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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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New higher education institutions: a real chance to innovate?

by Katherine Emms

Since the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, England has seen a surge of new higher education institutions adding to the traditional higher education  landscape. The Act made a number of major changes to the sector, one of which was the introduction of the Office for Students (OfS), which was given responsibility to grant degree-awarding powers to providers and the right to use ‘university’ in their title. The Act was intended to make it easier for more providers to enter the market, and in the words of the 2018 Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, it was “designed to facilitate innovation, avoiding overly-prescriptive, process-focussed approaches that might place limitations on creativity”. The invitation was welcomed by a number of providers and now, a few short years later, some are already taking in their first cohorts of students. But are these institutions truly offering something different to students, facilitating innovation and diversification in a crowded marketplace, or just replicating existing models?

At The Edge Foundation we wanted to investigate the early experiences of these new higher education institutions (HEIs) and understand what their guiding principles and reasons for setting up were, as well as how they were interpreting their visions and putting these into practice. We have conducted a number of semi-structured interviews with founders and staff across several new HEIs, with more dialogue to follow as these institutions move through their early stages of operation.

Employability is increasingly seen as a responsibility of HE, not just as a separate task of the careers services but one which should be an integrated element within academic learning (Crammer, 2006). New HEIs have highlighted the gap between existing provision and employers’ needs, and see their offering as a way to address this issue, claiming that their innovative approaches could better support the employability of students. One way this has been tackled is through strong collaboration with employers from the outset of designing the course and its content. Some new HEIs emphasised the importance of a ‘backwards design’ which is demand (employer)-led rather than supply (academic)-led. Having industry experts involved in skills gap workshops and continuously having employer representatives as part of the validation process were some of the ways that supported this.

Most of the new HEIs we spoke to focus on broadness of provision in a number of senses. First and foremost, they set aside traditional subject silos and instead are looking to offer interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary degrees, or offer a broader notion to a single subject area (e.g. bringing the social science aspect into engineering). The arguments put forward were that complex world problems are not fixed within a single discipline and require a broad knowledge and skill set that spans disciplines in order to be solved. One way to support this broad provision is through staff recruitment at the new HEIs; staff are recruited partly from industry, partly from the world of academia, but ultimately having the right attitude and a team working ethos to work collaboratively across disciplines are considered key.

The broadness theme also plays out in terms of the development of the student. Looking beyond academic and knowledge-based learning, the development of the whole student is seen as core to their provision. All aspects are important – from ensuring the development of transferable skills that are integrated into the curriculum, to ensuring students take part in meaningful placements and have employer interactions to develop the ‘professional’ skills they need after graduation.

Another way these new HEIs are pushing back against traditional modes of delivery is through their focus on team work, and problem-based learning or project-based learning. Almost all our participants emphasised that their HEI has no lectures, instead focussing on students working together on authentic real-world issues often set by an external client, making them relevant to industry. Alongside this, exams are not the main form of assessment, instead a range of more ‘authentic’ methods were discussed including reflective portfolios, podcasts, blogs, and pitches to businesses.

These new HEIs vary across their stage of development, their size, mission, and delivery, although some common factors have been set out above. One thing that all the new HEIs have had to navigate was the registration and policy landscape. Some of these were partnering with or being ‘parented’ by an established university to go through the process and some were going at it alone. This brought differing issues and seemed to influence the degree of innovation they could deliver. To some extent working within the parameters of another university can stifle the innovation by having to fit their delivery into traditional and established ways. On the other hand, these established universities have the advantage of bringing credibility to the new HEIs, which can be beneficial both in terms of the registration process and the attractiveness to new students.

Ultimately these HEIs are new and are yet to see a full cohort of students graduate, therefore we have limited markers of success so far on which to evaluate them. Likewise it is difficult to see how innovative these providers are, as one stakeholder remarked: “innovative might be a great idea, but until it’s tested is much harder to understand whether it really is innovative”.Edge will continue with our research over the next year and beyond to understand more about the experiences of these new HEIs and their students.

Katherine Emms is a Senior Education & Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation. Her main areas of research are in higher education, vocational education, skills shortages in the economy and employability skills. Current and published research can be seen here: https://www.edge.co.uk/research/research-team/kat-emms/. Twitter @kat_emms

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English higher education policy: hope and pay

by Rob Cuthbert

The long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle offers a faint hope for some improvement in HE policymaking in England: there is of course plenty of room for it. Former Secretary of State Gavin Williamson never recovered from the A-levels debacle of 2020, having already been held in low esteem before then. His standing in the HE sector was at a record low after a series of increasingly frenetic measures which seemed more like attempts to curry favour with the Conservative Party and the right wing press than coherent policy initiatives. Those measures included T-levels in post-16 education, a consultation on initial teacher training reform, the Free Speech Bill working its way through Parliament, comments on post-Covid behaviour by universities, rumoured moves on HE tuition fees, and various initiatives taken by the Office for Students in response to the Secretary of State’s frequent ‘guidance’ letters.

