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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay


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The higher education business and alternative providers.

By Ian McNay

The sale of two recently designated ‘for-profit’ universities to owners outside the UK is one indication of the government’s market approach to higher education. I return to this below, after covering another piece of evidence.

Those who do not read the financial pages of the Guardian will not have seen an article by Rupert Neate Cannes on student accommodation as giving ‘first class returns to investors’ (17 March 2017, p33). It included two things that shocked me. ‘Last month, the value of contracts awarded to build student housing projects in the UK totalled more than the deals to build care homes, housing associations, local authority housing and sheltered housing added together’, and flats in ‘some student blocks… in London cost as much as £650 a week’. In Reading, there is one block where prices are £300 per week, and the UK average for one builder was £175 a week. Rents for university owned properties already constitute a supplementary fee and exceed the level of the maintenance loan, adding another financial obstacle to equity of access.

That may be one reason why, paradoxically, students are turning to private HE – alternative providers as they were called by government in last year’s White Paper, and now the subject of an enquiry by the Higher Education Commission, to which Ron Barnett and I were recently invited to give evidence. I did some digging around and the picture that emerged surprised me, and moved me from my initial stance of total opposition. Continue reading

Holly Henderson


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Possible selves: One concept, many conversations

By Holly Henderson

One of my favourite things to do is to hear passionate people in dialogue about their research. At the second joint network SRHE event on possible selves earlier this month, it was impossible not to be excited by the quality of this dialogue. The event’s joint hosting by the Post-Compulsory Education and Access and Widening Participation networks set the tone for collaboration across boundaries; speakers included early career researchers and established professors, from the UK and abroad, and from sociological and psychological disciplinary perspectives[1]. Perhaps it is unusual to have a series of events on a single concept, like the possible selves concept[2]. But to see these events as singular in focus would be to misunderstand the complexities of educational research. In fact, thinking about this particular concept has enabled us to bring out the concept’s relationship to discussions of methodological approaches, data analysis, diverse research contexts within the field of Higher Education Research, and different disciplinary perspectives.

The possible selves concept seems, at first glance, disarmingly simple. It accords with an instinctive understanding of the future and its influence on the present, particularly in educational contexts. The concept suggests that we have multiple imagined future selves, which influence and structure our behaviour in the present. In educational terms, the most straightforward way of seeing this is to think about the ways that courses of study, chosen in the present, are seen to lead towards a future goal, whether that is course completion, further study or a career. Look further into the literature Continue reading


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Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good

Reviewed by James Hartley

Daniels, J and Thistlethwaite, P (2016) Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good  London: Policy Press, ISBN 978-1-4473-2926-8 (pbk), 170pp  £19.99

Being a scholar in the digital era is an interesting book, but who is it for? Presumably not for people like me, retired academics from the mainly pre-digital era,  so it must be for current academics, or for people who want to read about what academics do today. Authors Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite are professors of sociology at the City University of New York (CUNY). The book describes a course they developed in 2013 for academics, activists and journalists, designed to encourage academics to change how they communicate amongst themselves and with others. ‘Our experiment sought to leverage the reciprocal power of social activism and the connected platforms of digital media to meet demands for accessible and impactful information that retains the integrity and authority of scholarly research’ (p18).

The text has five main chapters between an Introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 2 describes what it is like to be ‘a scholar activist’, then and now, discussing the effects of new digital media on teaching, writing and researching, journalism and film making. The authors describe several ‘summits’  in which they brought together scholars, journalists, film-makers and activists, on themes including ‘Re-imagining Scholarly Communication for the 21st century’, and ‘Resisting Criminalisation through Academic-media-activist Partnerships’. Materials for these summits were posted in online blogs and podcasts and reproduced in e-books.

Chapter 3 criticises massive online open courses (MOOCS) as a way of providing instructional materials for those people who cannot afford to go to university or college and have to study at home. As the authors see it, commercial MOOCs are designed to work well for people who are already skilled at learning, and who can afford to pay for them. Further, they are an administrator’s dream: ‘The ratio of two faculty to nine-thousand students is the sort of ‘productivity’ that administrators want to see realised in the academy through the use of digital technologies’(p46). In contrast the authors describe their ‘POOCs’ – much smaller participatory online courses – designed to open the CUNY campus to students in East Harlem.

Chapter 4, ‘Acting up, Opening up Knowledge’, comments that ‘the way scholarly publishing works is difficult to explain to anyone outside the system, because it makes so little sense’. Authors are not paid for publishing and people without university affiliations (and former students) have sharply limited access to academic research. The major publishers take most of the profits and control access to journals and scholarly societies. According to the authors the price of textbooks has risen 812% since 1978 and ‘The College Board in 2015-16 advised students attending US public two-year institutions to budget a whopping $1,364 for books and supplies’.

