srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Gamekeepers, poachers, policy wonks and knowledge

by Adam Matthews

I was excited to attend SRHE’s event, Bridging The Gap: Improving The Relationship Between Higher Education Research And Policy on 4 November 2022. It was the first time I’d been to London since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The event promised to bring together and bridge the gap between those making higher education policy and those researching it. The event description pitched the former, in government, thinking that academic research is too narrow, theoretical or impenetrable for their purposes focusing on critique rather than practical solutions. The latter were descried as thinking government only selectively engage with academic research evidence to support their desired arguments and outcomes. This then was quite a gap to be bridged.

SRHE put together two panels of highly experienced policy makers and academics – some having experience of both – described more than once as gamekeepers turned poachers. Maybe this is the start of, and one of many ways of, bridging that gap.

Sticking with the analogy, gamekeeping policy makers want to see accessible, broad and practically orientated research; the poachers are asking to be listened to even when the gamekeeper doesn’t like the answer. As the panel sessions developed it was clear that there are some vessels bridging the gap in the choppy waters below the unbuilt bridge – think tanks such as HEPI and Wonkhe (nicely described as a newspaper for people who work in universities). It was suggested several times that both were primary and vital sources of knowledge for policy makers and university leaders. HEPI’s Nick Hillman may be a little biased here but this does present a real challenge to higher education researchers and the influence of their work. Both HEPI and Wonkhe provide in many ways an insider’s view having former special advisers writing news, commentary and reports. Some (such as Peter Scott) have argued they are ideologically and politically influenced. Many voices are needed to help inform policy but, as was clear at the event, this isn’t a simple case of finding one possible solution.

Each panel member spoke from their own perspective on policy and systems, and education and students, expertly chaired by David Palfreyman and Nick Hillman. Policy levers mentioned were access, REF, TEF and system wide changes. These are areas I have engaged with in my own work on part-time access, the relationship between REF and TEF and the identity and practice of quasi-public university institutions. There was quite some frustration directed at ‘my lot’, the higher education researchers, for only being interested in complex writing, academic journal articles and not for writing blogs, starring in podcasts and simply presenting ‘the evidence’. In defence of me and my colleagues, we do try to do both. However, promotions and kudos sit firmly in citations and h-indexes rather than short form communication. Training in the form of a PhD often has little development in teaching, never mind media and blog posting; we needed to get to the magic 80,000 words!

I raised the very academic word of epistemology – knowledge and understanding and how different mediums and research methods produce different epistemic outcomes. Epistemology is something which academics in social science and humanities think and write a lot about – usually whole chapters in an 80,000-word thesis, and a field of study in its own right. Yes, I could have said knowledge and understanding instead of epistemology. This is an important point: understanding the gamekeeper, poacher and policy wonk is not always easy for each other and bridging gaps will take work, but this effort feels worth it for all parties. The event certainly made me realise how little I know about how policies are made, other than watching the West Wing over and over again. And as Leo McGarry says in the political drama: ‘There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ’em – laws and sausages’. I am open to seeing how policy is made, not so much the sausages. More West Wing below.

Some ‘non-academic’ panel members conveyed a sense of frustration that knowledge wasn’t accessible in a neat package that could then be applied to policy. This epistemic cause-and-effect positivism defies the many different types of academic research – large scale quantitative, secondary data analysis, small scale qualitative, systematic reviews, speculative futures, developing theory, conference papers to develop ideas, public seminars … the list could go on. My point is that trawling ‘the literature’ won’t find the ultimate and objective truth or answer (my own epistemic position) but it might help. Another epistemic view of mine is that HE research in many cases isn’t an objective hard science.

In my own work, in particularly teaching, I have been working in interdisciplinary ways with Engineers, Computer and Data Scientists and Physicists. We speak in different disciplinary languages, epistemic languages with different knowledge and understanding of the world. Key to interdisciplinarity is integration. The Manifesto of Interdisciplinarity states:

The essential feature of interdisciplinarity is integration: interdisciplinary research and teaching should seek to synthesize the insights generated by the specialized research undertaken within disciplines.   

We all speak and work in our epistemic cultures, bodies of knowledge and experience that we know well. The key is integration – the bridge that this event has hopefully started to build. My experience of interdisciplinary teaching and learning is dialogue and centring around common goals and issues. Moreover, we should not underestimate long-term trusting relationships which allow for critique and admitting you haven’t a clue what your colleague is talking about!

The work of all parties is different and the outputs that we produce (policy, news articles, events, teaching, academic books and journals) are all designed for different audiences and purposes. The work of HEPI and Wonkhe is vitally important and it can move quickly, for example Nick Hillman and Mark Leach played out an insightful debate on student number controls, over 2 days and three pieces, highlighting no safe return to student number controls, the possibility of a different way of looking at number controls with some final words from Nick. The exchange offered an excellent resource on the debate of student number controls delivered quickly and from different perspectives. A more in depth, academic, peer reviewed piece of work on the same subject by one of the event organisers, Colin McCaig (Sheffield Hallam), equally adds to the knowledge base but in a different way. We do also need to consider academic freedom and distance between the game keepers and poachers and allow for critical analysis.

Yes, academics need to write in more creative ways to convey ideas and evidence but we also need book, thesis and journal length depth and analysis building on bodies of knowledge and literature – it’s what we do, but there are many forms of media to explore.

I am an avid reader of HEPI (and have written one blog for them) and Wonkhe – looking out for their references to policy wonking from political drama the West Wing. Writer Aaron Sorkin is a master of using dialogue to explore ideas and the SRHE event this November was a good starting point for dialogue on bridging the gap and improving the relationship between gamekeeping policy makers, HE-researching poachers and commentating policy wonks.

As Sorkin via President Bartlett reminds us, ten words are not enough …

The ten words and epistemic cause and effect of ‘This is what the research says, now make the policy’ is certainly not enough. I hope this is the first of many dialogues between policy makers, policy wonks and higher education researchers that I am involved in.

Dr. Adam Matthews is Lecturer in Education, Technology and Society at the University of Birmingham working across Social Sciences and Engineering and Physical Sciences. Adam’s research is focused on the idea of a university at system and policy level.


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Using Tentacular Pedagogy to change the HE culture

by Kai Syng Tan

From Leonardo da Vinci (whose trans-disciplinary inventiveness was attributed to his ADHD) to bell hooks (whose professorial role drew on her activism and poetry practice), history has no lack of examples of how creative and neurodivergent processes have produced insights to catalyse social and culture change. There are also growing calls for interdisciplinary and creative approaches prioritising equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) to solve wicked global challenges (AHRC 2022, WEF 2016).

However, the ‘dog-eat-dog’ culture of Higher Education (HE), austerity measures and more are leading to harmful consequences, and stakeholders with protected characteristics are worst affected (Berg, Huijbens, and Larsen 2016; UKRI 2021; Bhopal 2020; Blell, Liu and Verma 2022).  Creative arts (CA-HE), often deemed less valuable than STEM subjects, are particularly threatened (Puffett 2022, Redmond 2020), evidenced in the closure of departments, and exacerbating the already tense relationship between the CA-HE and HE (Elkins 2009). Furthermore, research suggests CA-HE is elitist (Annetts 2018; Starkey 2013), racist (Orr 2021; Tan 2021a), and failing neurodivergent students and staff by not paying enough attention to their mental wellbeing (who are over-represented in CA-HE at around 30% in the student population, in Bacon and Bennett 2013; RCA 2015).

Octopuses and Tentacles

I have been cultivating ‘Tentacular Pedagogy’ (TP) for 24 years as a HE teacher and consultant. Prioritising creative thinking, leadership and EDI, this teaching and learning practice draws on the octopus’s extraordinary composition of three hearts and nine minds. My keynote lecture for the European League of Institutes of the Arts Teachers Academy argued for a polycentric, transversal, (co-)creative teaching/learning approach which aims to make CA-HE more inclusive. In doing so, and following artist-academic James Elkin’s (2009) call to use creative research to inform and transform HE, TP rallies CA-HE to play a more (pro-)active leadership role within HE and beyond in nurturing a more creative and compassionate future. UNESCO (2021) have called for HE to ‘repair injustices while transforming the future’ by 2050, with a new ‘social contract’ that prioritises ‘human dignity and cultural diversity’, plus ‘care, reciprocity, and solidarity’.

Three Hearts and Nine Minds

TP features three EDI tenets and nine dimensions. TP’s heart(s) lies in neurodiversity, decolonisation (and the related notions of anti-racism and internationalisation), and intersectionality. Neurodiversity has remained largely ‘invisible’ in HE (Tan 2018), even though it has been called a ‘competitive advantage’ or ‘the next talent opportunity’ for organisations (Harvard 2017, WEF 2018). This is a missed opportunity, given HE’s ‘omnicrisis’ (Gill 2022). Activating research about how creativity, neurodiversity, and leadership interrelate (Tan 2021b; Tan 2019, Baron-Cohen 2017; Lesch 2018, Abraham et al 2006), TP cares about teaching/learning with/from/for/by marginalised ideas, methods and communities, who are often excluded from HE and syllabi. Surviving – even thriving – within hostile systems, TP purports that these communities are already creative and leader-ful by nature and design, and CA-HE should learn from them. TP also allies with other minoritised communities to address all social oppression (Obasi 2022, Walker 1983). Just as each tentacle of the octopus is an independent mind, TP’s nine embodied ‘minds’ teach/learn through nine Cs.

Creativity, Community and Co-Creation

TP celebrates creativity, community and co-creation. This concerns creative thinking (Krathwhol 2002, Marton and Säljö 1976) encompassing everyday creativity and disruptive invention alike (Kaufman & Beghetto 2009). TP engages with external communities toform unique learning communities. Learners include peers, professors and professionals within and beyond CA-HE and HE, including psychological and social sciences and third sector organisations. TP also foregrounds multi-directional and anti-hierarchical learning. Often gathered in the same learning environment together, TP’s diverse learners, including the ‘teacher’, learn via collaboration.

Creativity, Community and Co-Creation were exemplified in the 75th Anniversary Celebrations of the 5th Pan African Congress in Manchester(PAC75) for Black History Month 2020. Led by Manchester Metropolitan University in collaboration with the Universities of Manchester and Salford, and local arts bodies, PAC75 marked Manchester’s impact on global history in nationhood and Black Lives Matter through a programme celebrating diverse leadership and intersectional engagement through culture. In 18 seminars, performances, and workshops black students chaired sessions with elders like Afua Hirsch and Kwame Anthony Appiah (Princeton), elevating their self-worth and leadership. Materials produced continue to be used, for example in Manchester’s ‘Remaking Modern British History’ MA, and at the University of Ghana.

