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The Digital Tutor: Digital Tools, Relationships and Pastoral Support in Higher Education

by Jodie Pinnell and Sukhbinder Hamilton

If navigating higher education in recent times has taught us anything, it is that digital technology for teaching and learning is no longer an ‘option’ but imperative for an accessible and inclusive learning environment. With the sudden response to Covid-19 leading to remote online approaches overnight, some professionals in higher education have been thrust into a new digital world, and in survival mode, this has naturally prioritised its potential for pedagogy. Unsurprisingly, research has investigated digital technology and pedagogy thoroughly (Williams, 2012), but outside of the remit of formal counselling (Situmorang, 2020) and distance learning (Hilliam and Williams, 2019), the potential for digital tools for pastoral support has yet to be thoroughly explored. This gap in research prompted us to see how digital tools can benefit personal tutors, and more importantly, how these tools can aid relationships, in a climate where students and academic staff find themselves more disconnected than ever before.

Working in the capacity as senior lecturers, predominantly for undergraduate Childhood Studies programmes, the ‘digital awakening’ brought about by Covid-19 has been a welcome development in our practice. For us, it has paved the way for new approaches, new thinking and ultimately innovations in all areas to support students. Even before the unexpected impacts of Covid-19, we had identified a gap in our personal tutor practice at level 4, a crucial time for students to feel supported as they settle into the first year of their undergraduate degrees. For context, within a study skills module, students are allocated a designated academic ‘personal tutor’ to address academic and personal matters. Whilst this module design has historically allowed for a holistic approach to study skills and pastoral support, it has relied on students being confident enough to approach their personal tutors to articulate needs, something that many were often reluctant to do independently.

The nature of the personal tutor and tutee relationship within higher education is one conducted in a climate which is growing ever more ‘consumerist’ in nature; with inflated expectations for ‘value for money,’ and rhetoric defining students as customers (Modell, 2005). With increasing student numbers (Yale, 2019), it is notable that more and more students are demonstrating wellbeing issues (Universities UK, 2020). The personal tutor is the first point of contact for students to discuss concerns, and with a focus on emotional wellbeing through individualised support, the personal tutor role can be increasingly compared to that of a counsellor (Jorda, 2013). A supportive relationship with a personal tutor in the first year of a degree can prepare students for more challenging times (Brinkworth et al, 2009), and in managing transitions, provides a familiar face and a door to knock on. Giving ownership to the student to share information with their tutor is needed, especially where personal or sensitive issues need to be discussed, and the student signposted to necessary services is required.

Despite this, it has been found that students can struggle to understand the role of their personal tutor (Ghenghesh, 2018, p 571), and with diverse student needs, tutors are pressured to help at all costs, with support not appropriately suited to the confinement of ‘office hours’ (Jorda, 2013, p 2595). Other challenges span a general lack of effective tutor training or the ability to meet increasingly complex student needs (Lochtie et al, 2018). With growing workloads, academics already have a plethora of ‘hats’ to wear (Knight, 2002), with competing demands in other areas, causing a conflict for a role that cannot necessarily be time bound.

Within this consumerist culture, and with a focus on the personal tutor role (and its challenges), we decided to do something different. A Google form asking pastoral questions was forwarded to first year students at the start of the academic year, giving them the opportunity to provide a written background about themselves. Without knowing this would prompt a research project and prove to be valuable, the form aimed to ‘break the ice’ between tutor and student, to remedy reports that some students struggled to open up. Without an opportunity for students to discuss their needs, the correct support is difficult to provide. The form’s questions included; How are you currently feeling about enrolling at the university? What are your hopes and fears regarding university life, and the course? What do you expect from the tutors? And importantly (and most effectively) the request to ‘Finish this sentence… I wish my tutor knew…’ (Schwartz, 2016). All answers were collated in a spreadsheet, and tutors were able to find their tutees’ answers through a search function. The aim of the forms was to give personal tutors an insight into the student’s world without requiring them to initiate conversations in a ‘cold’ meeting with a stranger, ‘fast-tracking’ a relationship between personal tutors and their tutees. The form was completely optional and formed the basis of the first tutorial meeting between tutors and students, giving some background, but ultimately allowing students to outline issues that they may struggle to articulate in the first instance.

Following the success of this approach, a second form was issued at the end of the year, with questions about the effectiveness of using the initial form. Both ethical clearance and student consent were sought to publish the findings. All responses from the students who agreed to participate were collated in one single document, and with rich findings two papers emerged, one focusing on the role of the tutor, and the other on the impact of Covid-19, but with threads of student wellbeing and a sense of belonging running through both.

It’s safe to say that the findings have made a real impact on our practice. Firstly, the value of the forms for relationship development were clear, with snapshots illustrating that it allowed students to reflect on how they are feeling and to raise any concerns they had. Linked to wellbeing, the approach meant that students could discuss mental health issues and their home life situations, without needing to ‘physically disclose something to a stranger.’ Linked to expectations surrounding the personal tutor role, it was clear that students saw their tutors as the first person they felt ‘comfortable’ with, and they expected them to learn about their names and backgrounds. Qualities of a tutor were clearly identified as ‘respect,’ ‘empathy’ and ‘trustworthiness,’ and at level 4, this was largely characterised by the transitions associated with first year study. Anxiety, relief, wellbeing and the impact of Covid-19 were threaded through these findings, leading back to the role of the tutor primarily for support.

So, what’s next? For practice, the continued use of the digital forms will remain an integral part of our pastoral strategy but rolled out across other year groups also. The value of the personal tutor role needs to be reiterated across the team and plans are afoot to provide in-house training. This is not just a useful step to take within our establishment but should be the case for higher education in general as it is imperative for successfully supporting students as a first point of contact. Further research is needed in the area of digital tools for pastoral care and their potential for fast-tracking relationship development and ‘breaking the ice.’ Working towards the goal of creating an inclusive learning environment starts with relationships, and with the rise in remote working, we can rely on digital tools to help, harnessing their perceived unlimited potential to enhance the student experience.

Jodie Pinnell is a Senior Lecturer, Course Leader and Senior Tutor in the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK. Follow Jodie on Twitter @jodieEdu

Dr Sukhbinder Hamilton is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. She is a Co-Convenor for ‘The Women’s Workshop Sociological Collective,’ and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK. Follow Sukh on Twitter @sukhhamilton1

References

Brinkworth, R, McCann, B, Matthews, C and Nordström, K (2009) ‘First-Year Expectations and Experiences: Student and Teacher Perspectives’, Higher Education 58 (2) 157–173. https://DOI:10.1007/s10734-008-9188-3  

Ghenghesh, P (2018) ‘Personal Tutoring From the Perspectives of Tutors and Tutees’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42 (4), 570-584. DOI: https://10.1080/0309877X.2017.1301409

Hilliam, R and Williams, G (2019) ‘Academic and pastoral teams working in partnership to support distance learning students according to curriculum area’, Higher Education Pedagogies, 4 (1) 32-40 https://doi.org/10.1080/23752696.2019.1606674

Jorda, JM (2013) ‘The Academic Tutoring at University Level: Development and Promotion Methodology Through Project Work’,  Social and Behavioral Sciences 106 (1) 2594- 2601

Knight, P (2002) Being a Teacher in Higher Education  Buckingham: SRHE Open University Press

Lochtie, D, McIntosh, E, Stork, A, and Walker, BW (2018) Effective Personal Tutoring in Higher Education. Critical Publishing

Modell, S (2005) ‘Students as Consumers? An Institutional Field‐Level Analysis of the Construction of Performance Measurement Practices’ Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal 18 (4) 537-563 https://doi.org/10.1108/09513570510609351

Schwartz, K (2016) I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids Da Capo Lifelong

Situmorang, D (2020) ‘Online/Cyber Counseling Services in the COVID-19 Outbreak: Are They Really New?’ Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 74(3) 166–174

Universities UK (2020) Coronavirus (Covid-19) https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/covid19

Williams, J (2012) Technology Education for Teachers BRILL

Yale, AT (2019) ‘The Personal Tutor-Student Relationship: Student Expectations and Experiences of Personal Tutoring in Higher Education’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 43 (4), 533-544, https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2017.1377164

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Another fine mess

by Rob Cuthbert

The overweight man in charge had an unprepossessing thin sidekick doing his bidding, but constantly making things worse, prompting Laurel and Hardy’s famous catchphrase[1][2].

