srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Gamekeepers, poachers, policy wonks and knowledge

by Adam Matthews

I was excited to attend SRHE’s event, Bridging The Gap: Improving The Relationship Between Higher Education Research And Policy on 4 November 2022. It was the first time I’d been to London since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The event promised to bring together and bridge the gap between those making higher education policy and those researching it. The event description pitched the former, in government, thinking that academic research is too narrow, theoretical or impenetrable for their purposes focusing on critique rather than practical solutions. The latter were descried as thinking government only selectively engage with academic research evidence to support their desired arguments and outcomes. This then was quite a gap to be bridged.

SRHE put together two panels of highly experienced policy makers and academics – some having experience of both – described more than once as gamekeepers turned poachers. Maybe this is the start of, and one of many ways of, bridging that gap.

Sticking with the analogy, gamekeeping policy makers want to see accessible, broad and practically orientated research; the poachers are asking to be listened to even when the gamekeeper doesn’t like the answer. As the panel sessions developed it was clear that there are some vessels bridging the gap in the choppy waters below the unbuilt bridge – think tanks such as HEPI and Wonkhe (nicely described as a newspaper for people who work in universities). It was suggested several times that both were primary and vital sources of knowledge for policy makers and university leaders. HEPI’s Nick Hillman may be a little biased here but this does present a real challenge to higher education researchers and the influence of their work. Both HEPI and Wonkhe provide in many ways an insider’s view having former special advisers writing news, commentary and reports. Some (such as Peter Scott) have argued they are ideologically and politically influenced. Many voices are needed to help inform policy but, as was clear at the event, this isn’t a simple case of finding one possible solution.

Each panel member spoke from their own perspective on policy and systems, and education and students, expertly chaired by David Palfreyman and Nick Hillman. Policy levers mentioned were access, REF, TEF and system wide changes. These are areas I have engaged with in my own work on part-time access, the relationship between REF and TEF and the identity and practice of quasi-public university institutions. There was quite some frustration directed at ‘my lot’, the higher education researchers, for only being interested in complex writing, academic journal articles and not for writing blogs, starring in podcasts and simply presenting ‘the evidence’. In defence of me and my colleagues, we do try to do both. However, promotions and kudos sit firmly in citations and h-indexes rather than short form communication. Training in the form of a PhD often has little development in teaching, never mind media and blog posting; we needed to get to the magic 80,000 words!

I raised the very academic word of epistemology – knowledge and understanding and how different mediums and research methods produce different epistemic outcomes. Epistemology is something which academics in social science and humanities think and write a lot about – usually whole chapters in an 80,000-word thesis, and a field of study in its own right. Yes, I could have said knowledge and understanding instead of epistemology. This is an important point: understanding the gamekeeper, poacher and policy wonk is not always easy for each other and bridging gaps will take work, but this effort feels worth it for all parties. The event certainly made me realise how little I know about how policies are made, other than watching the West Wing over and over again. And as Leo McGarry says in the political drama: ‘There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ’em – laws and sausages’. I am open to seeing how policy is made, not so much the sausages. More West Wing below.

Some ‘non-academic’ panel members conveyed a sense of frustration that knowledge wasn’t accessible in a neat package that could then be applied to policy. This epistemic cause-and-effect positivism defies the many different types of academic research – large scale quantitative, secondary data analysis, small scale qualitative, systematic reviews, speculative futures, developing theory, conference papers to develop ideas, public seminars … the list could go on. My point is that trawling ‘the literature’ won’t find the ultimate and objective truth or answer (my own epistemic position) but it might help. Another epistemic view of mine is that HE research in many cases isn’t an objective hard science.

In my own work, in particularly teaching, I have been working in interdisciplinary ways with Engineers, Computer and Data Scientists and Physicists. We speak in different disciplinary languages, epistemic languages with different knowledge and understanding of the world. Key to interdisciplinarity is integration. The Manifesto of Interdisciplinarity states:

The essential feature of interdisciplinarity is integration: interdisciplinary research and teaching should seek to synthesize the insights generated by the specialized research undertaken within disciplines.   

We all speak and work in our epistemic cultures, bodies of knowledge and experience that we know well. The key is integration – the bridge that this event has hopefully started to build. My experience of interdisciplinary teaching and learning is dialogue and centring around common goals and issues. Moreover, we should not underestimate long-term trusting relationships which allow for critique and admitting you haven’t a clue what your colleague is talking about!

The work of all parties is different and the outputs that we produce (policy, news articles, events, teaching, academic books and journals) are all designed for different audiences and purposes. The work of HEPI and Wonkhe is vitally important and it can move quickly, for example Nick Hillman and Mark Leach played out an insightful debate on student number controls, over 2 days and three pieces, highlighting no safe return to student number controls, the possibility of a different way of looking at number controls with some final words from Nick. The exchange offered an excellent resource on the debate of student number controls delivered quickly and from different perspectives. A more in depth, academic, peer reviewed piece of work on the same subject by one of the event organisers, Colin McCaig (Sheffield Hallam), equally adds to the knowledge base but in a different way. We do also need to consider academic freedom and distance between the game keepers and poachers and allow for critical analysis.

Yes, academics need to write in more creative ways to convey ideas and evidence but we also need book, thesis and journal length depth and analysis building on bodies of knowledge and literature – it’s what we do, but there are many forms of media to explore.