Announcing his departure on Twitter, Williamson said it had been a pleasure to serve in the role and that he was proud of the “transformational reforms” he had led in post-16 education. FE and schools begged to differ. A coalition of influential education bodies had written to Gavin Williamson about his T-level proposals on 29 July 2021 saying: “It is impossible to square the government’s stated ambition to ‘level up’ opportunity with the proposal to scrap most BTECs, including all larger versions of the qualifications that are deemed to overlap with A levels or T levels (86% of respondents to the review disagreed with your proposal to remove funding for qualifications on this basis) … Many young people will be adversely affected by this proposal, but disadvantaged students have the most to lose, a conclusion that your Department’s own equalities impact assessment supports.” We can hope that the new DfE team will think again.

Similarly, the consultation on ITT has been universally criticised. Oxford and Cambridge suggested in response that they might pull out of ITT provision, and two senior former inspectors savaged the recent Ofsted inspections purporting to justify proposed reforms. Anna McKie reported for Times Higher Education on 3 August 2021, and Terry Russell and Julie Price Grimshaw blogged about ITT inspections in July 2021 for Teach Best: “The reports show that the evidence base for the judgements made are flimsy in the extreme, repetitive, poorly written, hyper-critical, demoralising and humiliating. It is totally unacceptable that programme leaders across the whole sector, who have turned themselves inside out for two years in order to ensure that trainees get the best possible deal, can be treated like this. We know that some course leaders have suffered illness and extreme anxiety as a direct result of these inspections. Already we are seeing providers taking the decision to close.” A strongly negative response from MillionPlus on 20 August 2021 called for the ‘reform’ to be ‘paused’: “If change is forced through in spite of a near-unanimous sector backlash, it is likely that numerous modern universities, currently the backbone of initial teacher training, will re-consider their provision in this area. This could critically damage the pipeline of new teachers into the profession, potentially hitting hardest the very regions and communities the government has pledged to level up.” Caroline Daly (UCL) blogged for UCL on 13 August 2021: “This is no time for a mass experiment on teacher education”. We might hope that the new DfE team will quietly let this one disappear.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill currently before Parliament embodies the culture wars so popular in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and is reported on more fully elsewhere in this issue of SRHE News. Whatever its supposed merits, we can but hope that the slavish desire to cater to right wing prejudice will be tempered somewhat in the new DfE team.

The installation of Lord Wharton as chair of the Office for Students, and his refusal to stop taking the Tory whip in the Lords, meant that OfS was never going to be the kind of independent regulator required by statute; recent OfS initiatives have reinforced those feelings. The preliminary OfS consultation on a range of quality and standards issues during the winter of 2020-21 was followed by a further consultation published on 21 July 2021. This made detailed proposals about new regulatory requirements, saying: “the UK Quality Code, including its common practices, advice and guidance, risks creating a homogeneous approach to quality and standards assurance that stifles innovation and overly focuses on policy and process rather than outcomes for students. By contrast, our intention is to establish an approach to regulation that protects all students through the articulation of a clear minimum baseline for quality and standards in the regulatory framework, while enabling competition, student choice, provider autonomy and innovation to develop freely above the baseline.”

Picking their way through the weasel words, David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson of WonkHE summed up (on 20 July 2021) its intention as being to sweep away the existing Quality Code, “a longstanding agreed sector standard developed by the Quality Assurance Agency … on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (kind of the sector’s representative body on quality assurance). The code is short, clear, comprehensible … Everybody knows where they are with it (from PSRBs to providers), it is popular, UK-wide, and internationally recognised. And it’s symbolic – insofar as it is a piece of co-regulation.” The first consultation spoke of “up-to-date” content and “effective” assessment. Perhaps this was, as Kernohan and Dickinson said, “meant to give providers flexibility to make their own decisions  … [but] in practice it made them concerned that their definitions of these terms may not match the regulator’s own impressions.”

