwinnett College, had tried while a student to hand out pamphlets sharing his religious views with fellow students. He was stopped twice by campus police, first to be told he could only do that in a designated ‘free speech zone’. When he tried with official permission to do so, he was prevented because other students had objected. The College eventually rescinded its policy on ‘free speech zones’ but the case went to the Supreme Court to prevent it becoming moot, that is not cited as a precedent, since Uzuegbunam had graduated. The Court ruled that he was nevertheless entitled to nominal damages of $1, which was what he had sought. Elizabeth Redden told the story for insidehighered.com on 9 March 2021.

Is debate under threat on UK campuses?

Jim Dickinson asked the question in his Wonkhe blog on 20 January 2021. Unlike the culture warriors, he referred to a lot of evidence suggesting the answer is not what most people are encouraged to think. He pointed out that outgoing OfS chair Michael Barber, about to give a speech on this, was actually sitting on a lot of relevant evidence, held but not published by the OfS, which would give the lie to the current narrative. MP David Davis introduced a private member’s Bill in the House of Commons on 21 January 2021 because, according to David Williamson in the Daily Express on 17 January 2021, he “wants to stop “cancel culture” taking root in centres of higher education and is alarmed at resistance to hearing “uncomfortable opinions”.” Well, no doubt no-one had thought to legislate on that since the 1980s, but there is quite a lot of advice and guidance about.

Our radical student-led proposals will secure and champion campus free speech

There was a well-argued blog from three SU Presidents – Patrick O’Donnell (York), Lizzie Rodulson (Surrey) and Kwame Asamoah Kwarteng (Manchester) –  for Wonkhe on 1 February 2021: “our new report recommends the creation of a code for students’ unions which establishes and reinforces important principles on campus of political diversity and freedom of expression. We propose to substantially adopt widely used principles within the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago to send a clear signal – that our campuses and unions are open for debate.” The NUS VP for HE, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, and two more SU presidents –  Sunday Blake (Exeter) and Meg Price (Worcester) – followed up on WonkHE on the same day with an equally persuasive piece saying that the real free speech problem was the imbalance between the proportion of high-profile speakers visiting Russell Group universities rather than others: “we’d like to see a new focus – where universities, sector agencies and the government work together with students’ unions, guilds and associations in all types of university to attract speakers, put on events, generate debate and expose students to new ideas, thinking, policy and people.”

How should the OfS regulate the exercise of academic freedom?

Gavin Williamson announced his free speech initiative with a column in The Telegraph, where else, on 16 February 2021: ‘Turning the tide on cancel culture will start with universities respecting free thought’. Williamson wrote to all universities on 16 February 2021: “The current legal framework imposes on those concerned in the governance of providers a legal duty to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure free speech within the law is secured … A growing number of reports of concerns in relation to freedom of speech on campus, however, suggest that this duty is not being fully complied with …”. The White Paper, running to no less than 42 pages, was published on 17 February 2021.

Evan Smith (Flinders) blogged for HEPI on 16 February 2021 about the history of previous such initiatives. The popular opinion was probably that articulated by Mick Fletcher (independent) in West Country Bylines on 15 February 2021: “You could hardly make it up.  At the same time as government plans to appoint a ‘free speech tsar’ to stop students cancelling controversial speakers it also intends to summon heritage groups to be told by a minister what they can and cannot say about British history. It’s ludicrous but at the same time deeply sinister.” Andrew Whiting (Birmingham City) reported on his research into the Prevent Duty placed on universities, on the LSE Impact Blog on 16 February 2021, which raises “serious questions about necessity and proportionality”.