In unrelated news, if English HE was a movie, what is the story so far? It features the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Education, government and HE policy. English HE continues to enjoy a very high reputation worldwide, not least with potential future students. Numbers of home applicants continue to exceed expectations, promising a student population which outstrips even the boost given by the demographic upswing in numbers of 18-25 year olds. After the pandemic all public services face questions about financing acceptable levels of service, but HE might seem partly insulated from the problem because of the continuing demand by fee-paying students. However the real cost to government of subsidised student loans has been made apparent by watchdog-driven changes to government accounting; those changes make costs obvious and applicable now, rather than in 20 or 30 years’ time. The Willetts reforms to HE and student finance, by their lights well-intentioned as redistributive, might have worked in theory, but they have failed in practice as the cost to government of subsidising partial loan repayment has steadily risen.

Despite the rising demand for places, students are not happy with the level of service they get in the current ‘market’. Student campaigns like the one at the University of Manchester for fee reductions are misconceived unless they deliver cash in hand for the students, because fee reductions make no difference for most graduates. Otherwise they help only the highest-paid graduates, the small minority who would actually fully repay their loans, but – crucially – lower fees would reduce the costs to government. Next year, students want a return to the teaching-in-person experience they expect, and are already bridling at the prospect of on-line-only lectures. Too many institutions seem to have a tin ear in responding to such opinion. Meanwhile students are reporting mental health problems, discrimination and harassment at unprecedented levels. UUK has issued guidance on avoiding sex and race harassment, and the inequalities in admissions and student achievement based on socioeconomic, racial or other disadvantage are a central institutional concern.

Most HE staff have gone many extra miles to adapt their practice to the pandemic restrictions, problems made worse because there are cohorts of students lacking preparation for HE because of their interrupted school experience. At the same time many are enduring worsening staff levels, the threat of redundancies, reductions in pension benefits and more, because the supposed ‘boom years’ for HE (as labelled by James Forsyth in The Times on 4 June 2021) have brought worsening financial problems for many institutions. The continuing trend to deterioration in management-staff relations is not helped by too many examples of excessive VC salaries and insensitive managerial actions. It is the staff who have made it possible for government ministers and institutional leaders to maintain their challengeable position that the quality of the HE experience has not diminished, a position built on the need to keep tuition fee levels at their very high level.

This, then, is the context. How did the government’s proposals address these key problems? Consider the Queen’s Speech for the new Parliamentary session, recent ministerial speeches and consequent initiatives from the Office for Students – the ‘independent’ regulator chaired by the campaign manager for the Prime Minister, who still takes the government whip in the House of Lords.

The government response to fast-rising demand is to propose a reduction in HE places, with a supposed shift of resources to FE and training. Governments of all kinds have often proposed spending more on FE; FE is still waiting. Not only would reducing the size of HE be a world first, reversing the global trend to HE expansion, it would no doubt do much to ensure that FE is ‘for other people’s children’, as government adviser Alison Wolf once said. Alternatively, and if it were ever achieved, more likely, it would convert the balance of payments surplus on HE to a deficit, by driving many well-qualified home applicants abroad and choking off international recruitment. It might become an electoral and economic mess.

Ofqual, having shared culpability for the 2020 A-level and GCSE examinations shambles with DfE and the Secretary of State, has a new chief regulator and a new chair. The newly-confirmed head is Jo Saxton, most recently an adviser to Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. Before that she was the much-criticised head of a chain of academy schools in Kent, embodying the continuing patronage which delivers government supporters into key unelected roles, via the ‘strict’ public appointment procedures which have already seen Lord Wharton appointed as chair of the OfS. This will not inspire hope or confidence among school heads and staff, after the resignation of the widely-respected Sir Kevan Collins, the Education Recovery Commissioner – tsar of catch-up for schoolchildren who missed learning in the pandemic – because the government fell woefully short of the investment he deemed necessary. It might become an educational mess.

Government, while continuing to assert that the quality of HE has been maintained, at the same time asserts that there is a problem with ‘low quality courses’, a continuing theme of almost all recent Conservative ministers for HE, which Jo Johnson used to justify his 2017 legislation for the HE market. None have yet passed the ‘Skidmore test’, calling on anyone discussing ‘low quality courses’ to name and shame them, or else succumb to ‘low quality argument’ (Chris Skidmore being the honourable exception in that list of recent ministers). Serious attempts to identify ‘low quality courses’ through data analysis invariably collapse, as Wonkhe’s David Kernohan has shown. But the OfS has pressed ahead with its ‘Proceed’ initiative, which simply multiplies completion rate by the rate of progression to graduate employment, and the odds are that these ‘experimental’ data will become the measure of ‘course quality’. The Skills Bill now published gives the OfS carte blanche to decide which measures it might use to identify ‘low quality’. The many other issues affecting both of the flawed component measures mean that using such a metric will probably work directly against the government’s ‘levelling up’ mantra by targeting universities which take many disadvantaged students, not least in the ‘Northern wall’ and those with high proportions of BAME and socioeconomically disadvantaged students in London and the South East. It might become a political mess.

Government also envisages changes to HE financing, which might involve reducing fees for some (non-STEM) courses. This is being strongly urged by the Treasury, which is more worried about the fast-growing burden of subsidy for student loans than the prospect of financial collapse for the most precarious HE institutions – many of which would actually be prime candidates for support if ‘levelling up’ were taken seriously. A different group of institutions, for the most part, are also facing the long-running and growing threat of a potentially unaffordable revaluation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. The prospect of significant diminution of pension benefits has already led to widespread strikes and other industrial action in recent years. With no solution in sight, staff morale and commitment will be even more challenged. It might become a managerial mess.

However, none of this was the HE headline in the Queen’s Speech, which was reserved for the long-awaited legislation on free speech, the latest twist in the so-called ‘culture wars’ and the ‘war on woke’. The summary of informed commentary, beyond the hard core government supporters, seems to be that at best such legislation would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Even Conservatives like Danny Finkelstein argue that this kind of legislation will cause many more problems than it might solve. So the headline act of government in the near future will be to focus on a problem which, if it exists at all, is well down the priority list for any well-managed university. It is bound to become a mess at every level.

