Conference review: Higher Education as a Critical Institution – the CHER 2016 Conference

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Miguel Antonio Lim  (University of Manchester)

Now that next year abstract deadlines are coming up, it is just about time for reflections of what the conference season had to offer in 2016. 

This guest entry is written by Miguel Antonio Lim. He is Lecturer in Education and International Development at the University of Manchester. His research interests include the sociology of evaluation, international higher education, and professional expertise. He has worked on research projects around global university rankings and audit culture in higher education. Miguel has previously been EU-Marie Curie Fellow at Aarhus University and Executive Director of the Global Public Policy Network Secretariat. He has worked for the Asia Pacific Center at Sciences Po-Paris and taught at the London School of Economics.

The 29th Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) conference took place on the 5th-7th September at Cambridge University around the theme: ‘The University as a Critical Institution?’ While CHER is among the most popular and important research-oriented conferences in the field of higher education, the organizers noted an increased participation at the 2016 conference to almost 200 delegates.

CHER 2016 was marked by the strong presence of higher education researchers from around the world. There was a babble of languages spoken throughout the coffee breaks. Colleagues working in the UK, Russia, China, the USA, Germany, Italy, and the Nordic countries, among others, presented work about their various regions.

Apart from the geographical breadth of the conference, CHER 2016 also showcased a wide variety of disciplinary and methodological approaches towards the study of higher education. These were particularly apparent in the sessions of the conference in which Sue Wright, an anthropologist, and Vicky Boliver, a social policy scholar (using statistical methods) delivered their keynotes.

Wright’s opening keynote took her listeners over a wide ranging list of phenomena that characterised what she called the Anthropocene as well as the Capitalocene. She challenged those present to think about how to make the university a liveable space for all within it while also carrying out its role as a critical institution in society. Boliver’s contribution was meant to address the question of how to widen participation in higher education and how restrictive admission criteria could be having greater impacts on social mobility.

These keynotes set the tone for a lively range of discussions at CHER 2016 around 4 key strands. There were:

  1. Governance: Critical regulation and regulated criticism
  2. Teaching and learning: Beyond employability
  3. Growth, equality, movement, instability and limits in higher education systems, and
  4. a general strand encompassing other research topics related to the conference theme

Several papers were presented in a number of parallel sessions around these themes. Apart from papers there were also organized panels – including one on gender issues in higher education and another on the results of the EU-funded Universities in the Knowledge Economy (UNIKE) Project. Two colleagues also took the opportunity to present posters during two dedicated presentation sessions.

There was, in addition, a good mix of junior and senior researchers. The Early Career Higher Education Researchers (ECHER) had a meeting just preceding CHER 2016 in which junior colleagues shared work with one another. More senior members of the community and editors from the journal Higher Education also joined the meeting to share advice and experiences.

Apart from an interest in higher education what unified the delegates was a convivial spirit that overflowed into the pubs of Cambridge during the conference evenings. A few delegates even took to taking a traditional punt on the river Cam. Everyone was also delighted to have the conference dinner at the Hall of St. John’s College and to enjoy discussions on the present as well as future of higher education in a place that is strongly associated with some of higher education’s oldest practices.

CHER 2016 was supported by Queen’s College, Lucy Cavendish College, St. John’s College and the Law Firm Mills and Reeve. In 2017 CHER will return to the University of Jyvaskyla to celebrate its 30th Conference.

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