A “mind-bogglingly extensive” five-year research programme aims to demonstrate that the study of higher education should be taken as seriously as other areas of the social sciences.
Details of the research agenda for the Centre for Global Higher Education, a partnership led by the UCL Institute of Education with £5 million of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, were unveiled at its introductory seminar.
Some 15 initial research projects are planned, divided into three strands: globalisation and the public contributions of higher education institutions; the socio-economic implications of mass-participation higher education; and institutions, people and learning.
The projects include a study of alternative providers, led by Gareth Parry, professor of education at the University of Sheffield, based in part on a survey of more than 600 private providers, and an examination of the future higher education workforce, under William Locke, reader in higher education studies at the IoE, focusing on the emergence of fixed-term and part-time academic contracts.
Another study, led by Claire Callender, professor of higher education studies at the IoE and Birkbeck, University of London, and Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, will look at the impact of student loan debt on graduates’ lives.
Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the IoE, will look for ways to measure the public rather than the private goods of higher education, while Francis Green, professor of labour economics and skills development at the IoE, will test whether there is a mismatch between students’ skills and graduate jobs.
Professor Marginson, the director of the centre, said that the full programme represented a “unique opportunity” that would enable the whole field of higher education studies “to be transformed”.
“While we think [higher education] is a very important area, it is not, in most people’s minds, of front-rank, central importance,” Professor Marginson said. “Perhaps after five years we will have persuaded the UK research community and perhaps the world more broadly to take higher education more seriously as an area of knowledge than it has been in the past.”
Other pieces of work will explore the development of Moocs, the impact of economic changes on higher education participation, and the employment prospects for East Asian students when they return home after studying in the UK.
Professor Marginson said that he wanted the centre to have a significant policy impact, and that this meant that it would have to develop “core products” that reflected “collective institutional thinking”, as well as allowing space for individual researchers to exchange ideas.
Graeme Wise, head of policy at the University Alliance, described the research agenda as “mind-bogglingly extensive”, and said that the centre should aim to have a level of national authority on higher education similar to that enjoyed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on the economy.
“This centre needs to over time develop an excellent thinktank role…it is not enough to simply understand the world as best as you can, you also need to have an idea of what should be done,” Mr Wise said.