Future analysis, or rhetoric?

August 1, 1997

As Dearing's dust settles, Roger Brown highlights the need for more research into higher education

ONE OF the most striking aspects of the Dearing committee report is the enormous amount of research work which it commissioned on many facets of higher education. Why was so much research commissioned? What does it tell us about the state of research into higher education itself?

Over the year or so leading up to the report The THES has carried articles, reports and letters on a number of issues: the relationship between research and teaching, the allocation of the funding councils' research monies, the relationship between further and higher education, and how to widen participation, not to mention quality assurance.

All of these are critical for the future of higher education, but the research and evidential base for policy in many of these areas is minimal or non-existent. Yet, as the report confirms, higher education is all about the critical collection and assessment of evidence.

How has this paradox come about? How is it that - at least until Dearing - so much of policy-making in higher education has been virtually knowledge-free? How is it that we can spend several billion pounds of public money on higher education each year and yet be so ignorant of the best uses to which this money should be put? Is this desirable if we want a healthy higher education system?

There are certainly problems on the supply side. There are hardly any departments or research groups devoted exclusively or primarily to higher education - the University of London Institute of Education's centre for higher education studies is a notable exception. The number of individual researchers is small, and many operate in virtual isolation, devoting their efforts to schools-related activities.

Because of other pressures, individual academics have less time to devote to consistent research. Many of the most prominent have been engaged in the field for many years and there is little sign of "new blood". The research networks that exist - and here the Society for Research into Higher Education has played a valuable role - are limited and voluntary.

Of course, supply is to some extent a function of demand. There is too little demand, and what there is comes mainly from funders or sponsors which are themselves proper subjects of study. Give or take the odd national inquiry, most of the research that is publicly funded (which is nearly all) is applied, short-term in character, and related to the interests and agendas of the funders - the funding councils, government departments, the representative bodies, and agencies such as the Higher Education Quality Council and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

There appears to be little support for research that is more speculative, concerned with longer-term structural issues, pursued irrespective of the immediate agendas of the funders or sponsors, challenges or at least tests prevailing views of the purposes and functions of higher education, and which is not directly or ultimately state-driven. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' longer-term study work is a rare exception.

Yet work of this kind will be needed if the Dearing committee's proposal for an independent national advisory committee to make periodic assessments of the state of higher education is to get off the ground.

Such a need could be met by the establishment of a new higher education think tank, independent of existing centres, interests and bodies. Such a group could "think the unthinkable", help to provide an evidential basis for future policy making, and perhaps bring wider attention to existing research on or related to higher education.

There is even a respectable precedent: the higher education research unit at the London School of Economics stemmed from the Robbins report. Why not a new higher education research group to work through the Dearing agenda?

Clearly a number of issues will have to be resolved. The group will need a home, core funding, and the support and goodwill of the higher education academic community.

To prevent it becoming an ivory tower it would have to be able to keep in touch with institutions, but its overall thrust should be to report on and analyse the development of the sector, not only for the benefit of those engaged in higher education in some role, but also for those outside, such as potential investors.

This could and arguably should include a comparative role to help see that policy making here is suitably informed by developments in systems elsewhere. (Once again the Dearing research provides a good starting point.) There is no reason why such an agency need present a threat to any existing established organisation. Indeed, for thereasons already given, it would complement and support (and hopefully reinforce) the work of existing agencies andorganisations.

The immediate tasks of such a body are not difficult to enumerate. Its central job could be to monitor the implementation, and in due course the impact, of the Dearing recommendations. It could thus help the proposed independent advisory committee to make a flying start. It could also monitor the achievement of wider policy objectives such as increasing access and equity in funding. It could research and perhaps give advice on the regional development of higher education.

And in the light of Dearing and Kennedy it would be for consideration whether its remit should be extended to cover all post-16 education and training, rather than just higher education.

The overall aim should be to facilitate informed analysis of issues rather than the anecdotal and rhetorical discourse that too often passes for debate about higher education. What are we waiting for?

Roger Brown is chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council and writes here in a personal capacity.

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