The Teaching Excellence Framework was evaluated in unflattering terms by the independent review reluctantly accepted by DfE as part of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. That review, completed long ago but published much more recently, seemed to have put TEF in the deep freeze, but OfS now envisages a new-style TEF as an enforcement mechanism for its new ‘definitions’ of quality and standards. The WonkHE writers conclude: “As usual, there’s little on making students feel more powerful – but plenty for OfS.” The attempted reassurance in the OfS blog by Director of Regulation Susan Lapworth on 20 July 2021 failed to persuade, and the THE pronouncement on the same day by OfS chair Lord Wharton that “Good universities have nothing to fear from the OfS’ quality crackdown” smacked more of loyalty oaths than higher education standards.

Those suspicions were fuelled, to put it mildly, when OfS issued on 7 October 2021 probably its most fatuous review to date, about spelling, punctuation and grammar. This followed a series of media scare stories earlier in 2021 about universities supposedly being told that ‘cutting marks for bad spelling is elitist’, as the Mail on Sunday headline had it on 11 April 2021. Minister Michele Donelan duly deplored such alleged behaviour in the House of Commons, as Jim Dickinson noted in his WonkHE blog on 7 October 2021. OfS then conducted a review over Summer 2021 in “a small number of higher education providers … focused on spelling, punctuation and grammar in written assessment” identifying a “cause for regulatory concern”. There will always be stories and cases of daft behaviour by some universities, on issues like spelling, just as on issues like freedom of speech. They need to be dealt with proportionately and the regulator must decide whether there is a substantive case to answer for the whole sector. Here the OfS jumped to the remarkable conclusion that “The common features we have seen in the small number of cases in this review suggest that the practices and approaches we have set out in the case studies may be widespread across the sector.” This is not an independent regulator, this is a body in a hurry to do what it thinks the Minister wants. We can hope that the new DfE team might discourage such excessive compliance, led as it now is by someone who made a success of asking different people for their opinions.

Williamson’s last turn in HE was his speech at the Universities UK conference in Newcastle in September, when he urged universities to get back to in-person face to face teaching – speaking by videolink (!) as Times education editor Nicola Woolcock reported on 9 September 2021. Richard Adams, The Guardian’s education editor, described his speech as ‘combative’: Williamson “accused some universities of being more interested in “cancelling national heroes” and bureaucracy than improving the lives of students and staff, telling vice-chancellors they risk undermining public confidence in higher education.” He went on to attack universities with high drop-out rates and announced that “in the future institutions in England would not be able to count disadvantaged students enrolled on courses with high non-continuation rates towards meeting their access targets.” The Secretary of State’s willingness to take on the universities, albeit remotely, was not of course sufficient to save his job. 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.

The signs are that real politics might be re-emerging. The restructuring of the DfE entailed the abolition of the role of Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills. This seemed to run contrary to levelling up, as the FE News report on 15 September 2021 noted, with Toby Perkins, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Further Education and Skills, quoted as saying: “Skills shortages are holding our economy back. For all his warm words, the Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the dedicated skills minister shows he isn’t serious about reskilling our workforce for the future.” But the SoS has a track record in this area, so this at least sounds like a reasonable difference of opinion about how to achieve a policy objective.

More fundamentally, we are expecting what the media call an ‘overhaul’ of HE funding, as Richard Adams wrote in The Guardian on 9 July 2021. The options might include tuition-fee cuts, a cap on student numbers for some courses and minimum qualifications for HE entry, in a much-delayed response to the Augar review of tertiary funding. After Covid the government, of course, needs to find or save a great deal of money and the student loan system is a prime target. After long-running disagreements between No 10, DfE and the Treasury over how to achieve savings, there were straws in the wind as first Nick Hillman for HEPI on 10 June 2021 and then David Willetts (in HEPI Report 142) on 30 September 2021 spelt out the possibilities for savings, supposedly while ‘boosting HE spending’ according to Willetts. Consider these – however unpalatable – as the centrist Tory case for savings: it amounts to ‘make graduates pay more’. A different position would involve fee reductions, meaning funding cuts for institutions, student number caps and/or minimum entry qualifications, restricting access and HE numbers. The latter was more likely to have been adopted by the former DfE regime. We can hope there are higher chances now of the more ‘moderate’ course.

The new Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi arrives with a better reputation than his predecessor, and there have been significant ministerial changes at DfE, not least the departure after a very long tenure of Nick Gibb as schools minister. However Michele Donelan remains and has been promoted as Universities Minister, adding post-16 responsibilities to her brief, and she will in future attend Cabinet. She remains something of a blank canvas, having until now loyally followed her SoS’s lead. More worryingly, former Gavin Williamson special adviser Iain Mansfield tweeted on 2 October 2021: “Delighted to be able to confirm that I will be staying on in Government, as Special Adviser to Michelle Donelan, Minister for Higher and Further Education”, as ResearchProfessionalNews had divined some weeks earlier. Mansfield was formerly a DfE civil servant known principally as the architect of the first version of TEF, later as an evidence-defying supporter of grammar schools. And of course Lord Wharton remains as chair of the OfS.