Smita Jamdar, Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau, offered guidance on the Secretary of State’s guidance to OfS on 11 February 2021: “this is in our view bad guidance: bad because of the very great problems entailed in implementing it and bad because producing guidance that cannot really be implemented and so must ultimately be withdrawn or modified undermines public trust and confidence in the authority of the office of Secretary of State. … upholding academic freedom is already part of the public interest governance principles and so where there is evidence of a provider’s governing body failing to take appropriate steps, the OfS could treat that as a breach of the registration conditions relating to management and governance. However, that is very different to adjudicating on individual cases and disputes in the way that the Secretary of State appears to want. Finally, it is notable and alarming to recall that when the institutional autonomy provisions were introduced by way of amendment into HERA, they were designed to protect institutions from excessive interference by politicians and regulators. Interestingly they are being used here, on the curious and questionable basis that the government believes institutions need protection from their own autonomy, to justify a potentially significant erosion of autonomy by those very politicians and regulators.”

Hugo Rifkind of The Times was also unconvinced, in his 16 February 2021 tweets: “Williamson’s free speech thing is a mess … if you’re saying unis must preserve challenging speech while also being against re-examining history while ALSO having insisted only 3m ago that all unis adopt the IHRA definition on antisemitism, then I think you need to be quite deft on your feet in explaining wtf is going on and what exactly you think about everything, with reference to what everybody else does, too.” Political commentator Ian Dunt blogged for politics.co.uk on 17 February 2021 that the proposals were ‘a Trojan horse for authoritarianism’: “The problems with the plans are as follows: They are cynical, nonsensical, internally contradictory, functionally implausible and work to perpetuate the exact phenomenon which they claim to undermine.” LSE student Jason S Reed wrote in The Independent on 16 February 2021 ‘The government’s obsession with provoking culture wars is embarrassing – and I say that as a Tory student’. However Arif Ahmed (Cambridge), blogging for HEPI on 17 February 2021, gave a measured welcome: “So these proposals give valuable support to principles that everyone ought to defend. Of course in practice everything will depend on whether the regulator will use these powers impartially and with vigour. But that is true when the state gives any powers to an independent regulator of anything. Still, it is clear to me that in this case doing so addresses a real problem, and does it in more or less the right way.”  

There were constructive comments from Alison Scott-Baumann (SoAS) in The Guardian on 17 February 2021: “In Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter-Terrorism, my book with Simon Perfect, I recommend two simple principles for building what we call a “community of inquiry” – a space where difficult issues can be discussed. First it’s necessary to accept bravely the need to debate and disagree upon matters of urgent importance to young people. Difficult, even intractable, issues such as climate change, environmental disasters, migration, race, gender and identity and a failed economic model need to be discussed. But they are dynamite. So, secondly, in order to defuse potential flash points, we recommend adoption of “procedural values” – by which I mean an etiquette of argument that we all say we adhere to but rarely do: active listening, distinguishing between the person and their arguments, and settling upon some sort of outcome that can be achieved in the real world. These need to be agreed upon, with the backing of university authorities and union representatives, and closely monitored. There needs to be a general compact that, in any forum designated as a “community of inquiry”, these procedures apply – and that people will not be targeted outside them for what they say inside, so long as they have also observed the same principles.”

Jack Harvey (Coventry University SU) had perhaps the most thoughtful piece of all, for WonkHE on 19 February 2021, analysing the nuances of respect and tolerance for other people’s views. Bahram Bekhradnia, HEPI President, made a welcome return to the fray with his HEPI blog on 18 March, in coruscating form: “This is a rushed and unnecessary White Paper, intellectually flimsy, badly thought out and poorly argued with little evidence to support its conclusions. It is full of typos … its inconsistent – Anglo-American – spelling betrays the influence on its thinking, if not its drafting, of the American far right. … if indeed there is a nut to be cracked, it certainly does not need this sledgehammer with which to crack it.”

After Michele Donelan’s article in The Sunday Telegraph on 28 February 2021, Jim Dickinson of WonkHE was at the end of his tether on 28 February 2021, and SRHE member Julian Crockford had clearly lost all patience in his WonkHE blog on 1 March 2021. Jonathan Simons of Public First tweeted: “Front page of the Tel: universities are censoring history by only telling a partial story. Later in the Tel: the National Trust should be investigated because it wants to tell the whole story of history. Pick a ******** lane, guys”. Anna Fazackerley in The Guardian on 27 February gave chapter and verse on the ‘research’ that Gavin Williamson had relied on for his policy paper, and Policy Exchange suffered further damage when its retrospective and would-be secret corrections were exposed. The Policy Exchange paper had conducted a survey based on the alleged ‘no-platforming’ of Germaine Greer – who had in fact spoken at an event organised at Cardiff University, a fact ignored in the original but retrospectively corrected by a new footnote after the original had been cited in the government policy paper. Adam Bychawski wrote for OpenDemocracy on 19 February 2021 that: “British government proposals for strengthening free speech at universities cite an American anti-LGBT ‘hate group’ and a British ‘dark money’-funded think tank that has recommended no-platforming Extinction Rebellion.”

