Review: The Centre for Global Higher Education in London Launches

WeeklyFocusOn Tuesday and Wednesday this week a two day launch in London for what is now the world’s largest research center focusing on Higher Education took place.  The Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE, or CG has most speakers at the launch referred to it as) held a free international seminar to mark the occasion, which included a variety of guest speakers from various UK HE bodies, and partners from abroad.

Day 1 focused on Higher Education in a global context, and had a series of 30 minute talks from Dr John Jerrim (Reader in Education & Social Statistics at the IoE); Professor Rober Tijssen (Chair of Science & Innovation Students at Leiden University); and Professor Joshua Ka Ho Mok (Lingnan University).  The day was MC’d by Wonkhe’s Mark Leach, who introduced brief talks by HEFCE’s Chris Millward (Director of Policy) and ESRC’s Phil Sooben (Deputy Chief Executive), which are the two main funders of CGHE; and more introductions by Professor Andrew Brown as the IoE’s Acting Direct, Professor Claire Callendar as the Deputy Director of CGHE and Simon Marginson, CGHE’s Director.

After various talks aiming to point towards what the CGHE will address, the commitments to partners it has established, and other introductory statements, the day really kicked off with John Jerrim’s talk. Titled ‘Why don’t poor kids go to university? Three things you need to know about access to higher education’, Jerrim discussed his research and the implications of tuition fees.  He suggested that disadvantaged students do not understand the value and potential of higher status universities; but that the larger problem was that neither did we (somewhat demonstrating an earlier comment by Millward stating policy and practice have moved faster than theory).  He also highlighted the fact that there is no such thing as ‘free’ education, and that it is taxpayer’s money: added to this, was his suggestion that because wealthier students tend to go to university more than poorer, such a system means the poor end up subsidising HE for the wealthy. ‘Rich people take out more from the tax system than the poor in terms of provision’, Jerrim argued of the pre-1997 system.  It was an interesting talk, which he deserves credit for, particular seeing the onslaught of questions from the audience clearly eager to discuss areas which were not covered by Jerrim’s research.  The questions alone demonstrated the urgent need for such a centre.

His talk was followed by Robert Tijssen, who spoke about world ranking in ‘Global trends in science and world university rankings: converging or diverging?’.  There is a similar article just released on University World News by Tijssen, which raises similar issues brought up in the seminar.  Tijssen explained various ranking systems, and the pros and cons of each. He suggested that there is still a lot of structural holes in university rankings, and that we need diverse approaches and the inclusion of the diversity of institutions within rankings.  He also said that there is a scarcity or lack of high-quality data as well as insufficient transparency in ranking, which also add to the difficulty of cross-comparative analysis.  Tijssen did point to challenges for the future, such as the impacts of teaching excellence and socio-economics, which he called ‘elephants in the room’.  What was clear from Tijssen’s talk, however, is that there are some important questions about our systems of rankings and we have to make sure that the arbitrary weighing systems we use, or the indicators we include, are reliably measurable, culturally inclusive, and relevant to a global HE rather than beneficial to a few.

The last talk, The question for world-class status: challenges and prospects for higher education in Asia’, presented by Ka Ho Mok, opened with a bold statement I hate to talk about ranking but ranking comes to us everyday’ along with the question for ‘world class status’.  Ka Ho Mok pointed out that ranking is now embedded in the psychology of HE, and explained the development of HE in Asia based on this point.  Student numbers in China have risen from 3 million to 27 million between 1996 and 2009; this massification is also strongly tied to family aspiration, but also pressure to compete internationally.  He also, however, notes that this rapid expansion without careful mapping of graduate employment and changing labour market needs will create problems, and that insufficient social mobility and high unemployment will add to this future problem.  Ka Ho Mok highlighted the importance of recognising the public good in education, rather than seeing it as just about economics and global force.  He also asked important questions, such as ‘in whose image HE is being modelled out of?’ and whether the popular ‘internationalisation’ is in fact just ‘Westernisation’.  He pointed out that he felt Asia was playing catch up and adopting a western model, using ranks as variables of focus, rather than adopting a more culturally relevant model.  His talk brought a real and relevant angle to the notion of internationalisation, and just what global means in real terms.

