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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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.


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What do postgraduates need?

By Ceredig Jamieson-Ball

Conducting research into how different parts of the higher education sector have responded to policy developments can help us develop better support for academics and institutions as they seek to ensure that students have the best possible learning opportunities. The same evidence-base, gathered now, will provide vital data when it comes to influencing future policy and understanding how changes might affect those at the centre of higher education – students.

Over the last few years reform of higher education in the UK has provided a discussion point for everyone with an interest in the sector, from parents to policy-makers, from academics to administrators. It’s now three years since the Browne report, and there is still plenty of discussion about what the upper limit on tuition fees in England should be and how the devolved governments around the rest of the UK are financing higher education. Continue reading