David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson interpreted the policy paper as a complete breakdown of trust and confidence by politicians in the HE sector, in their 16 February 2021 blog for WonkHE.

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. He is current chair of the SRHE Publications Committee.

Ian Mc Nay


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Ian McNay writes…

by Ian McNay

My main concern in this post is about academic freedom, free speech and surveillance. I write as one who worked on Open University courses in the 1980s (under a previous Conservative administration) which were investigated for alleged Marxist bias.

Bahram Bekhradnia, in a recent HEPI blog, has identified the small number of complaints about free speech on campus which have provoked a government response, and the ideological base of those making them. The same was true in my experience – single figure numbers of complaints about courses with 5,000 students a year in some cases and many more thousands of ‘drop-in’ viewers and listeners for OU/BBC programmes. The allegations were found to be unjustified, but led to significantly increased levels of internal monitoring and accountability. The BBC staff were very scared of possible government sanctions.

For one radio programme, Rosemary Deem, an SRHE notable, was barred from contributing because she was, as I then was, a member of the Labour party. Two was too many. I was forced to accept a distasteful right-winger, who insisted that his contribution – denying Tory cuts to education budgets – could not be criticised, questioned, commented upon, nor edited. The new rules said that all elements of a course had to be internally balanced – not one programme putting one point of view and a second with another. Ditto for course units. The monitoring group said the programme was biased, lacked balance, and should not be broadcast. I said that students were intelligent enough to recognise his ‘pedigree’ and it went out.

In 1988, another programme, on the Great Education Reform Bill, was broadcast at 2am. We arrived later that morning to a phone message from DES demanding a right of reply. The programme had featured John Tomlinson’s comments/critique. He was the Chief Education Officer of Cheshire, hardly a hotbed of revolution. We pointed out that DES staff had been sitting in our ‘classroom’ and that comments could be made to their tutor, discussed with fellow students in self-help groups, and used, if evidenced, in assessments.

My concern is that, as someone who writes on policy and its impact, my work can be seen as ‘disruptive’ [a basic element of much research and education] and ‘causing discomfort and inconvenience’ to some people – mainly policy makers. Those terms are from the current draft bill on police, crime, sentencing and courts, which aims to limit public demonstrations of dissent. Given trends in other countries, and government resistance to a more balanced view of history, I wonder how long it will be before there is more overt intrusion – by OfS? – into controlling the curriculum and suppressing challenging, but legitimate views. In the OU, Marxist critique disappeared for years, as self-censorship operated to avoid recurrent problems of justification. It could happen again.

That goes alongside recent developments with Microsoft surveillance which are intrusive and irritating. The university has just had an ‘upgrade’. In my experience, such upgrades, like restructuring, rarely improve things, and often do the opposite. I now get daily emails from Cortana, a Microsoft offshoot, saying things like ‘Two days ago you were asked a question by X. Have you replied?’ The answer is that ‘if you are reading my emails, you will know the answer to that question’. Undeterred, this AI avatar offers me advice on how to organise my coming week, blithely ignorant that I have only a 0.2 contract. When it says I have 85% of my time ‘spare’, that implies that of my 20% load, only 5% that week was not observable. Its daily plan for me is to spend 2 hours in the morning, ‘focus time…to get your work done’.

