GESF members at SRHE conference 2015 – “Challenges of Access and Equity”

By Susan L. Robertson

You have often heard colleagues saying that they often catch up with what their colleagues are up to, not in a conversation along the corridor, but at a conference held in another part of the world. Well this ‘other part of the world’ is the Society for Research in Higher Education conference held at the fantastically set Celtic Manor in Wales, UK.

My GESF corridor colleagues are Lisa Lucas and Sheila Trahar, who this morning have just been reporting on a study they are engaged in funded by the World Universities Network (with South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia). It is on a study of doctoral students, with a focus on how these students talk about access and equity. Theirs is work in progress, so these are the headline themes that have emerged so far.


Lucia Thesen (U of Cape Town) with Sheila Trahar and Lisa Lucas (UoB)

Doing doctoral studies for some students is still a pathway full of mystery that takes place in an institution, which viewed from the outside, is a place of privilege – like a manor house. Having arrived, it is also clear that what doctoral studies might involve is a surprise, including a rather formal curriculum.

This is true, of course, as doctoral studies has become more and more codified and the specifications driven much more by the funding councils in the UK tied to producing new kinds of knowledge workers for knowledge economies. That means not having substantive theoretical knowledge but methodological knowledge and skills that could then be put to use in high skill jobs in the wider labour market, and not just the academic labour market.

Lisa and Sheila also raised another issue around the nature of graduate pedagogy in the UK. Some of the doctoral students in their study talked about wanting ‘a living curriculum’ – one they see is better suited to them as adults with a stake in what their learning looks like. This is a curriculum they make and shape…one that grows, morphs and challenges them as adult learners.

This  difference in expectation and experience highlights a conflict between a formal curriculum and accompanying assessment and the creation of the graduates highlights.   Policymakers say that they want innovative and creative workers, but what they tend to fund are highly prescriptive courses. Doctoral students often make big life decisions – including changing jobs and leaving family, to try and advance a study that they are interested in, with more say and control over the shape and form of this project.

These two different expectations inevitably clash unless the institution is able to mediate this in some way. What will be interesting from the cross-country study they are involved in is how these issues are playing out in different countries, and how tensions get resolved.

In all, some fascinating issues emerging from a study in progress.

Editor’s Note: Susan L. Robertson is  Professor of Sociology of Education in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research is concerned with the changing nature of education as a result of transformations in the wider global, regional and local economies and societies, and the changing scales on which ideas, power and politics is negotiated. Contact: