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Working class and working in higher education?: Transition(s) from a sociology PhD

by Carli Rowell

Carli Rowell won an SRHE Newer Researcher’s Award to explore working-class early career researchers lived experiences of moving through a Sociology PhD and into the academic workforce. It makes visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. The full report from this research award is available from the 2019 reports at Newer Researcher Awards | Society for Research into Higher Education (srhe.ac.uk)

This blog arises from a project which explores the lived experience of being working-class and moving through doctoral study into the academic workforce. It was motivated by the fact that higher education has historically existed for the working classes as a site of exclusion from participation, from knowledge production and from leadership. Despite the global massification of education, HE continues to operate as a classed pathway and bastion of classed knowledge (Walkerdine, 2021) especially so given academia’s classed ceiling. The project explored the lived experiences of 13 working-class early career researchers (ECRs) in moving through doctoral study into (and out of) the academic workforce. It sought to make visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. I reflect here on some of the key emerging findings (in depth analysis continues) and sketch out early recommendations based on project findings.

The project was underpinned by the following research questions:

  1. In what ways, if at all, do first-generation working-class ECRs perceive their working-class background as affecting their experiences of and progression through doctoral study and into academia?
  2. How do they generate and navigate their own ‘strategies for success’ in their working context?
  3. What are the wider implications of these strategies for success, for example in their personal lives and/or their imagined futures in the academy?
  4. What can be done, if at all, by stake holders of UKHEs to address working-class doctoral students and early career researchers journey to and through a social-sciences PhD and into academia?

A Bourdieusian approach to social class was adopted. Whilst participants self-identified as coming from a working-class background and as being a first-generation (at the undergraduate level), class background and first-generation status were further explored and confirmed through in-depth interviews. All participants were UK domiciled doctoral students and ECRs across a range of university types. Initially the project sought to explore working-class doctoral and ECRs from across the social sciences, but participant recruitment soon revealed a skewedness towards the discipline of sociology. Thus, the decision was taken to adopt a disciplinary case study approach, focusing upon the discipline of sociology. In total, ten of the 13 participants were working in academia and the remaining three were working in the third sector. 12 had completed their PhD’s and one participant had made the decision to leave academia prior to completing the PhD. 12 participants identified as White British, and one participant identified as North African.

What challenges do working-class doctoral researchers and early career researchers face? How, if at all do they overcome such challenges and what can be done to support them in their journeys to and through academia?

The Important of Working-Class ‘Others’ in Academic and Navigating Funding

In journeying to the PhD receiving scholarship funding was foundational to participants’ possibility of progressing to doctoral study. All of my participants received full funding and without this they would not have been able to pursue a PhD. In addition to funding, working-class ‘Others’ (or what I have termed to be very important persons (VIPs) in academia were also central to participants experiences of successful navigating the transition to doctoral study. The VIP, often academic points of contact, who are mostly (though not always) from a working-class background served an important function as a kind of ‘gatekeeper’ to post-graduate study and academia. VIPs often sparked the notion that doctoral study was a possible pathway and provided a window into academia, demystifying academia and the postgraduate applications/scholarship process.

Participants’ accounts showed a range of barriers. Participants rejected the need to be geographically hyper-mobile in order to secure academic employment; they wanted and needed to care for family members and wished to remain connected to their working-class home and community. They spoke at length about the precarious nature of navigating the academic job market and academia per se; this alone was a key barrier to successful progression within academia. Participants also spoke about the multitude of skills and experiences they were required to demonstrate in order to navigate the academic job market. For working-class students who are the first in their family to study at university, knowing which endeavours to seek out and prioritise was a great source of confusion and anxiety. Uncovering how to play the game was not always easily identifiable.

Recommendations

This study leads to recommendations for institutions, funding bodies, and those working in academia in their recruitment, engagement and support with doctoral scholars and early career researchers from working-class backgrounds. These recommendations include, but are not limited to:

(a) schemes aimed at demystifying academia and supporting working-class aspiring doctoral researchers through their doctoral applications and funding process;

(b) funding bodies recognising the precarious financial position of doctoral students, especially so for those from working-class backgrounds and thus financially supporting doctoral students during times of ill health and exceptional circumstances and providing funding to doctoral students for the period immediately following the submission of the PhD; and

(c) Academic hiring committees and funders, postdoctoral or otherwise, should not look more favourably on those applications where the applicant holder is moving to another university, and should accept that some applicants might just prefer to stay, without having an exceptional reason such as caring commitments, or other exceptional academic reasons.

The current academic landscape is marked by precarity and rampant competition for an ever diminishing pool of academic jobs, often short-term, temporary contracts that demand geographical mobility. This in turn has significant impacts upon the knowledge being produced within and across UK universities (and globally). Working-class doctoral students and early career researchers face considerable barriers in their journeys to and through a PhD and into academia. Whilst there has been considerable debate and discussion of the gendered and ethnic makeup of UK higher education there is no equivalent commentary or critique concerned with illuminating, calling into question and critiquing the absence of working-class persons from academia. The future of UK HE, its leadership and scholarship are currently under threat. The values of diversity, accessibility and inclusivity, especially that of class diversity, that universities are quick to espouse should be at the centre of HE policy and practice, especially at the postgraduate level.

Institutions and funding bodies need to take into account, and take action to address, the specific challenges facing working-class doctoral researchers and early career academics. Working-class people should be actively encouraged and supported in their journeys to and through doctoral study and into higher education. As part of this project, a workshop aimed at demystifying the post-PhD post-doctoral funding application process and academic labour market will be run in Autumn 2022.

SRHE member Carli Rowell is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is currently an executive member of Gender and Education Association and convenes the British Sociological Associations Social Class Study Group.


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Towards a better, granular, understanding of differences in awarding gaps

by Kathryna Kwok and Siân Alsop

As a sector, we have long known that a student’s ethnicity has a relationship to the average class of degree they are awarded. Students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (or ‘BAME’) backgrounds can expect to leave UK universities with lower classifications than their White counterparts – up to 20% lower (UUK & NUS, 2019). Universities have been paying attention to how institutional factors like curricula, assessment and staffing decisions might contribute to this awarding gap in a welcome shift away from focusing on the role student background might play. But not much is really changing. The OfS (2022) reports that although the gap has somewhat narrowed in the last five years, Black students in particular continue to receive 17.4% lower degree outcomes than White students. At this point, it is clear that sweeping, quick fix, or isolated interventions are not fit for purpose. The mechanisms underpinning awarding disparities are complex and entrenched. It seems more likely that a sharpened focus and multi-pronged approach to unpicking the multiple ways in which we disadvantage certain students would be useful, if we are serious about change. 

In this vein, we took as our starting point the need to get granular – to dig into ‘who’, as binary ‘BAME’/White distinctions are uninformative at best, and ‘how’, as a degree award is the culmination of many parts. We focused on understanding differences in awarded marks at the module level. But what’s the best way to operationalise module mark differences between two groups? One obvious option would be, simply, to calculate the difference in means (ie mean of group A – mean of group B). However, this has the potential to be misleading. What if, for instance, there were a lot of variation in students’ marks?

Our solution, as we describe in our 2019 SRHE Research Award final report, was to use the formula for the t-statistic, which is a measure reflecting the difference between two groups’ means scaled to group variation and size. In the context of calculating module mark gaps, we refer to this as the difference index (DI) to avoid confusion with the t-values calculated as part of other statistical testing. The formula for DI is below – here, n is the number of students in a group, s is the standard deviation and x̄ is the group mean.

