Pandemic a ‘major opportunity’ to test ingrained HE theories

Higher education, like many fields in the social sciences, will end up with a wealth of comparative data, scholar says

June 2, 2020
Source: istock

The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to provide higher education researchers with a golden opportunity to retest some core tenets of the discipline, according to one scholar in the field.

Marijk van der Wende, professor of higher education at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said sudden global shifts, such as the rapid move to online learning, would provide comparative data that would have been impossible to obtain in normal times.

“You can compare with last year on campus but can also compare with universities in other countries that have not been closed,” she said. “So you have serious experimental design opportunities which we certainly don’t normally have in this dramatic form. I think we should seize the opportunity to use these data.”

Examples could include comparing assessment outcomes for students who worked predominantly online with when they were on campus, or the effect of a drop in international mobility on teaching and learning.

Professor van der Wende added that one of the most exciting aspects for research would be the ability to retest higher education theories that had become accepted over many decades.

“You can do a kind of replication, testing existing hypotheses with a new set of data – and that [is something] I would encourage throughout higher education and the social sciences,” she said.

She did add that it might take “quite a while to have good data” that would allow such projects to take shape and “say something empirically sound”, but there might be some shorter-term opportunities involving real-time data on online learning use, for example.

Professor van der Wende is co-editing a new book – due out next year − on possible future research topics that might be explored in the field in the coming years. Although it was already in the pipeline before the pandemic, she expects many of the proposed themes to relate to the outbreak’s impact on universities.

It was possible, she said, that the crisis could, at a “fundamental level”, call into question aspects of university activity “that have been so ingrained and popular for 30 years”.

International mobility was one of the most obvious of these, she said. “This is the moment to rethink mobility. How much can we do together and learn together without travelling?” would be a major question to crop up, for instance.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, said other topics that would likely get a lot of immediate attention included the effect on access and learning for disadvantaged students, the damage to the graduate labour market and the impact on university finances.

All of these were areas that the CGHE was hoping to explore through projects it is currently planning and seeking funding for.

He added that the way the internet had allowed researchers in the field to continue their discussions had been invaluable but said that, like many disciplines, higher education research was feeling the loss of major physical conferences.

“While I think webinars are not a bad substitute for the seminar”, Professor Marginson said, it was hard to replicate bigger meetings where “a lot happens…a lot of informal [exchange of ideas] and you pick up things that you might otherwise not have seen or read about or had contact with”.

Despite the downsides of international travel, major conferences held overseas also often provided the spark for researchers to explore new topics or angles, which meant the field might become “less lively” over the longer term without them, he said.

“Going to another country makes a lot of difference to the comparative [research]; you get a lot more of a sense of the differences especially by being in the other places, seeing other institutions…it just excites the imagination and gets you asking the right questions,” he added. “It certainly has built relationships that might not otherwise have existed in the domestic setting.”

The internet meant that, even under lockdown, “a great deal of communication is going on”, but “underneath there is that sense that we’re replicating and reproducing what we used to do rather than developing it”, Professor Marginson said.

Meanwhile, Hans de Wit, director of the Centre for International Higher Education, said it was still “too early” in the pandemic to conduct “comprehensive qualitative research” on its impact for universities.

However, he added that they were in the process of adapting ongoing projects to take account of Covid-19, such as a study the organisation was already involved in, which was focused on international student recruitment.

“For new research we think it is still too early, but we see a trend and need to adapt existing and planned research and to keep track on the developments and discussions,” Professor de Wit said.

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