We can only hope that there will at least be something of a return to more sensible politics as the new ministerial team settles in. We can be fairly sure that hard times are coming for HE funding in the government spending review, with institutions, staff, students and graduates paying the price. So there it is, the short term future for higher education policy in England: hope and pay.

SRHE News Editor Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com. Twitter @RobCuthbert

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Cronyism, academic values and the degradation of debate

by Rob Cuthbert

The pandemic has accelerated many trends which were already apparent, such as the switch away from the high street to online purchasing, and in HE the move to on-line, remote and asynchronous learning. The influence of social media has also accelerated, partly or wholly replacing the normal policy business of face-to-face discussion and debate. But perhaps the most significant change of all for HE has been the accelerating decline in the quality of regulation, governance and policy debate.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 may come to be seen as the high water mark of a particular kind of policymaking which has been ebbing rapidly ever since: the tide has gone out on deliberative and measured debate. A majority in HE strongly opposed marketisation, but the Act was the culmination of a long period of debate which at least gave credence to opposing views and saw them represented in discussion inside and outside Parliament. The market ‘reforms’ were promoted by ministers – David Willetts and Jo Johnson in particular – who had at least grudging respect from many in the system, because of their own respect for academe, however partial it sometimes seemed. And much though we might regret the marketisation changes and seek their reversal, we might also accept that they were enacted by a government which had a mandate for change explicitly endorsed by the electorate. But that was then.

In 2019 the government was returned with a sufficient majority to ‘get Brexit done’, which it did, much to the dismay of most in higher education. HE’s dominant Remainer sentiment no doubt helped to fuel disregard in Whitehall for HE opinion. What is often wrongly still called ‘debate’ has been polarised, accentuated by social media’s echo chambers during the lockdown. In the ‘culture war’ both sides have dug their trenches and hoisted the ‘no surrender’ flags. In HE this has diverted attention away from the real and massive problems of the student experience in the pandemic, and towards the misrepresented and overstated issue of free speech, academic freedom and diversity of opinion. The supposed justification for recent free speech initiatives in HE has been amply covered elsewhere, and is summarised in SRHE News 44 (April 2021).

In this culture war academics and academic institutions have their share of blame. The Policy Exchange ‘research’, cited in support for the Secretary of State’s recent announcements, shoddy though it was, nevertheless pointed to the issue of Remainer conformism in much British academic culture, in which some staff have self-censored their support for Brexit. I tried much earlier to parody this conformism, arguing that “perhaps the best thing to do was to accept the will of the people, freely expressed”. But democracy depends on the willing consent of the governed, and the governed in HE are increasingly unwilling to consent to changes in which their views are simply ignored. There is no shortage of comment on new policy initiatives; the HE sector is comparatively well-served by think tanks such as HEPI and WonkHE, as the recent CGHE seminar on ‘Universities in Medialand’ suggested. But there is little sign that government takes note of policy commentary which contradicts its current narrative, even when obvious contradictions are pointed out. Thus, for example, market forces must rule, except when students choose the ‘wrong’ universities. The student experience is paramount, except  when students report high levels of satisfaction – so the National Student Survey, until yesterday a crucial element for teaching excellence, must today be rubbished.

Nowhere has the contempt for opposing views been more obvious than in the appointment of a new Chair for the Board of the Office for Students. The notes to the 2017 Act establishing the OfS explained that: “This Act creates a new non-departmental public body, the Office for Students (OfS), as the main regulatory body, operating at arm’s length from Government, and with statutory powers to regulate providers of higher education in England.” (emphasis added). The first OfS chair was Sir Michael Barber. It was rumoured that Barber sought a second term but was denied. Who might be appropriate to take on the role? Another respected figure with experience of HE and of working with government, able to sustain that arm’s length role for the Office? Former UUK chair Sir Ivor Crewe (former VC, Essex) was interviewed, as Sonia Sodha and James Tapper reported for The Observer on 14 February 2021: “Perhaps it was the long passage in Professor Sir Ivor Crewe’s book The Blunders of Our Governments about the way ministers’ mistakes never catch up with them that led Gavin Williamson to reject the expert as the new head of the Office for Students. Or maybe the education secretary was put off by the section of the 2013 book, written with the late Anthony King, dealing with how ministers put underqualified, inexperienced people in charge of public bodies. The job of independent regulator of higher education in England was instead handed to James Wharton, a 36-year-old former Tory MP with no experience in higher education who ran Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign.” The selection panel had been criticised for its dominant reliance on government supporters rather than HE expertise, but the chair-designate was nevertheless still to have his appointment endorsed by the Parliamentary Education Select Committee.

