How does higher education policy affect our everyday activities in universities? As educators, is policy at the forefront of our teaching and learning practice? Or is it just a miasma of targets, data collection, new developments and rules and regulations?
I am looking at higher education policy as part of my Doctorate in Education. So, I’ve been doing the day job as a university educator and researching policy intensively. The architecture of the higher education sector is being re-built around us as we teach in classrooms, grade work and engage with our students. Since the Browne Review (2010) there has been such a large raft of policy developments that it is quite difficult to comprehend the impact on the sector. For most of us, when we are teaching, it is that that occupies our minds rather than policy! However, we can’t ignore the changes and of course we are all aware of them. Every department in every university in the country is concerned with producing high quality research output for the Research Excellence Framework, working towards the best possible results in the National Student Survey, and more recently engaging with the metrics and submissions for the Teaching Excellence Framework.
We are enacting policy every day of our working lives. I’m sure that it takes no leap of imagination to realise that there is a potential for conflict in my research topic. I (as do others) question the current policy agenda. There are many vehicles for criticism of policy in the wider environment, particularly in the media. Of course, debate is a good thing. We are educators after all; people who encourage critical thinking amongst our students so that they can go out into the wider world and produce new ideas which contribute to their personal progress and society as a whole. On many occasions, during my research, I have felt that I am almost physically bouncing between the minutiae of daily practice and the wider policy agenda. And it is this that I am really interested in as a research topic. How do educators feel about policy? Is pure acceptance a pragmatic response to policy developments? Should we challenge policymakers? Is there really room for negotiation with policymakers? Finally, how is policy really enacted in universities?
Obviously, one thesis won’t provide all the answers to these questions. There have been times when I have felt as though I have been living a Kafkaesque existence whilst teaching in HE and researching policy. As I was keeping up to date with the progress of the Higher Education and Research Bill and reading critiques of government policy in the literature and the media, I would always question the impact on universities. How would courses be affected? Would the university’s strategic direction change in light of developments?
There were times when I believed I would not be able to adequately distance myself from practice to carry out the research. My thinking was muddled by doing the day job and keeping up with policy. However, I now realise that being muddled for a while wasn’t such a bad thing! The pinch point of policy change is in the enactment in university departments. It’s where policy becomes reality! I was in the middle of that reality and sometimes it wasn’t an easy place to be. Now I believe that it is possibly the best place from which to view policy. University educators are the object of HE policy. I’m in touch with the endgame, the rules of which are written in Westminster. In my mind, questioning policy in context has the potential to lead to deeper reflection on practice as it stands today and may produce new ideas which benefit students and university departments.
We live in complicated times. There is uncertainty in society in general as the Brexit negotiations take place. We can anticipate more change in the future. During the recent period of change, university educators have been asked to engage with and react to policy at a very fast pace. It can be overwhelming. It can impact upon our professional identities and our traditional concepts of what a university is and does. As a researcher, I am trying to capture some of the contention which exists but also attempting to identify how policy produces new processes and initiatives which may benefit the sector in the future. On the other hand, as an educator, I’m getting on with the day job!