by Adam Matthews
I was excited to attend SRHE’s event, Bridging The Gap: Improving The Relationship Between Higher Education Research And Policy on 4 November 2022. It was the first time I’d been to London since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The event promised to bring together and bridge the gap between those making higher education policy and those researching it. The event description pitched the former, in government, thinking that academic research is too narrow, theoretical or impenetrable for their purposes focusing on critique rather than practical solutions. The latter were descried as thinking government only selectively engage with academic research evidence to support their desired arguments and outcomes. This then was quite a gap to be bridged.
SRHE put together two panels of highly experienced policy makers and academics – some having experience of both – described more than once as gamekeepers turned poachers. Maybe this is the start of, and one of many ways of, bridging that gap.
Sticking with the analogy, gamekeeping policy makers want to see accessible, broad and practically orientated research; the poachers are asking to be listened to even when the gamekeeper doesn’t like the answer. As the panel sessions developed it was clear that there are some vessels bridging the gap in the choppy waters below the unbuilt bridge – think tanks such as HEPI and Wonkhe (nicely described as a newspaper for people who work in universities). It was suggested several times that both were primary and vital sources of knowledge for policy makers and university leaders. HEPI’s Nick Hillman may be a little biased here but this does present a real challenge to higher education researchers and the influence of their work. Both HEPI and Wonkhe provide in many ways an insider’s view having former special advisers writing news, commentary and reports. Some (such as Peter Scott) have argued they are ideologically and politically influenced. Many voices are needed to help inform policy but, as was clear at the event, this isn’t a simple case of finding one possible solution.
Each panel member spoke from their own perspective on policy and systems, and education and students, expertly chaired by David Palfreyman and Nick Hillman. Policy levers mentioned were access, REF, TEF and system wide changes. These are areas I have engaged with in my own work on part-time access, the relationship between REF and TEF and the identity and practice of quasi-public university institutions. There was quite some frustration directed at ‘my lot’, the higher education researchers, for only being interested in complex writing, academic journal articles and not for writing blogs, starring in podcasts and simply presenting ‘the evidence’. In defence of me and my colleagues, we do try to do both. However, promotions and kudos sit firmly in citations and h-indexes rather than short form communication. Training in the form of a PhD often has little development in teaching, never mind media and blog posting; we needed to get to the magic 80,000 words!
I raised the very academic word of epistemology – knowledge and understanding and how different mediums and research methods produce different epistemic outcomes. Epistemology is something which academics in social science and humanities think and write a lot about – usually whole chapters in an 80,000-word thesis, and a field of study in its own right. Yes, I could have said knowledge and understanding instead of epistemology. This is an important point: understanding the gamekeeper, poacher and policy wonk is not always easy for each other and bridging gaps will take work, but this effort feels worth it for all parties. The event certainly made me realise how little I know about how policies are made, other than watching the West Wing over and over again. And as Leo McGarry says in the political drama: ‘There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ’em – laws and sausages’. I am open to seeing how policy is made, not so much the sausages. More West Wing below.
Some ‘non-academic’ panel members conveyed a sense of frustration that knowledge wasn’t accessible in a neat package that could then be applied to policy. This epistemic cause-and-effect positivism defies the many different types of academic research – large scale quantitative, secondary data analysis, small scale qualitative, systematic reviews, speculative futures, developing theory, conference papers to develop ideas, public seminars … the list could go on. My point is that trawling ‘the literature’ won’t find the ultimate and objective truth or answer (my own epistemic position) but it might help. Another epistemic view of mine is that HE research in many cases isn’t an objective hard science.
In my own work, in particularly teaching, I have been working in interdisciplinary ways with Engineers, Computer and Data Scientists and Physicists. We speak in different disciplinary languages, epistemic languages with different knowledge and understanding of the world. Key to interdisciplinarity is integration. The Manifesto of Interdisciplinarity states:
The essential feature of interdisciplinarity is integration: interdisciplinary research and teaching should seek to synthesize the insights generated by the specialized research undertaken within disciplines.
We all speak and work in our epistemic cultures, bodies of knowledge and experience that we know well. The key is integration – the bridge that this event has hopefully started to build. My experience of interdisciplinary teaching and learning is dialogue and centring around common goals and issues. Moreover, we should not underestimate long-term trusting relationships which allow for critique and admitting you haven’t a clue what your colleague is talking about!
The work of all parties is different and the outputs that we produce (policy, news articles, events, teaching, academic books and journals) are all designed for different audiences and purposes. The work of HEPI and Wonkhe is vitally important and it can move quickly, for example Nick Hillman and Mark Leach played out an insightful debate on student number controls, over 2 days and three pieces, highlighting no safe return to student number controls, the possibility of a different way of looking at number controls with some final words from Nick. The exchange offered an excellent resource on the debate of student number controls delivered quickly and from different perspectives. A more in depth, academic, peer reviewed piece of work on the same subject by one of the event organisers, Colin McCaig (Sheffield Hallam), equally adds to the knowledge base but in a different way. We do also need to consider academic freedom and distance between the game keepers and poachers and allow for critical analysis.
Yes, academics need to write in more creative ways to convey ideas and evidence but we also need book, thesis and journal length depth and analysis building on bodies of knowledge and literature – it’s what we do, but there are many forms of media to explore.
I am an avid reader of HEPI (and have written one blog for them) and Wonkhe – looking out for their references to policy wonking from political drama the West Wing. Writer Aaron Sorkin is a master of using dialogue to explore ideas and the SRHE event this November was a good starting point for dialogue on bridging the gap and improving the relationship between gamekeeping policy makers, HE-researching poachers and commentating policy wonks.
As Sorkin via President Bartlett reminds us, ten words are not enough …
The ten words and epistemic cause and effect of ‘This is what the research says, now make the policy’ is certainly not enough. I hope this is the first of many dialogues between policy makers, policy wonks and higher education researchers that I am involved in.
Dr. Adam Matthews is Lecturer in Education, Technology and Society at the University of Birmingham working across Social Sciences and Engineering and Physical Sciences. Adam’s research is focused on the idea of a university at system and policy level.