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

by Rob Cuthbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here it comes …

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

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Minding the gender gaps in European higher education

by Juliette Torabian

Click on the title followed by ‘version française’ below to jump to the French language version of this post. We continue to encourage submissions such as the one below to include perspectives in languages other than English. Please send all contributions to the editor,

l’UE: L’inégalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur toujours bien présente! (version française)

Minding the gender gaps in European higher education

Fostering equity and equality between men and women and reducing different forms of gendered discrimination has taken centre stage in the European policies of the past two decades, for example in the pact for gender equality (2011-2020).

Gender equality policies and legislation have also proliferated at national and institutional levels, in an attempt to reduce existing vertical and horizontal gender segregations which have traditionally favoured men. For example, 23 out of 28 European Member States have established a voluntary or legislative quota for political parties and their parliaments to ensure women representation. To tackle the gender pay gap – which is one of the most persistent horizontal gender inequalities – in the UK and in Germany, for instance, companies are now required to establish transparency in their salary and bonus systems.

Similar policies have been applied to academia and research. In Austria, for example, there is a 40% quota for all university committees and universities are awarded additional funds for appointing women professors. In the UK, the Equality Challenge Unit monitors and supports equity and equality among staff and students in higher education, and in Sweden extra support is provided to women approaching professorship. Such initiatives also exist, in different degrees and forms, in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Finland, according to the EIGE report.

Have these multiplying initiatives transformed gendered norms and stereotypes in higher education systems and helped creating equal opportunities for both men and women? The reality is not as promising as one might wish for.

One basic issue arises from the distorted interpretations of gender equality as a concept. Increasingly, it is used as an equivalent to women’s rights and empowerment in the so-called battle of the sexes.

Within this distorted perception, “the oppressed becomes the oppressor”- to use Freire’s words. Instead of rewarding institutions where outcomes for women practically equal those of men, the tendency is for near-parity or women outperforming men to be applauded – while in both cases the actual participation levels are hidden and/or ignored. In effect, this worldview harms men but harms women even more severely. It objectifies women in institutions’ tokenism while no actual shift in power relations has taken place.

This perplexing view has a direct impact on access and success in higher education. In many OECD countries, particularly those with higher income, boys are more likely to repeat a grade, dropout of high school, and opt for directly entering the labour market rather than higher education. This has led to a ‘feminisation’ of bachelor’s programmes (58% female graduates). The choice of fields and progress in the level of study remain gender segregated. Women are more likely to study undergraduate programmes considered feminine, including education, business, law, social science, health and welfare. Men, on the other hand, study in engineering and STEM fields and outnumber women at PhD levels – that is, if they opt to enter university.

Gender inequalities that still persist are indeed causing considerable economic loss of public and private investment in higher education. “Across the EU, women have better educational outcomes than men (44% of women aged 30-34 in the EU completed tertiary education, compared to 34% of men)”, yet receive an average of 16%  less hourly pay.  Around 10% of their wage difference remains “unexplained” according to the 2018 EU report on equality.

Likewise, according to Eurostat’s 2017 report, 22.4% of the European population are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. We know that men are increasingly shunning higher education. It is also clear that “those with only upper secondary education have earned around 50% less than those with a tertiary education between 2000-15 in OECD countries”. The prospects for the average European household poverty rate in the next decades sound worrying with less educated men and lower paid educated women. It may be, therefore, fair to say that gender equality policies- in their current forms- have not delivered equal opportunities and are not fit to create sustainable societies.

I have elsewhere expressed my concern on access policies that can be carrying a “Cinderella syndrome”, hence betraying the promise of higher education in bringing social change. I reiterate my argument here with regard to the current formulation and application of gender equality policies and quotas in European higher education.

Despite some progress, gender policies have systematically failed in ‘undoing’ gender stereotypes. They are – at least partially – responsible for : increasing inequality of access for men to a majority of undergraduate fields of studies; maintaining the proportions of men and women in fields traditionally assigned to their gendered roles; and not having completely reversed trends in salaries and representation of women at professorial and higher management levels in universities. Evidence from a recent study in France has also shown the failure of gender-related quotas. It argues that having more women on appointment committees has, in fact, had reverse impacts and dramatically cut the number of female academics getting hired.

It is time to mind and close the gender gaps that still persist and to redress the new ones we have fabricated by the inadequacy of our gender policies in higher education systems.  Or, We could confide it to AI, but that might make things worse!

Juliette Torabian is a senior international specialist in education and sustainable development. She holds a PhD in Education from the Institute of Education, University College, London and a Masters in Development from SciencesPo, Paris. Her research focuses primarily on comparative higher education policy and practice, social justice and gender equality.

l’UE: l’inégalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur toujours bien présente!

par Juliette Torabian

Au cours des deux dernières décennies, l’équité des genres et l’égalité entre hommes et femmes ainsi que la réduction des différentes formes de discrimination fondée sur le genre, ont été au centre des politiques européennes; par exemple, le pacte pour l’égalité des genres (2011-2020).

