It was nice to see my former research centre referred to in your editorial on the need for more higher education research (“Look sharp, the ground is shifting”, Leader, 31 January). “Gone but not forgotten” is always a good epitaph. And I do wish King’s College London’s International Centre for University Policy Research every success.
However, I would also like to point out that there is actually quite a lot of higher education research going on already. For example, the Quality Assurance Agency manages the Higher Education Empirical Research (Heer) database, which has several thousand entries on a wide range of research and policy themes. In addition, a European Science Foundation research programme consisting of a number of comparative international projects on higher education and social change is just coming to an end, and there have been many other national and international programmes on the subject in recent years.
This is not to say that everything is rosy. Higher education research is a fragmented affair and the links to related social science fields are often not as strong as they should be. There are a few research centres about, but academics who specialise in higher education research are more often found in dribs and drabs across different institutions. This is why a group of established higher education researchers from 10 universities is in the process of forming the Higher Education Research Consortium (Herc) in order to strengthen capacity, undertake joint projects, achieve more effective dissemination, share data sets and provide training for new researchers.
As far as policy debates are concerned, it does seem that vested interest and opinion tend to trump knowledge quite a lot of the time. But it is not for lack of knowledge: there is plenty out there, you just have to make the time to read it.
Emeritus professor of higher education research
Former director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at The Open University