Challenges facing academic practice over next 5 years


I’ve been asked to give a talk about the main challenges facing academic practice over next 5 years and it’s quite a tricky assignment, so I thought I’d put a few thoughts down here and see if it helps. I’m focussing on the UK context, although of course increasing internationalisation would be one challenge…

The first big thing on the horizon would be the general election. There have been some noises from Labour about a change to student fee levels, although this is pretty non-committal at this stage, but some kind of change in HE funding is certainly a big possibility over the next 5 years, as well as changes regarding international students and immigration…

The 9k cap itself can’t remain at it’s current level for ever as it is ‘unsustainable‘. Whatever happens there will be plenty more discussion about value for money, and how to quantify that for students/ customers and I think that will continue to have a big impact on learning and teaching within HE. This is likely to put more emphasis on blended and online learning as at worst a cost effective way of delivering more bangs per buck, but at best a great way to encourage both formal and informal learning (alongside F2F).

This contrasts with the reduced funding for the HEA which is having a big impact on the sector, at the same time as HEA accreditation is increasingly becoming a key metric that whilst not perfect can give students an indication of the status of teaching within an institution. During a live webchat last year with the compiler of the Guardian league tables I specifically asked about the inclusion of metrics around HEA accreditation of staff in their tables, to which he replied “Accreditation of staff by the HEA / a general look at the qualifications of staff will become an option as data improves, though there are no current plans for changes.” I think if this were to happen it would have a big impact on the HEA, and efforts to encourage accreditation within institutions.

The third big thing, a bit more distant on the horizon is ref2020, which we don’t know a lot about at the moment, although for me the big thing already is the open access mandate. I have been involved in some discussions about this at faculty level and this is certainly a big opportunity, although I’m worried about the emphasis on ‘gold’ OA over green. There is definitely some exciting new stuff happening in academic publishing though that and a big challenge for academic practice is going to be harnessing that.

Cutting across both of these themes is an increasing focus on digital scholarship. Five years ago whilst at the Open University I co-wrote something about digital scholarship which still has a resonance today. I discussed how new technologies were making possible more open ways of working across academia, in research as well as teaching and public engagement. I conclused that:

“These new web based technologies are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a radical opening up of scholarly practice. In this sense digital scholarship is more than just using information and communication technologies to research, teach and collaborate, but it is embracing the open values, ideology and potential of technologies born of peer-to-peer networking and wiki ways of working in order to benefit both the academy and society. Digital scholarship can only have meaning if it marks a radical break in scholarship practices brought about through the possibilities enabled in new technologies.”

I think that I stand by that, even though 5 years has passed I think that there are still some big changes that are taking place (my work as a SSI fellow definitely showed me some interesting stuff that’s going on with software in research for example) and the next 5 years will no doubt be no different, even if the macro level drivers aren’t technologically related.

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About digitalscholar

I am a sociologist with an interest in new technology. Previously I’ve worked on a number of projects at Lancaster University and the Open University looking at the use of new technologies and social media by researchers. I was also a social sciences teaching fellow at the foundation centre at Durham University teaching sociology and anthropology. I am now a senior lecturer at the University of West London's Institute for Teaching, Innovation and Learning where I oversee the foundation provision and support retention. I'm sure I'll still be interested in, and occasionally blog about, tech related things. I use this blog to post thoughts about using new technologies in my professional academic life and wider thoughts and links relating to technology more generally.
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