The rest is spent not getting my work done, but on email and chats, taking a break and lunchtime and two hours to learn a new skill and develop my career. Wow! Do those in charge of the balanced academic workload know about this prescription? It also believes that all emails are ‘developing your network … you added 23 new members to your networks last week’. A computer network must be much less demanding than my criteria require for the term. Its autonomous, unaccountable and unexplained treatment of my emails includes frequently deleting when I click to open one, and designating as ‘junk’ PDF journal articles relevant to my work sent by Academia. I then have to spend time digging around to find both of these. It also merges emails into a stream so that finding one of them needs a memory of the last one in the stream – often an automatic reply. More time spent digging around.

Then there are the constant disruptive phone calls to verify my sign in. The automated voice advises me that ‘if you have not initiated this verification, you should press such-and-such a key’. I did that, twice, once when two such calls came within 50 seconds of one another, which I thought suspicious. How simple minded I was! The ‘solution’ was to bar me from access until the systems administrators had sorted things. That meant a full day or more in each case. The two most recent calls even came when I had not moved to laptop based work, and I now no longer log out, so I do not sign in, but leave the machine on all day every day which may not be good ecologically, but it helps my mental health and state of mind.

I accept the need for computer security, with university generated messages warning about emails from sources outside the university, such as OfS, AdvanceHE, or HEPI and Research Professional through a university subscription, asking if I trust them. Up to a point, Lord Copper. But balance is the key. I knew there was surveillance – in a previous institution a NATFHE e-mail was held up to allow management to get its reply in simultaneously with its being sent. This, though, is blatant and overt. I suppose that is better than it being hidden, but it is neither efficient nor effective. Am I the only one experiencing this, a human being balancing Marvin, the paranoid android, or do others have similar experiences? If the latter, what are we going to do about it? It has implications for research in terms of the confidentiality of email interviews, for example.

And, finally, on a lighter note … my local optician has a poster in the window advertising ‘Myopia Management’. That sounds like a module to include in the leadership programmes that some of us run.

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

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Cronyism, academic values and the degradation of debate

by Rob Cuthbert

The pandemic has accelerated many trends which were already apparent, such as the switch away from the high street to online purchasing, and in HE the move to on-line, remote and asynchronous learning. The influence of social media has also accelerated, partly or wholly replacing the normal policy business of face-to-face discussion and debate. But perhaps the most significant change of all for HE has been the accelerating decline in the quality of regulation, governance and policy debate.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 may come to be seen as the high water mark of a particular kind of policymaking which has been ebbing rapidly ever since: the tide has gone out on deliberative and measured debate. A majority in HE strongly opposed marketisation, but the Act was the culmination of a long period of debate which at least gave credence to opposing views and saw them represented in discussion inside and outside Parliament. The market ‘reforms’ were promoted by ministers – David Willetts and Jo Johnson in particular – who had at least grudging respect from many in the system, because of their own respect for academe, however partial it sometimes seemed. And much though we might regret the marketisation changes and seek their reversal, we might also accept that they were enacted by a government which had a mandate for change explicitly endorsed by the electorate. But that was then.

In 2019 the government was returned with a sufficient majority to ‘get Brexit done’, which it did, much to the dismay of most in higher education. HE’s dominant Remainer sentiment no doubt helped to fuel disregard in Whitehall for HE opinion. What is often wrongly still called ‘debate’ has been polarised, accentuated by social media’s echo chambers during the lockdown. In the ‘culture war’ both sides have dug their trenches and hoisted the ‘no surrender’ flags. In HE this has diverted attention away from the real and massive problems of the student experience in the pandemic, and towards the misrepresented and overstated issue of free speech, academic freedom and diversity of opinion. The supposed justification for recent free speech initiatives in HE has been amply covered elsewhere, and is summarised in SRHE News 44 (April 2021).