Collage, Can-Do, Curiosity

TP cultivates novel, meaningful synergies between diverse and/or disconnected body-minds, subjects, disciplines, classes and cultures, driven by ‘productive antagonisms’ (Latham and Tan 2017). TP itself collages pedagogies like undercommons (Moten and Harney, 2013), and STEM-to-STEAM movements (Pomeroy 2012, Eger 2011). Following the shapeshifting octopus, TP also nurtures a can-do attitude. Agility, resourcefulness and enterprise are cultivated through role-play, advocacy, volunteering and action-learning. As an artist-teacher-reflective practitioner (Thornton 2005) and a REF-submitted researcher, I conjoin teaching/learning with scholarship, research, knowledge exchange, community/ industry/public engagement and widening participation. Furthermore, like the adventurous octopus, TP teachers/learners are exploratory and ‘ill-disciplined’ (Tan and Asherson 2018). Using play and interdisciplinarity, ‘deficits’ become positive action.

The ethos of collage, can-do and curiosity are played out in the Neurodiversity In/& Creative Research Network. The Network was set up to continue conversations and actions started by an art-psychiatry project #MagicCarpet (National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement Culture Change Award 2018) that I led at King’s College London. I invited a #MagicCarpet participant to co-lead the Network. Today, this global alliance embodies bell hooks’ ‘beloved community’ (1996) that affirms — not eradicates — difference. It comprises 360 neurodivergent people, including the inventor of neurodiversity, sociologist Judy Singer. Local and spinoff groups that members lead like the Kansas City League of Autistics and the Scottish Neurodiverse Performance Network empower HE staff and students to connect and advocate for themselves and others. Applying TP’s ‘cross-species’ learning through intersectionality, the Network is an evolving hub, and models what an inclusive teaching/learning ecosystem looks like. Its masterclasses and seminars foster best practices in teaching/learning and research between and beyond CA-HE. HE teachers, students and researchers and professionals aside, members include activists, policy-makers, clinicians, CEOs and entrepreneurs who learn from/with one another as critical friends. Unusually, the Network welcomes self-proclaimed ‘allies’ too, which protects those unable/un-ready to disclose their difference. To counter exceptionalism and racism, which is not uncommon in other disability/neurodiversity-led communities (Barbarin, 2021; Russell, 2020; Mistry, 2019; Tan, 2019; Rashed, 2019), the Network welcomes racially-diverse people, and those with neuro-differences beyond the ‘classical’ remits of neurodiversity like stroke and PTSD.

Established in response to the pandemic, the Network attracted 150 members by April 2020, hinting at how CA-HE has hitherto failed neurodivergent teachers/learners. The Network has ignited pathways to improve teaching/learning practices and cultures, empowered neurodivergent HE stakeholders, and led to further work such as a dance commission ‘Dysco’ for Southbank Centre by a Glasgow PhD student (Watson 2021) and a journal article by a US neuroscientist (Zisk 2021). Members tell their own stories, instead of being ventriloquised, commodified or white-washed by others. Mobilising their new-found confidence, skills and knowledge, members forge new initiatives, and lead further changes at local, institutional and sectoral levels, to collectively make CA-HE and HE more equitable. For instance, a member, as Jisc Head of Strategic Support Unit, founded Jisc’s first ever neurodiversity group, which is now 100 members strong. That group is supported by Jisc’s new EDI director, while the member has gone on to become a Trustee of the National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service. Members will co-produce A Handbook of Neurodiversity and Creative Research (2024) with a major academic publisher, with reviewers describing it as a ‘distinctive’ and ‘valuable’ intervention with a ‘very high scope of impact’ to HE.

Circulation, Courage and Curating Change

Neurodiversity is a subset of biodiversity (Singer 1998); ergo, TP ‘re-pays’ nature and society, prioritising ‘zero waste’ in natural and human resources, and enacts ‘Look, Think, Act’ to ‘sustain reform in teaching/learning ecologies’ (Patterson et al, 2010). To enrich the 3Rs (writing, arithmetic, reading), TP ‘up-cycles’ frameworks like ‘Curiosity, Compassion, Collaboration and Communities’ (Orr 2021), rhizomatic learning (Guerin 2013) and ‘tentacular thinking’ (Haraway 2016). TP seeks to dismantle colonialist ‘monuments’ and master’s narratives (Lorde 1984). Its ‘unruly’ tentacles celebrate ‘multiplicity in knowledge production’ (Zarabadi et al, 2019; Branlat et al, 2022) and, like the audacious octopus and ADHD-er, power towards unknowns. Last but not least, TP is about curating change. ‘Curating’ originated in care, and octopuses have thrived for 300 million years: TP nurtures future-facing models of leadership marrying compassion and vision. I seek to embody such a change-maker in what/how I teach/learn. As an outsider gate-crashing into environments historically shut to others like myself, I use my privilege to open doors for others, and make them co-leaders.

Circulation, Courage and Curating Change are enacted in a new MA Creative Arts Leadership for which I am Programme Leader, to be launched in September 2023 at Manchester Metropolitan University. Prioritising decolonised and environmentally-conscious models of change-making, the MA is with/for/by teachers/learners to generate personal, organisational, and social change, and addresses gaps in current HE offerings in leadership development and arts management/policy. Using examples like MMU alumna artist-turned-suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst, the MA counters the danger of a ‘single story’ (Adichie 2009) of how ‘leadership’ is taught/learnt. The MA entangles creativity with business acumen, sustainability and inclusion.

The mission of the study of art and design is to develop ‘cognitive abilities related to the aesthetic, ethical and social contexts of human experience’ that ‘contributes to society, the economy and the environment, both in the present and for the future’ (QAA 2019). Amid multiple threats to CA-HE, Tentacular Pedagogy’s nine ‘tentacles’ can extend teaching excellence in CA-HE and HE. TP’s ‘three hearts’ of neurodiversity and how it intersects with race and gender, manifested in the examples above as subject and teaching/learning approaches, and in collaborating with neurodivergent teachers/learners, illustrate how a more inclusive CA-HE can foster a legacy of teaching excellence and make HE thrive. 

Dr Kai Syng Tan PhD FRSA SFHEA is an artist, curator, academic, consultant, agitator, change-maker, volunteer and gatecrasher who is known for her ‘long-established expertise in using creative research as a form of critical co-creation of knowledge’ that ‘challenges dominant frameworks in and beyond the academy’ (AHRC review 2021). Her keynote lectures, op-eds, exhibitions, creative interventions and more have been featured at MOMA (New York), BBC, Biennale of Sydney and Tokyo Design Week. She has (co-)led projects with budgets from £0 to £4.8m (opening and closing ceremonies of ASEAN Para Games 2015). Her creative leadership innovations include extending ‘Running Studies’ through her RUN! RUN! RUN! Biennale. Apart from being the first artist on the Editorial board of the British Journal of Psychiatry Bulletin, Kai is a trustee board member of Hear Me Out (charity for detained migrants), and was Expert Panel Advisor for Media Authority of Singapore (2007-2012). Having taught/examined/consulted at more than 100 universities worldwide, Kai is a Senior Lecturer at Manchester School of Art.

Kai is grateful for the feedback and critical friendship of Susan Orr,  Stephanie Aldred, Chrissi Nerantzi and Laura Housman in developing aspects of Tentacular Pedagogy


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Learned Words – how poetry might help staff in HE to feel more at home

by Sam Illingworth

Poetry has the potential to build communities and provide shelter for people who otherwise feel isolated. Whether using poetry as a method of spiritual and mental healing in palliative care or being used to foster community development and positive change, poetry has the power to heal, support, and engender action. Similarly, community engagement projects such as Talking Wellness and The Good Listening Project have been designed to develop social capital and enhance community engagement for often marginalised communities, encouraging participants to reduce the stigma around mental health and wellbeing by talking about it through poetry.

Poetry also has a long history of helping to explore issues of belonging, from using poetry to support women in prison, to aiding student nurses explore the complexities of compassion fatigue. Within the context of higher education, there are also examples of poetry being used to help students cope with stress and anxiety, as well as instances of poetry being used to improve presentational technique and to explore teacher-student relationships. However, to date there is a relative paucity of work exploring how poetry might be used to help staff working in higher education to address their own sense of belonging in what can, at times, be a somewhat harsh and unwelcoming landscape.

As a way of trying to address this gap, and to explore the potential for helping those working in higher education, we set up Learned Words as an anonymous repository of poetry; a place to curate the poetic reflections of people from around the world who support learning and teaching in higher education.

Whether it be the exclusivity evidenced in ‘Barred Doors’:

I know whiskey when I smell it
Down the hall and through the corridors
The chosen scent of patriarchy
Accept it or the doors are barred

Or the lack of institutional support discussed in ‘Imposter Syndrome’:

Is it imposter syndrome
When I strongly believe I should be here
Yet
You tell me I don’t belong.

Learned Words was set up so that readers might reflect on their own experiences and find solace and hope in the words of others. Poetry has the capacity to lay bare that which cannot otherwise be said, providing a frame for reflection, recognition, and perhaps even reconnection. We acknowledge that each poem will be encountered differently to each reader, and that what might resonate for some will contend for others; such is the subjective nature of the medium. In presenting these poems we also hope to provide some creative playfulness to complement the profound; something which readers might find in these lines from  ‘Inner Monologue at a Conference’:

Free wine and coffee combine to create
An atmosphere of compulsory enjoyment;
Conference assistants and helpers tell me:
This is the friendliest conference in humanity.
I see a former colleague and bow my head,
We pass like kidney stones in the night.

We welcome poems from anyone working in the higher education sector; there is no gatekeeping with regards to aesthetics, reputation, or succinctness of thought. Rather, we want to create a space were everyone is welcome to read, to write, and ultimately to belong.

Dr Sam Illingworth is an Associate Professor at Edinburgh Napier University, whose research centres on using poetry and games to help develop dialogue between communities. You can find out more about his research via his website www.samillingworth.com and connect with him on twitter @samillingworth. 


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But what do the numbers say? How the movement towards datafication might change English higher education

by Peter Wolstencroft, Elizabeth Whitfield and Track Dinning

“The simple truth is that the average student leaves university with £45,800 of debt and if they have nothing to show for it then we have failed them” (Hansard, 2021). The speaker of these words was the then Minister for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan and the sentiment underpins many of the current mechanisms used for assessing quality in English HE. The publication by the Office for Students (OfS) of their new expectations for student outcomes (OfS, 2022a) has, once again, triggered a debate about how we measure the quality of a university education and its impact on the students that study in English universities. The stakes have never been as high, as the OfS state: ‘Universities and colleges that perform below these thresholds could face investigation to allow the OfS to understand the reasons for their performance. If, following investigation, performance is not adequately explained by a provider’s context, the OfS has the power to intervene and impose sanctions for a breach of its conditions of registration.’ (OfS, 2022a)

Since the Browne Report (2010) normalised the payment by students of increased fees for undergraduate programmes, universities have faced a balancing act between two separate imperatives that have influenced the relationship between students and universities. These two approaches are firstly, the educational imperative, that stresses the primacy of the learning experience and the student’s journey through their studies and secondly, the economic imperative, that requires organisations to ensure that their finances allow them to continue to operate. It can be argued that the growing dominance of the latter is rooted in the increased measurement of the sector and how this is used to define the quality of provision provided by any given university. In practical terms, what this means is that, for English universities, adherence to benchmarking figures and ensuring that targets are met may be a key driver in decision making at all levels of the organisation.