In sum, government HE policy is in something of a hole, pursuing internally contradictory policies which might play to a wider ‘anti-woke’ agenda but in economic and political terms seem likely to run counter to any thoughts of levelling up. But the Secretary of State keeps digging, even after the great A-level disaster of 2020. It may not be too long before this becomes another fine mess.


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

[1] They never actually said ‘Another fine mess’, despite making a movie with that title. The phrase Oliver Hardy often uttered was ‘Another nice mess you’ve gotten us into’.

[2] As well as Another Fine Mess, their movies included A Chump at Oxford and Chickens Come Home.


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Silver linings but no silver bullet: Graduate careers in (times of) crisis

by Andrew Dorrance and Daria Luchinskaya

It should come to no-one as a surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of students and graduates alike in an unprecedented way. The recent SRHE event Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis, jointly organised by the Student Access and Experience and Employability and Enterprise and Work-based Learning Networks, explored the impacts of the pandemic on graduates’ transitions to work. While there have been scattered silver linings for students and graduates, many challenges remain. This blog summarises the key themes emerging from the event and discusses potential steps forward.

Introduction

The ‘Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis’ event aimed to discuss the early impact of the pandemic on graduates’ experiences, to explore how careers advice, information and guidance has changed with physical distancing requirements, and to reflect on the broader labour market context (please see the section at the end for more details). The speakers contrasted findings from the ‘Class of 2020’ Graduating in a Pandemic project, that tracked the experiences of recent graduates with the longer-term experiences of the 2009/10 ‘Recession graduates’ from the Futuretrack project. Careers professionals discussed their responses to the pandemic and highlighted different projects aimed at helping students and graduates. There was a general sense, too, that the pandemic seems to have acted as a catalyst for reflection, among students, graduates, careers staff and other stakeholders.

Pandemic challenges

The pandemic seems to have exacerbated existing inequalities among students and graduates that then had different effects on their transitions to employment.

Digital inequality, where students and graduates struggle with access to sufficiently high-quality internet connections and personal devices, accentuates barriers to accessing education, job interviews and jobs that have moved online. Both Futuretrack and Graduating in a Pandemic found that there was vast difference between people’s experiences of working from home, accentuated by digital inequality and potentially the environment in which they can work.

There was also qualitative evidence of work placements, interviews and job offers ‘falling through’, with graduates reporting difficulties in doing their jobs and some even saying they lost their ‘perfect’ job offer. College graduates who undertook vocational courses orientated towards the service sector were particularly affected, and reported difficulties in finding or doing their jobs when in industries that were particularly affected by Covid-19 – for example, in events management or beauty therapy.  College graduates were also more likely to come from less advantaged backgrounds than university graduates.

Some graduates who would have, in other circumstances, joined the labour market, have been opting to go into education (eg graduate to postgraduate or college to degree-level) as a temporary solution to a lack of graduate job opportunities.

Ultimately, the labour market impact of the pandemic contributed to an increase in anxiety amongst students and graduates, particularly those studying subjects that required placements to complete their degrees, and those who were already facing disadvantages. These findings are consistent with what we know from the experiences of ‘recession graduates’ of 2009/10. Futuretrack and related research found that existing inequalities structured access to careers information, networks and useful resources and the ability to navigate the recession stemming from the crisis, and that these educational and social (dis)advantages were cumulative.

Silver linings

Despite these challenges, Graduating in a Pandemic found that around a third of graduates from 2020 were employed in or had been offered a job that was related to their intended career path (although such graduates were more likely to be from more advantaged backgrounds). For those working in the so-called ‘non-graduate’ jobs, it may be a matter of time before they move to more appropriate employment, although it remains to be seen hoe Covid-19 will affect different industries over the longer term.

The majority of Futuretrack’s ‘recession graduates’ had moved to ‘graduate’-level employment 9-10 years after graduation. Over half of those reported that it was exactly the type of job they wanted to do and over three quarters were generally satisfied with their jobs. However, even 9-10 years on from graduation, a substantial minority of Futuretrack graduates were not well integrated into the labour market and unsatisfied with their jobs. This less-well integrated group of graduates, as well as those who recently changed work and those working freelance and the self-employed, were perhaps more vulnerable to the (indirect) effects of Covid-19, for example, regarding job security or eligibility for furlough.

Reflection

The pandemic had also offered people a chance to reflect. Futuretrack graduates reported taking time to re-evaluate career priorities and life values. A small number of 2020 graduates whose job offers were impacted had indicated that the pandemic had given them the time to rethink their career path and look for and attain their ‘dream’ job rather than the ‘graduate’ job they would have done otherwise.

Careers services professionals found themselves in a ‘unique’ role as a link between HE, students, graduates and employers, and stepped up to the pandemic challenges. They worked hard to develop inclusive and innovative ways in supporting students and graduates. For example, online workshops and events improved accessibility and speaker availability. However, there were also challenges in attaining consistently high levels of attendance and ensuring that the services reached the students and graduates most ‘at risk’ of falling through careers service provision.

Careers services also developed new resources, for example focusing on virtual recruitment practices and work placements to address the changes to the recruitment and placements process as a result of the pandemic. Over the pandemic period, careers services were also able to learn what services work better online (eg using the shared screen feature to look at students’ CVs) or in-person, and to adapt as the pandemic unfolded, and continues to do so.

Looking forward

Fortunately, going forward there are perhaps tentative grounds for positivity, as student recruitment had seen an uplift and employers were becoming optimistic about growth in the short-term with opportunities for graduates coming into the labour market. However, there were also concerns around the ongoing uncertainty around the unfolding impact of the pandemic. It was also clear that not all graduates were motivated by financial gain, which led to a discussion about including social returns in measuring the value of higher education in addition to the current focus on individual labour market outcomes.

We know that it is taking longer for graduates to find an ‘appropriate’ job in the labour market. Time will tell whether graduates of the pandemic will settle into the labour market like the graduates of the 2009/10 recession eventually did. For the moment, offering accessible careers support to students and graduates, while highlighting areas of inequalities in labour market entry, the experience of work, and the mental and physical health of students and graduates to inform policy, remain ways in which we can help pandemic graduates navigate their post-graduation transitions.

Andrew Dorrance is an Undergraduate Student in Economics in the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, and Research Assistant for the Graduating in a Pandemic research project.

Daria Luchinskaya is a Lecturer at the Department of Work, Employment and Organisation, University of Strathclyde, co-convener of the SRHE Employability, Enterprise And Work-Based Learning Network, and a member of the Graduating in a Pandemic research team. Follow Daria on Twitter @DariaResearch.

Further links and resources

The Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis event was co-hosted by the Student Access and Experience and Employability and Enterprise and Work-based Learning Networks and took place on 16 June 2021. The aim of the event was to provide evidence from the UK on the early impact of the pandemic on graduates’ experiences, and to explore how careers advice, information and guidance has changed with social distancing, as well as reflecting on the broader labour market context. Presentations by Scott Hurrell (Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow) on the class of 2020 (Graduating in a Pandemic) and Kate Purcell (University of Warwick Emeritus Professor) on the class of 2009/10 (Futuretrack) highlighted research findings about graduates’ early and mid-careers. Susan Bird (Careers & Employability Manager, University of Edinburgh) and Rachel Firth (Employability Consultant, Sheffield Hallam University) presented the experience of careers professionals’ responses to the pandemic. The event attracted a diverse audience, including academics, careers professionals, and representatives from think tanks and employer organisations.