The Committee’s approval was very likely but could not be taken for granted, and Nick Hillman made some sensible proposals in his HEPI blog on 12 January 2021 on ‘How to grill the prospective chair of OfS’. We’d have suggested grilling on both sides, but presumably Boris Johnson’s campaign manager only has one side. The Education Select Committee duly questioned Lord Wharton of Yarm on 5 February 2021 and endorsed his appointment, which was announced by OfS on 8 February 2021. Rob Merrick reported for The Independent on 2 February 2021 that Lord Wharton had been subject to ‘hard questioning’, in the course of which he said he didn’t see why he could not retain the whip, nor why his role as Boris Johnson’s campaign manager should raise any conflict of interest issues.

So the ‘independent’ regulator was to have a partisan chair who proposed to retain the government whip. Conflict-of-interest issues raised themselves almost immediately, with wider ripples than expected. Lord Wharton had just been installed as Chair when he was revealed to be a paid adviser to a company seeking to build a cable connection through land at the University of Portsmouth. The company, Aquind, has a £1.2billion project to connect the electricity grids of the UK and France. It wants to put a cable across University of Portsmouth land, which the University opposes because of the disruption it would cause. Portsmouth Council and local Conservative and Labour MPs all oppose the project. Aquind director Alexander Temerko is a Conservative Party donor, whose website has several pictures of him with Lord Wharton, and also pictures him with the Prime Minister and Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. The planning dispute, involving possible compulsory purchase, has reached the Secretary of State for Business, but the previous incumbent Alok Sharma had to recuse himself from the case because his constituency party had received £10,000 from Temerko. Sean Coughlan told the story for the BBC on 19 February 2021, noting also that: “Conservative MP David Morris, another recipient of a donation, had to apologise to the House of Commons for a breach of paid advocacy rules after asking a question in support of the Aquind cable project.”

Lord Wharton’s appointment was greeted with incredulity in HE, but attracted little interest more broadly; in macropolitical terms the chair of OfS is a small bauble. And there were of course already many higher-profile reports of cronyism in government. The difficulty for HE is that the regulator may now be driven further and faster to unrealistic extremes. OfS, obediently pursuing its statutory responsibilities and ‘having regard to ministers’, is already in danger of leaving HE realities behind:

  • On 14 January 2021 the OfS wrote to universities and other HE providers, hard on the heels of a DfE letter to OfS, saying that the regulator expected institutions “to maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of their provision and to inform students about their options for refunds or other forms of redress where it has not been possible to provide what was promised.” Universities are losing tens of millions every week during the lockdown, without the kind of support provided for many other sectors, and on student hardship “the government can never quite resist overselling the multiple purposes to which the money might meaningfully be put”, as David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson argued in their WonkHE blog on 2 February 2021.
  • The OfS consultation document issued on 26 March 2021 put into practice the ‘instructions’ received earlier from Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. It proposed to steer more funds to STEM subjects and, among other things, halve additional funding for performing arts, media studies and archaeology courses. WonkHE’s David Kernohan was quick off the mark with his critical analysis on 26 March 2021.
  • OfS announced on 30 March 2021 that after the first phase of a review of the NSS, commissioned by Universities Minister Michele Donelan, there would be ‘major changes’ including dropping all references to ‘student satisfaction’. Of course, consistent reports that 85% or more of students in most universities are satisfied with their experience would be embarrassing for a government determined to prove otherwise.
  • OfS Director Regulation Susan Lapworth blogged for WonkHE on 31 March 2021 about a new condition of registration which would allow OfS to step in where a provider was at risk of failure, not to rescue the provider but to prevent a ‘disorderly’ closure. OfS had consulted on the proposal, which was not supported by most respondents, but went ahead anyway. The condition affects only the failing provider. Two obvious problems: (1) failing providers might not be inclined or well-placed to take the protective measures which OfS deems necessary; (2) previous experience shows that students need help from other institutions to facilitate transfers, but the Condition is silent on other institutions. They will often be willing, but might be unable to help without further support.