Whilst the datafication of education (Stevenson, 2017) is not a new concept, the new OfS guidelines are likely to exacerbate this approach, indeed it can be seen as a formalisation of an ongoing process. A key consequence of this shift has been a reimagining of the relationship between the student and the institution. Originally characterised by some in the post-Browne era as one akin to a customer purchasing a product, it evolved into the student being viewed as a consumer who uses a service but who is also an active participant in the learning process and from there to a co-creator of the process (Tomlinson, 2017). Whilst this apparent balancing of influence has generally been viewed as having a positive benefit in terms of the student experience, the shift exemplified by the new regulations means that the performance of students is increasingly measured in quantitative terms. The danger with this approach is that there is the potential for universities to focus on the quantitative measure of success alone, which would neglect all of the wider, but not measured, improvements in the student journey that have occurred since the Browne Report, such as the increasing amount of employer engagement and the amplification of the student voice.

Concerns increased with the publication of the latest expectations from the OfS and their focus on quantitative measures. Whilst other quality mechanisms such as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and Ofsted inspections rely on a mixture of quantitative measurement and a supporting narrative, the new guidelines focus largely on data and the outputs for each student. Targets are set for continuation and completion rates as well as graduate outcomes and these targets are aggregated in each of a phalanx of different subsections of students. Many concerns within the sector relate to the vague nature of the wording regarding non-achievement of the targets. Despite the assertion that “(the) OfS only makes a judgement that a provider is not compliant after considering the context in which it is operating” (OfS, 2022a), there is currently no guidance as to how this consideration will be achieved.

English universities have greeted the new guidance with some concern: for example, the latest intervention focuses partially on the salaries students receive fifteen months after completing their programme of study (known as ‘graduate outcomes’). This is controversial as it is a measure that attempts to compare very disparate programmes. The Complete University Guide (2022) quotes average salaries after fifteen months’ employment for accounting and finance as £25,000;  optometry is as low as £17,000 and music degrees average £21,000. In contrast medicine graduates earn an average £30,000. Aside from the issue of disparities in earnings, there is also a lack of accounting for regional disparities with Statista (2021) reporting the median annual earning for full-time employees in the North West being 30% lower than salaries in London. This inequality and its impact on graduate outcomes has already been cited in the decision by some universities to stop offering programmes despite their educational benefit (Weale, 2022).

The backdrop to the revised guidelines (commonly known as ‘B3’ after the subsection of the document it occupies) has been an ongoing discussion about the desirable outcomes of degree level education. The discussion has increasingly focused on how to root out supposed poor practice. If students invest significant amounts of money in their education then many assert with the HE Minister that they should get ‘value for money’ and a positive outcome when their studies are complete. Defining these points drives much of the current discussions. What constitutes a ‘low quality degree’ has been one facet of this discussion, but more pertinent is the achievement gap that exists between differing groups of students and differing programmes of study. Whilst this has always been known, increasing spending has meant that there has been greater scrutiny on groups and programmes perceived to be underachieving.

The revised guidelines focus on definitions; the changes might seem relatively minor when looked at in isolation, but when grouped with other changes in the sector they might have profound implications for university procedures. Universities previously had to ensure that benchmark figures for retention and achievement were met for whole cohorts, but the sector will now subdivide student groups using criteria such as gender, sex or background (OfS, 2022b) and explore the performance of each group. This is likely to change the approach for many universities, as often these subgroups are likely to be small in number, which means that one student’s failure to complete their studies is likely to have a proportionally greater impact on the university as a whole. There is therefore a considerable danger that universities which serve large numbers of disadvantaged students will be less inclined to take risks in admission: this will narrow, rather than widen, access and participation.

On the surface the definitions appear straightforward, with universities needing to make sure that a set percentage of their students continue with their studies, complete their studies and are in what is deemed ‘graduate employment’ within 15 months of graduation. However these figures may lead to a significant change in the way universities manage data and indeed, deal with students.

Under pressure to meet set benchmarks, universities are likely to focus even more attention on the definition of a student within HE. There is always a set period of time between a student registering and when they are included in official figures. This allows for ‘buyer’s remorse’ when students withdraw early on and it also allows people to transfer between programmes if they decide that their initial choice was not the one they want to pursue. Students who withdraw from a programme before the cut-off date are not taken into account in the final figures used when calculating retention figures. This change might affect English HE in the same way as it did when introduced to the further education (FE) sector. Within FE, students were not counted in final figures until they had been enrolled for 42 days. This meant that many organisations completed what became known as a ‘data cleanse’ before the cut-off date, a process where students who were deemed to be at risk of failing their programme were removed from their studies, or moved to a different award.

The danger when introducing new metrics is always that there will be unintended consequences. Whilst trying to measure the quality of a programme of study is clearly worthwhile, the primacy of the data could cause problems. The need to ensure that programmes of study are seen as high quality means that ignoring metrics is often foolhardy and can have detrimental effects on the whole university. Instead, careful analysis is likely, to ensure that programmes score as highly as possible in each category. This could lead to a range of ethical dilemmas regarding the amount of support students receive if they are in danger of failing in their studies.

Looking further down the timeline, the shift towards the datafication of the sector is likely to affect the validation of new programmes of study. Whilst employability has been a strand within many programmes for some years, potential graduate outcomes are likely to be viewed as critical to the acceptance of a programme of study, marking a significant shift away from a purely educational analysis of proposed programmes. The challenge is to make sure that programmes of study continue to be challenging and rewarding for students but that they also meet targets, close attainment gaps and ensure positive learning outcomes for graduates.

The new guidelines are another stepping stone in the balancing act between educational and economic imperatives. The new guidelines set clear targets but it is the unclear consequences of not meeting these targets that will cause universities most concern. Universities with large numbers of disadvantaged students might need a fundamental rethinking of their student population. If there is no allowance for the incoming student population when measuring outputs, universities will need to review the level of support they provide and face the ethical dilemmas involved. Without greater clarity from the OfS, failure to meet targets may mean that more programmes in subject areas with historically low graduate starting salaries will close, data will increasingly become the key determinant of educational decision making and the relationship between students and universities will once again be redefined.

Dr Peter Wolstencroft is a Deputy Director at Liverpool Business School, part of Liverpool John Moores University. He has held a variety of roles in the sector and together with his co-authors is dedicated to enhancing the student experience for all students and in particular for those for whom higher education is a new experience. He is the author of numerous articles on education and co-authored the bestselling textbook ‘The Trainee Teacher’s Handbook: A companion for initial teacher training’.

Dr Elizabeth Whitfield is an Assistant Academic Registrar: Student Experience at Liverpool John Moores University. She is also a senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a member of the programme team for the postgraduate Certificate in HE at LJMU. Current project and leadership roles focus on the student experience, in particular student communications and digital support schemes.

Dr Track Dinning is a Deputy Director at Liverpool Business School, part of Liverpool John Moores University, a Senior Fellow of Higher Education Academy and a Certified Management and Business Educator.  Her research focuses on Entrepreneurial Education and she utilises her research to develop and enhance the curriculum in the field of employability and enterprise. She has a shared vision with her co writers to ensure a high quality student experience for every student.

References

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2010) Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education (“The Browne Report”). Available at:

(accessed 1st October 2022)

Hansard (2021) University Tuition Fees Debate, Volume 702

Office for Students (2022a) New Expectations for Student Outcomes Available at : OfS sets new expectations for student outcomes – Office for Students (accessed 1st October 2022)

Office for Students (2022b) Associations Between Characteristics of Students Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/associations-between-characteristics-of-students/ (accessed 18th October 2022)

Statista (2021) Media annual earnings for full-time employees in the United Kingdom in 2021, by region Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/416139/full-time-annual-salary-in-the-uk-by-region/ (accessed 8th October 2022)

Stevenson, H (2017) ‘The “Datafication” of Teaching: Can Teachers Speak Back to the Numbers?’ Peabody Journal of Education 92:4, 537-557 DOI:10.1080/0161956X.2017.1349492

The Complete University Guide (2022) What do graduates do and earn? Available at: https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/student-advice/careers/what-do-graduates-do-and-earn (accessed 8th October 2022)

Tomlinson, M (2017) ‘Student perceptions of themselves as ‘consumers’ of higher education’ British Journal of Sociology of Education 38:4, 450-467 DOI:10.1080/01425692.2015.1113856

Weale, S (2022) ‘Philip Pullman leads outcry after Sheffield Hallam withdraws English lit degree, The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/jun/27/sheffield-hallam-university-suspends-low-value-english-literature-degree (accessed 18th October 2022)


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How do we enable transformative university transitions?

by Rita Hordósy

The Covid-19 pandemic meant a ‘swift and acute’ disruption to student experiences through the ‘dissolution of the physical and social environment’, and immediate financial hardship experienced by many. The issues of student retention, success, connectedness, and feeling included remain pressing issues for current entrants. To look at what it means to become a university student and a graduate, and to understand these issues in the whole student lifecycle, it is useful to draw on experiences from before the pandemic. Using yearly interviews with 40 home, undergraduate full-time students who started their studies in 2013/2014, my research at an English northern red brick university (NRBU) focused on how students understood, and made sense of, their experiences of student life as they moved into, through, and beyond university. All outcomes (research reports and papers) of this project are available via this link.  

Through the market system, a homogenised university experience became something packaged and sold, with the social elements all being included in the price tag to market one particular version of being at university. However, university choice and participation is experienced differently in a system that remains stratified and socially segregated, with large variety in student budgets creating differential contexts for learning.  

University space and time 

To make sense of how the university space and time are felt by students, I conceptualised transformative university transitions as a dynamic, perpetual and uncertain series of changes and movements through time and space to become a university student, and subsequently a graduate. For James, NRBU and its city as the spaces for reflection are intricately linked to who he became throughout the four years of his BA and MA: 

You, kind of, realised the limits of yourself and you realised the potentials of yourself, and that means that it harbours a weird significance, (…) that, kind of, roots you here. Not as intimate as it is your home, but as a second home of a place where you can feel like you belong, and that it is your city. James, fourth interview 

The overall university time is often understood based on the cycles of the academic year, chronicling how their approach changed to the wider community, their own learning and their future. Assessing her university time, Mary discusses the complex interlinks of exploring questions of identity, her relationships to others, and shifting focus on her university studies:   

I think I can’t imagine my life if I hadn’t gone [to university]. (…) It’s made me the way I am, I think. I absolutely loved Uni. Each year was so different as well, for me it was quite distinct. The first year was sort of a bit mental and kind of discovering who I was and all that… Second year was probably the worst. (…) I got a First but I don’t know, I think the change from the first year felt difficult. (…) I tried to calm down a bit in the second year but I went too far and I just had a boring time. And then third year I kind of had a bit of a balance between the two. (…) my life here was set up and I liked the house, and I was in a good relationship, do you know what I mean? And the course was getting really good and the dissertation…

[Mary, fourth interview]

The changing foci – as discussed below – of becoming social, academic, and a university graduate can be understood as stressors, where budgeting constraints and financial futures cut across all else, and can cause constant friction for the poorest students. Similarly, physical and mental ill-health of students, their families and friends, sometimes with tragic outcomes, can have a profound impact on their experience and outcomes.   