Graduating in a Pandemic is investigating the post-graduation activities of the class of 2020 and 2021. It is run by researchers at the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde (PI Dr Scott Hurrell). See the project website at: https://graduatinginapandemic.wordpress.com/

Futuretrack is a nationally-representative longitudinal survey of applicants to full-time HE in 2005/06, run by Professors Kate Purcell and Peter Elias at the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick. Findings from the longitudinal projects and published reports, including research reports from Stage 5 (2012 – 2019) and Stage 6 (2019 – 2020), can be accessed via https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/futuretrack/findings

A report co-authored by Shelagh Green, Director, University of Edinburgh Careers Service, ‘Careers Services in times of Covid-19’ (March 2021), COIMBRA Group can be accessed at: https://www.coimbra-group.eu/wp-content/uploads/Career-services-in-times-of-Covid-19.pdf

The University of Edinburgh Careers Compass resources: https://www.ed.ac.uk/careers/students/undergraduates/careers-compass

Sheffield Hallam University careers services resources: https://www.shu.ac.uk/careers/


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Work-based learning and assessment during Covid-19

by Nick Mapletoft and Andy Price

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The authors’ statement can be found here.

The purpose of this blog is to provide an insight into how an alternative provider of higher education, an English private university centre (University Centre Quayside (UCQ)) specialising in work-based learning (WBL), continued to deliver to degree apprentices throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. WBL is a particular branch of higher education that is based upon work and should benefit the employer, which in itself creates tensions. The post considers the impact on apprentices, who work for different employers throughout England including NHS frontline workers, through remote tutorials and remote assessment. It also considers varying employer responses from abandoning or postponing apprentice starts, to maximizing the opportunity for off-the-job training for staff on furlough and starting a programme in specific response to the pandemic.  

UCQ delivers its fully integrated Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship (CMDA) and BA Hons in Professional Management via a modular approach, with subject specific modules lasting seven weeks. Each module consists of two days of taught sessions delivered by a Module Lead with up to twelve students in attendance, supported by one to one tutorials and work based assessment via a Professional Development Assessor. Whilst for most students the university campus is an inspiring and invigorating place to learn, it is not uncommon for WBL students to do most of their learning at work, or at a business venue. Up until February 2020 all taught sessions were delivered face to face at venues throughout England, tutorials were often conducted remotely, work-based assessment was undertaken at the employer’s premises.  

When the Covid-19 situation started to unfold, UCQ began successfully transitioning to 100% online delivery through the principles of user centred design (ease of use), Human Factors and agile team working. The curriculum itself was largely unchanged, however different pedagogical techniques were necessary to better facilitate online delivery. Module Leads continuously improved online delivery through an iterative process of continuous feedback  from students and their employers. 

For the delivery of remote lectures, UCQ initially set up additional GoToMeeting accounts, avoiding Zoom due to published security breaches. Some client (employer) firewalls prevented students from joining GoToMeeting sessions, and student feedback requested more virtual small group working and more interactivity between the learners (as we would expect in a normal physical learning environment). Scholars continue to debate the importance of the social setting and interaction on an individual’s learning, with classrooms typically being focused on some social interaction. Replicating a synchronous learning model with strong social and personal interaction is however one of the hardest aspects to replicate on-line. Microsoft Teams was considered to be the best solution to facilitate the desired interaction. All UCQ staff and students now have Microsoft Office 365 accounts including Teams. Teams benefits from additional privacy settings to obscure the background, where there was a potential safeguarding implication with children being home schooled through the lockdown and the Summer. The same technology was used to capture work-based assessments, for example observing a CMDA student chairing a virtual meeting.

Apprentices’ employers were impacted by Covid-19 in different ways depending on their market sector and the attitudes of their leaders. Those in the hospitality and some service industries were unable to work from home, with staff put on furlough. UCQ sought to continue to engage furloughed staff in the CMDA programme, maximizing the opportunity for off-the-job activities. One large employer in facilities management embarked upon a national apprenticeship promotional campaign to extoll the advantages of apprenticeships to their furloughed workforce. Other employers aborted their enrolments, some because the pandemic resulted in uncertainty or loss of staff, others, for example in logistics, because they became too busy as a result of an increase in workload. Some potential students postponed their enrolments whereas some accelerated their applications as they saw their employer investing in them for the next 40 months as a reassurance.

UCQ’s students have managerial responsibilities which they needed to maintain during Covid-19. This meant that they faced challenges studying as a degree student, whilst simultaneously facing new tensions in their professional existence. As working from home was adopted by those that could, our managerial students needed to adopt new virtual team leadership roles. Anecdotally students started to show a heightened interest in academic areas of leadership and remote working, quickly developing new managerial skills in response to the Covid-19 situation. A core principle of the CMDA being the relating of theory to practice, meant that students now needed to grasp the issues created by Covid-19 as they emerged. Some students fed back to UCQ staff that the CMDA programme had provided a welcome  intervention and stimulating area of focus throughout the pandemic. Others described how the skills and knowledge they had acquired were helping them to cope as managers through rapid application, contextualisation and critical reflection of new skills and knowledge. 

Some students asked for further consideration but there was no formal grading safety net and all modules still needed to be completed in full and on-time to ensure progression, as the CMDA standard needed to be met in full. However, a core principle of the UCQ CMDA delivery is to work with students in terms of the pressure of their extant management roles on their academic responsibilities and to have a responsive and flexible approach to successful assignment completion. This would also include a fair and equitable response to any issues of grade erosion. Close monitoring of attainment showed an overall increase in assignment marks and a continuous improvement in progression.

In an attempt to understand the effect on students, UCQ sought student feedback at the start of the pandemic and then after six months, whilst closely monitoring results and progression. Feedback showed a high level of satisfaction in the UCQ experience, with many students preferring the remote delivery model as it saved them travel time and expense, it also resulted in UCQ staff being easier to contact as they were no longer travelling long distances.

Summary of key findings

There are substantial differences in the way that employers have responded to the pandemic and the resulting effect on their investment in staff learning and assessment. Apprentices have responded differently too, with some having withdrawn from the programme, some postponed their start date, some have taken a break-in-learning, whilst the majority report to have been better able to focus whilst working from home and to have found studying on the CMDA a positive distraction (from Covid-19) and professional support in their new ‘crisis’ management roles.

Nick Mapletoft holds a professional doctorate from the University of Sunderland, and graduate and post graduate qualifications in computing, leadership and management, business and enterprise, and education. His post-doctoral work centres on work-based learning (WBL) approaches and pedagogies, and the WBL university. He is the Principal and CEO of the University Centre Quayside, an approved boutique provider of higher education via degree apprenticeships.

Andy Price has over twenty years’ experience in higher education and is presently Programme Leader for the CMDA at UCQ. He has held various academic and leadership roles elsewhere in the sector including Head of Enterprise Development and Education at Teesside University and Assistant Director of the Institute of Digital Innovation. Andy is a long-standing champion of work-based learning and has led significant curriculum development in this area


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The varieties of online learning experiences

by JJ Sylvia IV

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. JJ Sylvia’s statement can be found here.

In the spring of 2020, K-12 and higher education classes around the world shifted online in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Both students and instructors were forced to quickly adapt to these circumstances even though many had never previously taken an online course or taught an online course. Throughout spring and summer, data collection and reporting suggested that students were not happy with this transition online and may not return for the fall semester if courses were not in person. University administrators faced a difficult balancing act between protecting the health of students, faculty, and staff, and making sure that dropping enrolment did not financially devastate universities. 