In the past funding councils were statutorily responsible for in effect providing a buffer between HE and government, to regulate excesses on either side. There is no danger of ‘provider capture’ in the new framework, the risk now is that the arm’s-length relationship with government has very short arms. Recent US experience shows the danger of such closeness. The Obama administration’s tighter regulation of for-profit HE after well-publicised shortcomings were swiftly reversed by Donald Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but Joe Biden is now progressively restoring Obama’s closer regulation. Such to-ing and fro-ing simply creates a more disorderly system for students to navigate.

We can learn a better lesson from the US: Michelle Obama’s dictum “when they go low, we go high”. We need to reinforce our support for academic values across the sector by continuing to show respect for opposing views, and to win cases by argument rather than by seeing who can shout loudest on social media. We have examples in the way that, for example, Eric Lybeck (Manchester) has offered to debate free speech with the authors of the Policy Exchange report. We also need to broaden the base of explicit opposition, and not leave it to the usual suspects: in particular, we need university leaders to step up and speak out more than they do.

It is often true that leaders can be more persuasive in private conversations than public speeches, but in current circumstances leaders, especially vice-chancellors, need to be more concerned that they will lose the confidence of staff and students if they fail to speak out publicly. There are honourable exceptions, but too many vice-chancellors seem to be more interested in avoiding blame than speaking out about real problems. It is certainly not easy, operating in the space between government, staff or student disapproval and social media pile-ons from the left or right; just one past or present remark or action, if uncovered or reinterpreted, could be career-ending. But that is why our leaders are well paid – to pursue the best interests of the institution and the people in it, not to be silenced just because the  problems are very difficult, nor out of fear or self-interest. We have recently seen research leaders not hesitating to speak out about proposed cuts in research funding – and those cuts have now been reversed. 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.

Rob Cuthbert is an independent academic consultant, editor of SRHE News and Blog and emeritus professor of higher education management. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and of SRHE. His 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.


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Yes, but what about the academic research?

by Steven Jones

Review of Influencing Higher Education Policy: A Professional Guide to Making an Impact, edited by Ant Bagshaw and Debbie McVitty (London: Routledge, 2020)

“The existence of Wonkhe won’t save us,” suggests Debbie McVitty (p13), “but it could be a good place to start.”

And so the tone is set for a new Routledge collection about HE ‘wonkery’, a relatively recent phenomenon that has doubtless changed the way in which the sector operates. Wonks are policy analysts, planners and strategists, and HE is blessed with more than its fair share. New policy development? Expect multiple ‘hot takes’ straight to your inbox. HE story in the mainstream media? Expect a range of insider perspectives that allow every possible angle to be explored. No more waiting for trade publications to drop through the letterbox, let alone for academic critiques to satisfy a journal’s peer review process. Thanks mostly to Wonkhe, we now have real-time analysis of everything that ever happens in HE.

In such a context, a book that explores the sector’s influence on policy is timely. Important questions need to be confronted. How can universities maintain integrity in an increasingly hostile regulatory and media environment? What does meaningful policy ‘impact’ look like? Which individuals or groups are most legitimately entitled to advocate on behalf of the sector? And, crucially, how can academic research evidence be communicated to those who most need to engage with it?

This collection, edited by Ant Bagshaw (Nous) and Debbie McVitty (Wonkhe) takes on some of these questions. It’s at its best when mapping legislative processes and regulatory frameworks, as William Hammonds and Chris Hale (both Universities UK) do, or comparing policy contexts, as Cathy Mitchell (Scottish Funding Council) does in relation to performance measurement. Anna Bradshaw (British Academy) and Megan Dunn (Greater London Authority) theorise the relationship between evidence and policy in valuable new ways, while Adam Wright (British Academy) and Rille Raaper (Durham University) perceptively characterise students’ framing within HE policy. Clare Randerson (University of Lincoln) enlightens readers on the OECD’s under-acknowledged role in HE policy-making, while Diane Beech’s (University of Warwick) chapter offers a useful guide to think-tanks, until spiralling into an advert for the Higher Education Policy Institute.

However, many questions remain unanswered. Partly, this is because some of the book’s contributors spend more time celebrating their own influence than critically evaluating the assumptions that underpin their proposed solutions. Indeed, many university staff will feel perplexed by McVitty’s opening assertion. Who is the ‘us’ that the existence of Wonkhe won’t save? What then makes Wonkhe a good place to start? And why does the ‘us’ need saving anyway?

This is not the sort of detail on which the book’s contributors tend to dwell. Rather, the style is choppy and pacey. In many chapters, soundbites are favoured over deeper reflection. Blunt recommendations (often bullet pointed and emboldened) are ubiquitous, generally urging ‘us’ to do things differently.