Social aspects of acclimatisation 

Although the first academic year is characterised by a sense of arrival, the new environment, timeframe, concepts, rules and especially new peers make university transitions emotionally overwhelming. The predominant stress factor throughout this period relates to the social requirements of university life, with the first few weeks even more tumultuous. However, centring living in university halls, joining sport clubs and other extracurricular participation can be exclusionary through high costs or basing it on excessive alcohol consumption. 

Finding a university community is key: the experience of being a student is constructed in social spaces, to be retained through the friendships made, ‘who I’ll keep in touch with forever’ [Chris, fourth interview]. The importance of peer groups relates to solving everyday issues and information gaps, support in their studies, and learning from and about each other in a broad sense, as Olivia points out: 

I think just learning off people has been, like, probably the most important thing actually, and not even from studies. (…) the people that you meet and the groups that you go to, through university, things you feel that become really important to you.

[Olivia, fourth interview] 

Upon finding a social fit within the university community, students talk about seeing beyond the initially perceived homogeneity and coming to appreciate the diversity across the institution. This then allows them to ‘stick out’, but also orientate themselves towards their academic duties.  

Learning to be academic 

Given learning experiences exist on a continuum within the life course, students will initially attempt to adapt their (often unsuitable) learning and revision techniques, whilst also grappling with a new learner identity. Upon gaining some level of familiarity and comfort with how the university operates, the academic aspects start falling into place. This tends to coincide with the second year, where the narrower and deeper focus on the subject area is compared to the broad and disjointed nature of the first academic year. 

To conquer the complex and unbounded nature of university knowledge, most students start actively prioritising and being selective on the basis of perceived importance within and between modules, tailoring the academic experiences to their needs. Students actively seek out more personalised relations with university staff and start go recognise the wide range of attitudes and interests of their tutors and lecturers. For instance, Kim discusses how her relationship with one of her lecturers changed over time: 

I think it definitely gets more friendly towards third year, there was one lecturer that we had in first year who was terrifying. (…) But then we’ve had her for a module this term and she just chats to people, she makes jokes in the lectures, she’ll show you pictures of her dog and stuff. I feel like they become a bit more friendly with you, as if you’re on the way to being on their kind of level intellectually maybe, as well as more mature.

[Kim, third interview]

Countering the alienation of the first academic year, second and especially third year students start to feel that they are known, and seen as individuals. The personalisation of learning along the clearly defined interests and the growing independence allow for creation of knowledge. Dissertations as capstones mean students become experts in an area they are passionate about: Aina, in her Masters year expressed her goal of ‘contributing to the actual field [of research] and just developing my career’ through a PhD. It is indeed through becoming passionate via the university studies, extracurricular activities, internships and part-time jobs that helps formulating career plans.

Towards becoming a graduate 

Throughout the final year, time once more becomes tumultuous, given the concerns around finishing university and figuring out what is next. As opposed to initial career ideas that looked at the ‘rest’ of the students’ lives, the later interviews saw their thinking focus on a shorter time-horizon. Robert tentatively embraces the uncertainty, keeping his options open: 

It’s not like I’m stuck down one route now. I’ve still got a whole load of different things to choose from, which is bad in a way, because it means I’ve got to make a decision at some point about what I’m going to do and it might be easier if someone just went “there, do that”.

[Robert, fourth interview]

This element of making important decisions prompts a distinction of ‘proper jobs’ versus ‘bog standard jobs’, with some graduates opting for ‘graduate gap years’. What some participants describe as a ‘random’, ‘bog standard’, ‘shitty’, or ‘normal’ job, tends to be in an industry not related to their degree: in catering, retail, service industry or the care sector. Such roles are considered short term, offer substantive flexibility for the graduate, do not require specific qualifications, and are not competitive – simply put, students are not invested in them. Conversely, graduate jobs are described as ‘real’, ‘adult’, ‘proper’, ‘a more academic’, a ‘career kind of’ job that they ‘would enjoy’. These are in sectors and industries they are striving to work in, and necessitate a degree and some specific skills. These competitive roles require flexibility from the graduate, but remunerate better, whilst also promising career progression. The ‘real’ jobs necessitate emotional investment and dedication, with constraints on leaving these roles. 

There are three key features of how graduates are thinking about their futures. First, they see themselves as graduates of their course at NRBU, hoping to work in a related sector, using their disciplinary knowledge or employing some specific skills they developed. Second, graduates aim to find an employer or role they can believe in, wanting to see the value of their work on a smaller scale and generally do good in the world – this is sometimes juxtaposed with prioritising earnings. For instance, Khaled in the third interview talks about a ‘materialistic view’ of ‘just doing [a job] because I’m getting money’ not fitting with how he ‘was brought up to think’, connecting this to his working-class background. Finally, they also reflect on their newfound confidence: in their abilities, them as people in social contexts, knowing their own strengths and weaknesses. It is this confidence that allows graduates to embrace the complexity of potential options and the trade-offs, as well as non-linear and serendipitous futures. As Amina suggested:   

I have changed, it’s been, I don’t know how to describe it, (…) I’m not the same person I was when I first initially started personality-wise. I’ve got so much more self-confidence in me as well, which I’ve never had and I’ve learned so much over the past three years (…) I’ve changed in every possible way someone could change.

[Amina, third interview] 

Recognising the multitude of dimensions at play, a diverse and interlinked set of future plans emerge, entangled in a commitment to personal concerns, values and identity, social relationships, belonging to a community and a place, as well as the wider structural constraints. Such limits are linked to financial insecurity and a sense of urgency to find a job, any job. Further, with fewer family connections future graduates are less likely to gain suitable work experience or help with job applications. 

How to enable transformative university transitions?  

Through their non-linear, multidimensional, and diverse transitions, this generation of students became (mostly) independent and (certainly) reflexive adults. University as a transformative space and time is much more than an investment into one’s human capital that should pay off as employment opportunities and earnings, or the way to fulfil short-term labour market needs. Graduates become engaged members of a broader community, gain substantive expertise in their chosen area of interest, and develop a broad plan for their futures.   

To foster transformative transitions for all, embracing the diversity in student and graduate experiences that also change over time is key. This means, first, knowing who students are, using sufficient scaffolding to make knowledge accessible, and fostering an inclusive university community. Second, a whole-institutional support provision throughout the student lifecycle that understands transitions as changeable and diverse could ensure more equitable access. Finally, stable and substantive non-repayable financial support is fundamental to level student experiences for those from poor backgrounds, especially in the context of the current cost of living crisis.     

SRHE member Rita Hordósy is a Nottingham Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, and a co-convener of the SRHE Student Access and Experience Network. Her current research compares and contrasts the research / teaching nexus across European universities in Hungary, England and Norway. This blog is based on her recent paper ‘I’ve changed in every possible way someone could change’ – transformative university transitions’, in Research Papers in Education.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/rhordosy

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SRHE News at 50: Looking back…

by Rob Cuthbert

SRHE News is now 50 issues old, covering a momentous 12 years for higher education worldwide, but especially in the UK, and even more especially in England – an opportunity to reflect on what we thought and how we felt as it happened, and whether things seem different now.

Since 2010 the UK has seen four general elections, four prime ministers, and in England nine Secretaries of State for Education, and seven ministers for higher education (two appointed twice). In that time Brexit accounted for much political turmoil but ‘got done’, after a fashion. Undergraduate fees were trebled, to deliver most tuition income via students rather than a funding agency. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 aimed to enshrine the market with students as customers, and established the Office for Students. There was much political talk of ‘low quality courses’; the Teaching Excellence Framework rose and fell. Two Research Excellence Framework exercises continued the remorseless evidence-defying concentration of research funding. Publishing worldwide was roiled by open access initiatives, especially the EU-inspired ‘Plan S’. Vice chancellors’ salaries soared into the stratosphere but more and more staff joined the precariat; industrial action became commonplace as job insecurity and low pay for many was aggravated by swingeing reductions in USS pension entitlements. Covid disrupted everything with a lightning shift towards online learning amid much student dissatisfaction, but enrolments surged. Government incompetence accentuated massive problems with school examinations and HE admissions, with disruptive enrolment changes rippling across the entire HE system. As HE coped with all this it was assailed by politicians wanting to fight culture wars, and cronyism installed apparatchiks where once there had been civil servants.

After the first issue of SRHE News in February 2010, No 2 (The World to Come), came out just before the May 2010 election with HE facing major financial cuts, but we were still upbeat:

… in difficult times let us think not only of what the community can do for our institution, and what our institution can do for our students. Those things are important, but let us think too of what our higher education sector, working together, can do for the community in the difficult world to come.

Optimism dwindled as fees were tripled; No 3 asked ‘What Next?’, and the 2010 SRHE Conference feared the worst:

Two issues came through strongly at Conference … first, that this might be the end of the idea of higher education as a public/social good; and second, that the Government has chosen to deconstruct one of the UK’s greatest achievements – a higher education system which until now is still the envy of many other nations and a highly successful export brand. This is a high stakes gamble with the life chances of a whole generation. (No 4 The English experiment)

No 5 asked: Is SoTL special and precious, or too special and too precious?, suggesting that universities should take their share of responsibility for the plight of HE:

For many of our universities the “student experience” has become the organising concept, the fount of a thousand strategic priorities and key performance indicators. But the student experience tends to be conceived as if the interpretivist paradigm had never existed, becoming no more than a quantitative summation of student surveys and managerialist evaluations. The ‘student experience’ has become a stick to beat academics with, instead of the carrot that motivates them. It has also become a tool for reductionism, as students are driven ever closer to being the consumers and customers which neither they nor their teachers wish them to be. The student experience is conceived as some kind of unified average instead of being celebrated for its individually constructed uniqueness.

No 6 urged us to reframe (This isn’t why I came into higher education) and No 7 said we should be Taking the long view of higher education reform, in contrast to the short-termism embedded in HE policy, exemplified by The ‘failure’ of the CETLs and the usefulness of useless research  (No 8):

… how ‘useless’ or ‘useful’ was the scholarship of teaching and learning embedded in or stimulated by CETLs and the CETLs programme as a whole? The HEFCE-commissioned evaluation tells us only that it was not very ‘useful’ in the terms defined by the current policy framework. It tells us next to nothing about its value in other frames of reference, or even in a policy frame over a longer timescale.