In this culture war academics and academic institutions have their share of blame. The Policy Exchange ‘research’, cited in support for the Secretary of State’s recent announcements, shoddy though it was, nevertheless pointed to the issue of Remainer conformism in much British academic culture, in which some staff have self-censored their support for Brexit. I tried much earlier to parody this conformism, arguing that “perhaps the best thing to do was to accept the will of the people, freely expressed”. But democracy depends on the willing consent of the governed, and the governed in HE are increasingly unwilling to consent to changes in which their views are simply ignored. There is no shortage of comment on new policy initiatives; the HE sector is comparatively well-served by think tanks such as HEPI and WonkHE, as the recent CGHE seminar on ‘Universities in Medialand’ suggested. But there is little sign that government takes note of policy commentary which contradicts its current narrative, even when obvious contradictions are pointed out. Thus, for example, market forces must rule, except when students choose the ‘wrong’ universities. The student experience is paramount, except  when students report high levels of satisfaction – so the National Student Survey, until yesterday a crucial element for teaching excellence, must today be rubbished.

Nowhere has the contempt for opposing views been more obvious than in the appointment of a new Chair for the Board of the Office for Students. The notes to the 2017 Act establishing the OfS explained that: “This Act creates a new non-departmental public body, the Office for Students (OfS), as the main regulatory body, operating at arm’s length from Government, and with statutory powers to regulate providers of higher education in England.” (emphasis added). The first OfS chair was Sir Michael Barber. It was rumoured that Barber sought a second term but was denied. Who might be appropriate to take on the role? Another respected figure with experience of HE and of working with government, able to sustain that arm’s length role for the Office? Former UUK chair Sir Ivor Crewe (former VC, Essex) was interviewed, as Sonia Sodha and James Tapper reported for The Observer on 14 February 2021: “Perhaps it was the long passage in Professor Sir Ivor Crewe’s book The Blunders of Our Governments about the way ministers’ mistakes never catch up with them that led Gavin Williamson to reject the expert as the new head of the Office for Students. Or maybe the education secretary was put off by the section of the 2013 book, written with the late Anthony King, dealing with how ministers put underqualified, inexperienced people in charge of public bodies. The job of independent regulator of higher education in England was instead handed to James Wharton, a 36-year-old former Tory MP with no experience in higher education who ran Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign.” The selection panel had been criticised for its dominant reliance on government supporters rather than HE expertise, but the chair-designate was nevertheless still to have his appointment endorsed by the Parliamentary Education Select Committee.

The Committee’s approval was very likely but could not be taken for granted, and Nick Hillman made some sensible proposals in his HEPI blog on 12 January 2021 on ‘How to grill the prospective chair of OfS’. We’d have suggested grilling on both sides, but presumably Boris Johnson’s campaign manager only has one side. The Education Select Committee duly questioned Lord Wharton of Yarm on 5 February 2021 and endorsed his appointment, which was announced by OfS on 8 February 2021. Rob Merrick reported for The Independent on 2 February 2021 that Lord Wharton had been subject to ‘hard questioning’, in the course of which he said he didn’t see why he could not retain the whip, nor why his role as Boris Johnson’s campaign manager should raise any conflict of interest issues.

So the ‘independent’ regulator was to have a partisan chair who proposed to retain the government whip. Conflict-of-interest issues raised themselves almost immediately, with wider ripples than expected. Lord Wharton had just been installed as Chair when he was revealed to be a paid adviser to a company seeking to build a cable connection through land at the University of Portsmouth. The company, Aquind, has a £1.2billion project to connect the electricity grids of the UK and France. It wants to put a cable across University of Portsmouth land, which the University opposes because of the disruption it would cause. Portsmouth Council and local Conservative and Labour MPs all oppose the project. Aquind director Alexander Temerko is a Conservative Party donor, whose website has several pictures of him with Lord Wharton, and also pictures him with the Prime Minister and Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. The planning dispute, involving possible compulsory purchase, has reached the Secretary of State for Business, but the previous incumbent Alok Sharma had to recuse himself from the case because his constituency party had received £10,000 from Temerko. Sean Coughlan told the story for the BBC on 19 February 2021, noting also that: “Conservative MP David Morris, another recipient of a donation, had to apologise to the House of Commons for a breach of paid advocacy rules after asking a question in support of the Aquind cable project.”

