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Clare Callender


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Professor Claire Sorrel Callender to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Claire Callender has been part of our Birkbeck community since 2008, when she was appointed Professor of Higher Education Policy and then Professor of Higher Education Studies. Her dedication to our mission, her research excellence, and her energetic lobbying of politicians and policy makers has transformed the world of Higher Education and benefitted Birkbeck. Today, we celebrate the fifteen years she has spent in our College.

Who is Claire? She was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Willesden, north-west London. Her parents – Lydia and Martin – also had two sons, Neeman, who is Claire’s twin, and Colin. She went to the Notting Hill and Ealing School, an independent school for girls aged 4 – 18 and part of the Girls' Public Day School Trust. After school, she worked in Lloyds Bank International in Paris where she was employed as a bilingual secretary: her French was so perfect that colleagues complemented her on her English! She then worked in the non-profit sector and then as a community worker.

Claire’s academic career started when, in 1979, she completed a BSc in Social Administration and Sociology at the University of Bristol. Degree in hand, she was appointed as a lecturer in Social Policy at University College Cardiff and then at the University of Leeds. In 1988, she completed a PhD entitled ‘Gender and Social Policy: Women’s Employment, Redundancy, and Unemployment’ at the University of Wales in Cardiff. This was followed by university posts in Bradford, Sussex, the Policy Studies Institute (London), London South Bank University (her first professorial appointment) and then, from 2008, at Birkbeck – a position she shared with UCL since 2010. Along the way, there were numerous accolades – too many to count in his brief oration but includes becoming a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2003, a Fellow of the Society for Research into Higher Education in 2011, a member of the Court of the University of Bristol in 2021, and an Honorary Professor at the University of Warwick also in 2021. Most importantly, she was awarded an OBE in 2017 for her contributions to Higher Education.

Academically, Claire has worked in a great many fields, including influential work on redundancies (paying particular attention to pressures on older as well as female workers) and, most recently, on mental health issues for students.

She is renowned for her scholarship on the learning experiences of part-time students and on the impact of funding regimes. Claire developed an important critique of the ‘idealizations and illusions of student choice and marketization in higher education policy in England’. She observes that the dominant model of Higher Education in Britain today is based on a neoliberal version of ‘student-choice rationale’ and ‘provider competition’. It has demonstrably not worked. Claire assesses the many reasons for its failures but hones in on the way the model treats students as a ‘homogenous and one-dimensional group… divorced from their socio-economic backgrounds, untouched by social structure and social inequalities’. Claire is unafraid of quantitative social science, which was out of fashion when she started her research but the approach has been productive in addressing the ‘big questions’ in a robust fashion. She is driven by an evidence-based understanding of the inequalities that constrain the lives of so many people simply due to their socio-economic class, racialisation, and gender.

Claire has also drawn attention to numerous unanticipated consequences of Higher Education legislation. She argues that policies relating to bursaries and scholarships not only perpetuated inequalities but exacerbated them. She has explored the longer-term implications of student debt, concluding that debt-aversion is much stronger among students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, ethnic minorities, and students from first-generation university families. To give just one example, she has found that eighteen-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are two and a half times less likely to enter Higher Education than their more advantaged peers and eight and a half times less like to enrol in the most selective universities. Claire showed that the 2012 increase in tuition fees in England resulted in more than 40,000 ‘lost’ potential part-time students. This has huge implications for equity and social mobility, especially for people from already disadvantaged backgrounds. She admits that policy makers are sincere in attempting to understand what policies would work best but she laments the fact that funding systems in Higher Education are ‘dominated by prevailing political and ideological currents, rather than purely economic and pragmatic considerations’. Policy-makers and politicians need ‘a critical analysis… backed up by firm evidence, data, and robust research’. In short, they need Claire’s ‘critical analytical edge’. She has set out her arguments in over 80 books and reports, over 70 chapters in edited volumes and peer-reviewed journals, and over 60 professional articles. Along the way, she has won numerous grants worth many millions of pounds.

Clearly, Claire’s work has huge policy implication. Claire is one of those rare academics who is listened to by powerful people who set the agenda for Higher Education. In terms of policy and practice, I have been repeatedly told that Claire has been ‘one of the most influential higher education researchers over the past decade and more’, referenced even by ‘evidence sceptic’ politicians. She is frequently called to present her research to Parliamentary Select Committees and Commissions, expert panels, and meetings with MPs and senior civil servants, as well as by fellow academics.

Claire is an intellectual leader in other ways as well. She is Deputy Director of the ESRC-funded Centre for Global Higher Education, a centre that seeks to move beyond regional analyses to a global context. At the Centre, Callender is responsible for research on student finances and student experience. This requires not only intellectual leadership (which she gives in abundance) but also recruiting speakers, arranging syndicate tasks, setting assessment topics, and so on. An edited volume entitled Changing Higher Education for a Changing World (2020) is praised for being the ‘Greatest Hits Volume 1’ of the Centre for Global Higher Education. As Callender and the other two editors noted, the topic is important because ‘at the present pace of growth’, Higher Education is ‘larger, steeper, more global, [and] more contested’ than ever. As one colleague told me, Claire ‘has shown us that it is possible to pursue one’s critical work without compromises, while also being well-versed in the broader logics in operation’. According to another, she is ‘articulate, authoritative, and a persuasive speaker’, someone who can ‘make alliances across a wide group of people’.

What about ‘the person’? Claire is cleared loved as well as admired. I have been told that she has ‘a sharp wit, with a very dry sense of humour’. She is ‘impressive, full of integrity, generous with her expertise, supportive, and funny’. A friend told me that she is ‘self-searching, asking herself always if she could have done things differently’ and is capable of ‘critical self-reflection and learning through her engagement with others’. Her heritage and family mean a lot to her. She has a ‘fierce intelligence’ and is a ‘deeply loyal friend’. A colleague told me that Claire is ‘extremely pro-active. She is always seeking new research opportunities’ and ‘when she believes in a research project or topic, she completely immerses herself in it’. She is a natural collaborator. The pursuit of social justice animates her entire life. She is shy (something no-one would guess from her huge public presence). I was told she is ‘engaging, thoughtful, and supportive’, and happiest ‘thinking deeply and writing either by herself or with close collaborators’. Indeed, the only complaint I heard by one person close to her was that it was sometimes difficult to pull her away from her desk.

Her partner of thirty or so years is Annette Zera. They live in London and have a cottage in Essex. They are keen travellers, buzzing off to places like Vietnam and India. In her leisure times, she shows herself to be a skilled gardener, woodworker (especially picture frames), tennis-player, long-distance walker, and cook. She brings to her hobbies the same dedication and attention to detail that she brings to her research.

Claire has over forty years’ experience of applied social research using mixed methods. Her intellectual passions are those of Birkbeck. She is compassionate. Inequalities anger her. People matter to her. One of her co-authored articles ends by observing that ‘only a full-scale attack on social and economic inequalities will eradicate inequalities in Higher Education’.

We know that she will continue in this mission, which is why we are honoured to welcome her to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck.