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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay


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Critical management studies

by Ian McNay

My thanks to Rob Cuthbert in the July issue of SRHE News for his generous comments in trailing a (possibly) forthcoming article treating TEF and, mainly, REF through a triple lens of capitalism, competition and competence in policy making and implementation. Some newer researchers may find some consolation in its history. Given that I have led workshops on ‘Getting in to print’ for SRHE, it has been a salutary and frustrating/irritating experience, for someone whose recent writing and publication has been mainly by invitation.

It started, as many articles do, in a presentation to an SRHE research seminar in the autumn of 2019. My procrastination, and demands from other work, delayed crafting that in to an article, which was submitted in early summer 2020. It took a second reviewer over 4 months to submit a report dismissing it as ‘bold and bombastic’, adding nothing to existing knowledge. The other reviewer was kinder and more constructive but the editor rejected it in October. One blow to the self-esteem, but ‘pick yourself up, dust yourself off…’. I accepted the second reviewer’s view that there was a need for a clearer message and tighter structure.

Submission of a revised version went to a different journal in early March 2021. Again, there were two reviewers. One I quote in full:

“Thank you for the opportunity to review your article. I found your argument carefully crafted and supported. It is a captivating read and throws a very strong light on the distortions created by unintended (and intended!) consequences of the ‘research game’. I think it will be very well received by an international audience, especially by those institutions wondering why their high quality research is undermined.”

The second said:

“Your topic … would be of interest to international readers, many of whom will be experiencing similar issues in their own institutions. Your conception of the article is exciting and it is well worth writing about … [it] has the potential to add to the body of knowledge and be of value to readers. However…”

They then made useful criticisms, comments and suggestions on improving it.

That was in May, with the overall judgement that it needed ‘minor modifications’; I revised and re-submitted in early June. Towards the end of July, I got a second lot of feedback, from two people not previously involved, so with no continuity of engagement. One thought it had ‘few references to specific policies or policy documents’ – 14 are cited – and needed more underpinning to support the argument and give balance. Nevertheless, they thought the article ‘an interesting one which raises important issues and deserves to be published’. The second, I again quote in full:

“Thank you for the opportunity to review your article. It packs a punch and boy, is it needed! I sincerely enjoyed your paper, reads like an express train – loved it! I think it will stir up the debate – I shall look forward to it! :)”

I submitted a slightly amended script in early August and, at the end of the month, was told there would be a final decision within two weeks. It is now October, and two referees, as well as Rob, and Rajani Naidoo, who chaired the original seminar, think highly of it. I had been worried that the latest REF results would appear before it is published, but they will now come out on May 22nd, so there is time. A dilemma – do I contact the busy editor again and risk it being seen as harassment, or wait for the process to grind through?

Briefly, on content, the use of Lisa Lucas’s ‘research game’ leads to comparisons with soccer, where the Guardian’s top 100 footballers in December had 32 who play in the English Premier league, but only 6 are qualified for England, and one for Scotland. In HE, over half of full time research students are international and according to UUK 48% of ‘research-only staff’ in 2018 were not born in the UK, where graduates are loaded with debt. As with truck drivers, we have imported to cover a lack of development (as in soccer and in county cricket), but post Brexit entry conditions, particularly visa controls and minimum salary, will reduce that possibility considerably. As with cricket, concentration on the short form, where the money is, may have prevented the development of longer form – blue skies research or five day tests – because of deadlines and targets. Rugby union coach Eddie Jones was quoted in 2018 saying that the team captain ‘can captain England with a rule of fear’.

In some HEIs, that seems to be the approach to research and the REF. One press comment on the subsequent match – defeat by France – said that the reason the team underperformed was that ‘they lacked autonomy and freedom from external control … it all feels overly managed’. Researchers, too, have lost control of the means of research production and distribution (publication). In my article a final comparison was made with the European Song Contest – not strictly a game, but a competition – where some panels tend vote for ‘people like us’ and assessment of quality gets entangled with tribal loyalty.

My elder son is also having trouble with senior managers over researchers and research students. He heads the Behavioral Neuroscience Area in a federal state university in the USA, where the comparable stipend for comparable students in other institutions within the federal university is up to 50% higher, creating low morale and difficulties in recruiting the best students, which will affect the university’s rating as a level 1 institution. Even students in the same lab have higher stipends because they are classified as STEM students, though both groups do similar work, often together. After 18 months of trying to engage with senior management, he took the decision to stop recruiting. That finally got an email response, which appeared to be simply: ‘if you do that you will have to do more undergraduate teaching’.