Lord Wharton’s appointment was greeted with incredulity in HE, but attracted little interest more broadly; in macropolitical terms the chair of OfS is a small bauble. And there were of course already many higher-profile reports of cronyism in government. The difficulty for HE is that the regulator may now be driven further and faster to unrealistic extremes. OfS, obediently pursuing its statutory responsibilities and ‘having regard to ministers’, is already in danger of leaving HE realities behind:

  • On 14 January 2021 the OfS wrote to universities and other HE providers, hard on the heels of a DfE letter to OfS, saying that the regulator expected institutions “to maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of their provision and to inform students about their options for refunds or other forms of redress where it has not been possible to provide what was promised.” Universities are losing tens of millions every week during the lockdown, without the kind of support provided for many other sectors, and on student hardship “the government can never quite resist overselling the multiple purposes to which the money might meaningfully be put”, as David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson argued in their WonkHE blog on 2 February 2021.
  • The OfS consultation document issued on 26 March 2021 put into practice the ‘instructions’ received earlier from Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. It proposed to steer more funds to STEM subjects and, among other things, halve additional funding for performing arts, media studies and archaeology courses. WonkHE’s David Kernohan was quick off the mark with his critical analysis on 26 March 2021.
  • OfS announced on 30 March 2021 that after the first phase of a review of the NSS, commissioned by Universities Minister Michele Donelan, there would be ‘major changes’ including dropping all references to ‘student satisfaction’. Of course, consistent reports that 85% or more of students in most universities are satisfied with their experience would be embarrassing for a government determined to prove otherwise.
  • OfS Director Regulation Susan Lapworth blogged for WonkHE on 31 March 2021 about a new condition of registration which would allow OfS to step in where a provider was at risk of failure, not to rescue the provider but to prevent a ‘disorderly’ closure. OfS had consulted on the proposal, which was not supported by most respondents, but went ahead anyway. The condition affects only the failing provider. Two obvious problems: (1) failing providers might not be inclined or well-placed to take the protective measures which OfS deems necessary; (2) previous experience shows that students need help from other institutions to facilitate transfers, but the Condition is silent on other institutions. They will often be willing, but might be unable to help without further support.

In the past funding councils were statutorily responsible for in effect providing a buffer between HE and government, to regulate excesses on either side. There is no danger of ‘provider capture’ in the new framework, the risk now is that the arm’s-length relationship with government has very short arms. Recent US experience shows the danger of such closeness. The Obama administration’s tighter regulation of for-profit HE after well-publicised shortcomings were swiftly reversed by Donald Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but Joe Biden is now progressively restoring Obama’s closer regulation. Such to-ing and fro-ing simply creates a more disorderly system for students to navigate.

We can learn a better lesson from the US: Michelle Obama’s dictum “when they go low, we go high”. We need to reinforce our support for academic values across the sector by continuing to show respect for opposing views, and to win cases by argument rather than by seeing who can shout loudest on social media. We have examples in the way that, for example, Eric Lybeck (Manchester) has offered to debate free speech with the authors of the Policy Exchange report. We also need to broaden the base of explicit opposition, and not leave it to the usual suspects: in particular, we need university leaders to step up and speak out more than they do.

It is often true that leaders can be more persuasive in private conversations than public speeches, but in current circumstances leaders, especially vice-chancellors, need to be more concerned that they will lose the confidence of staff and students if they fail to speak out publicly. There are honourable exceptions, but too many vice-chancellors seem to be more interested in avoiding blame than speaking out about real problems. It is certainly not easy, operating in the space between government, staff or student disapproval and social media pile-ons from the left or right; just one past or present remark or action, if uncovered or reinterpreted, could be career-ending. But that is why our leaders are well paid – to pursue the best interests of the institution and the people in it, not to be silenced just because the  problems are very difficult, nor out of fear or self-interest. We have recently seen research leaders not hesitating to speak out about proposed cuts in research funding – and those cuts have now been reversed. We need more people, leaders and staff on all sides, to speak truth to power – not just playing-to-the-gallery ‘our truth’, but a truth people inside and outside HE will find persuasive.

Rob Cuthbert is an independent academic consultant, editor of SRHE News and Blog and emeritus professor of higher education management. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and of SRHE. His 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.