A larger absolute value indicates a larger difference between the two group means (with group size and variation held constant). A positive value means that group A outperformed group B, while a negative value means that group B outperformed group A. If multiple comparisons are being performed with one common baseline group, it is recommended that the baseline group is consistently positioned as group A.

The DI offers a straightforward yet nuanced way to operationalise module mark gaps using data that universities already routinely collect. As a measure of module-level differences, it also offers a way to characterise, monitor and investigate the awarding gap at a granular level – something which percentage point differences in final degree outcomes are much less able to do.

This said, the DI does have its disadvantages. It is not as intuitively interpretable as a simple difference in means. This is perhaps the trade-off for the added nuance it offers. As an illustration, for two groups each with 10 students and an equal spread of module marks (SD = 10.00), a difference of five marks equates to a DI of 1.12, and a difference of ten marks equates to a DI of 2.24. Another disadvantage of the DI is that it can only be used to compare two groups at a time, meaning separate calculations have to be performed for each pairing. Analyses involving multiple groups (or multiple combinations of groups) could thus quickly become unwieldy. In our case study, which we describe in the report linked above, we used regression modelling to investigate whether module characteristics (eg level, credit value, exam weight) could predict DI. This required us to compute one regression model for each ethnicity pairing (White v Asian, White v Black, White v Mixed, White v Other). One of our findings was that module characteristics significantly predicted DI only between White and Black students, which we note ‘highlight[ed] the importance of recognising the heterogeneity of student experiences and needs’ (Kwok & Alsop, 2021: 16). We hope to conduct similar analyses with a much larger dataset, ideally from multiple institutions, which would enable us to utilise multilevel regression techniques to more elegantly capture and explore granular differences in the marks awarded to different groups of students.

To our knowledge, there is no measure that is systematically being used to operationalise the ethnic awarding gap at a level more granular than final degree outcome. We argue that this limits universities’ abilities to understand the awarding gap and identify what can be done to address it at an institutional level. We believe that the DI offers a solution to this. It can be used by researchers, as we have done, to investigate what curriculum-related factors may be contributing to the awarding gap. Those who teach can use the DI to explore module mark differences in their programmes, both within and between cohorts. Those with access to institutional-level data can investigate these trends on an even larger scale, for instance to explore if there are particular areas or time points where modules have consistently high or low (or negative) DIs. The impact of the pandemic can also be explored in this way, for example by using student cohort data either side of Covid-19. Further, while this article has discussed the DI in the context of investigating the ethnic awarding gap, it can also be used to compare students grouped in other ways. It is important that institutions utilise the data they already have to understand awarding discrepancies in a clear and sufficiently granular way – using the DI would help accomplish this.

Kat Kwok is an Educational Researcher at the Oxford Centre for Academic Enhancement and Development at Oxford Brookes University. She is interested in using quantitative methods to investigate race and gender disparity in higher education, and the student experience. Kat recently started her PhD at Coventry University where she will be using a mixed methods approach to investigate the relationships between feedback and student characteristics, and the impact of feedback.

Dr Siân Alsop is Research Fellow in the Centre for Global Learning at Coventry University. She is a corpus linguist whose research areas include attainment disparities in higher education, feedback, and the language of lectures. Siân was previously a Lecturer in Academic Writing and has worked on a number of projects relating to academic discourse, including the development of the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus and the Engineering Lecture Corpus (ELC).


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Do we want social science, or social science-fiction?

By Paul Temple

Because a lot of its research work involves schools and school-age children, research training at the Institute of Education tends to emphasise issues around confidentiality and anonymity in presenting research findings. Anonymity usually happens anyway in large-scale studies with hundreds or thousands of respondents – the National Student Survey, for example – because the point is to get a picture of what a category of people think, rather than the views of particular individuals. Those of us working on higher education research, however, are often in the position of asking relatively small numbers of informants about their professional views – that is, about the knowledge for which their employer is paying them, unrelated to their private lives. A university finance director could of course decline to be interviewed, but it’s hard to see why there should be a confidentiality problem about their explanation of the university’s resource allocation methodology.

When one of my PhD students was planning a study of the closure of the Ripon campus of York St John University, she assumed everything would have to be anonymised. But why?, I asked her. Yes, the closure was controversial, but that’s now history. Your study, I said, will have far more value if you contextualise it in the real-life settings of York and Ripon; just be sure that your respondents know that what they say will be on the record. But will they talk to me on that basis, she wondered: your problem, I said (correctly, as it turned out), will be getting them to shut up when you want to end the interview. Her thesis was fine, and the then YSJ VC seemed pleased that the institution was considered to be an interesting research subject.

The book by John Brennan et al, The University in its Place (2018), which provides four case studies of anonymised UK universities, took me back to these discussions. Brennan and his co-authors actually provide enough context to make it easy to work out the institutional identities: how many Scottish east coast cities have two universities, one of which (“Aspirational U”) obtained university status in 1994 and has about 5000 students? – no Googling, please. But it is the conceptual reason for anonymization that the authors put forward, aside from wanting “to respect the confidentiality of those to whom we talked” about the “sensitive” matter of university-regional relationships (p48), that I find fascinating. Anonymity was apparently necessary because “it is simply not possible to capture all the day-to-day complexity and uncertainty associated with higher education in practice and in place … [the study] necessarily involves selection, both intended and unintended … [so we cannot] present a complete and fully articulated representation either of particular institutions or places” (p48).

But making a selection is the basis not merely for all social science but for all research, of any kind. Show me a piece of research that isn’t the result of making a selection from the infinite variety of natural and social phenomena that initially confronted the researcher. Having then made a selection, no social scientific study will “capture all the day-to-day complexity” of an organisation, or of anything else. This is simply a logical impossibility, as there will always be more facts to be collected, more detail to be recorded, more details of details to be examined – as surely every PhD supervisor knows: “You’ve done enough, just write the thing up!”. What a researcher must do is focus on the chosen detail and (with an explanation) ignore the rest: you want the finance director to tell you about the resource allocation model, not about “the day-to-day complexity” of managing cash flow. In the cases of Brennan et al, no reasonable person would expect a study of university-regional relationships to include “a complete … representation” of, say, the catering arrangements in a particular institution, any more than an account of university catering would be expected to consider the university’s relations with regional public bodies.

I think that removing through anonymisation the context in which the research subject is embedded reduces the quality of understanding: it makes it harder for the reader to create their own view about what the research is saying – they have to go along with what the researchers say. Actually, anonymisation may mislead the reader if they guess wrong about the identity of the subject: “Funny, this doesn’t sound like Aberdeen!”.

It seems to me that Americans take a much more robust view about these matters than we do in Britain: maybe it’s a result of the First Amendment. George Keller’s ground-breaking book on university planning, Academic Strategy (1983), carried weight because he was describing successes and failures by named individuals in named universities. In the same tradition, Mark Kretovics (2020) doesn’t pull his punches, describing named leadership successes and failures (the failures are the best bits), down to the juicy details of expenses scandals. These accounts make you almost feel as if you’re in the room, not wondering if you’ve even got the right city.