For this presentation I will share the results of this process at my institution, Fitchburg State University. As of 2019, there were approximately 3,400 undergraduate students and 1,200 graduate students. Approximately half of the undergraduates normally live on campus. The graduate programs are largely online masters programs. This analysis is based on quantitative and qualitative analysis of the following data: a survey sent to all students just before the end of the spring 2020 semester (n=2760); an end-of-semester feedback survey for my classes at the end of the spring 2020 semester (n=12); feedback collected from faculty members about their technology needs by the faculty union and members of the Technology Advisory Committee; feedback collected by peer mentors from all first-year students in October 2020; and individual conversations with students and advisees.

In the campus-wide survey, 69.7% of students agreed or strongly agreed that the university had done a good transitioning to the remote delivery of learning and services in response to COVID-19. Students reported that their class content was delivered via online synchronous classes (60%), online asynchronous (75%), conference call (8%), email (46%), and other (5%). Totals are greater than 100% because students could select multiple options. I served as a member of our university’s Technology Advisory Committee, and one concern that was raised repeatedly by faculty members was that some classes faced larger hurdles in being adapted for online teaching, which included art courses (including film/video and game design) and science labs. For this reason, we included a survey question for students about how easy it had been for them to perform a variety of assignment types online. The results are presented in Figure 1. 

Student responses generally reflected faculty concerns, in that writing and quiz-based assignments were easier for students than more project-based assignments. In my own student evaluations, I solicit feedback about specific tools and strategies that worked well for students across all of their classes. In responding about specific tools, the vast majority of students thought that the social annotation tool used for course readings (which in my class was already in use before the pandemic) was what worked best. This was followed closely by Zoom and Google Meet with some disagreement in preference over these two platforms. In terms of strategies, most students reported that having optional synchronous check-ins was the pedagogical strategy that worked best for them, while several reported preferring synchronous and asynchronous approaches. This response was perhaps the most surprising to me, as I held optional synchronous sessions for my classes, and only about 2-4 students per week (out of about 75) attended these sessions.

Several questions were geared toward planning ahead for the fall semester. The campus survey asked students which factors were having an influence on their thoughts about whether or not to return in the fall semester. The highest-ranked results were financial concerns (40%), uncertainty with what the university is doing (38%), quality of academic experience in the spring semester (35%), change employment (31%), and fear of taking online classes (31%). Students were able to select more than one option, allowing it to total to greater than 100%. Qualitative comments also indicated that most students supported face-to-face instruction over remote instruction. This feedback, along with national reporting, guided the administration’s planning to include in-person classes for the fall. In my student evaluations, I asked students what advice they would give their professors for the fall semester if some or all of the classes needed to be taught online. The following were representative comments:

  • “Other classmates have poor or no internet at their homes and have to find places to do their work, or live in toxic environments which may affect how much work that they can do at home and don’t feel comfortable disclosing that information to their professors.”
  • “Be patient with us, we’re trying to balance our personal lives with school, and it’s much harder when it’s all online and our situation at home isn’t the greatest. If we’re used to being in a real classroom and suddenly throw into 100% online classes, bear with us. We know you’re learning too.”
  • “Be flexible. Online learning is very difficult for people with learning disabilities or mental health problems.”

I should note that, while the university was not able to provide tools to every student, it did secure enough Chromebooks and hotspots to meet the needs of every student who made such a need known. These were loaned to students at no-cost. 

Guided by this feedback, faculty were given wide discretion in choosing how to offer courses for the fall semester. Several new distinctions were created to allow for greater flexibility in course offerings and encourage even partial in-person offerings. Previously classes were designated as being in-person, online, or hybrid. For the fall, “online” was designated to mean fully asynchronous, while the category of “onsync” was added for fully online courses that would require synchronous attendance via video. Finally, “hybrid” was expanded to encompass several different approaches, which included options such as:

  • Everyone attending in-person one day per week and online the other day
  • Half of the students attending in person on one day and onsync the other day, alternating days
  • Allowing students to choose on a class-to-class basis whether to attend in-person or onsync. 

Faculty were also able to develop additional approaches to hybrid options if those worked better for them. In partnership with our IT department and the Center for Teaching and Learning, faculty-led professional development on digital tools and pedagogy was held throughout the summer. While helpful, these sessions did sometimes highlight competing tools. For example, Blackboard has been the standard learning management system for the university for many years. However, in the fall of 2019, we transitioned to the Google Education platform for email and the rest of the G Suite tools. This opened the option to use Google Classroom in addition to or instead of Blackboard, and many faculty members had plans to try this new tool for the first time in the fall of 2020.

There is evidence that suggests additional scrutiny may need to be given to results that showed a student preference for in-person learning. While students certainly have that preference, it is not clear that this preference was expressed with a full understanding of what socially distanced and hybrid classrooms would look like in practice or of what the public health would look like in the fall. As we approached the beginning of the fall semester, many faculty reported receiving emails from students asking if they could complete in-person or hybrid classes completely remotely. Although only anecdotal evidence has been collected on this issue, it does suggest that perhaps while many students do ultimately prefer in-person learning, they do not prefer it in the limited manner that is possible during an ongoing pandemic. Further research that delves deeper into the question would be helpful. 

This semester, student feedback from freshman via peer mentors as well as informal feedback I’ve collected from upperclassmen indicates that somewhat overwhelmed students are struggling with managing the wide variety of different tools and platforms being used across their classes. For example, there remains confusion about when classes are meeting online versus in-person and where to access links for these meetings. Some have reported that these plans have changed with short notice as well. Other students reported difficulty accessing e-books, online videos, and other tools because of software conflicts. For asynchronous courses, some students felt they lacked support.

In conclusion, because students expressed a strong preference for in-person learning, we opted for maximum flexibility that would allow those professors who were willing to do so to offer some in-person instruction. However, this led to an array of options that continue to be confusing to students. This expansion of services that needs monitoring by students is layered on top of an already scarce attention economy. Even before the pandemic, students reported that the amount of email that they received from various individuals, organizations, and clubs across campus was too much to properly manage. Now, students are facing uncertain and challenging circumstances during a pandemic that continues unabated in the United States. 

At the same time, they are by necessity learning to manage an array of new platforms and tools, while also adapting to time-management strategies that require even higher self-regulation. While most instructors are able to choose one set of tools and deploy those across all of their courses, students are navigating a vast array of platforms and tools that create a variety of online learning experiences that adds to the amount of information that must be learned and managed. This suggests that in the future, some attention should be given to the tension between faculty’s academic freedom to select tools and the difficulty students face in learning and using multiple tools and learning management systems while simultaneously juggling stress related to learning from home. It is also worthwhile to revisit student preferences for online vs. in-person learning in light of their experiences in the fall and the ongoing pandemic.


JJ Sylvia IV is an Assistant Professor in Communications Media at Fitchburg State University. His research focuses on critical data studies, the philosophy of communication, and digital pedagogy. Using the framework of posthumanism, he explores how the media we use contribute to our construction as subjects. He brings an affirmative and activist approach to contemporary data studies that highlights the potential for big data to offer new experimental approaches to our own processes of subjectivation. He lives in Worcester, MA with his wife and two daughters


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Balancing courage and compassion in research-based learning

by Helen Walkington

This blog was first published by Teaching-Focused in HE: the GEES Network, a teaching-focused network for Geography, Earth and Environmental Science academics, and it is reproduced with their permission. Helen Walkington is co-convenor of the SRHE Academic Practice Network.

