An “amazing” lack of empirical research into higher education will be tackled by a new centre at King’s College London.
The International Centre for University Policy Research, launched on 21 January, will compare different national university systems and write policy papers to inform debate in the UK.
It is directed by Alison Wolf, the Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s and author of a major government-commissioned report on vocational school education published in 2011.
Professor Wolf said that she was surprised at how “extraordinarily little the university sector turns its research in on itself”.
Although higher education is a “vast worldwide sector”, it boasts few “in- depth” studies and “amazingly little empirical research”.
This was a worldwide problem, and “not particularly a criticism of British research”, she argued.
Funded by King’s, the centre will boast two research assistants and a number of PhD students.
The first question it will address will be: “What should the role of government be in a sector that is only partially publicly funded? How have different governments gone about this?” said Professor Wolf.
A second initial area of research will be the “rising real costs” of higher education, which is “a global phenomenon with lots of opinions offered on why” it is occurring yet “precious little hard data”.
The centre aims to produce large empirical, comparative studies of higher education systems. “We’re not trying to be a thinktank in the traditional way,” she said, adding that the centre would be “totally apolitical”.
Based on this empirical research, the centre will write “short policy papers with immediate relevance to (UK) government policy” that are also of international interest, she said.
Thinktanks could use the centre’s data to create their own policy recommendations, she added.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, agreed that policy was not informed by enough data. “We tend simply to be satisfied with asserting that UK higher education is among the world’s best and resting on those laurels - I fear that in many respects that is complacent,” he said.
But Mr Bekhradnia cautioned that the centre would find it difficult to produce globally comparable statistics, a point echoed by Roger Brown, co- director of the Centre of Higher Education Research Development at Liverpool Hope University.
“I’m a bit sceptical. Beyond a few quantitative measures, such as participation rates, it does get difficult to compare systems,” Professor Brown said.
Another problem was that higher education systems were “cultural constructs”, which meant that a successful model in one part of the world could not necessarily be replicated elsewhere, he argued.
Paul Temple, reader in higher education management at the Institution of Education, University of London, said that while he wished the centre well, many of his colleagues “would be surprised to hear that there is little empirical research on higher education”.
“Outside the UK, there are easily half a dozen strong higher education research centres in other European countries” as well as other centres in the US, Canada and Australia, he said. “If ministers are making decisions without an evidential base … it’s not because the evidence is lacking.”
Know thyself: special adviser welcomes scholarly effort to cast light on costs and practices
The special adviser to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has said he is surprised by how little research is carried out on higher education.
During a panel discussion at King’s College London to mark the launch of the International Centre for University Policy Research, Nick Hillman also said the problem appeared to be “worse” now than in the past.
“I was so annoyed when we were implementing our changes to student loans about how little history there was on … student loans in the UK,” he told event attendees on 21 January.
“You can reel off on the fingers of one hand the academics whose discipline is the study of higher education,” he said, adding that the problem seemed to be “worse (in the UK) than in other countries”.
He also addressed one of the centre’s two initial research topics: why the real costs of higher education appeared to be rising globally. “One of the frustrations of my job is being told that university degrees cost x thousand pounds to teach. Some say it’s less than (&#163;9,000 per student), some say it’s more than (&#163;9,000),” he said.
Mr Hillman said he hoped the centre would look at “different bits of the sector” and calculate “what the costs really are”. In particular, “you can’t visit Oxbridge or be lobbied by Oxbridge without being told the real cost of an Oxbridge degree is &#163;18,000,” he explained.
“Funnily enough, you go to a group of Oxford academics and use that figure and they normally laugh at you because a lot of the academics working in Oxford themselves don’t understand that figure.” He said he was “still waiting” for a breakdown of the figure from the two elite universities.
“It’s much better that it (policy research) is emerging from the sector, that we’re getting information about costs, about what goes on in institutions, from the sector” rather than from “heavy-handed and bureaucratic” politicians, he concluded.