by Phil Pilkington
The benefit of the SRHE and its Blog has been in providing a sense of community for those who have to and do think about the purpose, the benefits and the travails of higher education. There have been insights shared and arguments made. It is the stuff of academia.
My interest in the student experience has been accompanied by an enormous increase in research in this area. This increase can be quantified, should you wish, by the number of papers cited under the rubric ‘Students’ in the SRHE Research Abstracts. Thirty years ago, students were a marginal, barely visible interest relative to the concerns of ‘management’ and ‘governance’ which were brought about by the changes by Jarrett, Sir Keith Joseph, Kenneth Baker and onwards. It has been suggested that with the ‘customer is king’ since 2010 there is a need to know about your customers, the students allegedly at the heart of things. Hence the growth in the research into the student experience. This narrative is, however, a misapprehension of the beginnings of the interest in the student experience and does SRHE a serious disservice. There are a number of prior claims for this growing interest.
Firstly, the growth in student numbers, especially in what was once the ‘public sector’ of polytechnics and FE colleges, with an actual reduction in university places in the short term (in the early 1980s) created a more diverse student population in terms of ethnicity and social classes, and challenged institutional practices, often by direct challenges from the students and their representatives. There are many examples of such challenges at a micro level: enrolling Sikhs without clan names and other antiracism practices; multi-religious communities and pastoral care; pedagogy for commuter students; childcare et al. Each subset of these practices brought with them, or borrowed from external practices, the knowledge of the changing sector. The growth from elite to mass and to a universal HE system meant the universities were no longer monocultural. (Some HEIs have taken longer than others to catch up with this; some have yet to do so and this in itself is a fresh research area. Stories of ‘class hatred’ at Durham and Bristol come to mind and prompt the question: do greater economic disparities bring about greater cultural changes and animosities? They do, but how and why?)
Secondly, there were a number of academic staff who were not only exercised by the lack of research on the increasing diversity and the increases tout court, of the student body, but were also finding alliances and partnerships with non-academic staff, support staff or professional services staff. Some of these relationships were at a local level, some encouraged by management and much of the research was influenced by practical local needs rather than publication. Much of the collaborative work on the student experience had an action-learning or ’activist’ character to it in challenging and proposing change to practices. Research into the student experience had often been for the purposes of campaigning for change (eg changing teaching and assessment practices for the disabled) and SRHE’s ‘community’ welcomed that too. Conversely, the conventional SRHE research was applied by the campaigners for changes to both practice and outlook, eg Mantz Yorke’s research on reasons for dropping out, dispelling myths of alcohol abuse as a cause and highlighting choice of course (and lack of clarity about the curriculum) as the primary cause of dropping out.
Thirdly, the growth in institutions’ student numbers also meant an increase in specialist staff whose focus was on supporting students. These staff often belonged to professional bodies and postgraduates in their disciplines (counselling, dyslexia testing). Their insights into student behaviours and experiences as generalised or generic were above the departmental and faculty limits of many academics which also challenged the traditional and now often dangerous practices and roles of personal tutors. An added factor in collaboration was the growth in specialist staff within students’ unions and NUS. The latter had a strong and broad-based research team, especially strong in areas of national interest such as housing and financial support and student debt. At the local level, students’ unions had the everyday experience of welfare cases and the shortcomings of teaching and learning practices; articulating the ‘student voice’ to the management. It was the interrelationship between local support services that would provide a holistic approach to the student experience: welfare and education were being understood as intimately connected at the individual cognitive and the structural levels.
These factors were all either in place or forming into working relationships for shared practice and research before the final step to the neoliberal misnomer of ‘customer is king’ by 2012/13. SRHE played an important part in this growth of interest and initiated much with the creation of the Student Experience Network and the related student experience conferences. The former is still thriving having merged with the Access Network.
It is a mark of considerable progress that students are no longer ‘the other’ as they were thirty years ago, although there are occasional manufactured ‘moral panics’ about plagiarism, grade inflation, cancel culture (wars) and the threats to the sector’s autonomy as a consequence of these alarums (fines, new powers of the OfS, et al). And may the progress continue. Attainment gaps, the socio-economic inequalities of access, the toxicity of league tables, the intellectual fragility of satisfaction surveys and more, all call for more work. But if there is a need to open up a new field of research, and there is, then may I make a modest proposal that the governance of the sector needs greater examination. The sector has over the last decade been confronted with challenges unique to the UK as an outlier, or as a pastiche of the US sector, which has forgotten its history: student debt (or write-off), the growth of the academic precariat, the subsidiarisation or outsourcing of all but the core of HEIs, the delusions of autonomy challenged by practice, and a simple view of causality of study to financial rewards belying the conditions of the hierarchy of the sector. It would be of some purpose for an added focus on not the new management models, which are of limited variety given the external challenges, but the infiltration of the governance of HEIs with the values of those agents who have brought about the challenges of the last ten years. SRHE would then be reaching out to the field of the political economy of higher education and there is perhaps a dearth of such research. And from the bottom up: some reflections on the actual experiences of those engaged in the practicalities of marshalling ‘free speech’, engaging with the everyday problems of plagiarism, etc.
SRHE’s contribution to the understanding of the student experience and its application to changing practices has been and continues to be valuable – of public good. It was much needed by all parties working in and experiencing the sector. There is a need for a historical narrative and new conceptual tools to describe where and what the sector is now in facing (and facing off?) the xenophobic populism that has put the sector in its current parlous position. As someone once said: we make our own history but not as we wish; or, it is that we don’t make history, we are made by history. Was that Marx or Martin Luther King Jr? Actually, it was both; King seems more Hegelian than Marx. Research on the student experience helped HEIs to understand the new landscape of a universal system. Help is needed to understand the forces and values which are changing the nature of academia and what counts as knowledge.
Phil Pilkington’s former roles include Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, and CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union. He is an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE. He chaired the SRHE Student Experience Network for several years and helped to organise events including the hugely successful 1995 SRHE annual conference on The Student Experience; its associated book of ‘Precedings’ was edited by Suzanne Hazelgrove for SRHE/Open University Press.