Finally and briefly, I anticipate that 18 months of home working will lead senior managers to try to save on estate costs and have teaching staff timetables structured to allow ‘Box and Cox’ arrangements with paired staff sharing a single desk and computer – much worse than the UEA situation reported in the recent Private Eye. There will be 2-3 days designated as ‘presentism’ days and 2-3 designated as ‘home-based’.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.

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SRHE News on research and publishing

by Rob Cuthbert

One of the benefits of SRHE membership is exclusive access to the quarterly newsletter, SRHE News, archived at https://www.srhe.ac.uk/publications/. SRHE News typically contains a round-up of recent academic events and conferences, policy developments and new publications, written by editor Rob Cuthbert. To illustrate the contents, here is part of the January 2021 issue which covers Research and Publishing.

Research integrity

George Gaskell (LSE) wrote on the LSE Impact Blog on 16 October 2020 about the multi-authored Horizon 2020 study which distilled findings about research integrity into three areas and nine topics:

  • Support: research environment; supervision and mentoring; research integrity training
  • Organise: research ethics structures; dealing with breaches of research integrity; data practices and management
  • Communicate: research collaboration; declaration of interests; publication and communication

Eight common problems with literature reviews and how to fix them

Neal Haddaway (Stockholm Environment Institute) wrote for the LSE Impact Blog on 19 October 2020.

How to write an academic abstract

PhD student Maria Tsapali (Cambridge) offered some advice on the Cambridge Faculty of Education Research Students’ Association blog. Top of the list: avoid spelling or grammatical mistakes …

How to reward broader contributions to research culture

Elizabeth Adams and Tanita Casci (both Glasgow) explained on the LSE Impact Blog on 8 December 2020 how they designed and implemented a programme “for recognising often unseen work that colleagues do to build a positive research culture? Supporting careers, peer reviewing grant applications, mentoring and running skills development workshops for ECRs, championing open and rigorous research practices…”.

The following is an excerpt from SRHE News, the SRHE newsletter and Higher Education digest. Issue 43 of SRHE News was published in January 2021. SRHE News is a members only publication and can be downloaded from the Members Area. To become a member of SRHE visit the SRHE website.

The synthesiser’s synthesiser

SRHE Fellow Malcolm Tight (Lancaster) climbed even higher on the mountain he has largely built himself, assembling research into HE, with his new book, Syntheses of higher education research, published by Bloomsbury on 24 December 2020: “… systematic reviews and meta-analyses give an account of where we are now in higher education research. Malcolm Tight takes a global perspective, looking beyond Anglophone originating English Language publishing, particularly Africa, East and South Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, bringing together their findings to provide an accessible and practical overview. Bringing together over 96 systematic reviews and 62 meta-analyses focusing on … key topics: teaching and learning, course design, the student experience, quality, system policy, institutional management, academic work, and knowledge and research.”

Academic development in times of crisis

The International Journal for Academic Development has issued a call for proposals for a special issue to be published in 2022, inviting research, theory, and reflection on academic development in times of crisis. “We encourage scholarly and creative submissions that offer insights, methodologies, and practices that are firmly grounded in a particular context and crisis but that also have implications for academic development more broadly. … We encourage submission of a 500 word proposal by 1 February 2021 … full manuscripts to be submitted by 1 June 2021 … For inquiries about this Special Issue, please contact Henk Huijser, h.huijser@qut.edu.au.”

Theories of academic identity

Mark Barrow, Barbara Grant and Linlin Xu (all Auckland) analysed how academic identity had been theorised in their article in Higher Education Research and Development (online 30 November 2020): “Our analysis of 11 works suggests a small set of related (constructivist) theories provides the core resources for academic identities scholarship, although somewhat varied understandings of agency and power/politics surface in the discussions and implications advanced by different authors.” 

Governance and freedom in British academia

That was the title of SRHE member Rosalind MO Pritchard’s (Ulster) review for Higher Education Quarterly (online 18 December 2020) of The governance of British higher education: the impact of governmental, financial and market pressures, the 2020 book by SRHE Fellow Michael Shattock (UCL) and Aniko Horvath (Oxford) arising from their Centre for Global Higher Education research: “Two ideas permeate the content and are stated at the outset: the British state is playing a much more proactive role in higher education than in the past; and the uniformity of the higher education system is fragmenting under the impact of devolution and market pressures”.

From marketisation to assetisation

The article by Janja Komljenovic setting out her arguments for reframing the HE debate about markets and digitisation was in Higher Education (online 5 October 2020): “… we urgently need public scrutiny and political action to address issues of value extraction and redistribution in HE.”.

