Higher education research: belonging, history, and practice

Camille Kandiko Howson, Peter Scott, and Liz Austen pick out key questions in higher education research

Dr Camille B. Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education at Imperial College London


Peter Scott is Commissioner for Fair Access in Scotland, and Professor of Higher Education Studies at the UCL Institute of Education and a former Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University.


Liz Austen is Head of Evaluation and Research (Student Experience, Teaching and Learning) at Sheffield Hallam University

We asked a range of researchers with an interest in in higher education for their opinions on the state of the field, and the key questions facing researchers.

Belonging and internationalism

Camille Kandiko Howson

Rather than booking train tickets and packing my bag before heading to the annual Society for Research into Higher Education conference, I’ve had the chance to peruse the programme and see what topics researchers are asking questions about, and also what seems conspicuously absent.

Two major themes jumped out for me. First is interest in belonging—who belongs, where they belong, how belonging is supported and fostered. It is linked with the Wonkhe piece by Pathik Pathak, arguing for a shift from Equality, Diversity and Inclusion to Equity, Diversity and Belonging. The shift from equality to equity started in the US, with large corporations updating their language; the tide is making its way over.

A second theme is the increased internationalisation of the programme, particularly with new and different countries represented. SRHE has always been international, but dominated by Commonwealth countries. This year we see papers exploring Latin America, East Africa and many looking at European higher education broadly. But the major shift I saw were numerous papers on China—including higher education in China (and from China), mobilities in and out of China and comparative research on Eastern and Western approaches. This signals a maturing of the field, going beyond research about Chinese students coming to Western institutions.

And notable in their absence are papers on the government’s higher education agenda in England. Maybe it is too new, or undeveloped for research yet, but papers on apprenticeships, T-levels, BTECs, lifelong learning loans, micro-credentials were scarce. It may be this is not part of the traditional higher education research agenda. Scholars also seem quiet on hot topics from the broadsheet press: academic freedom, pensions and pay, testing and university entry, and the graduate job market.

I’m looking forward to hearing what questions are being asked about higher education—and what is not.

History and comparison

Peter Scott

Research on higher education comes in all sorts. At one end of the spectrum large-scale academic research with substantial external funding and wide, often international, networks of scholars supported by full-time professional researchers; at the other end a mass of smaller-scale projects often based on action research; in-between a flourishing of policy focused research.

But there are still gaps. HE researchers can still feel under-confident, over-dependent on more established fields in the social sciences for their concepts and theories. Yet the growth of mass access has been one of the most decisive social changes of the last half century. HE research should be at the centre of our understanding of modern society.

Next, although there is excellent research on the history of universities, HE research still lacks historical perspective. Policy memory is notoriously short, with the expansion (and achievements) of New Labour receding rapidly and Robbins and the polytechnics already prehistory. Research should be helping to restore that memory.

Closely linked, there is a gap in our understanding of both systems and universities as organisations. The choice too often seems to be close-up analysis / commentary on the twists and turns of national policies and institutional responses, and highly abstract (and derivative?) systems and organisation theory. Research somewhere in the middle tends to be missing.

Maybe there is scope too for more comparative research – not edited books with chapters on HE in X, Y and Z, or highly generalised accounts of isomorphism, for and against, but fine-grain comparative analysis. Anything to break down the Anglocentricism of research and policy (and yes, I am talking about “England”).

Some final thoughts / gripes. References to Pierre Bourdieu need to be strictly rationed; “neo-liberalism” should not be used just as boo-word; ditto “New Public Management” (see history above).

What it means to practice research

Liz Austen

I believe that higher education research is diversifying. My recent work to support HE colleagues with data confidence, ethical practices, creative methods of data gathering, and evaluation research methods have come from a diverse range of colleagues and contexts. And this is a good thing.

Higher education scholarship has often struggled with a crisis of identity – is it a discipline, is it embedded within education studies, does it encompass or is distinct from pedagogic research or is it something else? As the demand for evidence-informed practice in HE grows, perhaps it is time to own and embrace this diversity.

As an example, the HE research community should continue to welcome anyone researching an evidence base for change and evaluating the impact of their work. This includes colleagues in professional services, student unions, central institutional teams, and non-provider organisations. In addition, for academics, HE research deserves to be much more than an ‘alternative’ route which perceivably diverts away from a disciplinary trajectory. The reward and recognition routes for colleagues in all these spaces need particular attention as they navigate non-traditional trajectories.

As actions, there is a need to invest in professional research development for those who don’t identify as researchers, make research and evaluation methods more accessible, and at times, value practice over theory. As such, a culture of transparency, sharing and learning from the practice of researching is to be encouraged. The HE research community should further value and champion diversity in publication routes for outputs, and where there are gaps create new avenues to enable visibility. There is also a need to awaken ethical reviewers, peer reviewers, funding panels and professoriate committees to the innovative and impactful research conducted in all HE spaces.

One response to “Higher education research: belonging, history, and practice

  1. Great article with a very interesting range of perspectives. I have a few questions of the questioners: Camille, I think it is great that we are hearing and learning much more from non Euro-centric sources, but I’m not surprised that very few scholars want to get excited about ‘micro-credentials’. Do you feel they have serious shelf life in edgier forms of HE?
    Peter: why shouldn’t we see neoliberalism as a boo-word? How else should we think about it in your view?
    Liz: whilst I concur with virtually every one of your written words, how do we really move thinking on from the uncritical privileging of those who occupy stuffy yet influential professoriate roles? I worry that until that happens, the ‘group think’ concerning what constitutes ‘proper’ scholarship will hamper career trajectories. Thanks all for a very thoughtful agglomeration.

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