Campus close-up: ‘Authoritative voice’ set to project on the world stage

UCL-led centre aims to clarify complexity – and dispel a few myths, too

June 25, 2015
A man using a meaphone
Mustering the troops: centre’s 23-strong team will be joined by seven postdocs

With £5 million of funding and big names already on board, the Centre for Global Higher Education aims to have an impact – including by looking critically at “impact” and other major issues facing the world academy.

The CGHE is a partnership led by the UCL Institute of Education that includes Lancaster University, the University of Sheffield and eight international institutions. It is being launched with five-year funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Simon Marginson, the CGHE’s director and professor of international higher education at the IoE, referred to another ESRC-funded project – the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies – when he talked about the centre’s role. The IFS, he said, “makes a major contribution to the country long term by providing really strong data and being an authoritative voice. Our role is to build that authoritative voice [in higher education] and to understand higher ed better than anyone else, in a research sense.”

The CGHE, which will formally open in October, will “provide wisdom, advice and intellectual judgement about the sector” via research, consultancy, events and media engagement, he added.

Professor Marginson will be supported by deputy directors Claire Callender, professor of higher education policy at Birkbeck, University of London and professor of higher education studies at the IoE, and William Locke, reader in higher education studies at the IoE.

Other well-known names on the centre’s 23-strong research team include Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at the IoE.

The CGHE has also created seven postdoctoral positions that will “create a cohort of next-generation HE researchers”, he said.

Higher education studies is a field that until now was “carried by individuals, not by large groups”, the CGHE director continued. Impact was “central to our bid” for funding, he added: indeed, one of the centre’s stated goals is to “maximise impacts in higher education policy in the four UK nations and worldwide”. But impact is also one of the major issues the CGHE will examine, Professor Marginson said: “I think there are a lot of problems in the way we measure impact…but we need to do it.”

Initially the centre will run 13 research projects across three programmes: globalisation, UK higher education and the public contributions of higher education institutions; the socio-economic implications of high-participation higher education; and institutions, people and learning in local/global higher education settings.

In the first category, Professor Marginson will lead a project titled “Local and global public good contributions of higher education: a comparative study in six national systems”. In the second, a project led by Lorraine Dearden, professor of economics and social statistics at the IoE, will examine UK funding reforms, for example.

Looking to the future, Professor Marginson said: “My gut feeling is that the UK is doing research really well, but not necessarily doing teaching and learning as well.” Lower standards in those areas may be “where we’ve paid the price of massification without sufficient funding”, he added.

But how do you analyse teaching quality, given the absence of metrics? “I think in the end we’re going to have to get to grips with graduate outcomes in terms of measuring learning achievement,” Professor Marginson said. He hoped that the centre would “further the discussion about comparative learning achievement” and apply “more pressure on learning quality”.

Professor Marginson added that the centre would also “broaden the highway between UK HE and East Asia”. Among its research team are scholars from Hong Kong, Japan and China, notably Nian Cai Liu, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and developer of the Academic Ranking of World Universities.

Asked about the global higher education policy myths he would like to see challenged, Professor Marginson cited the idea that “one can measure the role of higher education through incomes earned and rates of employment. That’s the general assumption of the political system on both sides of politics in most countries. It’s not a case of it being completely wrong; it’s a case of it being inadequate.”

“There is a vital job here in making a complex picture more comprehensible for the public,” said Professor Marginson. “I see that as a central function that you [journalists] and I play in the sector.”

In numbers

£5m – ESRC and Hefce funding to get the Centre for Global Higher Education up and running

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Article originally published as: ‘Authoritative voice’ set to project on the world stage (25 June 2015)

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