In Tuesday’s ‘Environmental Hazard Management’ class, live on Zoom, I did a little experiment with my students. In one hand I held a juggling ball (new lockdown skill) and in the other a very ripe tomato. I said that developing resilience is a key concept in disaster management. I asked “If I squeeze the juggling ball and the tomato, which do you feel would best demonstrate a resilient response?” Of course, in wanting them to engage, I asked if they would like me to enact the thought ‘experiment’ (cereal bowl and kitchen roll under the desk at the ready). Once the juggling ball bounced back and the tomato went almost everywhere except the bowl, I made my point about the longevity of tomato seeds and different, sometimes unexpected types of resilience.

I suspect that I’m not alone in having chosen an academic career, at least in part, because I value autonomy. The freedom to pursue research that I find interesting, to advance a discipline that I feel passionate about, and to help share this journey with my undergraduate students is energising, even if it ends up being quite messy at times. In Higher Education we have a relatively high degree of control over how we provide learning opportunities to our students. When tasked with teaching ‘research methods’ for instance, we can choose whether to do this by providing lectures, or directing students through research projects so they can ‘learn by doing,’ or offering even greater freedom to learn by allowing students to take control of generating research questions, designing and carrying out investigations themselves. We probably deliver all three approaches progressively, as a team, across the course of a Geography, Earth and Environmental Science programme. 

Working with students who are engaged in research, sometimes for the first time as undergraduates, is always going to be a careful balancing act. On the one hand, offering students the freedom to pose their own research questions, with the associated authenticity of potential failure, might be considered a courageous pedagogy. On the other hand, we have to consider how students might react to having made mistakes, and be compassionate as they grapple with the potential for creating new knowledge (either new to themselves or new to society) through discovery. Learning by doing research requires emotional investment and resilience, an experience which unites staff (faculty in the US) and students. We can perhaps empathise with students because we share this experience with them, even though we are in a different position, ultimately being judged on the way we communicate our research. For me the cognitive involvement, emotional buy-in and desire for students to succeed has shifted my practice of dissertation and independent study supervision into mentoring. I am acknowledging the ‘whole student’ (Hill et al, 2019).

This aligns very much with Thiry and Laursen (2011), who suggested that academic (faculty) mentors to undergraduate researchers perform three supportive roles: professional socialization, intellectual support and personal/emotional support. These complementary supports acknowledge the importance of working with students to explain why they are engaging in research, supporting their cognitive development, but also acknowledging their emotional needs. The need for a balance between courage and compassion in our practice is clear. However, add to this balancing act escalating concerns about declining levels of student wellbeing (IPPR, 2017) and we begin to appreciate the weight of responsibility for successfully maintaining the balance in our own practice between courageous pedagogy and compassionate pedagogy. Can we still judge securely how far we can draw students ‘to the edge of their ability’ (as one expert mentor put it) and challenge them, when they are self-isolating in student accommodation and can’t collect physical data, get onto campus or access the library? (Using a metaphor, maintaining this balance might feel like walking a tight rope, but if you’ve been working on your balance through yoga during lockdown, then let’s say it’s across Niagara gorge, just to make you feel more alive). By providing all three of Thiry and Laursen’s supports as a research mentor, we hope to open a productive, liminal space for contemplation to our student mentees. My hope is that my students will connect their learning and knowledge production to their values, personal sense of meaning, as well as their relationship to the world around them. 

Learning is an emotional journey, particularly in research mode. The research cycle throws up sticking points and challenges at different (usually inconvenient) times in the research process. (perhaps a large knot in the tightrope, or a sudden gust of wind). This doesn’t just impact our student mentees, but us as research mentors as well. While supervising research prioritises research products (eg the student’s dissertation, group report, journal article) and content (new geographical knowledge), mentoring personalises learning and makes it meaningful and important in shaping the learner’s own esteem and identity, which may impact career aspirations and life chances. 

The benefits of undergraduate research are well established for students, including the development of critical thinking, enhanced degree outcomes and student retention, making it a ‘high-impact practice’ (Kuh, 2008). It is not enough to just make students ‘do a dissertation,’ effective mentoring is central to accruing these benefits. Over the last five years, I’ve worked with a team of researchers to try to work out why, exploring specifically which types of mentoring practice are effective. Our large-scale literature review resulted in Ten Salient Practices (Shanahan et al, 2015; and summarised in Table 1) which are effective regardless of national context, type of higher education institution or discipline. We’ve since completed 32 detailed research interviews on what award-winning mentors from around the world actually do, including strategies to engage students in research, retain their interest through appropriate challenge, and celebrate success (Walkington et al, 2020). One example is supporting students in publishing their research findings through, for example, research journals like GEOverse. Importantly, mentored research opportunities at undergraduate level have been found to confer particular benefits on underserved student groups (Finley and McNair, 2013). As they help all students to succeed, I would argue that these undergraduate research opportunities have the potential to enhance student wellbeing. Indeed, since effective mentoring of students involves getting to know them on a deeper level, recognising their work and valuing them as individuals, this knowledge of the ‘whole student’ is a fundamental underpinning of an inclusive approach. 

1.     Do strategic pre-planning in order to be ready to respond to students’ varying needs and abilities throughout the research process.
2.     Set clear and well-scaffolded expectations for undergraduate researchers.
3.     Teach the technical skills, methods, and techniques of conducting research in the discipline.
4.     Balance rigorous expectations with emotional support and appropriate personal interest in students.
5.     Build community among groups of undergraduate researchers and mentors, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and any other members of the research team.
6.     Dedicate time as well to one-on-one, hands-on mentoring.
7.     Increase student ownership of the research over time.
8.     Support students’ professional development through networking and explaining norms of the discipline.
9.     Create intentional, laddered opportunities for peers and “near peers” to learn mentoring skills and to bring larger numbers of undergraduates into scholarly opportunities.
10.      Encourage students to share their findings and provide guidance on how to do so effectively in oral and poster presentations and in writing.

Table 1: Ten salient practices of undergraduate research mentoring

(Shanahan et al, 2015; Walkington, 2020)

However, the Covid–19 pandemic threatens to challenge the benefits of research-based learning. An undergraduate Geography student, alongside a doctoral student and several faculty members have researched the impact of Covid-19 on access to (and thus the benefits from) undergraduate research opportunities. With data from 18 institutions in the USA, they found that COVID-19 reduced access to research experiences*, reduced student access to technology and specialist research spaces, as well as interrupted face to face mentoring (Trego et al 2020). Clearly significant changes are required in approaches to data collection for it to remain safe for student researchers to continue to engage actively in research under these challenging circumstances. Understandably, in some instances there are topics that universities have declared ‘off limits’ due to their sensitivity. However, it is still possible to mentor students. It is possible to connect to students and provide the three forms of support that Thiry and Laursen outlined. 

To be resilient to unexpected changes, such as Covid-19 has posed, we need to embed research experiences that are inclusive of all students within the curriculum, rather than having selective research opportunities at risk from (hopefully!) short term changes in circumstances. We can democratise engagement with research and make it an entitlement, but to ensure effective learning outcomes for each and every student, we have to demonstrate our pedagogic resilience through a commitment to the ongoing balancing act of courage and compassion.

