UK academics expressed frustration this week that while billions of pounds are spent on research, they can not get sufficient funding to direct their expert attention closer to home and examine the major issues affecting the future of higher education.
Researchers' desire to explore their own industry is hampered by relative indifference and scant resources from policymakers, funders and institutional managers, according to delegates at the Society for Research into Higher Education's annual conference in Edinburgh.
"There are obvious questions that no one is looking into in any big way," said Patrick Ainley, professor of training and education at Greenwich University.
The delegates echoed complaints from the Higher Education Academy and the Higher Education Policy Institute that despite increasing concentration on research for other disciplines, there is little backing to examine issues affecting the sector.
SRHE leaders said the presence of 280 delegates at its conference - double last year's attendance - signalled growing enthusiasm among academics for higher education research. A meeting of 90 young researchers, who contributed 60 of 150 papers submitted at the event, heralded a promising future, they said.
But there was a danger that the potential for significant strides in research and subsequent advancement in academics' careers would be unfulfilled unless a funding framework was created, they warned.
Helen Perkins, SRHE director, said: "The funding tends to come through major agencies, but researchers are not able to influence where it goes.
The opportunities for bidding for funding are made available, but there is no process by which it can be directed towards research that would be of interest to us."
Ron Barnett, SRHE chair, acknowledged the importance of support for higher education research within the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP), which has been run by the Economic and Social Research Council for the past six years.
But funding and recognition for higher education research from other external sources and via the research assessment exercise was hard to come by, he said.
"If you are an academic who suddenly gets interested in research into higher education, there is no easy way in through the RAE," he said.
Paul Ramsden, chief executive of the HEA, said the TLRP focused on applying existing knowledge rather than generating knowledge.
"The funding and research councils need to put out the message that more theoretical conceptual research into higher education will be supported," he said.
Dai Hounsell, professor of higher education at Edinburgh University, complained of a funding vacuum for longer-term research outside of the TLRP. He said: "Over the past 25 years there has been a shift to make research more policy driven. That is fine, but where is the money for research that is not looking into the impact of the latest policy?"
Erica McWilliam, professor of education at Queensland University of Technology, Australia, who gave a keynote speech, suggested that vice-chancellors' short-term outlook was part of the problem.
"They are in knee-jerk mode, and their attention is not squared on research into higher education itself," she said.
Andri Kamenou, a PhD student at the Institute of Education, said she was becoming disillusioned with the struggle to find support for her research into the cultural role of higher education.
"Given the limited resources and few posts available, I am open to a career in administration rather than academia," she said.
Poppy Turner, a PhD student at Bath University investigating links between education and neuroscience, was also frustrated.
"I have found something I adore doing, but there is no clear way forward," she said.
Some dream research projects
- A comprehensive analysis of the impact of resources being shifted away from teaching into research.
Dai Hounsell, professor of HE, Edinburgh University
- Creating an anthropology of students and their experience.
Patrick Ainley, professor of training and education, Greenwich University
- A longitudinal study on what motivates students, academics and stakeholders.
George Gordon, emeritus professor, Strathclyde University
- An analysis of the changing gender balance of staff and how that is affecting teaching and learning.
Miriam David, associate director, TLRP
- Examination of different approaches to leadership and management.
Paul Blackmore, director of Coventry University's Centre for HE Development