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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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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

MaryStuart


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Looking back to look forward at the student experience

By Mary Stuart

Attempting a review of work on the student experience over the last 50 years is daunting. The concept of the ‘student experience’ is so defuse and covers so many areas  that any review would be partial. However I will attempt to discuss what themes I believe to be important as they have emerged in research on the student experience in HE along with what questions have been asked by researchers of these themes and how these themes and questions relate to the rapidly, it seems looking back, changing higher education landscape.

I wish to place this discussion in the context of what I believe are the two overarching policy narratives which have shaped higher education since 1965 which have therefore driven the research and impact agendas for the student experience. The relationship between policy and research is complex, sometimes with research questions developing because of new policies and sometimes with research influencing new policy.  However all research on the student experience can be seen as deriving from the processes of the Massification and Marketisation of higher education, the two meta-narratives for HE in the last 50 years.  I will begin with Massification.

The concept of Massification in HE comes from Trow (1970) Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay


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Post election, Post budget: The shifting landscape of Higher Education in the UK

By Ian McNay

It says something about the Guardian and its reader profile when it builds a crossword round knowing the names of the chancellors of Russell Group universities, as it did on 27 June. I also liked its headline the previous day: ‘New dinosaur found in university store cupboard’. It has now been re-united with older colleagues in the department of economics.

My serious considerations here concern the post-election agenda – what I called Jo-Jo’s in-tray issues in a recent workshop at Coventry (to where/whom, congratulations on their Guardian league table ranking on student views on teaching quality: second only to Cambridge, and, more importantly, above Warwick). That system level policy focus will be balanced by treatment of emergent concerns at institutional level in a later piece.

The most immediate issue is a cut of £450m in the DBIS budget, which may be followed by further longer-term cuts as the failed austerity project continues. Nick Hillman at Coventry suggested an easy step was to convert grants to loans, which reduces the deficit but still increases the debt. I am writing before the budget, but I expect a loosening of fee limits, not ruled out during the election and possibly linked to teaching excellence, with high scorers being allowed to increase fees, as UUK want. Then there will be the sale of further tranches of the loan book, possibly to universities for their own alumni. Research Fortnight expects science to be protected Continue reading


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This is an ex-Minister

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Rob Cuthbert, SRHE News Editor

The dramatic events of early July, when a major Government reshuffle unfolded,  appropriately coincided with the Monty Python reunion in London to remind us that perhaps the only thing deader than a just-purchased Norwegian Blue is a just-departed government minister.

The Cabinet reshuffle signalled the end of high office and political careers for several long-serving ministers, who announced their intention to leave Parliament after the 2015 election. The demise of the Minister for Universities and Science was not even the top story in Education, thanks to the demotion of Michael Gove, but it is the top story for higher education.

As is the brutal way in politics, the departure of David Willetts from his not-quite-Cabinet post was followed immediately by the obituaries, which fell into three camps. Continue reading