Theory and Method in Higher Education Research

Volume 6 of the Emerald series was published on 9 November 2020, edited by SRHE Fellows Jeroen Huisman (Ghent) and Malcolm Tight (Lancaster). Chapters: Prelims; Theorising Practices of Relational Working across the Boundaries of Higher Education; Uses of Corpus Linguistics in Higher Education Research: An Adjustable Lens; Dialogues with Data: Generating Theoretical Insights from Research on Practice in Higher Education; The Use of Instrumental Variables in Higher Education Research; Participatory Pedagogy and Artful Inquiry: Partners in Researching the Student Experience; Rolling Out the Mat: A Talanoa on Talanoa as a Higher Education Research Methodology; Rethinking Diversity: Combining Sen and Bourdieu to Critically Unpack Higher Education Participation and Persistence; Deleuzian Approaches to Researching Student Experience in Higher Education; Investigating Policy Processes and Discourses in Higher Education: The Theoretical Complementarities of Bernstein’s Pedagogic Device and Critical Discourse Studies; Framing Theory for Higher Education Research; Research into Quality Assurance and Quality Management in Higher Education; Knowledge with Impact in Higher Education Research

Literature reviews

Perspectives: Policy and Practice had two literature reviews in Vol 24(4): Orla Sheehan Pundyke on change management and Kelli Wolfe (Roehampton) on service design.

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


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News values

Ian Mc Nay

Ian McNay

My interest [obsession?] with the way the press report HE issues has had several items to feed it recently. I had a spat, unpublished, with John Morgan of Times Higher Education over an article on 27 March on student number allocations by HEFCE headlined ‘No bonanza for those who left places unfilled’. The story opened with the assertion that ‘the big post-92s suffer’, having  proved [sic] ‘less popular’, and the third paragraph lists four of them.

Then comes the table giving percentage reductions, where those with the biggest reductions are not post-92s, but Leeds, Bath and Surrey. The article comes to them in the fourth column, with a claim that their reduction was probably ‘strategic’. As a researcher, I looked for evidence of the different reasons behind reductions. There was none, since ‘figures were issued on a “no approach” embargo’ where no questions could be asked of institution staff. So, opinion, based on speculation, based on stereotypical bias, is presented as news reportage.

The reporting of research demonstrating the [not new] findings that state school entrants outperform those from private schools with the same entry qualifications, mentioned the recommendation to consider adjusting offers, and produced the usual protective outcry on the web page. Nobody reported the evidence from UCAS stats that grades are adjusted by Russell Group universities, where applicants from privileged backgrounds are more likely to get an offer than those with similar qualifications from less advantaged backgrounds.

Finally in this rant is the question: ‘what is newsworthy?’ In recent weeks, the Centre for Leadership and Enterprise at Greenwich has offered commissioned programmes for staff in the Nigerian Ministry of Education, including the permanent secretary, covering issues of policy on teacher development and deployment, vocational provision, standards, and school governance; and for senior staff from Ukraine – both sides of the country and the language divide – on leadership as a new Higher Education Law is developed.

I thought these together were newsworthy: a small centre working with staff from countries with challenging contexts and offering good news to balance the bad. I was wrong apparently. Judged by the University as not worth a press release or even a mention in the University’s daily coverage on its web pages.

There is, apparently, a ‘London effect’: had we been in Lincoln, or Teesside, or even at the university’s Medway campus, it would have been worth trying to get something in to the local press. London journalists are more blasé and world-weary, it appears, so nothing appeared. But at least you now know about it. I am due in Kyiv in October; if I get taken hostage, will that count as news?

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.

Camille Kandiko


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How welcoming is Britain?

By Camille Kandiko Howson

Higher education recruitment has become a political issue. Stricter visa regimes for foreign students were implemented in April 2012. International students have fewer opportunities to work in the UK after they finish their degree, and it has become more challenging for partners of students to work and study. The House of Lords issued a report criticising the government’s immigration policy, to decrease immigration overall whilst also increasing international student numbers, and its effect on student recruitment. With the government’s stance on immigration, Britain does not seem a welcoming place for many international students. Taking a tough stance on immigration for the domestic market also sends signals abroad.

There is a complicated web of “push and pull” factors with international student recruitment. Changes in domestic economic markets, the development of high quality institutions at home and opportunities for on-line study can keep formerly mobile students at home. However, large scale scholarship schemes can encourage students to study abroad, such as Brazil’s Scientific Mobility Program, which aims to facilitate sending over 100,000 students abroad. Continue reading