There was time for questions before the day being closed by Simon Marginson who gave thanks all around and signposted the audience towards future events and involvement, as well as – of course – lunch!

Day 2, titled ‘Fostering the impact of higher education and research’ took place in a SOAS lecture theatre, and presented talks by panel including David Sweeney (Director, Research, Education & Knowledge Exchange, HEFCE); Dr Alis Oancea (Deputy Director for Research and Associate Professor in the Philosophy of Education, University of Oxford); and Professor Paul Ashwin (Lancaster University and CGHE).

Sweeney’s talk on ‘Impact in learning and teaching: lessons from, and contrasts with, research impact’ really looked as asking simple but broad questions, as well as understanding impact.  He suggested that ‘you cannot assess something until you can describe it’, and that impact is largely about understanding what difference it makes. It is too difficult to go too far with proxy metrics unless you have your concepts, he said, but equally disagrees that such a task is too difficult or complicated.  Sweeney also stated the obvious, which often seems forgotten, that ‘students are not tabula rasa’, and that because ‘there are so many areas of contention’ we have ‘failed to reach any overarching framework’.  He also highlighted the importance of diversity, and as HEFCE Director, the manner in which they aim to give equal status for people conducting all kinds of research, finding value-judgements inappropriate for the task.     

Sweeney was unfortunately not available for questions, as he had to shoot off, however this did not provide any shortcomings as the remaining panel were stimulating enough.  Dr Alis Oancea followed Sweeney with ‘Research impacts: networks and narratives’, who spoke about networks and narratives as well as the rise of research impact.  She pointed out that narratives differ according to discipline when discussing or measuring impact, and breaks down her observation of impact narrative into climatic, headline, key examples and chronological.  This, for example, refers to different plot elements within narrative construction: some may claim impact first, then introduce the problem, how the project has developed, recognition of the project, and outcomes; others may construct this in a variety of ways.  He mentioned that in her research, and interviewee had made a poignant point that we have ‘to be careful not to become prisoners of our own metrics we created’, emphasising that we really need to think about our approach and concepts of impact.  The talk led to plenty of relevant discussion which could last days:Do, for example, our indicators and metrics force us to build linear views about impact and innovation?, asked Peter Scott.  William Locke also added that impact has become too individualised at the expense of the greater and wider benefits.  There was also a point raised about what we understand as impact from John Brennan, who pointed out impact should capture both the positive and negative.

The day ended with a talk by Paul Ashwin on ‘Conceptual issues in measuring the impact of higher education’, which raised a key issue around the power play and politics involved in knowledge and its transformation and how this might help us think about impact.  He started by providing accepted understandings of impact i.e. ‘excellent research’, having a ‘demonstrable contribution’, or contributing to ‘public debate, tackling societal challenges and being usable’.  He pointed out that Government’s favourite assessment of impact is graduate salaries, which opened discussion to the question of contestation and power dynamics in shaping what is recognised as impact, who owns it, and the game of claiming ownership as well.  Ashwin also asked whether it would make more sense to examine impact at the level of a whole system rather than through an individualistic, project-baed level, and that we need to recognise the collective nature of knowledge and effort.  Ashwin seemed to promote the idea of researchers and academics being more proactive in creating categories for impact, rather than passively accepting what is given to them.  There are different forms of teaching, engagement and impact that will be narrowed and limited otherwise, and rather than blaming current situations on neoliberalism, demonstrate different ways to implement – say – the Green Paper.

The day was fascinating, with the sentiment conveyed in an eloquent comment ‘academic integrity is the starting point for everything we do’.  Undoubtedly, as Ashwin suggested, we – as universities and researchers and stakeholders of HE – contribute to the way that HE is now and we should own up to that responsibility. Equally, we should not set boundaries up for ourselves in which we become prisoners, but rather explore flexible approaches to understanding how we can measure, improve and develop HE in a manner that embraces both diversity and progress.

The launch was a success and it will be interesting to see future work from CGHE.






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