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The Hidden Curriculum of Higher Education

31 Jul 2020 | Tim Hinchcliffe Tim Hinchcliffe, Senior Advisor, Advance HE, introduces this collection of papers and thought pieces for Advance HE members.

Between the call for ‘expressions of interest’ in October 2019 and the penning of this introduction in June 2020 the world changed. So too did the importance of this publication. The Black Lives Movement is riding a mounting wave of momentum, swollen by the tragic death of George Floyd. The author of the best-selling book series in history, J.K. Rowling is at the centre of a Twitter storm on transphobia. The world is still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic that has significantly touched the lives of all, regardless of privilege. And, of course let us not forget the raging bushfires that engulfed Australia are testament that we are in the midst of a climate emergency.

Higher Education too is intimately involved in these issues. The governors of Oriel College, Oxford University have voted to remove the statue of the Cecil Rhodes, and large numbers of universities are moving towards decolonising their curricula. The sector regulator, the Office for Students found it necessary to issue a 51-page guidance document on free-speech, including on the subject of transphobia. Universities are engaged in a range of Covid-19-related activities, from advising governments on public health policy, undertaking research on vaccines, and not least pivoting the delivery of their own taught courses to either blended or wholly online provision. Finally, to date a double-digit number of universities have joined a growing community of public and private bodies that have declared a climate emergency.

This collection of papers is therefore both timely and keenly relevant for the sector. There is coverage of internal colonisation; the educational experience of trans, non-binary and gender diverse people; what your campus might say about sustainability; and strategic approaches to designing online courses from those who have been doing so for a significant number of years. But just because an issue is not currently under the spotlight does not mean that it is not deserving of our attention. Autistic students, estranged students, and care-leavers are given due coverage here too, as is the omnipresent subject of ‘class’. And what publication would be complete if it did not have a word to say on the experience of induction or the matter of assessment, in this instance feedback practices.

All of these thought-leadership pieces and evidence-informed case studies touch on important aspects of the hidden curriculum that are pervasive in higher education. I resisted the urge for a uniform definition of the concept and have instead left it to individual authors to decide the context of the hidden curriculum to their subject. But each of these pieces does have something in common one another; they all speak to unspoken or assumed rules and norms that should be examined and challenged. Incidentally the same is true of the aforementioned global events. The arguments put forward here are not intended as definitive solutions to all of these issues. But I do hope that they prove to be at the very least thought-provoking, and if you will allow me to be aspirational, action-provoking too. The implications of the hidden curriculum in higher education are far-reaching, but they are not exclusively detrimental and so there is reason to be optimistic as well as pragmatic.

The only tenet shared by every student in higher education is the curriculum, and so we should all relish and cherish our responsibility to nurture it.

The full report is available to Advance HE members: The Hidden Curriculum of Higher Education

Tim Hinchcliffe, June 2020


Further reading: If you are interested in reading more generally on the subject, then I have included a short bibliography below that sparked my initial interest in the area.

Cotton, D, Winter, J, & Bailey, I, 2013, ‘Researching the hidden curriculum: intentional and unintended messages’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, vol. 37 no. 2, pp. 192–203.

Margolis, E, 2002, The Hidden Curriculum in Higher Education, Routledge.

Sambell, K, & McDowell, L., 1998, ‘The Construction of the Hidden Curriculum: messages and meanings in the assessment of student learning’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 391–402.

Semper, J & Blasco, M, 2018, ‘Revealing the Hidden Curriculum in Higher Education’, Studies in Philosophy & Education, vol. 37, no. 5, pp. 481–498.

Snyder, B, 1970, The Hidden Curriculum, MIT press.

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