srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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More roadworks on Quality Street

by Paul Temple

Trust is the magic ingredient that allows social life to exist, from the smallest informal group to entire nations. High-trust societies tend to be more efficient, as it can be assumed that people will, by and large, do what they’ve agreed without the need for constant checking. Ipsos-MORI carries out an annual “veracity index” survey in Britain to discover which occupational groups are most trusted: “professors”, which I think we can take to mean university academic staff, score highly (trusted by 83% of the population), just below top-scoring doctors and judges, way above civil servants (60%) – and with government ministers playing in a different league on 16%. So most people, then, seem to trust university staff to do a decent job – much more than they trust ministers. It’s therefore a little strange that over the last 35 years the bitterest struggles between universities and governments have been fought in the “quality wars”, with governments claiming repeatedly that university teachers can’t be trusted to do their jobs without state oversight. Disputes about university expansion and funding come and go, but the quality wars just rumble on. Why?

From the mid-1980s (when “quality” was invented) up to the appearance of the 2011 White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, quality in higher education was (after a series of changes to structures and methods) regulated by the Quality Assurance Agency, which required universities to show that they operated effective quality management processes. This did not involve the inspection of actual teaching: universities were instead trusted to give an honest, verifiable, account of their own quality processes. Without becoming too dewy-eyed about it, the process came down to one group of professionals asking another group of professionals how they did their jobs. Trust was the basis of it all.

The 2011 White Paper intended to sweep this away, replacing woolly notions of trust-based processes with a bracing market-driven discipline. The government promised to “[put] financial power into the hands of learners [to make] student choice meaningful…[it will] remove regulatory barriers [to new entrants to the sector to] improve student choice…[leading to] higher education institutions concentrating on high-quality teaching” (Executive Summary, paras 6-9). On this model, decisions by individual students would largely determine institutional income from teaching, so producing better-quality courses: trust didn’t matter. Market forces can be seen to drive forward quality in other fields through competition, why not in universities?

Well, of course, for lots of reasons, as critics of the White Paper were quick to point out, naturally to no avail. But having been told that they were to operate in a marketised environment where the usual market mechanisms would deal with quality (good courses expanding, others shrinking or failing), exactly a decade later universities find themselves being subjected to a bureaucratic (I intend the word in its social scientific sense, not as a lazy insult) quality regime, the very antithesis of a market system.

We see this in the latest offensive in the quality wars, just opened by the OFS with its July 2021 “Consultation on Quality and Standards”. This 110-page second-round consultation document sets out a highly-detailed process for assessing quality and standards: you can almost feel the pain of the drafter of section B1 on providing “a high quality academic experience”. What does that mean? It means, for example, ensuring that each course is “coherent”. So what does “coherent” mean? Well, it means, for example, providing “an appropriate balance between breadth and depth”. So what does…? And so on. This illustrates the difficulty of considering academic quality as an ISO 9001 (remember that?) process with check-lists, when probably every member of a course team will – actually, in a university, should – have different, equally valid, views on what (say) “appropriate breadth and depth” means.

Government approaches to quality and standards in university teaching have, then, over the last 30 or so years, moved from a largely trust-based system, to one supposedly driven by market forces, to a bureaucratic, box-ticking one. In all this time, ministers have failed to give convincing examples of the problems that the ever-changing quality regimes were supposed to deal with. (Degree mills and similar essentially fraudulent operations can be dealt with through normal consumer legislation, given the will to do so. I once interviewed an applicant for one of our courses who had worked in a college I hadn’t heard of: had there been any problems about its academic standards, I asked. “Not really”, she replied brightly, “it was a genuine bogus college”.)

Why, then, do the quality wars continue? – and we can be confident that the current OFS proposals do not signal the end of hostilities. It is hard to see this as anything other than ministerial displacement activity. Sorting out the social care crisis, or knife crime, will take real understanding and the redirection of resources: easier by far to make a fuss about a non-problem and then be seen to act decisively to solve it. And to erode trust in higher education a little more.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London. His latest paper, ‘The University Couloir: exploring physical and intellectual connectivity’, will appear shortly in Higher Education Policy.


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Widening participation, student engagement, alienation, trauma and trust

Caroline S Jones and Zoë Nangah

Social mobility target setting and progression data collection have long been on the agenda for UK HE policy makers and are widely documented, debated and researched (Connell-Smith and Hubble, 2018; Donnelly and Evans, 2018; Social Mobility Commission 2017, 2019; Phoenix, 2021). Widening Participation (WP) policy underpins much Government target setting, dressed up as a key factor in improving the nation’s social mobility issues.  Much of the work undertaken in this field focuses upon the recruitment of students from the WP demographic onto Higher Education (HE) programmes, with data tracking at key points of the student’s journey as a measuring tool (Vignoles and Murray, 2016; Robinson and Salvestrini, 2020; Phoenix, 2021).  However, there appears to be a distinct lack of focus on the student as an individual human being, who arrives into the HE world with prior lived experience, and a lack of consideration of the impact of future life experiences aligned to the student’s individual psychological status.