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

References

Brennan, J., Cochrane, A., Lebeau, Y. and Williams, R. (2018). The University in its Place: Social and cultural perspectives on the regional role of universiites. Dordrecht: Springer.

Keller, G. (1983). Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Kretovics, M. (2020). Understanding Power and Leadership in Higher Education: Tools for Institutional Change. New York: Routledge.

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Who should pay for higher education in England, and how much

by Rob Cuthbert

SRHE News is a quarterly publication, available only to SRHE members, which aims to comment on recent events, publications, and activities in a journalistic but scholarly way, allowing more human interest and unsupported speculation than any self-respecting journal, but never forgetting its academic audience and their concern for the professional niceties. These are some extracts from the April 2022 issue.

Government uses high inflation as cover for hitting students, graduates and universities

The Government sneaked a student loans announcement out on Friday afternoon 28 January 2022. Ben Waltmann (Institute for Fiscal Studies) said: “Today’s announcement … constitutes a tax rise by stealth on graduates with middling earnings. … For a graduate earning £30,000, this announcement means that they will pay £113 more towards their student loan in the next tax year than the government had previously said. … What really matters is how long this threshold freeze will stay in place. If it is only for one year, the impact on graduates will be moderate, and the government can only expect to save around £600 million per cohort of university students. If it stays in place for longer, it could transform the student loan system, with a much lower cost for the taxpayer and a much higher burden on graduates than they thought … when they took out their loans.” However, some well-informed commentators thought that the Minister had made the best of a bad job.

Waltmann followed up in his 10 February ‘Observation’: ”Students will see substantial cuts to the value of their maintenance loans, as parental earnings thresholds will stay frozen in cash terms and the uplift in the level of loans will fall far short of inflation. This continues a long-run decline in the value of maintenance entitlements. The threshold below which students are entitled to full maintenance loans has been unchanged in cash terms at £25,000 since 2008; had it risen with average earnings, it would now be around £34,000. Separately, the student loan repayment threshold will also be frozen in cash terms. … Finally, tuition fees will remain frozen in cash terms for another year, which hits universities and mainly benefits the taxpayer. … as our updated student finance calculator shows, the government is saving £2.3 billion on student loans under the cover of high inflation.”

At last, the government response to Augar

On 24 February 2022 the government finally issued a detailed response to the 2019 Augar Report, setting out a series of policy proposals and further issues for consultation: “Put simply, we need a fairer and more sustainable system for students and institutions, and of course the taxpayer. We need a system that will maintain our world-class universities not just for today, but for the decades to come. And we need a fairer deal for students …”. Rachel Wolf wrote for The Times Red Box on 24 February 2022 that she was encouraged by the Augar response (and the separate consultation on Lifelong Learning Entitlement), because it suggested that there was proper Cabinet government with a sensible Secretary of State for Education, rather than No 10 being in charge of everything. Yes, but … there was precious little welcome for most of the proposals.

Nick Hillman blogged for HEPI just ahead of the DfE announcement, trying desperately to save the Willetts fee policy (he was Willetts’ special adviser) from being labelled as a political failure. That policy was designed to be redistributive and progressive, but in practice the shortfall in repayments (RAB) became much too high and not enough people understood that many students were not expected to repay loans in full. The Theresa May government misunderstood it to the extent that they raised the repayment threshold, which cost the Exchequer much more without giving much benefit to students. The Treasury tolerated it until the national accounting systems were properly changed to show the loans for what they were, rather than spreading them as a cost over 20-30 years. Hillman selectively quoted Moneysavingexpert Martin Lewis, but he would have done better to see the 24 February Lewis quote that loans had now become a graduate tax throughout people’s working lives.

Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe on 24 February 2022 noted the absence of any response to Augar’s chapter on maintenance grants: “Overall then, almost all students will end up paying significantly more for having significantly less spent on their education … we might have at least expected a response on the bits of Augar that were concerned with students’ costs or their maintenance. That they are not even acknowledged tells us quite a bit about what the government thinks about students and graduates.”

Gavan Conlon of London Economics issued his analysis of the government proposals. “Under the current funding system in 2021-22 … the Exchequer contributes approximately £10.630bn per cohort to the funding of higher education. … given that the RAB charge (the proportion of the total loan balance written off) stands at approximately 52.5%, maintenance loan write-offs cost the Exchequer £4.105bn per cohort, while tuition fee loan write-offs cost £5.303bn. The recent freeze in the repayment threshold reduced HMT costs by approximately £300 million. The provision of Teaching Grants to higher education institutions (for high-cost subjects) results in additional costs of £1.222bn per cohort. Higher Education Institutions receive £11.144bn per cohort in net income from undergraduate students … £10.112bn in tuition fee income … £1.222bn in Teaching Grants. … institutions contribute £189 million per cohort in fee and maintenance bursaries (predominantly the latter) in exchange for the right to charge tuition fees in excess of the ‘Basic Fee’ (£6,165 per annum for full-time students). For students/graduates, the average debt on graduation (including accumulated interest) was estimated to be £47,500 (for full-time first degree students), with average lifetime repayments of £35,900 for male graduates and £13,900 for female graduates. We estimate that 88.2% of all graduates never repay their full loan, while 33.0% never make any loan repayment.” The first scenario he modelled involved “removing the real interest rate, reducing the earnings repayment thresholds to £25,000 (and the associated maximum interest rate threshold), and extending the repayment period to 40 years”. That led to savings of £539million for the Exchequer, with no change for HEIs. The average debt on graduation declined following the changes by £1,600. Average lifetime repayments for male graduates  decline by £2,000 but increase by £3900 for female graduates. “However, these are averages and there are important distributional effects associated with these proposals”. Scenario 2 added the introduction of Minimum Entry Requirements and reintroduction of Student Number Controls. The savings for the Exchequer were estimated at £1322million, with a loss for HEIs of £840million. The effect on students was unchanged.

Conlon then co-authored a blog with Andrew McGettigan (independent) for Wonkhe on 25 February 2022, which showed that most of the savings had actually been achieved by changing the discount rate used for student loans, making them more valuable. “… the graduates who will benefit the most are the highest earning – predominantly male – graduates. The messaging has been that lower earning graduates need to pay more to make the system sustainable. In fact it’s the discount rate change that does most of that – with the extra contributions from lower earning graduates helping to fund the reduced contributions from the richest. … It’s hard to see this when there is a lot of smoke and mirrors. What makes all this worse is the government knows that its discount rate change means that the extra payments made by lower earning graduates in years 30 to 40 are doing most of the heavy lifting.” Student finance campaigner Martin Lewis of Moneysavingexpert called it “a very damning piece”.

Ben Waltmann of the Institute for Fiscal Studies wrote on 24 February that: “The largest student loan reform since 2012 will reduce the cost of loans for high-earning borrowers but increase it for lower earners. Today the government has announced the largest changes to the student loans system in England since fees were allowed to triple in 2012. Starting with the 2023 university entry cohort, graduates will pay more towards their student loans each year and their loan balances will only be written off 40 years after they start repayments. For the same cohorts, the interest rate on student loans will be reduced to the rate of increase in the Retail Prices Index (RPI), a large cut of up to 3 percentage points. Maximum tuition fees will be frozen in nominal terms until the 2024/25 academic year. These changes will transform the student loans system. While under the current system, only around a quarter can expect to repay their loans in full, around 70% can expect to repay under the new system. This is partly due to substantially higher lifetime repayments by students with low and middling earnings and partly due to less interest being accumulated on loans. The long-run benefit for the taxpayer will be around £2.3 billion per cohort of university entrants, as higher repayments by borrowers with low or middling earnings will be partly offset by lower repayments of high-earning borrowers.”