I am an avid reader of HEPI (and have written one blog for them) and Wonkhe – looking out for their references to policy wonking from political drama the West Wing. Writer Aaron Sorkin is a master of using dialogue to explore ideas and the SRHE event this November was a good starting point for dialogue on bridging the gap and improving the relationship between gamekeeping policy makers, HE-researching poachers and commentating policy wonks.

As Sorkin via President Bartlett reminds us, ten words are not enough …

The ten words and epistemic cause and effect of ‘This is what the research says, now make the policy’ is certainly not enough. I hope this is the first of many dialogues between policy makers, policy wonks and higher education researchers that I am involved in.

Dr. Adam Matthews is Lecturer in Education, Technology and Society at the University of Birmingham working across Social Sciences and Engineering and Physical Sciences. Adam’s research is focused on the idea of a university at system and policy level.

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Sir Gavalad, the Knight of the Wholly Failed

by Rob Cuthbert

There was a time when knighthood meant something. It started out as a career path for the elite, for those headed for the cavalry, but: “As knighthood evolved, a Christian ideal of knightly behaviour came to be accepted, involving respect for the church, protection of the poor and the weak, loyalty to one’s feudal or military superiors, and preservation of personal honour.” The concept may have peaked in medieval times, but myths and legends continue to frame the knight as someone whose exemplary conduct has won them distinction. The “most perfect of all knights” was Sir Galahad, one of the three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table who achieved the Holy Grail.

Knighthood continues as a reward bestowed by the monarch for supposedly meritorious service. The British Honours system has many faults and some would like to abolish it completely. Its structure and nomenclature still embodies class privilege and explicit echoes of empire, even in HE, where VCs and professors of ‘elite’ universities aspire to knighthoods while the best of the rest will usually go no higher than CBE. But with the announcement of a knighthood for Gavin Williamson the government has once again plumbed depths which would not long ago have seemed unimaginable.

There might be some embarrassment involved, even for this apparently shameless government, given that the announcement was sneaked out as the war in Ukraine was dominating newspapers and airwaves. For years Williamson had been by a country mile the least respected, least popular and least successful member of the Cabinet – and that was the view of the Conservative Party. He finally lost his ministerial post in the reshuffle in September 2021. For reasons known only to himself, the Prime Minister decided at the time to soften the blow of Williamson’s dismissal by giving him a knighthood, as Camilla Tominey’s column in The Telegraph on 5 March 2022 made clear. Presumably he could not be given a peerage, either because he did not have enough roubles, or because, against all reasonable expectation, the 46-year-old harboured ambitions of yet another political comeback. So a knighthood was the sweetener of choice. But what did he do to ‘merit’ it?

Gavin Williamson had risen without trace to become Chief Whip in Theresa May’s Cabinet. When Sir Michael Fallon resigned as Secretary of State for Defence in November 2017 the Prime Minister followed standard practice and turned to the Chief Whip for suggestions about his replacement. Williamson, to widespread astonishment, proposed himself and May, weakened after the 2017 general election, agreed. He was not successful, not respected by senior service personnel, and attracted widespread ridicule for telling Russia to “go away and shut up” in 2018. Vladimir Putin obviously took careful note. He was fired as defence secretary in 2019 for allegedly leaking details from a National Security Council meeting about Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G network, which he denied.

He then supported Boris Johnson’s campaign for leadership of the Conservative Party and was rewarded by a return to Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education. It was, then, the education sector that bore the brunt of his incompetence at a time in the pandemic when effective leadership was desperately needed. Williamson stumbled from one disaster to the next, issuing vague or ambiguous advice to schools, or clear instructions just hours before they were meant to take effect, making school staff scramble to work out their implications. He announced that schools must stay open and then reversed his decision just days later. And, worst of all, he made the difficult problem of handling national examinations in 2020 far worse than it needed to be, with profound effects on schools, HE, individual students and their future careers. Policymaking in a pandemic needed to be decisive, transparent and inclusive. Instead it was indecisive, obscure and included only those outside the DfE who would be later blamed for getting it wrong. Higher education institutions did the best they could to cope with the flood of proportionately much better-qualified applicants, with no thanks to the flipflopping by the Secretary of State for Education and Ofqual which repeatedly changed the admissions arithmetic, right up to the last minute. Even so tens of thousands of young people were dissatisfied or destroyed by the results that finally emerged from the abandoned algorithm and centre-assessed grades, and denied any realistic chance of appeal. The surge in numbers in unexpected places changed institutional strategies for several years and immediately jeopardised the prospects of the next cohort of applicants.

The gratuitous damage to so many students brought to mind the last time a senior Cabinet minister had made a major promise affecting higher education and then completely reversed his decision. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg pledged before the general election in 2010 to abolish student fees, then went into coalition with the Conservatives, He did not simply abandon his pledge – as Deputy Prime Minister he was party to the decision to treble student fees instead. A ‘National Scholarships Scheme’ was supposed to be some compensation but was, unsurprisingly, an insignificant damp squib; it had to be quietly abandoned. Mealy-mouthed protestations about the ‘compromises’ necessary in coalition did not dissuade the electorate from destroying the Liberal Democrats at the next general election. Clegg’s complete failure led, naturally, to a knighthood; he became Sir Nick and departed to make his fortune in the Metaverse.

It was perhaps the most egregious example of a complete failure in HE policy leading to ennoblement – until now, as Sir Gavalad becomes the second Knight of the Wholly Failed. This is not just failure, it is Massive and Shameful (M&S) Failure. But some politicians have no shame.

Such knighthoods deserve a special ceremony. Perhaps Prince Andrew could be persuaded to do the honours.

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.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.