The evidence is there, so let's make use of it

October 1, 2004

University managers need to base their ideas on experience to make informed decisions, says Paul Ramsden

By the time students get to university - or very soon afterwards - we expect most of them to be able to use evidence to back up their essay conclusions, or to write lab reports using results to support their reasoning. Getting them to engage with facts and evidence in a meaningful way is basic stuff and - most of the time - students get the hang of it sooner rather than later.

How come, then, that so many of us charged with managing higher education fail almost entirely to take account of evidence to back up our thinking? Is it because we think we are smarter than the knowledge and experience that has already been gathered? Or because evidence cannot be relied on to support our prejudices? A bit of both, I suspect.

Whatever the reasons, the evidence-based culture that has taken off so successfully in medicine and healthcare in recent years has yet to get off the ground in policy and practice across higher education. A great deal of time and money could have been saved if it had and predictable mistakes could have been avoided.

Take the National Student Survey. It was sensible enough to ask students what they thought of their higher education and then publish the results.

The primary stated aim of the survey - "to help inform prospective students and their advisers in making choices about what and where to study" - seems like a useful idea. And not only that, the results are intended to contribute to public accountability and to provide information that will help institutions to enhance teaching quality. So roll on the pilot studies and the effectiveness evaluations, for this is surely evidence-based higher education policy in the making.

How ironic, then, that the architects of the survey failed to take account of the evidence. Because it turns out we already know quite a lot about national student surveys, in particular from the Australian experience. And over and above what the Australians have learnt (painfully) about the technicalities of conducting the survey, one of the facts that has emerged is that students take very little account of student surveys when choosing which university or course to apply for. Other factors, such as the advice of friends and family, are far more influential.

Those in charge of the British National Student Survey opted to begin with a clean sheet. It is by no means certain that the technical hurdles they encountered would have been avoided if the existing evidence had been taken into account, or whether the time, or the expense or the stress of the pilot studies could have been reduced. But learning from the mistakes of others seems an obvious way to begin a new project. Or maybe that is just my prejudice.

Of course, there is another reason why so little evidence-based thinking goes on in higher education: a lot of the time the evidence is not there, or, much more likely, it is extremely difficult to interpret. So we give up and rely on the "commonsense" approach that for some is just another term for personal prejudice.

The Higher Education Acad-emy will be aiming to provide everyone who works in higher education with solid evidence about what works and what does not.

This is not talking down to professionals, or telling them how to do their job. In the same way that the medical profession does not expect all GPs to be medical researchers, not all lecturers can be educational researchers.

But, left to do their own interpretation, they can make sensible use of study findings.

There is no point whatsoever in going to huge amounts of trouble to, say, change the way we assess first-year undergraduates unless we know that our new approach can work in the way we need it to. This should be an awful lot easier to check than is currently the case and the Academy is now establishing the best way to make evidence readily available to the sector.

We know that evidence can be a slippery tool and merely getting it out there will not constitute a quick fix to many of the hugely complex issues with which we are all grappling. Rarely can we find one right answer to the questions we most want to ask and sometimes we have to make do with knowing that still more research needs to be done. In addition, critics will always point to the dangers of selective use of evidence to support contentious points of view. But none of this should stop us setting out the knowledge and experience that is available so that decisions can be informed.

Paul Ramsden is chief executive of the Higher Education Academy.

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