Richard Adams in The Guardian on 24 February 2022 pointed out the DfE’s own analysis showed the poorest would suffer: “An equality analysis on the proposals by the Department for Education, states that “those likely to see some negative impact with increased lifetime repayments under the reforms” include younger and female graduates as well as graduates “from disadvantaged backgrounds, or reside in the north, Midlands, south-west or Yorkshire and the Humber”.

On 24 February 2022 Wonkhe’s Debbie McVitty suggested the proposals were looking for “a third way between capping opportunity and letting the HE market run amok”. John Morgan’s article for Times Higher Education on 28 February 2022 had expert commentators describing the Augar response package as a ‘missed opportunity’, with Chris Husbands (Sheffield Hallam VC) saying “what the package essentially does is to kick the difficult questions down the road”. David Willetts, in Times Higher Education on 3 March 2022, thought the Augar response was “balanced tweaks”; he was trying to rescue his fees policy, which worked in theory but not in practice. Nick Hillman was still trying in Research Professional News on 6 March 2022.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan wrote a Conservative Home-spun version of the changes, in which she interestingly she referred to “Our top university cities – Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Manchester and London …”. Donelan’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in March 2022 set out what the Minister wants the narrative to be. Diana Beech (London Higher) blogged for HEPI on 7 March 2022 about the government response to Augar and the recent flurry of OfS consultations: “… what we are facing now is not a series of seemingly independent consultations concerned with the minutiae of regulation, but a multi-pronged and coordinated assault on the values our higher education sector holds dear.” Alan Roff, former Deputy VC at Central Lancashire, reprised his 2021 argument for a graduate contributions scheme with his 22 March HEPI blog. We assume that still, no-one in government is listening.

Mary Curnock Cook, former UCAS chief executive, was upbeat about the possibility of setting a minimum entry requirement (MER) in terms of grade 4 English and Maths at GCSE, in her HEPI blog on 24 February 2022. However SRHE Fellow Peter Scott pointed out, in his 28 February 2022 HEPI blog, that “In Scotland, universities set MERs to widen access. In England, the State imposes MERs to curb it. So, it is very difficult to claim the UK Government’s package of measures in response to the recommendations made by Augar are somehow progressive, let alone favourable to fair access.”

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

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

To join a global community of scholars researching into HE, see the SRHE website.

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Tunnel vision: higher education policy and the Office for Students

by Rob Cuthbert

In January 2022 the Office for Students published three sets of consultations, 699 pages of proposals for the regulation of student outcomes, the determination of teaching excellence, and the construction of indicators to measure student experience and outcomes. These were not separate initiatives, but part of a co-ordinated programme which needs to be seen in the context of the long-awaited government response to the 2019 Augar report, finally published in March 2022[1].

The OfS consultation announced that numerical thresholds will underpin requirements for minimum acceptable student outcomes at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Universities and colleges not meeting these could face investigation, with fines and restrictions on their access to student loan funding available as potential sanctions. For full-time students studying a first degree, the thresholds require: 80% of students to continue into a second year of study; 75% of students to complete their qualification; 60% of students to go into professional employment or further study.

Not just numbers? OfS say: “we recognise that using our indicators to measure the outcomes a provider delivers for its students cannot reflect all aspects of the provider’s context … If a provider delivers outcomes for its students that are below a numerical threshold, we will make decisions about whether those outcomes are justified by looking at its context. This approach would result in a rounded judgement about a provider’s performance.”

But then: “… such an approach may present a challenge for some providers. This is because they must only recruit students where they have understood the commitment they are making to support their students to succeed, irrespective of their backgrounds. … Most universities and colleges relish this challenge and already deliver on it. However, some do not. While some may offer opportunities for students to enter higher education, we also see low continuation and completion rates and disappointing levels of progression to relevant employment or further study.” A warning, then, for “some”, but not “most”, providers.

The OfS approach will be fine-grained: “We would consider whether a provider has complied with condition B3 in relation to each separate indicator or split indicator. This enables us to identify ‘pockets of provision’ where performance in a specific subject, for students with specific characteristics, or in relation to partnership arrangements, falls below a numerical threshold”.

‘Selecting’ universities might think that ‘contextual judgment’ will rescue them, but may still decide to play safe in subjects where the numbers don’t look so good. ‘Recruiting’ universities, especially in ‘levelling up’ areas, might be looking at the numbers across many programmes and considering their strategy. Everyone will be incentivised to play safe and eliminate what are numerically the most marginal candidates, subjects and courses. And everyone thinks this will discriminate against disadvantaged students. For example, the University Alliance response published on 16 March 2022 said: “The University Alliance is gravely concerned that the proposals outlined by government could have unintended consequences for the least privileged students in society.”

Sally Burtonshaw (London Higher) blogged for HEPI on 26 January 2022: “As the dust begins to settle on the 699 pages of Office for Students’ (OfS) consultations and accompanying documents published on Thursday and providers across the sector begin to draft responses (deadline March 17th), it feels like there is a gaping chasm between the sector and its regulator. Language in the accompanying press release with references to ‘crack downs’, ‘tough regulatory action’ and ‘protecting students from being let down’, jars with a sector which has contributed so much throughout the pandemic.”

Diana Beech (London Higher) blogged for HEPI on 7 March 2022 about the government response to Augar and the OfS consultations: “… what we are facing now is not a series of seemingly independent consultations concerned with the minutiae of regulation, but a multi-pronged and coordinated assault on the values our higher education sector holds dear.” Diana Beech was a policy adviser to the last three ministers for universities.

SRHE Fellow Peter Scott summed it up like this: “This … ‘direction of travel’ is … based on the assumption that we should continue to distinguish between FE and HE, vocational and academic tracks, in terms of their social bases and costs. Of course, that is the current reality. Universities, especially Russell Group ones, draw a disproportionate number of their students from socially-privileged backgrounds, while FE is badly under-funded. This is why it makes (economic) sense for the Government to try to divert more students there. But is that sustainable in a country that aspires to being both democratic and dynamic? Most other countries have moved on and now think in terms of tertiary systems embracing HE, FE, on-the-job training, adult and community learning, the virtual stuff … bound together by flexible pathways and equitable funding – and, above all, by fair access. In the UK, Wales is setting the pace, while Scotland has had its ‘Learner Journey 15-24’ initiative. In England, sadly, there is no echo of such positive thinking.”

Status hierarchies must, it seems, be maintained, and not just between HE and FE, but also between universities. Contrary to expectations the Teaching Excellence Framework will rise from the ashes of the Pearce Review via the OfS’s second consultation. Earlier versions of TEF did not reliably reproduce the existing status hierarchies; some Russell Group institutions even suffered the indignity of a bronze rating. Clearly this could not be allowed to continue. So now: “The proposed TEF process is a desk-based, expert review exercise with decisions made by a panel of experts to be established by the OfS. The panel would consider providers’ submissions alongside other evidence. … TEF assessment should result in an overall rating for each provider. The overall rating would be underpinned by two aspect ratings, one for student experience and one for student outcomes but there would be no rating of individual subjects within a provider.” Such undifferentiated provider-level arrangements will surely be enough to ensure no further embarrassment for those with the highest reputations.