Open access is seen as at least a partial answer to this dilemma,  aiming to make texts and learning freely available to as many people as possible. In this study this is done via a series of e-books tied to the summits, and through ‘POOCs’. In addition research communities such as ResearchGate and Kudos share information and provide access to members’ publications.

In Chapter 5, ‘Training scholars for the digital era’, doctoral training at CUNY is described as ‘somewhat unique’ in that there are several programs that emphasize and teach the use of digital technology for PhD students and mid-to-late career academics. The authors describe how they organised MediaCamp workshops free of charge for faculty and graduate students, academic administrators, non-governmental organisations, and community activists. During the first year of operation MediaCamp featured more than 40 sessions, most with 10 to 20 participants, covering a range of topics – including television interviewing techniques, writing for a general audience , creating a podcast, blogging, using twitter, and making sense of web analytics. The authors report that their MediaCamps met with resistance from some and enthusiasm from others, and that it was best to teach individually or in small groups. They say that such training is important as academic institutions now have a vested interest in the use of digital media by both faculty and administrators.

Until recently, engagement with the public has not generally been rewarded in universities. Chapter 6 thus turns to a new concern, that of measuring scholarly impact. Here a good deal of attention is given to ‘impact factors’, and their strengths and limitations: the general picture (rightly in my view) is negative. The authors conclude (following Boyer) in favour of broader measures of impact that involve social justice.

Nonetheless, the argument used in this chapter illustrates the difficulties for authors of relying on hearsay and blog-dependent sentences. In my view, neither of the following sentences is true:

 ….and the way it works in British Universities, the JIF (Journal Impact Factor) is regarded as a      valid and reliable measure of scholarly impact. (p113)

It is common practice among journal editors, once an article is accepted for publication, to ask authors to add a few citations from that particular publication… (p113)     

Chapter 7 ends with a brief discussion on the future of being a scholar that includes some optimistic speculations about the effects of new technology on teaching, learning and research. The authors argue that scholars will be more collaborative, share their research in the social media, and boost the profile and reputation of universities. They also foresee the end of the commercial domination of universities and their research. Such optimism belies the research discussed in earlier chapters.

The book is driven by the view that academics are – or should be – concerned with the public good. Daniels and Thistlethwaite argue that using new media is the way to achieve it. Many of the references in this text are to blogs rather than scholarly publications, but such sources are not always scholarly; bloggers are not always careful or detailed in their analyses or reports, and may make statements without supporting references. Being a scholar in the digital era: transforming scholarly practice for the public good offers some useful and interesting perspectives on what it is like to be an academic today but leaves two key questions unanswered: who decides what needs transforming, and who decides what is the public good?

SRHE Member James Hartley is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Keele University.

Ian Kinchin


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From ‘evidence-based’ to ‘post-truth’: is this a trend in higher education?

By Ian Kinchin

Is there a trend within higher education that parallels the general trend in society, from ‘evidence-based’ to ‘post-truth’? There has been a trend (that I have been aware of for several months, though it has probably been going on for very much longer) of a move away from research and data towards a justification of claims in the media by using statements such as, ‘a lot of people think that’. This trend has been played out very publicly in elections in the UK and in the US in the past year, where it seems that if you say something often enough and loud enough, then it will be accepted as part of the canon. Maybe that has always been so? But when we have Government ministers on the TV telling us that we shouldn’t listen to experts because sometimes they can get things wrong, it does sound like Homer-Simpson-reasoning.

We seem to be witnessing a similar trend in higher education where ideas seem to be distorted to fit political and economic aims. If you are really cynical, you might go back through press cuttings and see a move from ‘evidence-based’ to ‘student-centred’ to ‘post-truth’. I am not arguing against student-centredness here, but I am aware of the ways that is can be miss-represented so that the phrase ‘but the students want it’ seems to trump other arguments without any real analysis of what or why. But there is a question (probably many) here about what students want, which students want it and why students want it – whatever ‘it’ might be. Continue reading

MarciaDevlin


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Making admissions better in Australia

By Marcia Devlin

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

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

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

The HESP made 14 recommendations Continue reading

Paul Temple


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Be careful what you wish for

By Paul Temple

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

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

Image of Rob Cuthbert


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Post-Truth and the Higher Education and Research Bill

By Rob Cuthbert

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

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

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