*In the US research opportunities for undergraduates are sometimes embedded in the curriculum, but are also provided as co-curricular opportunities such as summer projects.

Helen Walkington, PhD, NTF, PFHEAis Professor of Higher Education at Oxford Brookes University, UK where she teaches geography and carries out research into higher education pedagogy. She has written and presented widely on research-based learning strategies and mentoring excellence. Helen is a qualified career development coach and co-convenes the SRHE Academic Practice network.

References:

Finley, A and McNair, T (2013) Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices  Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Kuh, G,  2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Hill, J, Walkington, H and Dyer, S (2019) ‘Teaching, learning, and assessing in Geography: foundations for the future’, in Walkington, H, Hill, J, and Dyer, S (eds) Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing pp. 474-484

Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) (2017) “Not by degrees: improving student mental health in the UK’s universities.” Available at https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/not-by-degrees [Accessed on 12/05/20]

Shanahan, J, Ackley-Holbrook, E, Hall, E, Stewart, K, and Walkington, H (2015) ‘Salient Practices of Undergraduate Research Mentors: A Review of the Literature’ Mentoring and Tutoring 23 (5): 359-376 

Thiry, H, and Laursen, SL (2011) “The role of student–advisor interactions in apprenticing undergraduate researchers into a scientific community of practice’ Journal of Science Education and Technology 20: 771–784

Trego, S, Nadybal, S, Grineski, S, Collins, T and Morales, D (2020) ‘Initial impacts of Covid-19 on Undergraduate researchers at US universities.’ [online] accessed from: https://d2vxd53ymoe6ju.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/20200726161915/trego_poster.jpg

Walkington, H, Griffin, AL, Keys-Mathews, L, Metoyer, SK, Miller, WE, Baker, R, and France, D (2011) ‘Embedding research-based learning early in the undergraduate Geography curriculum’ Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 35(3): 315-330 Walkington, H, Stewart, K, Hall, E, Ackley, E and Shanahan, JO (2020) ‘Salient practices of award-winning undergraduate research mentors – balancing freedom and control to achieve excellence’ Studies in Higher Education 45: 1519-1532


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Customer Services

by Phil Pilkington

“…problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para 38 (original emphasis)

The paradigm shift of students to customers at the heart of higher education has changed strategies, psychological self-images, business models and much else. But are the claims for and against students as customers (SAC) and the related research as useful, insightful and angst ridden as we may at first think?  There are alarms about changing student behaviours and approaches to learning and the relationship towards academic staff but does the naming ‘customers’ reveal what were already underlying, long standing problems? Does the concentrated focus on SAC obscure rather than reveal?

One aspect of SAC is the observation that academic performance declines, and learning becomes more surface and instrumental (Bunce, 2017). Another is that SAC inclines students to be narcissist and aggressive, with HEI management pandering to the demands of both students and their feedback on the NSS, with other strategies to create iconic campus buildings, to maintain or improve league table position (Nixon, 2018).

This raises some methodological questions on (a) the research on academic performance and the degree of narcissism/aggression prior to SAC (ie around 1997 with the Dearing Report); (b) the scope and range of the research given the scale of student numbers, participation rates, the variety of student motivations, the nature of disciplines and their own learning strategies, and the hierarchy of institutions; and (c) the combination of (a) and (b) in the further question whether SAC changed the outlook of students to their education – or is it that we are paying more attention and making different interpretations?

Some argue that the mass system created in some way marketisation of HE and the SAC with all its attendant problems of changing the pedagogic relationship and cognitive approaches. Given Martin Trow’s definitions of elite, mass and universal systems of HE*, the UK achieved a mass system by the late 1980s to early 1990s with the rapid expansion of the polytechnics; universities were slower to expand student numbers. This expansion was before the introduction of the £1,000 top up fees of the Major government and the £3,000 introduced by David Blunkett (Secretary of State for Education in the new Blair government) immediately after the Dearing Report. It was after the 1997 election that the aspiration was for a universal HE system with a 50% participation rate.

If a mass system of HE came about (in a ‘fit of forgetfulness’ ) by 1991 when did marketisation begin? Marketisation may be a name we give to a practice or context which had existed previously but was tacit and culturally and historically deeper, hidden from view. The unnamed hierarchy of institutions of Oxbridge, Russell, polytechnics, HE colleges, FE colleges had powerful cultural and socio-political foundations and was a market of sorts (high to low value goods, access limited by social/cultural capital and price, etc). That hierarchy was not, however, necessarily top-down: the impact of social benefit of the ‘lower orders’ in that hierarchy would be significant in widening participation. The ‘higher order’ existed (and exists) in an ossified form. And as entry was restricted, the competition within the sector did not exist or did not present existential threats. Such is the longue durée when trying to analyse marketisation and the SAC.

The focus on marketisation should help us realise that over the long term the unit of resource was drastically reduced; state funding was slowly and then rapidly withdrawn to the point where the level of student enrolment was critical to long term strategy. That meant not maintaining but increasing student numbers when the potential pool of students would fluctuate – with  the present demographic trough ending in 2021 or 2022. Marketisation can thus be separated to some extent from the cognitive dissonance or other anxieties of the SAC. HEIs (with exceptions in the long-established hierarchy) were driven by the external forces of the funding regime to develop marketing strategies, branding and gaming feedback systems in response to the competition for students and the creation of interest groups – Alliance, Modern, et al. The enrolled students were not the customers in the marketisation but the product or outcome of successful management. The students change to customers as the focus is then on results, employment and further study rates. Such is the split personality of institutional management here.

Research on SAC in STEM courses has a noted inclination to surface learning and the instrumentalism of ‘getting a good grade in order to get a good job’, but this prompts further questions. I am not sure that this is an increased inclination to surface learning, nor whether surface and deep are uncritical norms we can readily employ. The HEAC definition of deep learning has an element of ‘employability’ in the application of knowledge across differing contexts and disciplines (Howie and Bagnall, 2012). A student in 2019 may face the imperative to get a ‘degree level’ job in order to pay back student loans. This is rational related to the student loans regime and widening participation, meaning this imperative is not universally applied given the differing socio-economic backgrounds of all students.

(Note that the current loan system is highly regressive as a form of ‘graduate tax’.)

And were STEM students more inclined toward deep or surface learning before they became SAC?  Teaching and assessment in STEM may have been poorand may have encouraged surface level learning (eg through weekly phase tests which were tardily assessed).

What is deep learning in civil engineering when faced with stress testing concrete girders or in solving quarternion equations in mathematics: is much of STEM actually knowing and processing algorithms? How is such learnable content in STEM equivalent in some cognitive way to the deep learning in modern languages, history, psychology et al? This is not to suggest a hierarchy of disciplines but differences, deep differences, between rules-based disciplines and the humanities.

Learning is complex and individualised, and responsive to, without entirely determining, the curriculum and the forms of its delivery. In the research on SAC the assumptions are that teaching and assessment delivery is both relatively unproblematic and designed to encourage deep, non-instrumental learning. Expectations of the curriculum delivery and assessment will vary amongst students depending on personal background of schooling and parents, the discipline and personal motivations and the expectations will often be unrealistic. Consider why they are unrealistic – more than the narcissism of being a customer. (There is a very wide range of varieties of customer: as a customer of Network Rail I am more a supplicant than a narcissist.)