There will still be gold, silver and bronze awards, but not for all. The OfS script is worthy of Yes Minister: “… our minimum baseline quality requirements establish a high quality minimum for all providers. Therefore, quality identified that is materially above the relevant baseline quality requirements should be considered as ‘very high quality’ or ‘outstanding quality’ … ‘Outstanding quality’ signifies a feature of the student experience or outcomes that is among the very highest quality found in the sector for the mix of students and courses taught by a provider. … ‘Very high quality’ signifies a feature of the student experience or outcomes that is materially above the relevant minimum baseline quality requirements for the mix of students and courses taught by a provider.” Is the difference clear? If not, don’t worry, because the TEF Panel will decide.

As Sir Humphrey might have put it: it’s like the Olympics – not everyone will get on the podium. And it’s like ice dancing: judges hand out the marks based on how they rate the performance. The table of “features of excellence” spells out the criteria, for example: “The provider uses research in relevant disciplines, innovation, scholarship, professional practice and/or employer engagement to contribute to an outstanding academic experience for its students.” Whereas for high quality: “The provider uses research in relevant disciplines, innovation, scholarship, professional practice and/or employer engagement to contribute to a very high quality academic experience for its students.” Is the difference clear? If not, don’t worry, because the TEF Panel will decide.

Nick Hillman blogged for HEPI on 21 January 2022 about the OfS initiatives, reflecting on the limited success of previous attempts to shift evaluation towards metricisation, and Debbie Mcvitty blogged for Wonkhe on 24 January 2022 with a helpful potted history.There will be no surprises in the outcomes of the consultations. Whether or not the Titanic is sinking, we are consulted only on how to arrange the deckchairs. As HEPI’s Nick Hillman said: “I vividly recall what Les Ebdon, the former Director for Fair Access, said a few years ago when he was asked, “What will the Office for Students do?” His answer was, “It’s very simple. I can tell you exactly what the OfS will do. It will do whatever the government of the day wants it to do.” And so it has proved.”

Let us, then, look not at the entirely predictable outcomes, but at the style the OfS has adopted to reach them. The consultation on regulation of outcomes is telling. It takes 100 pages to assemble a rational-bureaucratic edifice in rational-bureaucratic language, with chapter headings including: “… making judgments about compliance with condition B3 … Addressing statistical uncertainty in the assessment of condition B3 … Taking regulatory action when a breach is identified …”. There could have been headings like: “How do we know how good the performance is?” or “What if something goes wrong?”. But that would have exposed the deeper questions, for which answers have already been decided. Instead we are drowned with bureaucratic detail. Details are always necessary, but we should be reminded of why they are needed. Instead these documents do their best to obscure the fait accompli which is their starting point, with a grinding remorseless pseudo-rationality which encourages you to lose sight of purposes and values.

In 699 pages of consultation the OfS has done its bureaucratic best to profess transparency, openness and rigour, while diverting our energies and attention from what an experienced ministerial adviser called the ‘assault on the values which our HE sector holds dear’. The consultations amount to a detailed enquiry about how exactly these values should be assaulted. We are in a consultation tunnel with only one track. What we can see is probably not the light at the end of the tunnel, it may be the lights from an oncoming train.

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

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


[1] Covered elsewhere in this issue of SRHE News. SRHE members can read this and previous editions of SRHE News via https://srhe.ac.uk/my-account/


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Statistical illogic: the fallacy of Jacob Bernoulli and others

by Paul Alper

Bernoulli’s Fallacy, Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science by Aubrey Clayton.  

“My goal with this book is not to broker a peace treaty; my goal is to win the war.”    (Preface p xv)

“We should no more be teaching p-values in statistics courses than we should be teaching phrenology in medical schools.” (p239)

It is possible or even probable that many a PhD or journal article in the softer sciences has got by through misunderstanding probability and statistics. Clayton’s book aims to expose the shortcomings of a fallacy first attributed to the 17th century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, but relied on repeatedly for centuries afterwards, despite the 18th century work of statistician Thomas Bayes, and exemplified in the work of RA Fisher, the staple of so many social science primers on probability and statistics.

In the midst of the frightening Cold War, I attended a special lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on 12 February 1960 by Fisher, the most prominent statistician of the 20th century; he was touring the United States and other countries. I had never heard of him and indeed, despite being in grad school, my undergraduate experience was entirely deterministic: apply a voltage then measure a current, apply a force then measure acceleration, etc. Not a hint, not a mention of variability, noise, or random disturbance. The general public’s common currency in 1960 did not then include such terms as random sample, statistical significance, and margin of error. 

However, Fisher was speaking on the hot topic of that day: was smoking a cause of cancer?  Younger readers may wonder how in the world was this a debatable subject when in hindsight, it is so strikingly obvious. Well, it was not obvious in 1960 and the history of inflight smoking indicates how difficult it was to turn the tide, and how many years it took. Fisher’s tour of the United States was sponsored by the tobacco industry, but it would be wrong to conjecture that he was being hypocritical. And not just because he was a smoker himself.  

Fisher believed that mere observations were insufficient for concluding that A causes B; it could be that B causes A or that C is responsible for both A and B. He insisted upon experimental and not mere observational evidence. According to Fisher, it could be that people who have some underlying physical problem led them to smoke rather than smoking caused the underlying problem; or that some other cause such as pollution was to blame. According to Fisher, in order to experimentally link smoking as the cause of cancer, at random some children would be required to smoke and some would be required not to smoke and then as time goes by note the incidence of cancer in each of the two groups.

However, according to Clayton, Fisher himself, just like Jacob Bernoulli, had it backwards when it came to analysing experiments.  If Fisher and Bernoulli can make this mistake, it is easy for others to fall into this trap because ordinary language keeps tripping us up.  Clayton expends much effort into showing examples, such as the famous Prosecutor’s Fallacy. The fallacy was exemplified in the UK by the infamous Meadows case and is discussed at length by Clayton; a prosecution expert witness made unsustainable assertions about the probability of innocence being “one in 73 million”.

The Bayesian way of looking at things is to consider the probability a person is guilty, given the evidence. This is not the same as the probability of the evidence, given the person is guilty, which is the ‘frequentist’ approach adopted by Fisher, with results which can be wildly different numerically. Another example, from the medical world: there is confusion between the probability of having a disease, given a positive test for the disease:

                        Prob (Disease | Test Positive) ; the Bayesian way of looking at things

and

                         Prob (Test Positive | Disease) ; the frequentist approach

The patient is interested in the former but is often quoted the latter, known as the sensitivity of the test, which might be markedly different depending on the base rate of the disease. If the base rate is, say, one in 1,000 and the test sensitivity is, say, 90%, then for every 1000 tests, 100 will be false positives. A Bayesian would therefore conclude correctly that the chances of a false positive test are 100 times greater than the chances of actually having the disease. In other words, the hypothesis that the person has the disease is not supported by the data/evidence. However a frequentist might mistakenly say that if you test positive there is a 90% chance that you have the disease.

