Fertile fields of ideas

February 2, 1996

Over the past decades, research into higher education has developed from a small collection of studies with a narrow pedagogical orientation into a more comprehensive field encompassing a large number of disciplinary perspectives.

The initial impetus for this development came from the first generation of scholars from various disciplines focusing exclusively on higher education. This group turned out to be a very strong one. Many of its main publications are still influential in present-day higher education studies. And yet, despite the growing travails of higher education, the field of higher education research has received relatively little attention from decision- makers, the general public or even from academics in other disciplines. Funding of higher education research remains limited at a time when the contributions and insights of such research are urgently needed. This unfortunate situation has three major causes, all of which are interlinked.

First, in most cases higher education research lacks a solid grounding in other disciplines, which in turn has lead to a growing fragmentation and, to some extent, insularity of the field.

Second, communication between the theoretical and applied subfields, between different areas of inquiry, and between the field and the general public is in many cases an uphill battle. Also the higher education community as a whole is too often unaware of the findings of higher education research.

Third, the level of external funding has been rather low for research on a sector which has developed globally from an elite system (comprising roughly up to 5 per cent of the respective age cohort) into a mass system (comprising 30 per cent to more than 50 per cent of the respective age cohort).

Close scrutiny of the recent higher education literature reveals that most "career higher education researchers" predominantly rely on previous higher education publications, while rarely using an input from what might be called the "mother disciplines".

The majority of the new generation of higher education researchers, at least in the United States, were trained in special higher education programmes and departments, thus lacking a broader disciplinary perspective. As a result, higher education research hardly contributes to the theoretical development of the disciplines it claims to rely on, while the field as such does not have (nor seems to aim at developing) a coherent paradigm of its own.

Often, there seems to be a lack of communication between fundamental and applied research, between different national efforts, as well as between the academic field and the interested public. In the US, for example, where research into higher education was pioneered in the 1950s, there is a growing national insularity of the field. Hardly any non-North American researchers are referred to in the main recent US publications on higher education, while the interest in comparative research has also dropped to a minimum.

In Europe, Australia, Japan, and parts of Latin America, the growth of higher education research is a more recent phenomenon, dating back to the late 1960s. Whereas US research was often focused on the (sub-)institutional level, especially in Europe there has been a keen interest in the relationship between the government and the universities and colleges, or in other words, the consequences of an omnipresent central state authority. The researchers in question were sociologists, economists, political scientists, historians, as well as educational scientists.

Contrary to the situation in the US, no specific first-degree teaching programmes on higher education have been developed in (continental) Europe. One reason for this difference may have been the dominant role of governments, resulting in a weak institutional administration. This situation prevented a need for highly specialised administrative staff in higher education institutions to develop on the academic labour market.

Instead of one global community of higher education researchers, there now exists at least two groups: one North American and the other (western) European. Even though there are many contacts and co-operative efforts between these groups, and between each of the two groups and researchers from other parts of the world, the two main groups are in general so different that it has consequences for the nature of the research being done by members of each of the groups. There is no structural exchange of research results or other relevant information between the two research communities.

Despite the growing importance of the tertiary education sector, funding agencies have been reluctant to contribute significant resources. In addition, the projects that are of interest to the funding agencies are often related to current political discussions. As a consequence, most of these studies do not add to our fundamental knowledge on the underlying socio-economic, political, and technological issues that confront higher education nowadays.

There are a number of initiatives higher education researchers could develop to escape from the vicious circle of underfunding and lack of recognition. The openness of the field to fundamental developments in basic disciplines should be increased. There could be, for example, much cross-fertilisation and application in the field of the new institutionalism in economics and sociology.

Then communication in the field must be furthered. It is imperative that we regain the broad comparative and international perspective the first generation of higher education researchers brought to bear on the topic. Higher education researchers must communicate their insights to the interested and general public if they expect to be heard by the public. Lastly, governments and funding agencies should also reconsider whether the current level of support is sufficient for a field covering such an important sector of our society.

A variety of internal and external factors have allowed the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands to test some of the above mentioned proposals. Government and university funding enabled CHEPS to employ approximately a dozen full-time staff focusing on policy issues in higher education for more than a decade. The centre has always aimed at academic as well as practical relevance of its work and has been eager to communicate its findings.

Finally CHEPS has always attempted to promote the international exchange of ideas. These factors have enabled the centre to accumulate far-ranging theoretical and practical knowledge on policy issues in higher education. The centre is now being asked by institutions and governments in many industrialised, reforming, or developing countries to contribute its insights on higher education. There is an urgent need for the insights of higher education researchers to practical issues.

But we must make a commitment to academic excellence, relevance, and the communication of our ideas, both within the field and to the public. If we do so, the field will be in high demand for a considerable time to come.

Peter Maassen is deputy director of the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente, The Netherlands. The article was co-written with Max Otte, a consultant and adviser to the Centre for the Development of Higher Education, Guttersloh.

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