Scholars urged to widen agenda

Study finds HE research has too narrow a focus and urges a more global approach, says Chloe Stothart

July 24, 2008

The number of academics involved in the study of higher education needs to expand beyond a parochial "specialist tribe" that is currently helping to shape the future of the sector, a new report warns.

A study for the European Science Foundation (ESF) says that much higher education research is either too locally focused or too abstract.

The paper, Higher Education Looking Forward: An Agenda for Future Research, suggests that more research should look at changes in higher education alongside those in society and the economy, such as globalisation.

John Brennan, one of the report's authors, said: "A lot of contributions to higher education research were either very abstract and theoretical with very little empirical grounding or, at the other extreme, they were very local about what was happening in their department or institution. There was not all that much in between."

The report says that there is potential for conflicts of interest when people researching higher education also work in the sector and when it is funded to answer the questions of policymakers.

Professor Brennan, director of the Centre for Higher Education Research at The Open University, said: "It is not just policymakers. They often have an agenda, but often so do the researchers. A lot of the research into the effectiveness of widening participation, for example, tends to get carried out by research groups who are part of widening participation units so they are usually involved as practitioners in the phenomenon they are investigating.

"We need more education research that poses question for the policymakers rather than the policymakers posing questions that determine the research. We need more blue-skies research and longer-term perspectives."

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: "We need to see higher education research in a broader social and political context and maybe not all researchers do that."

He said that it might have been easier for Hepi to produce controversial research because it was not part of a higher education institution.

The ESF is setting up a new programme of research on higher education and social change: this will draw on a wider range of social-science data sets than are typically used, develop research capacity in the subject and integrate higher education research with other research fields.

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