The quotation from page xv of Clayton’s preface which begins this essay, shows how much Clayton, a Bayesian, is determined to counter Bernoulli’s fallacy and set things straight. Fisher’s frequentist approach still finds favor among social scientists because his setup, no matter how flawed, was an easy recipe to follow. Assume a straw-man hypothesis such as ‘no effect’, take data to obtain a so-called p-value and, in the mechanical manner suggested by Fisher, if the p-value is low enough, reject the straw man. Therefore, the winner was the opposite of the straw man, namely the effect/hypothesis/contention/claim is real.

Fisher, a founder, and not just a follower of the eugenics movement, was as I once wrote, “a genius, and difficult to get along with.”  Upon reflection, I consequently changed the conjunction to an implication, “a genius, therefore difficult to get along with.”  His then son-in-law back on 12 February 1960 was George Box, also a famous statistician – among other things the author of the famous phrase in statistics, “all models are wrong, some are useful” – who had just been appointed to be the head of the University of Wisconsin’s statistics department. Unlike Fisher, Box was a very agreeable and kindly person and, as evidence of those qualities, I note that he was on the committee that approved my PhD thesis, a writing endeavour of mine which I hope is never unearthed for future public consumption.  

All of that was a long time ago, well before the Soviet Union collapsed, only to see today’s military rise of Russia. Tobacco use and sales throughout the world are much reduced while cannabis acceptance is on the rise. Statisticians have since moved on to consider and solve much weightier computational problems via the rubric of so-called Data Science. I was in my mid-twenties and I doubt that there were many people younger than I was at that Fisher presentation, so I am on track to be the last one alive who heard a lecture by Fisher disputing smoking as a cause of cancer.  He died in Australia in 1962, a month after my 26th birthday but his legacy, reputation and contribution live on and hence, the fallacy of Bernoulli as well.    

Paul Alper is an emeritus professor at the University of St. Thomas, having retired in 1998. For several decades, he regularly contributed Notes from North America to Higher Education Review. He is almost the exact age of Woody Allen and the Dalai Lama and thus, was fortunate to be too young for some wars and too old for other ones. In the 1990s, he was awarded a Nike sneaker endorsement which resulted in his paper, Imposing Views, Imposing Shoes: A Statistician as a Sole Model; it can be found at The American Statistician, August 1995, Vol 49, No. 3, pages 317 to 319.


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Is it possible to bring back the block grant?

by GR Evans

The Government’s latest plan for university funding in England makes depressing reading for future students and universities alike. Students will be paying off their student loans (albeit with slightly reduced but still compound interest), for forty years not thirty. Universities will have the tuition fees funded by their loans capped at £9,250 a year until 2025, making seven years since they were last (slightly) increased.  Yet this can be no more than a holding move in the face of a current student loan-book total of more than £160bn.

The scale of that student debt was not supposed to matter. When loans for student fees began they were considered to be a mere supplement to the Government ‘grant’ of public funding for universities. The write-off of unpaid student debt after 30 years would not count as a loss to the tax-payer in the eyes of the Treasury.

The Coalition Government’s decision in 2010 to triple student fees to £9,000 and  shrink the ‘block grant’ to vanishing point made that view of things impossible to sustain after 2012.  In 2019 the Office for National Statistics redesignated the write-off of student loans as public spending. The now only too visibly mounting £billions have become a major embarrassment. The current proposal to limit student numbers by imposing minimum entry qualifications for students is designed to ensure that fewer loans are taken out, but the system is clearly not sustainable in the long-term.

The ‘block grant’ imposed no debt upon students until tuition fees were introduced in 1998, and until they rose to their current levels the debt was not crippling. Now it is, and it weighs on the taxpayer as well as the student. The Government ‘grant’ was clearly taxpayer money spent, but it could be measured out year by year, was a known quantity, and once spent could not still be costing the taxpayer unforeseen amounts decades later. It was regularly grumbled that fixed annually it gave universities little chance to plan ahead, but that problem has not been removed by leaving universities to gather what fees they can by admitting students.

Funding by Government grant served universities for almost a century from 1919, The call for it began in earnest at the beginning of the twentieth century, once half a dozen new universities had been founded and needed it. In 1918 the Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University, Sir Oliver Lodge, set about organizing a deputation ‘for the purpose of applying to the Government for greatly increased financial support’.

One point of principle quickly became important. In 1919 Oxford’s scientists wrote directly to H.A.L. Fisher, President of the Board of Education, to press for money for salaries for demonstrators and scholarships in science and mathematics. The very future of science was at stake, they cried. This prompted a clarification. Fisher explained that:

‘each University which receives aid from the State will receive it in the form of a single inclusive grant, for the expenditure of which the University, as distinguished from any particular Department, will be responsible’ (Oxford University Gazette (1919), p475).

This established the ‘block’ character of the grant’.

The second important principle was that Governments must not be able to attach conditions to the grant however they pleased. As Lord Haldane argued, there must be a buffer or intermediary. From 1919 until the creation of the statutory funding bodies under the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 that took the form of the universities-led University Grants Committee. After 1992 HEFCE always received a guidance letter from the Secretary of State at the beginning of the year, giving a steer about the way in which the block grant should be allocated, but it continued to take its ‘buffering’ duty seriously.

In Times Higher Education on 24 February Aaron Porter told the story of the shrinking of the ‘block grant’ by the Coalition Government and its almost total replacement since 2010 by greatly enlarged student tuition fees. Those of course were in principle payments for teaching,  but there were soon complaints that they were being used to fund research.

The Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 made a decisive separation between teaching and research by creating the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation. The equivalent of the old ‘grant letter’ now comes to the Office for Students from the Department for Education. The most recent of these is dated 9 August 2021. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA s.2(3)) empowers the government to give ‘guidance’, ‘setting out the principles which should be followed in distributing the funding’.  UKRI, which bundles together a number of entities, takes the form of a non-departmental government body, under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Its funding by the Secretary of State preserves the ‘buffer’ or Haldane principle, as defined in HERA s.103, but not the principle that such funding should go in a ‘block’ to each university.

This means there would now be a significant structural difficulty in restoring a ‘block grant’ as the principal source of funding for universities, because it could under current legislation affect only the cost of ‘teaching’. But legislation can be amended and there is unfinished business, because the separation of teaching and research has left research students inadequately supported.

What is the alternative? The present adjustments are unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. Freezing tuition fees cannot continue indefinitely, or even for the period to 2025 now proposed by government, without causing some universities to collapse. In a report on 9 March 2022 the National Audit Office warned that OfS and the DfE had to improve trust in their regulatory processes, with ten institutions already subject to ‘special monitoring’ because of doubts about their financial sustainability. Whether students will be willing to pay off their loans for longer and longer periods remains to be seen. (The possibility of restoring ‘free tuition’ was a prominent issue in the recent US presidential election. Although it remains unlikely at present, it suggests that such a change might come back onto the policy agenda in England.) The 40-year repayment period now adopted by government is in effect a ‘graduate tax’; the revenue from loan repayments might be more efficiently and progressively collected via tax simplification, rather than the imposition of what appears to graduates to be a significant debt to be repaid throughout their working lives. It might be time to give serious consideration to the restoration of a true block grant.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.


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Writing a Book Proposal

by Rachel Brooks, Sarah O’Shea and Zoe Thomson

Professor Rachel Brooks and Professor Sarah O’Shea (editors of the SRHE/Routledge Book series) recently ran a Professional Development Programme event on ‘Writing a Book Proposal’. As well as sharing some tips from Zoe Thomson (Education Editor at Taylor and Francis), Sarah and Rachel offered their insights as authors and editors, discussing some questions frequently asked by those thinking of putting a book proposal together.