In 2012 the Finch review of options for academic publishing seemed immediately to have got it wrong, as later experience showed:

we must look beyond Finch for the open access formula that ‘maximises benefits and minimizes risks’. (No 9 ‘Open access’ publishing: is gold overpriced, is green more sustainable?)

As the year progressed we were thinking about the future (No 10 Strengths, weaknesses and the future of research into higher education) and asking ourselves at the 2012 Conference What is higher education for?’ (No 11). In early 2013 we hoped that good sense might yet prevail:             

HEFCE still might, as the Government White Paper suggested, take the lead among the various sector regulatory bodies such as QAA and OIA, all having set their face against the super-merger to create a super-regulator hypothesised but not thought through by the Browne Review. (No 12 Hanging by a thread)

Alas, it didn’t:

Just like the railways, the national system of HE in England is being dismantled, with new forms of competition being imposed or encouraged. Public subsidies will continue, but in a much less transparent form, which will presumably provide growing profits for new HE providers. The rationale for spending cuts and wholesale privatisation is increasingly challenged. In sum, we seem to be edging closer to repeating the history of rail privatisation. It may not be Virgin territory, but is higher education on the right track?” (No 13 On the right track?)

Universities minister David Willetts left in a Government reshuffle in mid 2014:

… after all the noise about open access, the UK is left with a model which is out of line with the emerging preference of most of the developed world, and provides public subsidies for big publishers. This is not paradox but consistency. In open access to research, as in open access to undergraduate opportunities, David Willetts professed to improve standards and openness but his legacy is worsened access for some, increased cost and debt for many, a transfer of public funds to private sector providers, and a system which is likely to cost the government more than the system he inherited. (No 17 This is an ex-Minister)

However, his tenure was probably the high point of the last 12 years. After musing about Degrees of freedom (No 14) by early 2015 we had resorted to satire (with topical cricket references):               

This editorial is in affectionate memory of policy making for English higher education, whose demise is deeply lamented. (No 15 Reputation in Ashes)

But some of the problems of HE are self-inflicted: the woeful experience of UNC Chapel Hill was an example of

a long-term institutional systemic failure of academic accountability and quality assurance. The sorry saga reminds us that while embracing plurality and difference in higher education is a necessary condition of academic excellence, inspiring future generations also needs a sufficient measure of the more prosaic virtues of compliance and accountability. (No 18 Embracing plurality and difference in higher education – necessary but not sufficient)

By 2015 we were picking over REF outcomes (No19 Was that a foul REF?) with football analogies. We lamented the tragic loss of our former SRHE President (No 20 David Watson, 1949-2015), sadly just before he and we were able to celebrate 50 years of the Society (No 21 Special 1965-2015 Valuing research into higher education: advancing knowledge, informing policy, enhancing practice).

In October there were Green shoots but no Green Paper (No 22) but, when it finally appeared, we could only speculate, gloomily: Where do we go from here? (No 23):

The Green Paper on HE issued in November 2015 suggests that the problem with English HE is its failure to embrace the market, red in tooth and claw; the Government proposals are designed to accelerate market forces and promote competition as the solution. Teaching in some places is ‘lamentable’: solution, a Teaching Excellence Framework which sorts out sheep, goats and others, and rewards them accordingly. It is still too difficult for new providers to enter the HE market: solution, levelling the playing field to make it much easier for entrants with no track record. The market isn’t working properly: solution, sweep up most of the key agencies into a new super-regulator, the Office for Students, which will put students’ interests ‘at the heart of the system’, to echo the previous White Paper – on which there was much ado, but almost nothing to show. And much more, but with a consistent theme in which students are the key customers and what they pay for is simply economic advantage in the workplace. In 50 years we have come a long way from Robbins and ‘the general powers of the mind’, let alone the ‘transmission of a common culture’.

David Watson, with his memorable analysis of the ‘Quality Wars’, was still our guide:

Central administrators trying to standardise and ‘calibrate’ that which should be diverse do so at their peril. External examining is quintessentially subjective: academic standards are those which academics agree to be the standards, through legitimate processes. What matters are robust and rigorous processes; ‘calibration’ (if it means measurement, as it almost inevitably would) is not necessary and probably not achievable. Grade inflation is a systemic risk when competition treats students as customers: it is a predictable outcome of Government policy. The HE Academy research suggests some grade inflation at the margins; that we have not seen more is a tribute only to academics’ concern for standards in the face of institutional pressure for better ‘results’ to improve league table position. (No 24 The Thirty Years Quality War)

The Brexit referendum in 2016 gave us a new Prime Minister but by analogy suggested that parts of the HE establishment were ripe for change (No 25 Universities reel after Hexit vote). No 26 (‘May in October: a climate change for HE?’) asked: would the new PM mean changes to HE policy? Not at all:

Smita Jamdar, partner and head of the education team at lawyers Shakespeare Martineau blogged for WonkHE about the Bill … “Some, maybe even a lot, of this may change as the Bill works its way through Parliament, but the main principles on which it is founded are unlikely to. We will undoubtedly be left with a more explicitly regulated, less autonomous and less stable English higher education sector, with greater risks for prospective students, students and graduates alike. I only hope that the upside, whatever Ministers think that might be, is worth it.” (No 27 Post-truth and the Higher Education and Research Bill)

In 2017 amid political ferment we asked What’s wrong with higher education management? (No 28):

The responsibilities of HE’s governors and senior managers are clear: to stand up for the best of academic values and to be transparent about their motives – supporting sustainable research and teaching. Their role is not to be a transmission belt, either for unthinking performance measurement from above or for unthinking academic populism from below. They need to rediscover, where it is lost, their responsibility to lead the institution by exercising their independent value-based judgement, and to educate those inside and outside the institution about the legitimate perspectives of other stakeholders in the higher education enterprise, and about the inevitability of disagreement and compromise.

And then in No 29 ‘What’s wrong with politicians in HE?’:

The storm brewing since the election was sparked into life by the intervention of Lord Adonis, self-styled architect of the fees policy and director of the No 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair. It captured all the worst features of politicians in HE in one episode: selective attention to issues; pursuing personal interests in the guise of caring about the issue; selective memory; rewriting history; not taking advice from people who actually know how a policy might work; and – worst of all to academics – contempt for evidence.

The prospects for HE looked increasingly bleak (No 30 ‘HE finance after Hurricane Adonis’) and       

The excessively economic framing of HE policy is ‘nonsense on stilts’, and it will sooner or later collapse under the weight of its own absurdity. (No 31 Nonsense on stilts)

The government overreached itself with its winner-takes-all mentality to quango appointments, when the execrable Toby Young’s appointment to the Office for Students board was overturned (No 32: The Toby Young saga and what it tells us about the blunders of our governments):

DfE civil servants trying to respond to the Commissioner for Public Appointments were between a rock and a hard place. Saving the minister and his fellow-travellers in OfS from their mistakes was a hard place to be, but the civil servants’ biggest mistake was losing hold of the rock of civil service integrity.

But it wasn’t just ‘them’ doing it to ‘us’:

Too many ‘academic staff’ are less likely to see the bigger picture, and more likely to weaponise educational and academic values for some real or imagined battle with ‘the university’ or one of its malign manifestations: ‘the management’, ‘the admin’ or sometimes just ‘them’. But it does not need to be like this. (No 33 Doing academic work)

Populism and Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ had taken hold in the USA; the UK had its own problems:

The Times leader writer represents a culture where distrust of the rigour of the social sciences is all too common, fuelled not only by hoaxes such as these, but also by every instance of academics who slip into unthinking intolerance of anything but a dominant perspective. The appropriate response to alternative views is rigorous examination sufficient to assess their worth, not a priori dismissal. … The price of academic freedom is eternal academic vigilance. (No 34 Fake research and trust in the social sciences)

By January 2019 we had resorted to more football analogies (No 35 Academia: the beautiful game?):

… more research is needed. And more teaching. And better policy, leadership and management. Then academia could be a beautiful game.

The open access movement was regrouping for a fresh onslaught:                              

Plan S is higher education’s version of Brexit. It may not have generated quite as much media coverage as that unreal thing, but it has its full share of intransigent minorities, suspicion on all sides, special pleading, accusations that the elite is merely looking after its own interests, and claims that a voiceless majority will be the ones who suffer the most. (No 36 Axe S?)

Meanwhile, Philip Augar’s postsecondary review, commissioned long before by PM Theresa May, had been published after a long delay, amid scepticism that it might ever see its proposals implemented:

… former education secretary Justine Greening had said it was “inconceivable” that the new Prime Minister would adopt the Augar review plans. She “believes that the model she explored in government of funding English universities through a graduate contribution plus a “skills levy” on employers could be taken up by the next prime minister.” Her plan would abolish tuition fees and loans … the Augar review’s recommendations were “hugely regressive” in increasing the burden on low- and middle-earning graduates, while lowering it for those on higher incomes … It is possible to take a very different perspective on Augar, as Nick Barr (LSE) did in declaring it progressive rather than regressive, simply because it proposed to redress the balance between FE and HE. But Greening’s comments are directed more towards heading off the Labour Party’s putative promises on tuition fees, returning to a pre-Augar position which re-institutionalises the chasm between the HE market and the micromanagement and planning of FE. (No 37 Augar and augury)

No 38 echoed that plus ça change vein (#AbolishOxbridge (or, the survival of the elitists)) and by January 2020 widespread industrial action was reflected in No 39 Happy new year? If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here:

The employers are between a rock they did not create and a hard place which they have brought on themselves. The hard place is the deep concerns of many staff about their workload and working conditions, the precarity of their employment, their pay and pensions.

And then came Covid lockdowns, bringing even more work for some, while others had too much time on our hands, so SRHE News offered a new kind of diversion – an SRHE-themed cryptic crossword. Its conspicuous lack of success did not deter a second attempt before we admitted defeat. No 40 advised What to do in the pandemic but No 41 (On not wasting a good crisis) criticised national responses:

It seems that in English higher education, some people have been determined not to waste the Covid19 crisis, either as an opportunity or as a threat. How well have they done? Consider the efforts of the Office for Students, Universities UK, and the government in England.

The A-levels debacle of 2020 prompted reflections on Policymaking in a pandemic (No 42):

My HEPI blog on 16 August 2020 about the A-levels debacle said: “for five months the Government and Ofqual have been too secretive, made bad choices, refused to listen to constructive criticism, tried to tough it out and then made the wrong concessions too late.” Not decisive, not inclusive, not transparent, and not how to make policy in a pandemic.