As usual in HE wonk discourses, academics hold a strange and curious place. Often we’re problematised. Sometimes we’re patronised. But mostly we’re just ignored. Rarely is it acknowledged that academic research might actually have anything useful to contribute. Universities are assumed to be desperately in need of some wonk savviness to overcome their policy naivety. Why would any institution turn to its own academic expertise when it can commission all-knowing external consultants? Scholarship isn’t part of the solution. If anything, it’s part of the problem.

Take Iain Mansfield’s (Policy Exchange) list of the “additional constraints” (p87) that he argues make policy influence tougher in HE than in other sectors. Among the subheadings presented is ‘left-leaning’. Here, academics and students are homogenised as anti-consumer, anti-rankings and generally difficult. There’s even a censorious mention of “cultural attitudes to issues such as class, race and gender” (p88). Another of Mansfield’s subheadings is ‘non-independence of research’. Here, the focus is academics’ perceived partiality. With so few scholarly sources cited, it is difficult to know on what evidence suspicion rests. However, the implication is clear: academics can’t be trusted to research themselves or their professional environment with objectivity. “Although any sector is subject to vested interests and unconscious bias,” Mansfield snipes, “only in HE are those same people writing the research” (p90).

Elsewhere in the collection, Josie Cluer (EYNews) and Sean Byrne (Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College) make the case that “only by understanding, predicting, and being ready for the Politics – with a capital P – will [wonks] be able to influence the policies that will support the sector to thrive.” Among the few examples offered is that of vice-chancellors’ pay. Here the implication is that the sector should have better managed recent negative media coverage that resulted in “a series of uncomfortable moments” (p22). While brand management matters greatly, and while the authors are right to suggest that some universities are suboptimal when it comes to shielding their reputation, the issue of senior pay is surely more nuanced than the single-paragraph analysis suggests. Being ‘ready for the Politics’ (with or without a capital P) requires universities to develop carefully thought-out internal policies, consistent with their claimed civic role and open to public scrutiny. The message implied by this book, in places, is that HE can continue its merry march toward the market, just so long as it remembers to buy in the right kind of spin.

Granted, the editors pre-empt some of these criticisms, emphasising that engagement with academic literature is not their priority, and that the collection essentially functions as a “professional guide” (p xvii). However, the analysis presented is often alarmingly thin. The first of Colette Fletcher’s (University of Winchester) five ‘lessons’ on how to influence policy – “have the confidence to be yourself” (p134) – captures something of the book’s tendency to drift into feelgood self-help rhetoric where close-up, critical analysis might be more appropriate.

Nonetheless, contributors are clearly satisfied that they have what it takes to save the sector. Everyone should get behind the wonks’ solutions, not least us pesky, prejudiced academics. Indeed, what Influencing Higher Education Policy arguably does best is highlight the growing challenge to the ways in which scholarly work is undertaken and disseminated. Wonkhe’s central role in bringing multiple perspectives to HE debates, usually in super-fast time, should be welcomed. But in such an environment, the book reminds us how easily academics and their research can be marginalised.

Without question, the UK HE sector needs to become better at influencing policy. Bagshaw is right to say we’ve relied on “benign amateurism” (p169) for too long. And without question, this collection includes several chapters’ worth of considered reflections and constructive recommendations. But elsewhere the book lapses into glib strategising where it could be reconnecting with universities’ core purpose. The best way to improve the sector’s standing is to ensure that it operates according to the highest possible ethical standards, and makes policy recommendations firmly grounded in empirical evidence.

One of the book’s contributors quotes Richard Branson to illustrates a policy point: “it’s amazing what doors can open if you reach out to people with a smile” (p139). But who knows, perhaps it’s even more amazing what doors can open if you reach out to people with rigorous academic research?

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at the Manchester Institute of Education. His research focuses on equity issues around students’ access, experiences and outcomes. Steven is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and he teaches on the University of Manchester’s PGCert in Higher Education. The views expressed here are his own.

Ian Mc Nay


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Lessons for HE leaders from recent events

By Ian McNay

This is a longer piece than usual, an essay on leadership in HE, triggered by reflections on recent events and the lessons they offer. Turbulence in political leadership has been rife in the last six months from Italy to Gambia and New Zealand; UK and USA; the Labour Party, the Conservatives, UKIP; even the Open University. Which bridges to the first of five lessons to be drawn for HE leaders.

