Blog Education Research

Guinea-pigs in a maelstrom!

The Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) Conference 2014

Here's Fluffy
Here’s Fluffy. DS106 Daily Create, Viv Rolfe

I was very excited to be presenting at the SRHE conference last week, if a little intrepid. As a scientist who dips her toe into the world of social science methodologies, I was wondering if my work would stand the test? Judging by the questions and the Tweets I think they enjoyed it and there were no disapproving comments on my methodologies. Phew!


But me aside, the SRHE was an inspirational experience and packed with a fantastic bunch of people. There was a real international flavour and many people were attending for the first time. Are more people now interested in the big questions surrounding Higher Education? I do hope so, because there are some bloody big questions to ask these days, and judging by the action-packed programme, these were the people certainly doing it.

What I learnt?
What concerns me?
What gives me hope?
Let’s go kick ass!

Here is what I learnt in terms of methodology

  • Much of my research may employ questionnaires or interviews, or a combination. I noted how may of these researchers gather data from a broad range of sources, – questionnaires, interviews, case studies, student data, policies. The skill comes in identifying the themes and coding the results for analysis, and to triangulate the results. The volume of work is not to be underestimated.
  • Software such as NVIVO and WEFT QDA are used for analysis and data management. I need to do something other than use Excel!
  • Multidisciplinary approaches are really the thing. Subject specialists are teaming up with social scientists to share the joy. It made me think about the demise of the HEA and subject centres that support discipline-facing research. Teaming up is one approach, but I think there is a massive gap being created in the methodology skills and support that people in HE will require, and particularly those new and starting out.
  • It is quite acceptable to talk through ‘work in progress’, and with the richness of data gathered in some of the studies I am not surprised. I am struggling myself to summarise 7 interviews in 20 minutes of presentation. But everyone is cool here.
  • Someone made the amazing point – well I thought it was amazing – that often we don’t have the language and structures to ask the right questions. In an emerging field where the experiences are not fully articulated – like in my research, student and teacher perceptions of the ethical dilemmas associated with open online learning, this can cause inertia and a lack of knowledge and progress. Therefore research is needed from a very fundamental level not just to define the problem, but to determine the language with which to even explore it.

Here is what concerns me!

  • The demise of the Higher Education Academy subject centres and loss of research method-support for the different disciplines. Yes, teaming up is fine, but how do we maintain the subject contexts, how do we translate the approaches and theories to the discipline expert, and how to support new people starting out?
  • Linked to this demise, how do we ensure that there is a foundation of scholarly research expertise across departments and institutions that can support fellowship and other professional awards where practice evaluation is a key element? Again, linked to the loss of the subject centre networks, people’s professional development is at risk from the gap in methods expertise arising.
  • Where are the small pots of funding for this research? Yes, the SRHE does offer fellowships, but the changing strategies from the likes of the HEA and Jisc mean that the vital exploratory pieces of research simply can no longer be funded. Couple that with getting yourself full economically-costed onto a bid, and in my situation, applying for £10K can result in around two thirds in FEC and university overheads. Innovation will die!!!

Here is hope!

Everyone at the conference was acknowledging the very turbulent times that we are presently working under, with serious difficulties being faced by both university staff and students alike. What was hugely encouraging was the focused and high quality research being conducted and asking some very fundamental questions, for example:

University students’ attitudes to debt: a cross-national study (paper 0084)
Neil Harrison and Steve Agnew

They explored student attitude to debt in England, New Zealand and the US. Whilst debt did make students anxious naturally, this didn’t demotivate them from achieving debt, especially when the perceived value of gaining an education was strong. Debt was also linked to life style choice which was perhaps a little more worrying. The analysis of the data was in the early stages, and the outcomes of this work will certainly be worth waiting for.

The social implications of high participation higher education systems (paper 0119)
Simon Marginson

There was much focus at the conference on the social implications and impact of higher education. This excellent paper reviewed the last three decades of expansion and how this had affected a range of dimensions of HE and society, with in and around half school leavers engaging in HE. Along with others, Simon observed the stratification of the system with the ‘elite’ institutions pulling away from the field, although in Nordic systems, there were lesser differences between institutions.

“The overarching question is: ‘What are the implications of a society with universal participation in higher education?” Again, an early analysis with papers ready soon!

But what about the conference keynotes?

I think they gave me the most hope of all in that they were senior colleagues and big thinkers in the world of HE, and the first time in a long time I’ve heard such clarity of thought and common sense around some of the major issues concerning us.

SUE CLEGG – guinea pigs in a maelstrom. Weeeeeeep.

Sue talked about our moral obligation to inspire future generations – supporting a positive experience and not allowing new students to be “guinea pigs in a maelstrom”.

She reflected on the shift from an elite HE offering to mass participation, and how in the UK the system is now differentiating once more with an ‘elite’ league harnessing the funding and many of the opportunities, with clearly the big shift in students paying for access. She questioned the notion of the ‘graduate’ and the benefits that were really on offer, with many no achieving graduate level jobs, and whether this was the result of the “massification and lowering of quality”?

Many of her comments paralleled my socio-ethical observations of MOOCS:

  • Socially advantaged groups part of a system that maintains their advantage
  • Gender inequalities exist
  • Curriculum imbalances with ‘Western’ ideas excluding the cultural knowledge of indigenous people in some areas
  • As with MOOCs, mass does not equate with fair.


Bob gave a most thought provoking talk, and as with Jurgen, brought more perspectives from senior executive and thought-leaders. Bob talked about the change in HE finances, not just in terms of student fees, but government withdrawal of capital grants and the need for universities to fundraise, something that I’ve not really come across before. Interesting – we view students as the consumers and the key stakeholders, but what about those donating? Do they have a vested interest? How do we work to maintain their involvement?

In good news, Bob recounted the increased recognition by institutional decision makers of teaching quality, and the support given to fellowships and promotional schemes to raise the profile of ‘learning and teaching’ in HE. He admitted we aren’t there yet, with a fair amount of variability in promotional routes and levels of support available in universities.

Jurgen talked about HE overload and hyper-complexity! Institutions are held together by fear, and many staff are fearful, and we don’t have to delve to far into the news to find many case examples of that. Institutions and departments them are competing for resources, and then there are national and international reputations to maintain. There is rising inequality in the system.

Jurgen pointed out that we all talk about diversity and yet we standardise everything? I thought about this long and hard last week when a dyslexic student came to me in fear of the 80 question multiple choice test that he was due to face after Christmas. This is not just a response to ‘massification’ but the present day clamour to measure, monitor and manipulate absolutely everything that can possibly be classified: student experience, teaching excellence, research capability…..the list is endless, as is the vast amount of time and resource spent analysing, maintaining and responding to this data.

As Jurgen asked:

Aren’t there bigger problems to solve?

That league tables were:

Like an academic arms race.

Bob very much echoed this sentiment:

Add the shoe sizes of VC’s into league tables! Would be just as accurate.

Let’s go kick ass!

Jurgen ended by asking how we can take action? We are all very good at researching and talking about these things, but what to do? How to start some creative disorder? How to work against the current zeitgeist? So indeed, creative disorder, but how? I suppose we can continue the research, we can blog for more immediate opinion and reactions, but we are talking about change on an organisational and national scale here.

There will be similar debates this week with the results of the REF and the increasingly publicised ‘corruption’ within the system, how chasing targets and rankings causes “pressure cooker cultures”, bullying and even worse. Yet we go on cheerfully smiling through the next visitors day!


So, research? YES.

Blog and discuss publically? YES.

Influence colleagues and institutional leaders? YES.

Become a member of the SRHE? YES!