Things hadn’t got better in January 2021 …

What are the key issues in HE quality and standards, right now? Maintaining quality and standards with the massive transition to remote learning? Dealing with the consequences of the 2020 A-levels shambles? The student experience, now that most learning for most students is remote and off-campus? Student mental health and engagement with their studies and their peers? One or more of these, surely, ought to be our ‘new normal’ concerns. … For government, the new normal was just the same as the old normal. (No 43 Quality and standards in higher education)

… they just got worse, with the appointment of Lord Wharton as chair of OfS …

We need more people, leaders and staff on all sides, to speak truth to power – not just playing-to-the-gallery ‘our truth’, but a truth people inside and outside HE will find persuasive. (No 44 Cronyism, academic values and the degradation of debate)

… and worse:

In sum, government HE policy is in something of a hole, pursuing internally contradictory policies which might play to a wider ‘anti-woke’ agenda but in economic and political terms seem likely to run counter to any thoughts of levelling up. But the Secretary of State keeps digging, even after the great A-level disaster of 2020. It may not be too long before this becomes another fine mess. (No 45 Another fine mess)

But when PM Johnson finally reshuffled Education Secretary Gavin Williamson out of digging an even deeper hole, all we could do was hope:

We can hope that the faux outrage of the culture wars and the faux consultations on decisions already made might give way in future to something more approaching evidence-based policy and proper consultation. (No 46 English higher education policy: hope and pay)

The spectacular success of the online 2021 SRHE Conference allowed us to get back to basics:

… does research into HE also need to (re)connect and (re)build? What exactly is the territory for research into higher education now, what needs to be joined up, where should we be building? … several maps and guides … suggest a field that is maturing rather than one in immediate need of reconnection and rebuilding.(No 47 Are these transformative times for research into HE?)

 

But soon we discovered in detail how the crony-laden Office for Students proposed to attack HE’s basic 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. (No 48 Tunnel vision: higher education policy and the Office for Students)

In July 2022 SRHE was rocked by the end of The Helen Perkins era (No 49):

For so many SRHE members, Helen Perkins and the Society have been inseparable and it will be hard to imagine SRHE without her. But the academic and financial health of the Society have never been better, and the staff team she created but now leaves behind is a strong guarantee that SRHE will continue to develop and prosper.

For 12 years SRHE News has aimed to fulfil the ambitions of the editorial in SRHE News No 1:

SRHE News is changing, with a new editor, a new format, and some new ambitions. SRHE News will carry official communications from the Society, comment on developments in the field of research into higher education, and provide news and current awareness for the research community. The News will have a global perspective and the balance of content will reflect members’ interests. I hope we can make SRHE News a publication that informs and entertains SRHE members – academically credible journalism with a unique research-into-HE perspective.

The 2014 Conference set new challenges for SRHE News, starting with the launch of srheblog.com. We imagined that SRHE might ultimately create:   

… a website for research into HE which is:

  • differentiated and searchable, so that specialists can easily find the research that particularly interests them – as if Google Scholar had been tailored just for people doing research into HE
  • interactive, so that you can find other people with similar interests and engage in structured and unstructured discussions with them – as if SRHE Networks had suddenly gone 24/7 digital and local wherever you are
  • constantly refreshed and updated with new entries, with a range of regular targeted communications for which anyone could sign up and sign out at any time – like The Chronicle of Higher Education, the best kind of newspaper sites, or the Impact of Social Sciences blog
  • genuinely global in its reach, to promote capacity-building, inclusion for isolated researchers and breadth for researchers wishing to learn from other perspectives
  • accessible for non-specialists and useful as a vehicle for communicating research results to a broader public and improving research impact
  • entertaining, informative and readable, like SRHE News
  • and free (No 16: Sustainable blogging)

We’re still working on it …

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.


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Education from scratch, or resisting the lure of the oven ready meal

by Karen Gravett

Ready meals can be enjoyable, quick and simple to make. And yet we know that prioritising a diet of oven ready dinners is not really good for us. What does this have to do with education? The educational equivalent of the oven ready meal is the ‘best practice’, the quick fix principle that seduces teachers into thinking that generalised solutions can solve knotty educational challenges.  In 2007, Gert Biesta explained clearly ‘Why what works won’t work’. Biesta’s argument is that generalised strategies for addressing educational challenges are problematic, as such prescriptions for practice severely limit the opportunities for educators to make judgments in ways that are sensitive to and relevant for their own contextualized settings.

Despite Biesta’s wise words, today the pressure upon university educators to fix educational issues – to resolve students’ dissatisfaction with feedback, to ‘solve’ student engagement, remains stronger than ever. Attempts to simply synthesise the findings of educational research are common, and requests that educators provide simple, digestible ‘best practices’ have assumed even greater volume.

It is easy to understand why. Simple solutions that promise ‘quick wins’ are intensely desirable in our busy and competitive sector, where evidencing teaching enhancement really matters. Complex conversations involving theory and nuance? Less so. Like an oven ready lasagne, the best practice solution offers speed, simplicity, and consistency, but perhaps little actual goodness.

But educators also know that the teaching environment is far from consistent. It is rarely simple. Rather, it is messy, emergent, patchy, emotional, material, complex, and shifting moment to moment. Indeed, the limits of context-free ‘best practices’ are only becoming more evident as student and staff populations diversify, and as educators understand more about how to recognise and respond to that diversity. If we take assessment feedback as an example, how can any simple solution claim to offer a context-free best practice? Yes, dialogic feedback has been shown to be useful and powerful, but we cannot simply ask teachers to engage students in dialogue and assume that they will take on board a teacher’s feedback, in order to develop themselves, and improve. There are multiple reasons why dialogue might be inhibited including poor communication skills, a lack of time and space, a lack of motivation, miscommunication, power relations between students and staff of race, gender, class and disability, technological affordances and constraints, and so on. The teacher needs to consider what is taking place within the situated practice (Gravett 2022), as well as their own values as a teacher, making judgments as to how to proceed within that specific interaction. As Sian Bayne and colleagues (2011) explain: ‘best practice’ is a totalising term blind to context – there are many ways to get it right’.

Inevitably, others will pose (at least) two objections to this call to embrace complexity. Firstly, they may say − but what is the point of educational research if it does not generate solutions, solve problems, and create scalable implications that can easily be placed in the educational microwave? I suggest that educational research is about giving colleagues the confidence to ‘educate from scratch’. It encourages teachers to think about the ingredients of teaching and learning. If we think about our example of the student-teacher feedback interaction, then yes dialogue is important, but educators need to take time to look at the ingredients of effective dialogue rather than assuming that meaningful communication is simple and easy to achieve. As Elizabeth Ellsworth explained: ‘Acting as if our classroom were a safe space in which democratic dialogue was possible and happening did not make it so’ (1989, p315). Space, time, relational connections premised on openness and trust, shared understanding, all of these are the ingredients of effective communication. Yes, fostering student engagement is important, but educators need to look at the social and material contexts of the specific class or interaction in order to consider what practices to employ at that moment, and moreover, how to evolve such practices as situations change.

So what does education from scratch mean? It means thinking about:

  • The uncertainty, risk and complexity inherent in educational practices
  • Our own values as teachers and the impact of these values on our teaching
  • The specific sociomaterial environment we are working within, both disciplinary and at the level of the class and interaction. What might be the material or temporal constraints that impact upon our practice?
  • The particular learners that we are working with in that context. What matters to them?
  • How we can evolve our practice as situations change?

The second objection may be: but today’s teachers don’t have time to develop thoughtful, relational pedagogies! I agree that time is often short. Education from scratch might not be easy or quick. But a permanent diet of ready meals, pedagogies bleached of richness and complexity, would be too high a price to pay. Rather, we can learn from educational research, and from the ideas of colleagues, in order to gain insights that direct our own situated judgments. To develop ‘different ways to see’ (Biesta, 2020).

Fortunately, there is a great deal of fantastic, and thoughtful practice in our sector, but we need to continue and expand upon this, inspiring educators to have confidence to explore their own situated learning environments and to value those nuanced, micro-moments of learning and teaching. By broadening our understanding, we can explore a wider range of meaningful, critical and relational pedagogies, that we might be able to use to develop educational interactions that really matter.

References

Bayne, S, Evans, P,  Ewins, R. Knox, J, Lamb, J, Macleod, H, O’Shea, C, Ross, J, Sheail, P and Sinclair, C (2020) The Manifesto for Teaching Online Cambridge: MIT Press

Biesta, G (2007) ‘Why “What Works” Won’t Work: Evidence-based Practice and the Democratic Deficit in Educational Research’ Educational Theory 57: 1-22

Biesta, G  (2020) Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction London: Bloomsbury

Ellsworth, E (1989) ‘Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy’ Harvard Educational Review 59 (3)

Gravett, K (2022) ‘Feedback Literacies as Sociomaterial Practice’ Critical Studies in Education 63:2 261-274

Gravett, K (2023) Relational Pedagogies: Connections and Mattering in Higher Education London: Bloomsbury

Dr Karen Gravett is Senior Lecturer at the Surrey Institute of Education, where her research focuses on understanding learning and teaching in higher education, and explores the areas of student engagement, belonging, transition, and relational pedagogies. She is Director of the Language, Literacies and Learning research group, Co-convenor of the SRHE Learning, Teaching and Assessment network, and a member of the editorial board for Teaching in Higher Education. Her work has been funded by the Society for Research in Higher Education, the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education, the British Association for Applied Linguistics, the UK Literacy Association, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.


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Understanding the student experience better

by Phil Pilkington

The benefit of the SRHE and its Blog has been in providing a sense of community for those who have to and do think about the purpose, the benefits and the travails of higher education. There have been insights shared and arguments made. It is the stuff of academia.

My interest in the student experience has been accompanied by an enormous increase in research in this area. This increase can be quantified, should you wish, by the number of papers cited under the rubric ‘Students’ in the SRHE Research Abstracts. Thirty years ago, students were a marginal, barely visible interest relative to the concerns of ‘management’ and ‘governance’ which were brought about by the changes by Jarrett, Sir Keith Joseph, Kenneth Baker and onwards. It has been suggested that with the ‘customer is king’ since 2010 there is a need to know about your customers, the students allegedly at the heart of things. Hence the growth in the research into the student experience. This narrative is, however, a misapprehension of the beginnings of the interest in the student experience and does SRHE a serious disservice. There are a number of prior claims for this growing interest.

Firstly, the growth in student numbers, especially in what was once the ‘public sector’ of polytechnics and FE colleges, with an actual reduction in university places in the short term (in the early 1980s) created a more diverse student population in terms of ethnicity and social classes, and challenged institutional practices, often by direct challenges from the students and their representatives. There are many examples of such challenges at a micro level: enrolling Sikhs without clan names and other antiracism practices; multi-religious communities and pastoral care; pedagogy for commuter students; childcare et al. Each subset of these practices brought with them, or borrowed from external practices, the knowledge of the changing sector. The growth from elite to mass and to a universal HE system meant the universities were no longer monocultural. (Some HEIs have taken longer than others to catch up with this; some have yet to do so and this in itself is a fresh research area. Stories of ‘class hatred’ at Durham and Bristol come to mind and prompt the question: do greater economic disparities bring about greater cultural changes and animosities? They do, but how and why?)