This omission can have a profound effect on a student’s ability to engage in their programme of study, thus affecting their ability to progress and succeed, contributing to barriers to engagement (Jones and Nangah, 2020). On-entry assessment currently does not capture the presence of traumatic histories, and students may not feel able to fully disclose their experiences until they have established a tutorial connection. Furthermore, HE systems may not have access to information, either on-entry or during studies, that enables appropriate tutorial support and adequate referral, due to GDPR (2018) restrictions and confidentiality principles. Therefore, academic tutorial expertise and understanding how to support students from a psychological perspective might need to be considered using specific relational elements in a humanistic manner. At system level, internal and external support for students focusing on their holistic needs might also improve access and progression.

These ideas led us to conduct a deeper investigation into the psychological needs of students, to seek out methods, practices and potential policy changes which might reduce barriers to student engagement. This new knowledge could enable policy makers, HEIs, HE staff and departments to improve their current practice and  strengthen progress in terms of the national social mobility agenda (Augar, 2019). Examining barriers to student engagement for the WP demographic and specifically focusing on the links between psychological alienation theory (Mann, 2001), trauma and trust (Jones, 2017) in the HE context, led us to this new angle on the conundrum of meeting social mobility targets. Furthermore, recent neurological research, such as brain and amygdala responses to threat within specific groups (Fanti et al, 2020), could be explored further within HE student populations. Students who are affected by trauma could be better supported by using research-informed practices that can then be embedded in HE, focused on individual requirements.

To making a difference to current social mobility rates and targets we need to explore new concepts to inform and drive change in the sector. Our systematic literature review (Jones and Nangah, 2020) focused on the analysis of links between alienation theory (Mann, 2001; Jones, 2017), experiences of prior, existing or present traumatic experiences and the student’s ability to trust in the academic systems within which they are placed. The presence of traumatic emotional experiences in WP student populations connected to psychosocial and academic trust alienation theory contributes to understanding engagement barriers in HE. Using PRISMA guidelines, 43 publications were screened based on inclusion/exclusion criteria. Our review identified students’ experiences of trauma and how this had affected their HE educational engagement. It documented support strategies for student success and improvements in HEIs’ commitment to meeting WP agendas. This underlined the need for HEIs to commit to the social mobility agenda in a way which is aligned with barriers to student engagement. Current tracking and support systems may need to be augmented by tutorial systems and training for academic staff in relational tutorial systems, emphasising the presence of a consistent tutor. Jenkins (2020) suggests a single-session approach for addressing student needs within a short-term counselling model, but recognises this may not be suitable for students with more complex requirements. Thus, longer-term interventions and individualised counselling support approaches are arguably needed to support this demographic. 

To decrease barriers to student engagement we need to focus on psychological well-being and collaborative HEI strategies to improve recruitment, retention and ultimate success. Our systematic review argued that deeper understanding of the complexities of student needs should be embedded within HE teacher training programmes and curriculum delivery. Extending teaching skills to embed psychological understanding and practice delivery skills would not only work to meet Government targets but also raise aspirations: ‘ …with the right approach, the transmission of disadvantage from one generation to the next can be broken’ (Social Mobility Commission, 2017: 8).  Fulfilling the moral and corporate responsibility of HEIs to support the success of WP students might need new insights. Focusing on student engagement in HE with a better understanding  of psychological alienation theory, trauma and trust could be used by multiple HE audiences and across countries to improve practice and drive both political and educational change for the most disadvantaged individuals. It is time to view HE students from WP backgrounds as individuals, to respect their aspirational aims and value their experiences in a way that best suits their subjective requirements, so that they may progress and  succeed, helping to improve social mobility.

SRHE member Caroline S Jones is an applied social sciences professional with extensive experience in the children and young people field and HE programme leadership. She is a Tutor in the Education Faculty at Manchester Metropolitan University and was previously a Lecturer at the University Campus Oldham and at Stockport University Centre. Twitter: @caroline_JonesSFHEA. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/caroline-jones-1bab40b3/

SRHE member Zoe Nangah has been a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in HE for 16 years across Psychology, Social Sciences, Counselling and Childhood Studies disciplines. She is currently a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader at the University of Chester for the MA Clinical Counselling course. Zoe is a qualified counsellor and supervisor and has conducted research into emotional experiences within student populations and explored perceptions of the support services. Twitter @zoenangah 

References

Fanti, KA, Konikou, K, Cohn, M, Popma, A and Brazil, IA (2020) ‘Amygdala functioning during threat acquisition and extinction differentiates antisocial subtypes’ Journal of Neuropsychology, Volume 14, Part 2. (June 2020) 226-241, British Psychological Society

Jenkins, P (2020) ‘Single session formulation : an alternative to the waiting list’ University and College Counselling Volume 8, issue 4, November 2020

Mann, SJ (2001) ‘Alternative Perspectives on the Student Experience: Alienation and Engagement’ Studies in Higher Education 26 (1): 7–19

Robinson, D and Salvestrini, V (2020) The Impact of Interventions for Widening Access to Higher Education London: Education Policy Institute: TASO

Social Mobility Commission (2017) State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain London: Social Mobility Commission

Social Mobility Commission (2019) State of the Nation 2018-2019: Social Mobility in Great Britain London: Social Mobility Commission