The alarm over the changes (?) to the students’ view of their learning as SAC in STEM should be put in the context of the previously high drop-out rate of STEM students (relatively higher than non-STEM) which could reach 30% of a cohort. The causes of drop out were thoroughly examined by Mantz Yorke(Yorke and Longden, 2004), but as regards the SAC issue here, STEM drop outs were explained by tutors as lack of the right mathematical preparation. There is comparatively little research on the motivations for students entering STEM courses before they became SAC; such research is not over the long term or longitudinal. However, research on the typology of students with differing motivations for learning (the academic, the social, the questioning student etc) ranged across all courses, does exist (a 20 year survey by Liz Beatty, 2005). Is it possible that after widening participation to the point of a universal system, motivations towards the instrumental or utilitarian will become more prominent? And is there an implication that an elite HE system pre-SAC was less instrumentalist, less surface learning? The creation of PPE (first Oxford in 1921 then spreading across the sector) was an attempt to produce a mandarin class, where career ambition was designed into the academic disciplines. That is, ‘to get a good job’ applies here too but it will be expressed in different, indirect and elevated ways of public service.**

There are some anachronisms in the research on SAC. The acceptance of SAC by management, by producing student charters and providing students places on boards, committees and senior management meetings is not a direct result of students or management considering students as customers. Indeed, it predates SAC by many years and has its origins in the 1960s and 70s.

I am unlikely to get onto the board of Morrisons, but I could for the Co-op – a discussion point on partnerships, co-producers, membership of a community of learners. The struggle by students to get representation in management has taken fifty years from the Wilson government Blue Paper Student Protest (1970) to today. It may have been a concession, but student representation changed the nature of HEIs in the process, prior to SAC. Student Charters appear to be mostly a coherent, user-friendly reduction of lengthy academic and other regulations that no party can comprehend without extensive lawyerly study. A number of HEIs produced charters before the SAC era (late 1990s). And iconic university buildings have been significantly attractive in the architectural profession a long time before SAC – Birmingham’s aspiration to be an independent city state with its Venetian architecture recalling St Mark’s Square under the supervision of Joseph Chamberlain (1890s) or Jim Stirling’s post-modern Engineering faculty building at Leicester (1963) etc (Cannandine 2002).

Students have complex legal identities and are a complex and often fissiparous body. They are customers of catering, they are members of a guild or union, learners, activists and campaigners, clients, tenants, volunteers, sometimes disciplined as the accused, or the appellant, they adopt and create new identities psychologically, culturally and sexually. The language of students as customers creates a language game that excludes other concerns: the withdrawal of state funding, the creation of an academic precariat, the purpose of HE for learning and skills supply, an alienation from a community by the persuasive self-image as atomised customer, how deep learning is a creature of disciplines and the changing job market, that student-academic relations were problematic and now become formalised ‘complaints’. Students are not the ‘other’ and they are much more than customers.

Phil Pilkington is Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, a former CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union, an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE.

*Martin Trow defined an elite, mass and universal systems of HE by participation rates of 10-20%, 20-30% and 40-50% respectively.

** Trevor Pateman, The Poverty of PPE, Oxford, 1968; a pamphlet criticising the course by a graduate; it is acknowledged that the curriculum, ‘designed to run the Raj in 1936’, has changed little since that critique. This document is a fragment of another history of higher education worthy of recovery: of complaint and dissatisfaction with teaching and there were others who developed the ‘alternative prospectus’ movement in the 1970s and 80s.

References

Beatty L, Gibbs G, and Morgan A (2005) ‘Learning orientations and study contracts’, in Marton, F, Hounsell, D and Entwistle, N, (eds) (2005) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education, 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

Bunce, Louise (2017) ‘The student-as-consumer approach in HE and its effects on academic performance’, Studies in Higher Education, 42(11): 1958-1978

Howie P and Bagnall R (2012) ‘A critique of the deep and surface learning model’, Teaching in Higher Education 18(4); they state the distinction of learning is “imprecise conceptualisation, ambiguous language, circularity and a lack of definition…”

Nixon, E, Scullion, R and Hearn, R (2018) ‘Her majesty the student: marketised higher education and the narcissistic (dis)satisfaction of the student consumer’, Studies in Higher Education  43(6): 927-943

Cannandine, David (2004), The ‘Chamberlain Tradition’, in In Churchill’s Shadow, Oxford: Oxford University Press; his biographical sketch of Joe Chamberlain shows his vision of Birmingham as an alternative power base to London.

Yorke M and Longden B (2004) Retention and student success in higher education, Maidenhead: SRHE/Open University Press

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Constructing the higher education student: a comparative study of six European countries

By Rachel Brooks

We were delighted to give the first proper presentation about our new ‘Eurostudents’ research project at the SRHE annual conference in December 2016. As the project will run over the next five years, we hope that we’ll be able to give further presentations about it at various SRHE conferences in the future. Colleagues can also find regular updates on the project website (www.eurostudents.net) and by following us @eurostudents_ on Twitter.

Below we provide a brief background to the project, and explain what we will be doing over the next few years.

Background

There are currently over 35 million students within Europe and yet, to date, we have no clear understanding of the extent to which understandings of ‘the student’ are shared. Thus, a central aim of this project is to investigate how the contemporary higher education (HE) student is conceptualised and the extent to which this differs both within nation-states and across them. This is significant in terms of implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumptions that are made about common understandings of ‘the student’ across Europe – underpinning, for example, initiatives to increase cross-border educational mobility and the wider development of a European Higher Education Area. It is also significant in relation to exploring the extent to which understandings are shared within a single nation and, particularly, the degree to which there is congruence between the ways in which students are conceptualised within policy texts and by policymakers, and the understandings of other key social actors such as the media, higher education institutions and students themselves.

Research questions and methods

The empirical project is guided by four main research questions:

(i) How are understandings of the higher education student produced, shaped and disseminated by (a) policymakers, (b) the media and (c) higher education institutions?

(ii) To what extent do these understandings differ within and across European nations?

(iii) How do students of different national and social backgrounds understand the role of the higher education student?

(iv) To what extent are their understandings consonant with those produced, shaped and disseminated by policymakers, the media and higher education institutions?

To answer these questions, data will be collected from six different European countries – Denmark, England, Ireland, Germany, Poland and Spain (chosen to give variation in welfare regime, relationship to the EU, and mechanisms for funding HE) – and through four strands of work, each of which focuses on a different social actor i.e. policymakers, the media, higher education institutions and students themselves.

new-picture-3The research is funded by the European Research Council, through a Consolidator Grant awarded to Rachel Brooks (Surrey), and runs from August 2016 until July 2021. The project researchers, working with Rachel, are Jessie Abrahams, Predrag Lažetić and Anu Lainio.

SRHE Member Rachel Brooks is Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey and has edited one of the latest books in the SRHE/Routledge series entitled Student Politics and Protest


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SRHE Newer Researchers’ Conference 2013

By Jennifer Leigh

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the SRHE Newer Researchers conference. The day began with Mike Neary’s thought provoking keynote on ‘students as producers’. He explained this as an act of resistance to ‘students as consumers’ rather than ‘student engagement’ or ‘student-led teaching’. We were then thrust into a very full day of research seminars, all supported by an active twitter back channel.

The conference organised the presenters into Continue reading