Higher Education Policy and Change

As in the other research themes, we rely on the variety of social practice theory developed and applied at the Centre for Higher Education Research and Evaluation.

One particular version of this, Complex Adaptive Systems Theory, was being used by senior managers at Southampton Solent University in their development project aimed at reshaping the University in terms of curricular flexibility, employer engagement, student centredness, employability and management practices.

Paul Trowler and Paul Davies followed and advised Southampton Solent University during their HEFCE-funded strategic development project. Congruent with our social practice theory, Complex Adaptive Systems Theory sees universities as complex systems that are not successfully led only by a technical-rational, top-down approach based on rigid pre-defined ‘visions’ which are mechanically implemented by a series of incremental steps.

Rather, universities as organizations are seen as complex adaptive systems (CAS) operating in a turbulent and somewhat unpredictable environment, having multiple goals and agendas which can affect the path of change. Change management based on a CAS approach involves sensitivity to context, being comfortable with uncertainty and with variable outcomes in the short term, a willingness to allow time for fundamental changes to occur and an ability to build consensus.

Also using social practice theory, Murray Saunders' work on the Scottish Quality Enhanced Framework is discussed in the theme about Evaluative research. Saunders' work helped institutions to develop the notion of a quality framework and was crucial in developing a change-focused approach to enhancement at the institutional level. At a conference entitled Education in Changing Environment held at Salford University, Murray Saunders gave a keynote speech about Changing Practice in HE: national policies, enhancement cultures and personal impetus.

Paul Ashwin is leading an ESRC/National Research Foundation funded International Centre Partnership with Jenni Case, University of Cape Town entitled ‘Pathways to personal and public good: understanding access to, student experiences of, and outcomes from South African undergraduate higher education’. This partnership will bring together established and emerging researchers from South Africa, the UK and internationally.

Paul Trowler was a member of the QAA steering group which developed the chapter for universities on student engagement, part of its new quality code. This came into effect in the academic year 2013-14, requiring universities to show how they meet the indicators of the QAA's expectation on student engagement. Paul Trowler gave a keynote address on enhancement processes in hard times at University of Derby’s Learning, Teaching and Assessment Conference on Raising Aspirations in a time of change.

HEI widening participation teams were assisted in their Evaluation Capacity Building through consultancy work, the provision of a toolkit about Evaluation Capacity Building and a series of seminars and workshops delivered by Murray SaundersAnn-Marie Houghton and Paul Davies.

Change of a different nature was attained at Bradford University through a collaborative project entitled Ecoversity on the development of sustainable practices and the inclusion of the sustainability agenda in Bradford's curriculum. This project was conducted by Paul Trowler together with the leader of Bradford's ecoversity initiative, Peter Hopkinson.

Brett Bligh has investigated how organisational activities can be re-imagined by those who undertake them using the Change Laboratory approach. One example he investigated involved academic and support staff from four departments collaborating to design a new integrated Pharmacy curriculum in the context of a major change in regulatory environment.