Publishing a book is a significant undertaking – so why do it? Writing a book is a means for researchers to provide an in-depth and coherent account of their work, that often isn’t possible in shorter articles or other formats. Books are accepted in social sciences (including higher education research) as appropriate outputs, and provide opportunities to reach a larger, sometimes international, audience for your work.

Before embarking on such a project, it is important to consider the different options available for disseminating your research, and the advantages and limitations of each. Firstly, you may wish to weigh up the distinctions between edited books and monographs:

  • The labour of producing a co-edited book is distributed across a group authors and editors, and the format can facilitate a greater range and diversity of perspectives around a single topic or theme. At the same time, co-edited volumes demand a lot of time and project management from the editor(s), who must also ensure the overall quality of the finished product.
  • Monographs, on the other hand, are generally sole-authored or sometimes involve a small author team, such that the writing can be well-integrated, with ideas and arguments explored in significant depth. A sole-authored book involves a great deal of time, energy, and labour, but is an excellent addition to your CV.

Some of the most innovative books in the field of higher education research are based on doctoral research. However, turning your PhD thesis into a book often requires a substantial amount of work, and there are some specific considerations worth bearing in mind during this process:

  • Thesis chapters do not automatically translate to book chapters – restructuring, rewriting, revision, and addition is often required. Books typically do not, for example, tend to feature the same level of detail around methodological decisions and process as is found in a doctoral thesis. You may also need to ‘slice’ your thesis and explore a specific area or theme more deeply.
  • Consider any overlaps with previously published journal articles. Some publishers may be concerned about what will be novel or original about your book if you have already published extensively from your PhD research, while for others this may not be a significant issue. It’s therefore worth discussing this topic with your target publisher at an early stage, to establish what kind of changes or developments may be expected for a book proposal to be successful.
  • Discuss your publication plans (and/or draft proposal) with your current or former supervisor, or other experienced academics in your department or field. The transition from publishing works in progress and journal articles to publishing books can seem like a big leap, but supervisors – who know your work very well – are generally happy to discuss and advise on this process.

With your initial preparation complete, you may feel ready to approach a publisher. What are the next logical steps?

  • Research your publishing options, and consider not only what would best suit your field and specific topic, but also your motivation for writing the book. Are you, for instance, trying to apply for a job or promotion? If so, which publisher is highly regarded in your field?
  • Once you have decided on your publisher of choice, consider sending an informal e-mail to the editor(s). Your e-mail should provide a brief overview of your idea or focus and seek to gauge some feedback on whether this would appeal to the series – the response you receive can help you to quickly establish whether a publisher is the right fit for your work.
  • Check the different publication options offered – is a paperback option available? Hard copies can be prohibitive in terms of cost to the prospective reader, and so a paperback option could be a key selling point down the track. Are there options for open access – and if so, what are the fees and charges? Some contracts or research projects include funding for these costs.

Once you have conducted this initial research, a publisher may invite you to write a proposal – this is a formal expression of what you hope your book will contain, which provides the basis for the publisher (and others) to make a final decision regarding a potential book contract.

Usually there is a form or template available on the publisher’s website or which they can send you, which must be carefully followed. These forms vary across publisher, so it is important to access this early in your process to tailor your proposal to what the publisher is asking for. While completing this form:

  • Consult examples of successful proposals – colleagues in your department or wider network will often be happy to share.
  • Provide details of your writing or editing experience – this is an opportunity to outline what you have already published from your PhD.
  • The proposed timeline for someone drawing on their finished thesis will be much shorter than that of someone starting from scratch with a new research project. It is important to be realistic about how much writing you have done already, and your existing commitments. A typical timeline may be around one year from the date on which the book contract is signed, but this varies greatly depending on individual circumstances.
  • Many publishers prescribe a minimum and maximum length for the finished book (normally around 80,000 words) but this varies between publishers, and there is increasing variety in length.
  • A book proposal should also include a concise overview expressing the unique selling point of your book, a chapter-by-chapter summary, a list of competing titles in the same area as your proposed book (and what makes your book distinct from these) and the potential market for your book (academics, students, researchers, others?). Some of this can be more challenging with edited collections if you are planning a call for proposals, but both publishers and peer reviewers need to see what you are planning to include to assess the proposal fully.

Some further writing advice from a publisher’s perspective is:

  • Take your time writing

It is obvious to those assessing a proposal if it has been rushed. Use the proposal as an opportunity to best advertise yourself, your author voice, and your ideas. Ensure you answer all questions on the template provided by the publisher or series editor fully – missing out on questions can imply to the publisher that your idea is not fully developed.

  • Be clear and accessible in your language

While the editor you submit your proposal to at the publisher will work within your subject area, e.g. education, they are unlikely to be an expert in your specific topic. Make sure you spell out acronyms or technical terms the first time you use them and reference the work you are building upon.

  • Think about the market/intended audience for the book

Publishers need to know that there is a clear route to market for your book, in addition to its academic merit. Make sure you express who you think your reader will be and how they are going to use your book. What are the key objectives of your book, and why is it needed? Making this clear in your proposal shows that you are serious about writing a book and that you have a good awareness of your key market and what else has published in the area.

  • Recommend potential reviewers

The publisher may ask you to recommend peer reviewers as part of the proposal stage, generally requesting that they are at a different institution to you and spanning a range of locations if you are aiming at an international audience. Routledge does not guarantee to contact all of these people – and their peer review process is anonymised so you won’t know this for definite – but they provide another indication of who you are writing for. This can help the publisher search for other potential reviewers and ensure your book is correctly positioned within their publishing programme.

If you are considering proposing a book for inclusion in the SRHE/Routledge Book Series Research in Higher Education, please contact Rachel Brooks (r.brooks@surrey.ac.uk), Sarah O’Shea (sarah.oshea@curtin.edu.au) or Helen Perkins (SRHE Director, hsperkins@srhe.ac.uk).

Professor Rachel Brooks is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research and Innovation at the University of Surrey, UK. As well as being co-editor of the Routledge/SRHE book series, she is editor-in-chief of Sociology and an executive editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education. She has published widely in the sociology of higher education. Recent books include Student Migrants and Contemporary Educational Mobilities (with Johanna Waters); Reimagining the Higher Education Student (with Sarah O’Shea) and Sharing Care (with Paul Hodkinson).

Professor Sarah O’Shea is the Director, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and a national and international recognised educator and researcher. Sarah’s particular expertise in educational inclusion and equity issues has resulted in invitations to present keynotes, symposia, and workshops globally as well as providing contributions across media including print, television and radio. She is a prolific writer, with over 80 publications including books, book chapters, scholarly journal articles, media articles and commissioned reports produced in the last decade.

Zoe Thomson is Commissioning Editor for Education at Routledge. She publishes books in the areas of Higher Education (covering both the study of Higher Education itself and practical books that will help academics teach more effectively), Study Skills (including Academic Writing) and Educational Research Methods. She also commissions Social and Emotional Wellbeing books under the Speechmark imprint.


