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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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