Secondly, there were a number of academic staff who were not only exercised by the lack of research on the increasing diversity and the increases tout court, of the student body, but were also finding alliances and partnerships with non-academic staff, support staff or professional services staff. Some of these relationships were at a local level, some encouraged by management and much of the research was influenced by practical local needs rather than publication. Much of the collaborative work on the student experience had an action-learning or ’activist’ character to it in challenging and proposing change to practices. Research into the student experience had often been for the purposes of campaigning for change (eg changing teaching and assessment practices for the disabled) and SRHE’s ‘community’ welcomed that too. Conversely, the conventional SRHE research was applied by the campaigners for changes to both practice and outlook, eg Mantz Yorke’s research on reasons for dropping out, dispelling myths of alcohol abuse as a cause and highlighting choice of course (and lack of clarity about the curriculum) as the primary cause of dropping out.

Thirdly, the growth in institutions’ student numbers also meant an increase in specialist staff whose focus was on supporting students. These staff often belonged to professional bodies and postgraduates in their disciplines (counselling, dyslexia testing). Their insights into student behaviours and experiences as generalised or generic were above the departmental and faculty limits of many academics which also challenged the traditional and now often dangerous practices and roles of personal tutors. An added factor in collaboration was the growth in specialist staff within students’ unions and NUS. The latter had a strong and broad-based research team, especially strong in areas of national interest such as housing and financial support and student debt. At the local level, students’ unions had the everyday experience of welfare cases and the shortcomings of teaching and learning practices; articulating the ‘student voice’ to the management. It was the interrelationship between local support services that would provide a holistic approach to the student experience: welfare and education were being understood as intimately connected at the individual cognitive and the structural levels.

These factors were all either in place or forming into working relationships for shared practice and research before the final step to the neoliberal misnomer of ‘customer is king’ by 2012/13. SRHE played an important part in this growth of interest and initiated much with the creation of the Student Experience Network and the related student experience conferences. The former is still thriving having merged with the Access Network.

It is a mark of considerable progress that students are no longer ‘the other’ as they were thirty years ago, although there are occasional manufactured ‘moral panics’ about plagiarism, grade inflation, cancel culture (wars) and the threats to the sector’s autonomy as a consequence of these alarums (fines, new powers of the OfS, et al). And may the progress continue. Attainment gaps, the socio-economic inequalities of access, the toxicity of league tables, the intellectual fragility of satisfaction surveys and more, all call for more work. But if there is a need to open up a new field of research, and there is, then may I make a modest proposal that the governance of the sector needs greater examination. The sector has over the last decade been confronted with challenges unique to the UK as an outlier, or as a pastiche of the US sector, which has forgotten its history: student debt (or write-off), the growth of the academic precariat, the subsidiarisation or outsourcing of all but the core of HEIs, the delusions of autonomy challenged by practice, and a simple view of causality of study to financial rewards belying the conditions of the hierarchy of the sector. It would be of some purpose for an added focus on not the new management models, which are of limited variety given the external challenges, but the infiltration of the governance of HEIs with the values of those agents who have brought about the challenges of the last ten years. SRHE would then be reaching out to the field of the political economy of higher education and there is perhaps a dearth of such research. And from the bottom up: some reflections on the actual experiences of those engaged in the practicalities of marshalling ‘free speech’, engaging with the everyday problems of plagiarism, etc.

SRHE’s contribution to the understanding of the student experience and its application to changing practices has been and continues to be valuable – of public good. It was much needed by all parties working in and experiencing the sector. There is a need for a historical narrative and new conceptual tools to describe where and what the sector is now in facing (and facing off?) the xenophobic populism that has put the sector in its current parlous position. As someone once said: we make our own history but not as we wish; or, it is that we don’t make history, we are made by history. Was that Marx or Martin Luther King Jr? Actually, it was both; King seems more Hegelian than Marx. Research on the student experience helped HEIs to understand the new landscape of a universal system. Help is needed to understand the forces and values which are changing the nature of academia and what counts as knowledge.

Phil Pilkington’s former roles include Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, and CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union. He is an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE. He chaired the SRHE Student Experience Network for several years and helped to organise events including the hugely successful 1995 SRHE annual conference on The Student Experience; its associated book of ‘Precedings’ was edited by Suzanne Hazelgrove for SRHE/Open University Press.


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Interdisciplinarity

by GR Evans

Historian GR Evans takes the long view of developments in interdisciplinary studies, with particular reference to experience at Cambridge, where progress may at times be slow but is also measured. Many institutions have in recent years developed new academic structures or other initiatives intended to promote interdisciplinary collaboration. We invite further blogs on the topic from other institutional, disciplinary, multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives.

A recent Times Higher Education article explored ‘academic impostor syndrome’ from the point of view of an academic whose teaching and research crossed conventional subject boundaries. That seemed to have made the author feel herself a misfit. She has a point, but perhaps one with broader ramifications.  

There is still a requirement of specialist expertise in the qualification of academics. In its Registration Conditions for the grant of degree-awarding powers the Office for Students adopts a requirement which has been in used since the early 1990s. An institution which is an established applicant seeking full degree-awarding powers must still show that it has “A self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to the assurance of standards supported by effective quality systems.”

A new applicant institution must show that it has “an emerging self-critical, cohesive academic community with a clear commitment to the assurance of standards supported by effective (in prospect) quality systems.” The evidence to be provided is firmly discipline-based: “A significant proportion (normally around a half as a minimum) of its academic staff are active and recognised contributors to at least one organisation such as a subject association, learned society or relevant professional body.” The contributions of these academic staff are: “expected to involve some form of public output or outcome, broadly defined, demonstrating the  research-related impact of academic staff on their discipline or sphere of research activity at a regional, national or international level.”

The establishment of a range of subjects identified as ‘disciplines’ suitable for study in higher education is not much more than a century old in Britain, arriving with the broadening of the university curriculum during the nineteenth century and the creation of new universities to add to Oxford and Cambridge and the existing Scottish universities. Until then the medieval curriculum adapted in the sixteenth century persisted, although Cambridge especially honoured a bent for Mathematics. ‘Research’, first in the natural sciences, then in all subjects, only slowly became an expectation. The higher doctorates did not become research degrees until late in the nineteenth century and the research PhD was not awarded in Britain until the beginning of the twentieth century, when US universities were beginning to offer doctorates and they were established as a competitive attraction in the UK .

The notion of ‘interdisciplinarity’ is even more recent. The new ‘disciplines’ gained ‘territories’ with the emergence of departments and faculties to specialise in them and supervise the teaching and examining of students choosing a particular subject. In this developing system in universities the academic who did not fully belong, or who made active connections between disciplines still in process of defining themselves, could indeed seem a misfit. The interdisciplinary was often disparaged as neither one discipline nor another and often regarded by mainstream specialists as inherently imperfect. Taking an interest in more than one field of research or teaching might perhaps be better described as ‘multi-disciplinary’ and requires a degree of cooperativeness among those in charge of the separate disciplines. But it is still not easy for an interdisciplinary combination to become a recognised intellectual whole in its own right, though ‘Biochemistry’ shows it can be done.

Research selectivity and interdisciplinarity

The ‘research selectivity’ exercises which began in the late 1980s evolved into the Research Assessment Exercises (1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001, 2008), now the Research Excellence Framework. The RAE Panels were made up of established academics in the relevant discipline and by the late 1990s there were complaints that this disadvantaged interdisciplinary researchers. The Higher Education Funding Council for England and the other statutory funding bodies prompted a review, and in November 1997 the University of Cambridge received the consultation paper sent round by HEFCE. A letter in response from Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor was published, giving answers to questions posed in the consultation paper. Essential, it was urged, were ‘clarity and uniformity of  application of criteria’. It suggested that: “… there should be greater interaction, consistency, and comparability between the panels than in 1996, especially in cognate subject areas. This would, inter alia, improve the assessment of interdisciplinary work.”

The letter also suggested “the creation of multidisciplinary sub-panels, drawn from the main panels” or at least that the membership of those panels should include those “capable of appreciating interdisciplinary research and ensuring appropriate consultation with other panels or outside experts as necessary”. Universities should also have some say, Cambridge suggested, about the choice of panel to consider an interdisciplinary submission. On the other hand Cambridge expressed “limited support for, and doubts about the practicality of, generic interdisciplinary criteria or a single interdisciplinary monitoring group”, although the problem was acknowledged.[1]

Interdisciplinary research centres

In 2000 Cambridge set up an interdisciplinary Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In a Report proposing CRASSH the University’s General Board pointed to “a striking increase in the number and importance of research projects that cut across the boundaries of academic disciplines both within and outside the natural sciences”. It described these as wide-ranging topics on which work could “only be done at the high level they demand” in an institution which could “bring together leading workers from different disciplines and from around the world … thereby raising its reputation and making it more attractive to prospective staff, research students, funding agencies , and benefactors.”[2]

There have followed various Cambridge courses, papers and examinations using the term ‘interdisciplinary’, for example an Interdisciplinary Examination Paper in Natural Sciences. Acceptance of a Leverhulme Professorship of Neuroeconomics in the Faculty of Economics in 2022 was proposed on the grounds that “this appointment serves the Faculty’s strategy to expand its interdisciplinary profile in terms of research as well as teaching”.  It would also comply with “the strategic aims of the University and the Faculty … [and] create a bridge between Economics and Neuroscience and introduce a new interdisciplinary field of Neuroeconomics within the University”. However the relationship between interdisciplinarity in teaching and in research has still not been systematically addressed by Cambridge.

‘Interdisciplinary’ and ‘multidisciplinary’

A Government Report of 2006 moved uneasily between ‘multidisciplinary’ and ‘interdisciplinary’ in its use of vocabulary, with a number of institutional case studies. The University of Strathclyde and King’s College London (Case Study 2) described a “multidisciplinary research environment”. The then Research Councils UK (Case Study 5b) said its Academic Fellowship scheme provided “an important mechanism for building interdisciplinary bridges” and at least 2 HEIs had “created their own schemes analogous to the Academic Fellowship concept”.

In sum it said that all projects had been successful “in mobilising diverse groups of specialists to work in a multidisciplinary framework and have demonstrated the scope for collaboration across disciplinary boundaries”. Foresight projects, it concluded, had “succeeded in being regarded as a neutral interdisciplinary space in which forward thinking on science-based issues can take place”. But it also “criticised the RAE for … the extent to which it disincentivised interdisciplinary research”.  And it believed that Doctoral Training Projects still had a focus on discipline-specific funding, which was “out of step with the growth in interdisciplinary research environments and persistent calls for more connectivity and collaboration across the system to improve problem-solving and optimise existing capacity”.

Crossing paths: interdisciplinary institutions, careers, education and applications was published by the British Academy in 2016. It recognised that British higher education remained strongly ‘discipline-based’, and recognized the risks to a young researcher choosing to cross boundaries. Nevertheless, it quoted a number of assurances it had received from universities, saying that they were actively seeking to support or introduce the ‘interdisciplinary’. It provided a set of Institutional Case Studies. including Cambridge’s statement about CRASSH, as hosting a range of externally funded interdisciplinary projects. Crossing paths saw the ‘interdisciplinary’ as essentially bringing together existing disciplines in a cluster. It suggested “weaving, translating, convening and collaborating” as important skills needed by those venturing into work involving more than one discipline.  It did not attempt to explore the definition of interdisciplinarity or how it might differ from the multi-disciplinary.