Les politiques et les législations dans ce domaine ont également proliféré aux niveaux national et institutionnel dans les États membres européens afin de réduire les ségrégations de natures verticales et horizontales entre hommes et femmes, favorisant traditionnellement les hommes. Par exemple, 23 États membres européens sur 28 ont établi un quota volontaire ou légal pour la représentation des femmes au sein des partis politiques et dans les parlements. Pour faire face à l’écart des rémunérations entre hommes et femmes – l’une des inégalités horizontales des plus persistantes – au Royaume-Uni et en Allemagne, par exemple, les entreprises sont désormais tenues d’instaurer une transparence dans leurs systèmes de rémunération et de primes.

Des politiques similaires en matière de genre ont été appliquées dans les universités et la recherche. En Autriche, par exemple, il existe un quota de 40% pour la composition des comités universitaires mais également une compensation financière pour chaque affectation de femme académique. Au Royaume-Uni, « Equality Challenge Unit » surveille et soutient l’équité et l’égalité au sein du personnel et des étudiants, tandis qu’en Suède, il existe un mécanisme de soutien supplémentaire aux femmes en phase d’accéder aux plus hauts niveaux académiques. Selon le rapport EIGE (Institut européen pour l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes), de telles initiatives existent également, à divers degrés et sous différentes formes, en Belgique, en France, aux Pays-Bas, en Allemagne, au Danemark et en Finlande.

Ces innombrables initiatives, ont-elles réussi à transformer les stéréotypes dans les systèmes d’enseignements supérieurs et par conséquent à créer des chances égales pour les hommes et les femmes ? La réalité n’est pas aussi prometteuse qu’on pourrait espérer.

Un problème fondamental découle de l’interprétation erronée du concept de l’égalité des genres. Il est de plus en plus utilisé comme synonyme des droits et de l’autonomisation des femmes dans la prétendue bataille des sexes.

Dans cette perception tordue, “les opprimés deviennent les oppresseurs”, selon Freire. Au lieu de valoriser les institutions où les mesures prises ont donné lieu à des résultats concrets assurant l’égalité des femmes et des hommes, la tendance serait davantage à applaudir la semi-parité ou bien les femmes qui surpassent les hommes ; alors que dans les deux cas le taux réel de participation en général demeure ignoré pour ne pas dire dissimulé. En effet, cette vision nuit aux hommes mais nuit encore plus gravement aux femmes. Les femmes sont ainsi stigmatisées à travers des mesures purement symboliques sans aucun changement à l’horizon dans les rapports de force.

Cette conception perplexe de l’égalité des hommes et des femmes dans l’enseignement supérieur a un impact direct sur l’accès à l’université et sur le succès dans les études. Dans de nombreux pays de l’OCDE, en particulier ceux où les revenus sont les plus élevés, les hommes sont plus en proie au redoublement, à l’abandon de leurs études secondaires et à opter pour le marché du travail plutôt que pour les études supérieures. Cela s’est traduit par une « féminisation » accrue au niveau des licences (58% de femmes diplômées). Le choix des filières et la progression du niveau des diplômes restent dominés par les stéréotypes de genre. Les étudiantes sont davantage enclines d’obtenir une licence dans les filières dites féminines : le droit, les sciences sociales, l’enseignement, le commerce et la santé. Alors que les étudiants choisissent davantage des filières d’ingénieur, des sciences et des technologies, dépassant en final, le nombre de femmes titulaires d’un doctorat, -si bien sûr ils poursuivent leurs études supérieures.

Les inégalités de genres qui persistent entraînent une perte économique considérable en termes d’investissements publics et privés dans l’enseignement supérieur. “Dans l’ensemble de l’UE, les femmes obtiennent de meilleurs résultats scolaires que les hommes (44% des femmes âgées de 30 à 34 ans dans l’UE ont achevé leurs études supérieures, contre 34% des hommes)”, mais perçoivent en moyenne 16% de moins en salaire horaire. Considérant que 10% de cette différence de salaire, reste « injustifiée » selon le rapport 2018 de l’UE sur l’égalité.

De même, selon le rapport d’Eurostat 2017, 22.4% de la population européenne est exposée au risque de pauvreté et d’exclusion sociale. Nous savons que les hommes s’éloignent de plus en plus des études supérieures. Il est avéré que « ceux qui n’ont suivi que le deuxième cycle de l’enseignement secondaire, ont gagné 50% de moins que ceux qui ont fait des études supérieures entre 2000 et 2015 dans les pays d’OCDE ». La prospective d’un taux moyen de pauvreté au cours des prochaines décennies dans les ménages européens comptant des hommes moins scolarisés et des femmes éduquées mais moins bien payées, est inquiétante. Il serait donc juste de dire que les politiques d’égalité de genre -dans leurs formes actuelles- ne sont pas susceptibles de créer des chances égales pour une meilleure cohésion sociale.

