Scholars say big picture is lost in big numbers

July 6, 2001

Higher education research that shuns big statistical surveys in favour of small anthropological studies will be championed at Lancaster University this month.

Paul Trowler, organiser of the Higher Education Close Up Conference, which focuses mainly on research into higher education, said uncovering truths in day-to-day events tended to be a minority pursuit in the study of the sector.

He said that researchers often had difficulty securing funding even though the small-scale qualitative approach allowed academics to gain a better insight.

"What we offer is the chance to really illuminate what is going on," Dr Trowler said. "Understanding the minutiae of everyday life often overturns taken-for-granted assumptions."

Bernard Longden, of Liverpool Hope, said he became disillusioned with large-scale quantitative research some time ago. His study of student retention in higher education moves away from statistics, offering instead a means of analysing social reality.

"Numbers are fine but they have no life and, of course, they can be manipulated so easily," Dr Longden said.

"My alternative approach means taking the time to listen to what students are saying and asking them lots of questions. This is a valid and, I would argue, far more powerful technique than worrying about sample sizes," he added.

Studies using large data sets from agencies such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency were dependent on pre-defined and pre-selected criteria, he argued.

By deciding on a qualitative approach, a different set of questions can be posed and the need for large data sets removed.

Dr Longden cites surveys that have asked students why they dropped out. "Most students will tick the 'financial problems' box but when I talk to them that is often not the real reason," he said.

On closer questioning, students frequently admitted that they made a bad course decision. Getting into debt may simply compound an existing academic problem.

"This sort of research has profound implications for policy-makers," Dr Longden said. "Listening to student experiences and expressions of concern have as much validity as demonstrating that a particular correlation is significant."

But Mats Alvesson, of the University of Lund, will sound a warning note about over-reliance on interviewing. "Despite my sympathy for this kind of interviewing I don't think it guarantees 'truthful' interview statements that give a 'realistic' picture," he said.

Details: Higher Education Close Up, July 16-18, Lancaster University www.lancaster.ac.uk/users/edres/conferences/hecu2/

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