Interdisciplinary teaching has been easier to experiment with, particularly at school level where subject-based boundaries may be less rigid. There seems to be room for further hard thought not only on the need for definitions but also on the notion of the interdisciplinary from the point of view of the division of provision for posts in – and custody of – individual disciplines in the financial and administrative arrangements of universities. This work-to-be-done is also made topical by Government and Office for Students pressure to subordinate or remove established disciplines which do not offer the student a well-paid professional job on graduation.

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


[1] Cambridge University Reporter, 22 April (1998).  

[2] Cambridge University Reporter, 25 October (2000).  


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Fun and games – nurturing students’ ‘being’

by Lucy Gill-Simmen and Laura Chamberlain

It is widely known that skills required by employers today are focused less on discipline specific skills and more on personal skills (also referred to as soft skills or human skills). For example, relatively recently, Tracy Brower in Forbes declared empathy to be the most important leadership skill. Other reports, such as those from the World Economic Forum and OECD, cite skills such as critical thinking, creativity, resilience, self-awareness and emotional intelligence among the top ten skills required in today’s workplace. In our changing world, with elevated awareness of issues such as climate change, sustainability, social justice and EDI, this tendency towards the personal skills should come as no surprise. This is because the skills required to address such issues are often human-centred. The gap between higher education and the workplace will only widen should we overlook our role as educators in developing these personal skills in students.

Drawing inspiration from the Dalai Lama who said ‘We are human beings not human doings’, educators need to find the right balance between the disciplinary content of a degree programme where students are ‘knowing and doing’ and the dimension of ‘being’. With a greater focus on ‘being’ which is linked to the development of personal skills, academics are required to embed areas of practice within their subject-specific classes to allow students to hone their skills. This is no easy feat since departure from a curriculum constituting the dissemination of knowledge and information causes consternation and demotivation amongst some academics who feel potentially deskilled. It isn’t far-fetched to imagine faculty declaring ‘we’re not here to teach them to be self-aware’.

There’s some merit in this way of thinking, since indeed we need to take care. Being human or at least openly demonstrating one’s human side in the workplace may come with its downsides too. There’s a viewed yet flawed tension between behaving in ways which show one’s human side and appearing unprofessional, particularly amongst women. The backlash against the Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin who was recently filmed dancing with her friends suddenly brought her professionalism into question. Known for her empathic leadership, this act of having fun became something that went against her. This aligns with the thoughts of some academics who mull over whether sometimes having fun in the classroom just seems wrong.

However, if it is our role to effect change in human beings, we must look beyond disciplinary knowledge and indeed the mode of delivery of knowledge which Freire (1970) in Pedagogy of the Oppressed refers to as banking. We must  ask ourselves how do we nurture student ‘being’? If we equate the development of personal skillswith being and becoming, we need to consider acts which shape and change the world. To do so we can consider the notion of praxis – action which embodies particular qualities.

Praxis is not a new phenomenon; Aristotle posited that praxis “was guided by a moral disposition to act truly and rightly; a concern to further human well-being and the good life”. If we adopt a praxis inquiry model, introducing context and ‘concrete structures’ into our management teaching as espoused by Freire (1972), we must equally consider how to foster the ‘being’ component of praxis. Traditionally, praxis pedagogies are found within disciplines such as nursing, teaching, and social work. We argue, however, that such pedagogies should not only be confined to the realms of human caring professions but should extend beyond and into other professions. Ironically, given the experience of Sanna Marin, even in politics we see the call for more empathic and emotionally aware leadership.

The discipline of business and management presents us with challenges. Given the sheer breadth of the discipline, we cannot always be sure of the contexts and influences that shape and provide sense-making in the world of work encountered by business and management graduates. This is also reflected in the dearth of signature pedagogies in business and management and the lack of definition when considering the ‘concrete structures’ we refer to earlier. Further challenges are presented in business and management, since how do we know what students will ‘be or become’ when they graduate? If a student studies dentistry, they are most likely to become a dentist, if a student studies law, there’s a good chance they’ll become a lawyer. However, graduates of business and management could become consultants, accountants, marketers or project managers to name but a few graduate destinations.

The knowledge that we need to provide to foster ‘being and becoming’ in business and management can appear rather elusive. Not only we, but other scholars too have asked the same question. For instance, Barnett (2009) asks: if a curriculum built on knowledge in higher education can be understood to be an educational vehicle to promote a student’s development, where are the links between knowledge and student ‘being and becoming’?

The meaning of praxis can be considered as ethical, self-aware, responsive, and accountable action and involving the reciprocal of knowing, doing and being (White, 2007). From our perspective,  knowing and doing are taught and assessed through discipline-based teaching and learning activities but this raises the question of how we embed the ‘being’. How can we ensure that business and management students are equipped to ‘be’ competent practitioners?

Although normally firmly benched in human caring professions such as nursing and teaching, we argue that there is a place for praxis pedagogies in business and management. Subscribing to a Habermasian school of thought, praxis requires knowledge of how to be a particular kind of person. In business and management, the particular kind of person is particularly difficult to foresee. Thus, the contextual element is difficult. However, we propose that steps need to be taken in the direction of the ‘being’ element of praxis. One way to do so is by drawing upon creativity and creative pedagogies as a means to developing students’ ‘being-in-the-world’ and to honing the skills leading to creativity growth.

Passive teaching methods, such as rote-memorisation and large-format lectures still dominate academia, despite research calling for more appropriate ways of instruction. This is where current practices diverge from the common mission of developing twenty-first-century skills in students. If learning goals should match teaching and learning activities, it is important to place higher education faculty into the discussion of creativity (Robinson et al, 2018). This is due to the nature of creative pedagogy, which is where to find many components which align with twenty-first-century skills important to future workforce needs. These include critical thinking, problem solving and innovation.

Along with two other colleagues (Dr Artemis Panigyraki and Dr Jenny Lloyd) we recently facilitated a creativity workshop at Warwick Business School in association with the Academy of Marketing. Designed for PhD students and early career researchers, we showcased some examples of embedding creativity into the curriculum. The aim of the workshop was to introduce new academics to innovative ways of teaching and to demonstrate how, through the adoption of different creative pedagogies, students could potentially gain alternative perspectives and views of the world and discover an alternative way of ‘being’. So as not to deviate too far from the academic discipline, we embedded the learning tasks within the discipline of Marketing. In doing so, we demonstrated how one can bring creativity to the classroom whilst still meeting the subject-based learning outcomes.

In line with Daniel Pink’s (2006) work on developing the right side of the brain, or the creative side, the workshop was designed around four different creative areas: the arts, design thinking, play/imagination, and storytelling. For each theme, activities were designed to immerse participants in a creative activity and in so doing allowed them to experience ‘being’ in an alternative and/or imagined world. Examples of activities were to imagine the discipline of Marketing as a song, and to select such a song to add to a Spotify playlist. Some participants found this challenging, others knew immediately which song they would select, despite having never been asked to do this before. They were immediately required to ‘be’ in a different space. Participants were tasked with sketching a product concept for a doorknob using both user-centered design and design-driven innovation. This pushed many participants out of their comfort zone, some declaring they ‘didn’t know how to draw’. Other tasks involved writing captions for The New Yorker cartoons, a form of play which measures whole-minded abilities. Following this task, many participants declared it challenging, whilst a few declared it fun. Specifically, they said coming up with the required elements of a caption such as rhythm, brevity and surprise did not come naturally. Other tasks included building a free-standing tower out of dried spaghetti and writing a story capturing a plot with morals, characters, and conflict. Each task held values that allowed for different aspects of ‘being’.

The characteristics of creative pedagogies which marked the ‘being’ emerged over the course of the workshop. We observed ‘being’ as ‘thinking differently’, ‘being playful’, ‘struggling’, ‘being a child’, ‘being innovative’, promoting changes in behaviours manifesting as sparking the imagination, bringing out the competitive spirit and experiencing joy. Participants were experiencing ‘being’ within the experience of exploration of the unknown. The variety of activities throughout the workshop allowed participants to experience different ways of ‘being-in-the-world’ (Denmead, 2010). Through this process, participants saw themselves in a different way and in a way that signified a change in their receptivity.

Many participants found themselves reverting to being a younger version of themselves as they were asked to think about stories which they enjoyed as a child. This was expanded as they were asked to  write a story; many noted they had not written a story since they were at school. They wrote stories of romance and demonstrated vivid imagination, which had perhaps long been hidden, thus they were ‘being’ in a space of former times, one where child-like imagination was revered. Spaces of struggle, of not knowing, uncertainty, open-endedness, frustration, of joy, and with a friendly, almost childlike competitive spirit were spaces beyond the norms of everyday behaviours and structures. The activities gave participants places in which to operate, to behave and to ‘be’. Participants were able to temporarily suspend ordinary conventions, the boundaries of structural obligation, functional pressures and engage in behaviours whose value was not immediately evident. They broke away from the normal constructed boundaries within which they are expected to exist and behave on a normal day and engaged in play. Many declared the activities as freeing and expressed their views of creativity as relating to freedom, noting they had a choice in how they executed the tasks and also in their outcome. Interestingly, there has been vast philosophical debate around freedom as constituting a significant part of ‘being’.

To develop the human skills sought after in the workplace, ‘being and becoming’ need to be central tenets of a higher education system. There is an inherent need for us to satisfy the third dimension of praxis, this is ‘being’. How do we do this? We do this through promoting different ways of ‘being- in-the-world’ and pushing the boundaries of the norms in higher education. Creativity and creative pedagogies are an effective way of doing this.

Dr Lucy Gill-Simmen is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing & Director of Education Strategy in the School of Business & Management, Royal Holloway, University of London. Follow Lucy via @lgsimmen on Twitter

Professor Laura Chamberlain is Professor of Marketing and Assistant Dean PGT at Warwick Business School, The University of Warwick. Follow Laura via @LMChamberlain on Twitter and @drlaurachamberlain on Instagram

References
Barnett, R (2009) ‘Knowing and becoming in the higher education curriculum’ Studies in Higher Education34(4): 429-440

Denmead, T (2011) ‘Being and becoming: Elements of pedagogies described by three East Anglian creative practitioners’ Thinking skills and Creativity6(1): 57-66

Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed Penguin Classics edition 2017

Freire, P (1972) Cultural action for freedom Ringwood: Penguin

Pink, DH (2006) A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. Penguin

Robinson, D, Schaap, BM and Avoseh, M (2018) ‘Emerging themes in creative higher education pedagogy’ Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education

White, J (2007) ‘Knowing, doing and being in context: A praxis-oriented approach to child and youth care’ Child & Youth Care Forum 36(5): 225-244