A d’autres occasions, j’ai exprimé ma préoccupation à propos des politiques d’accès pouvant entraîner un “syndrome de Cendrillon” trahissant ainsi la promesse de l’enseignement supérieur pour assurer un changement social. Je considère donc que le même raisonnement s’avère juste quant à la formulation et l’application actuelles des politiques et des quotas en matière d’égalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur européen.

En dépit de certains progrès, les politiques en faveur de l’égalité des sexes ont systématiquement échoué dans la « suppression » des stéréotypes sexistes. Ces politiques sont au moins partiellement responsables : des inégalités d’accès des hommes à une majorité des programmes de licence ; de maintenir le statu quo de la représentation des deux sexes dans les filières traditionnellement associées à leur rôle social respectif ; et enfin, de ne pas avoir complètement inversé les tendances des niveaux de salaires et la représentativité des femmes dans les hautes fonctions universitaires. Effectivement une étude récente en France fait écho de l’échec des quotas. Elle établit que le fait d’imposer des quotas pour la présence des femmes dans les comités de sélection, a eu de facto des répercussions inverses et a considérablement réduit le nombre d’enseignantes embauchées dans les universités.

Il serait peut-être temps de traiter une fois pour toutes, l’imbroglio des disparités persistantes entre les genres et de réparer nos politiques qui par leur inadéquation, fabriquent de nouvelles formes d’inégalités dans nos systèmes universitaires en Europe. Ou bien, confions cela à l’intelligence artificielle,… à nos risques et périls !

Juliette Torabian est une spécialiste internationale dans le domaine de l’éducation et du développement durable; PhD de Institute of Education, University College London; Diplômée de SciencesPo – Paris; ses recherches sont concentrées sur l’analyse comparative des politiques de l’enseignement supérieur, la justice sociale et l’égalité des genres.

Ian Mc Nay

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Ian McNay writes…

By Ian McNay

Good to see action being taken on gender-based pay inequality after all the talk and all the evidence. Congratulations to Essex and, recently, LSE where women will get rises to close the gap of over 10% between their salaries and those of men with equal rank, length of service, research outputs and age. Essex earlier gave a one-off boost to female professors.

But … way to go fellas! I saw little coverage of the Women in Science Fellowships (we need a different title, surely). There were five awards of £15,000 to be spent in any way the winners choose in order to help them continue research in their chosen fields. What, then, did they choose?

  1. Help with childcare and some conference travel
  2. Flexible childcare arrangements to allow the further development of key collaborations and partnerships
  3. Childcare to allow an early return to work
  4. Practical help with childcare fees, with some on equipment and conferences
  5. Resolving the tough decision between my research and looking after my son

I cannot imagine a group of five male winners having such unanimity about such a ‘choice’. Thank you to the Evening Standard for its coverage and editorial stance.

Holiday reading

I spent some time over the summer copying Ulysses and cruising, less excitingly, the northern Mediterranean, Aegean and Adriatic seas. The ship’s library, for 1800 passengers, had about 120 books, including a history of Test Match Special. More relevant to readers here was one by Jonathan R Cole (2016) Toward a More Perfect University, NY, Public Affairs. One can criticise the title for thinking that ‘perfect’ can be susceptible to gradations, and for implying that the top 300 US research universities – the author’s basic starting point, are already perfect. Indeed, he criticises Johns Hopkins for distorting their mission to overstate research. Among his recommendations are a reduction in doctoral students; more emphasis on undergraduates – the quality of teaching and academic standards; and a compulsory one-year training programme for new members of governing bodies, Boards of Regents or their counterparts, to include a module on the nature of a university and its place in USA society. Good luck with that one.

The second one was a surprise. It was a John Grisham imitation, a courtroom drama. The following comes when the defence lawyer is about to cross-examine and discredit an academic expert. He sends his assistant to dig out his publications from 2008, 2004 and 2000.

‘If you’re cross-examining an academic witness, you have to look at their publications. Those years were the ARAE: the American Research Assessment Exercise. The more articles published by academic staff in the ARAE, the more money comes to their university and the more money those nerds take home. During those years everybody writes like crazy, and probably reasonable academics write crap things they would not dream of writing ordinarily. Writing for volume does not promote good theories, and pretty soon they’re writing papers on fairies and UFOs. Back then, articles meant cash. So, if there’s anything out there that will give us something on [him] that’s where we’ll find it.’

Steve Cavanagh (2016) The defense, NY, Flatiron Books, p51

And there was, and they did, and attacked the credibility of the witness to distract from the credibility of his evidence. Successfully.

There is, by the way, no such thing as the ARAE. It was, after all, a work of fiction, but bearing an uncanny resemblance to reality. The author’s details give no obvious connection to a background in higher education.

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