Lesson 1: listen to those you lead

If not, they will leave you – you risk losing their support, as in the OU, their loyalty, their commitment, even their compliance. Alternative leaders will spring up. I had hoped that the discourse about ‘disconnected’ might shift after the referendum vote. That showed that it was not the underclass who had disconnected from reality, but the political class whose bubble had floated off in to some cloud cuckoo land far from the reality of ‘others’ in those parts of Britain similar to my roots, on Teesside. It could have been Ashington, Scunthorpe, Motherwell, the Welsh valleys – alien places the perceivedly posh politicians do not go to and of which they have no understanding. But, after the shock wore off, the liberal elite, with its high proportion of graduates, returned to blaming the disenchanted – Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ – for their ignorance or even lack of gratitude for what the EU/Obama had done for them. As with the rust belt in the USA, the view was that, to quote Shirley Maclaine in Sweet Charity, ‘there’s got to be something better than this’. Or even, ‘it can’t get any worse, and voting to continue means more of the same old, same old, which has done nothing for us’. So, change, any change, was seen as worth the risk, even if its proponents were lying clowns. What does that say about their views of the incumbent leaders? Continue reading


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Research and Policy in Higher Education: the implications of new research published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS)

By Michael Shattock

In April 2016 the IFS published its long awaited Working Paper (W16/06): ‘How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background’ authored by Britton, J, Dearden, L, Shephard, N and Vignoles, A. The research and its findings are likely to be immensely influential in the UK and probably internationally, both in higher education studies and in respect to policy.

A month later the UK Government published its White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, May 2016, Cm 9258 which made several references to the Working Paper’s findings and confirmed that they were ‘at the heart of delivering our reform agenda’(para 34).

The originality of the IFS paper lies primarily in the methodology adopted to offer data on the earning levels of English graduates 10 years from graduation and the precision which it gives to analysing  it against a given set of variables. Hitherto, economists have been able, using rate of return analysis, to calculate the value of degree study as against non-entry to higher education but the absence of national data, apart from the notoriously suspect employment data collected by careers offices six months after graduation, has proved to be a severe limitation on any assessment of the employment outcomes of UK higher education. Continue reading

Paul Temple


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End-of-the-peer review?

By Paul Temple

Peer review has been in the news recently (well, what counts as news in our business): which perhaps isn’t surprising considering the effect it can have on academic careers – and much more besides.

Richard Smith, when editor of the BMJ, conducted an experiment by deliberately inserting errors into a paper (presumably one written specially for the occasion – this isn’t made clear!) and sending it to reviewers who were in the dark about what was going on. (A university ethics committee would have had fun with this.) None of the chosen reviewers apparently spotted all the errors: from which (along with other findings) Smith concluded that “peer review simply doesn’t work” (THE, 28 May 2015). But one of the reviewers, Trisha Greenhalgh of Oxford University, presents the same facts in an interestingly different light (THE, 4 June 2015). She spotted a couple of serious errors early in the paper, concluded it was rubbish, told the BMJ so, and read no further. So, for her, peer review was working just fine.

This is an interesting methodological point – Continue reading

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Where do we go from here?

By Rob Cuthbert

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’. Continue reading

Ye Liu


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China’s one-child policy helped women make a great leap forward – so what now?

By Ye Liu

The Chinese Community Party’s decision to end its infamous one-child policy has significance beyond its impact on the country’s demographics. What was missing from all the discussion and reflection on the policy’s impact on the size of China’s labour force and on families’ human rights was the positive consequences of the population control policy – particularly for girls’ education.

The one-child policy, introduced in 1978, opened up educational opportunities for urban girls. Before its introduction, large families invested a little in each child or prioritised their resources in favour of sons rather than daughters.

But when parents were restricted to having only one child, and if it happened to be a girl, she benefited from being the focus of all their aspirations and investment. Continue reading

Jeroen Huisman


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Research on higher education policy

By Jeroen Huisman

Research on higher education in general, apparently, is alive and kicking. Tight (2012) calls higher education “big business” and other authors refer to the massification of higher education (read: more students, more staff, potentially more researchers interested in higher education) but also to the increasing important of higher education and research in contemporary society to signify increasing interest in higher education research.

The growth is also evidenced by an increase in journals focusing on higher education (Altbach, 2009) and in the growth of research centres on higher education (Rumbley et al., 2015). Although that growth may be uneven: with considerable growth in new economies in e.g. Asia and Latin America and stabilisation in (Western) Europe and the US, Rumbley et al (2015, 7) argue that “higher education is fast moving from the margins to the centre of much discussion and debate among policymakers around the world”.

Elsewhere (Huisman, 2015), I argued that behind this growth there are patterns of diversity Continue reading