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Digital platforms and university strategies: tensions and synergies

by Sam Sellar

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

In a lecture delivered to Stanford University in 2014, which was provocatively titled Competition is for losers, Peter Thiel argued that ‘[m]onopoly is the condition of every successful business.’ Thiel’s endorsement of monopoly over competition has become business strategy orthodoxy for Big Tech firms, which, as Birch, Cochrane and Ward (2021, p6) argue, have ‘often been willing to accept low revenues in the short- to medium-term with the longer term goal of capturing markets and monopoly rents through their expected future control over data’. Assets are replacing commodities in contemporary capitalism, and an asset can be defined as ‘something that can be owned or controlled, traded, and capitalised as a revenue stream … [and] the point is to get a durable economic rent from them’ by limiting access to the asset (Birch and Muniesa, 2020, p2). We can see these assetisation dynamics emerging in EdTech markets serving UK higher education, and in this article I offer early insights into how these dynamics, driven by the growth in use of digital platforms during the Covid-19 pandemic, are shaping university strategies and practices.

This article reports on findings from the second phase of the Universities and Unicorns: building digital assets in the higher education industry project. The project is led by Dr Janja Komljenovic at Lancaster University and it aims to investigate new processes of value creation and extraction-assetisation-in the HE sector as it increasingly digitalises its operations. In Phase 2 of our project, we are conducting a series of university case studies in the UK, along with the investor and the company case studies. The university case studies are designed to help us understand how universities work with their commercial partners and what are the synergies and tensions. We are also curious about how universities view changing business models that focus on assetisation.

Importantly, we are not evaluating the use of EdTech in the context of teaching and learning or evaluating the strategies of individual institutions. Our concern is with how the HE sector is evolving in connection with EdTech markets. We are interviewing senior leaders, academic staff, directors of IT departments, IT developers and staff working in procurement, commercialisation and legal departments. We are also collecting a range of documents relating to digital strategy, business and data management plans, technical reports, financial records, and contracts with EdTech companies.

Our fieldwork with universities is a work in progress, and in this blog post I will outline three of our emerging findings, which relate to: (1) the ways that universities think about digital strategy; (2) the value of data from a university perspective; and (3) emerging processes of assetisation.

Digital strategy

None of the universities that we have studied so far have had formal and distinct digital strategies. Rather, digital strategy is embedded in IT, teaching and learning (T&L) and library strategies. In most cases, universities appear to be ‘between’ official strategy documents that cover this area. COVID-19 clearly shifted the short-term focus to tactics – working urgently to adjust and develop digital ecosystems to accommodate new demands of large-scale shifts online – and these universities are just now catching their breath and starting to update their strategies. However, despite this lack of formal strategy, some universities are very clear regarding the use of digital platforms to lead the sector and create value. In these cases, there clearly is an overarching strategy, it just isn’t described or formally presented as such.

Universities see themselves as developing institutional digital ecosystems by joining up platforms and focusing on the interoperability of their systems. Decisions about specific platforms are increasingly shaped by their potential integration into these ecosystems, and how data can be managed and integrated across platforms.

Interestingly, digital strategy is being driven by teaching and research strategy rather than shaping it. In one case, the point was made very strongly that digital is not separate, but rather a way of delivering the core business. Digital platforms are largely being used to deliver existing activity in digital form, rather than to create new forms of economic activity and new sources of value. However, questions are being raised about the relationship between IT and teaching and learning. For example, should IT departments simply support other business functions, or might they lead on digital strategy to enable new possibilities for the university?

The value of digital data

The primary value of digital data for universities appears to be reputational, and responses from our participants thus far have been remarkably consistent in this regard. Digital platforms can help to enhance the university’s brand and extend the business over a wider geographic range. This primacy of reputational, rather than financial, value is a distinctive feature of university perspectives on digital platforms, in contrast to companies.

Engagement with digital platforms was also seen to be valuable insofar as it generates market intelligence, supports student recruitment, changes perceptions of teaching and learning (eg blended approaches); and change perceptions of students (eg enabling particular cohorts to engage in new ways with benefits for their learning outcomes). Most interviewees are not thinking about the data generated by digital platforms as an asset, but it is clear that digital content (eg recorded lectures) are being seen in these terms insofar as they can be controlled by intellectual property rights and re-used over time.

Interestingly, our participants clearly hold the view that there is more potential for universities to make use of the digital data generated by platforms they use. However, in the case of learning analytics there is also scepticism regarding what it promises and its true value at this time. Despite a number of trials and experiments, many in UK universities are yet to see the benefits beyond what can be achieved using more prosaic approaches to data analytics.

Assetisation

The universities that we have studied so far do not appear to be using data to develop new products or services that generate value through economic rents; this kind of activity appears limited to commercial providers of digital platforms. However, universities increasingly understand the potential value of the data generated by their staff and students, and they are actively pursuing access to these data in their contractual negotiations with partners.

This is where we are seeing the emergence of assetisation dynamics in EdTech markets, which reflect the business strategies that Thiel promotes in his celebration of monopolies. Even if universities are able to negotiate favourable terms in individual contracts, providing rights to access and use data generated by university users on a given platform, they do not have access to aggregated data collected by companies through the use of this platform by other universities.

There is thus concern about the assetisation of data by commercial providers, for example, in relation to the use of aggregated data sets to develop new products and services that automate aspects of academic work (eg assessment). Turnitin is a primary example that came up in many of our discussions. The monopoly created by Turnitin leaves universities with little choice but to use their platform and pay whatever is asked, and relationships with Turnitin have become strained in many cases. The value of Turnitin is based on the data they have collected, and this data could be used to develop new services that automate, and thus substitute for, aspects of teaching currently delivered by lecturers. Work is being pursued through industry bodies to negotiate fairer distribution of the potential value generated by digital platforms in such cases.

Conclusion

While our university case studies are a work in progress, these three themes are already emerging quite consistently across our research sites. The value of data for universities is primarily reputational, extending the reach of teaching and learning functions, enhancing recruitment and supporting innovation in teaching and learning. Universities see digital strategy and the use of digital platforms as a way to extend their core business, not as a means to create new kinds of economic activity. In this respect, tech sector business strategies focused on creating value from data as an asset are not yet evident in the strategies of universities. However, we are seeing early signs that data is being assetised by EdTech companies, in an effort to extract monopoly rents by locking-in users through subscriptions to digital platforms. In this sense, we are curious to see whether monopoly will be a condition of every successful business in the burgeoning HE EdTech space.

Sam Sellar is Dean of Research (Education Futures) and Professor of Education Policy at the University of South Australia. Sam’s research focuses on education policy, large-scale assessments and the datafication of education. Sam also works closely with teacher organisations around the world to understand the impact of digitalisation on teachers’ work. His most recent book is titled Algorithms of education: How datafication and artificial intelligence shape policy (University of Minnesota Press), co-authored with Kalervo N Gulson and P Taylor Webb. Contact here: sam.sellar@unisa.edu.au

References

Birch, K, Cochrane, DT, and Ward, C (2021) ‘Data as asset? The measurement, governance, and valuation of digital personal data by Big Tech’ Big Data & Society8(1), 20539517211017308.

Birch, K, and Muniesa, F (eds) (2020). Assetization: turning things into assets in technoscientific capitalism Boston: MIT Press

Thiel, P (2014) ‘Competition is for losers’ The Wall Street Journal Available from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/peter-thiel-competition-is-for-losers-1410535536

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Sir Gavalad, the Knight of the Wholly Failed

by Rob Cuthbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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