Everyone should make further enquiries

A drive to make colleges more research active must take in students, say Mick Healey, Alan Jenkins and John Lea

July 10, 2014

As more and more higher education is delivered by colleges of further education, there has been a push to enhance the research abilities of college staff.

That drive is laudable. Current estimates indicate that around one in 10 UK students are studying higher education outside a designated university. In the US, nearly half the country’s undergraduates are believed to be studying in community colleges. And from von Humboldt and Cardinal Newman to the present day, one of the defining features of teaching in higher education has been its connection with research, a relationship that is multifaceted.

Efforts to make further education colleges more research active should not focus exclusively on the tutors. In a recent opinion piece in Times Higher Education (“Let them join you in the lab”, 29 May), Stuart Hampton-Reeves argued that undergraduate research in the UK should be given a higher profile on the grounds that it enhances the student experience and better equips graduates with work-relevant attributes such as self-motivation and critical thinking. This argument applies just as strongly to college-based higher education as it does to the mainstream higher education sector.

In the course of researching a recent report on college-based higher education for the Higher Education Academy, Developing Research-Based Curricula in College-Based Higher Education, we became convinced that it is crucial to support college staff to teach in ways that would develop student abilities to learn through research and enquiry. We found lots of exciting examples of staff and students working together in scholarly ways that were both realistic for staff and aspirational for students.

These include a project for students on the foundation degree in sports studies at West Herts College to research the need for a local sports development initiative; a first-year poster presentation conference for students in Newcastle College’s department of science and engineering; and a research project for students in the applied degree in culinary operations at Holland College, Prince Edward Island, on the food service industry in collaboration with the Culinary Institute of Canada.

Many such research-based activities were tailored specifically to students in the college-based higher education sector, who typically have a strong focus on using their degree to support future employability. We also found that staff are increasingly insisting that their scholarly activities link directly with their teaching activities, and that their institutions develop a wider and more inclusive conception of “research and scholarship” than that found in the research excellence framework-obsessed university sector.

However, we also found many problems. Tutors’ heavy workloads often limited their capacity to develop programmes to promote student learning through research. College-based higher education staff have also reported feeling somewhat constrained by an Ofsted-like ethos, which makes them less likely to take risks and experiment with innovative methods of learning.

Moreover, much of the good practice we found was at course and course-team level. Departmental and especially institutional leaders appeared largely unaware of the importance of research-based learning. They need to do more.

UK research funders could learn from the US’ National Science Foundation, which selectively supports undergraduate research in the college sector. Could similar developments in the UK help to widen what is understood as research and impact? Or would that be a step too far at present for a UK system that still tends to restrict its conception of both to whatever may be submitted to the REF?

Those mainstream higher education institutions that work in partnership with further education colleges could also be more proactive in supporting students and staff in partner institutions to reshape their curricula in ways that support students’ learning through research and enquiry.

But perhaps most of all, national guardians of standards such as the Quality Assurance Agency need to continue to actively support the development of this distinct, growing ethos within college-based higher education. All higher education providers concerned to uphold the spirit of von Humboldt and Newman might also learn some lessons here.

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