Education research should be central to the academy. Why isn’t it?

Our report suggests the discipline is struggling in the UK amid low funding and methodological clashes, say four academics

June 12, 2023
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Asked to name the core tenets of higher education, university leaders will often enthuse about knowledge exchange, civic engagement, social justice and lifelong learning. These commitments should position education – the academic discipline and field of practice – as central to the academy. University schools of education should be in rude health.

The reality, however, is different: education research is often marginalised within universities, with many researchers wondering whether to persevere in the face of poor institutional support, variable funding streams, low status, inadequate training and restrictions on academic freedom.

Education research finds itself working in a tricky space, without the powerful institutional support and autonomy that maintain other disciplines. Primary and secondary schools are often too busy addressing staff recruitment crises or funding shortfalls to engage with the systemic, social or pedagogic issues explored by academics. Moreover, the role of higher education in training teachers is now highly variable across the UK, with England seeing increasing numbers of schools-based training and development options that connect to higher education only for accreditation and via their ostensibly research-based curricula.

Last month’s release of a major survey report by the British Educational Research Association gives an up-to-date picture of education research and education researchers working in higher education. Drawing on just over 1,600 responses, about 20 per cent of all UK higher education researchers, the State of the Discipline survey reveals an uncomfortable picture of the current conditions and issues within the sector. Insecure work and casualisation, unfairness in promotion and career progression, and crushing workloads will be familiar to many working within higher education.

“I have worked in four HEIs in five years due to temporary, fixed-term contracts,” explained one precariously employed respondent, who likened her working life to that of jobbing actors and musicians who “get a gig, then have to work an unrelated job in the interim to survive”.

However, the study also shows that experiences differed substantially between institutions and individuals. Some respondents described their workplaces as havens of stable funding and excellent conditions, bringing high satisfaction and well-being, but others talked about “unfriendly departments”, “a climate of alienation” and “not [feeling] supported or mentored at all”. One academic listed their priority as just “getting through each day, and hopefully managing to write an article and a bid by the end of the year. I am finding working in HE exhausting.”

This unhappiness is sometimes keenly felt, not least because more than 80 per cent of education researchers come to academia as a second career – many from the school sector or other teaching roles and with about 30 per cent from other industries, such as healthcare, engineering or charities, the study explains.

They constitute an older workforce, with just 3 per cent of researchers in their 20s, and the majority (78 per cent) being 40 and over. Only a small minority (16.2 per cent) had education as the focus of their undergraduate degrees, and less than 60 per cent had it as the subject area for their highest qualification.

At its best, this second-career, second-discipline workforce is a melting pot: forging powerful connections with schools and society, creating fertile ground for interdisciplinary research, and bringing vast external expertise into the academy.

However, it also creates problems with training and the coherence of research activity. Half of survey respondents rated their level of formal training in research design and methods as “limited or none” or “basic”. There were also long-standing concerns about divides between qualitative and quantitative research. Rather than spreading and combining diverse expertise, researchers are often working in disciplinary, methodological and ideological pockets.

One scholar bemoaned how “larger-scale, quantitative studies are favoured over smaller-scale and qualitative research designs by funding bodies”, while others hit out at those perceived to be “irrationally averse to evidence-based policy or anything to do with the quantitative measurement of educational outcomes”. There are myriad routes into education research, yet few uniting experiences to sustain common understanding and coherence.

A lack of ethnic diversity within the workforce is also concerning. Some 87 per cent of researchers are white, substantially higher than the 74 per cent found in academia more widely. Some black researchers spoke about feeling “hyper-visible” and having to “relay my lived experiences of racisms and other injustices in the institution, without being supported with appropriate resources... to shield me from their effects”. And while two-thirds of the workforce are women, only about half of professors are female.

The most heartening portion of the survey was educational researchers’ descriptions of their research interests and purposes. These interests are firmly rooted in deeply held values relating to learning, social justice and knowledge; there was an overwhelming sense that education research speaks to pressing issues of social and technological change and makes a real difference to children, young people and society. Where researchers can secure the funding and carve out the space, education research is social research at its best: innovative, meaningful and impactful. At present, however, this is not consistently achieved.

Education researchers persevere because they can see their work’s value to society. But universities and education policy makers need to do more to back that work. Only then will the true potential of education research be realised.

Thomas Perry, Rebecca Morris and Emma Smith are education researchers at the University of Warwick. With Jess Pilgrim-Brown, a research associate in education at the University of Bristol, they authored Bera’s State of the Discipline survey report, published in May.

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