Higher education research: compassion, openness, and impact

Jacqueline Stevenson, Leo Havemann, and Helen Perkins reflect on the state of higher education research

Jacqueline Stevenson is Professor of the Sociology of Education at the University of Leeds.


Leo Havemann is a Programme Development Advisor at University College London, and a doctoral researcher at the Open University.


Helen Perkins is the Director of the Society of Research into Higher Education (SRHE).

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.

Compassion and criticality

Jacqueline Stevenson

Looking across the papers being presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education’s annual conference it is clear that not only has the Covid-19 pandemic cast a long shadow over higher education but it is shaping, and will continue to shape for many years, the interests of its researchers. Many of the papers scheduled for presentation focus on online learning and digital transformation, the social and academic disruptions that the pandemic has caused, and the uncertainty, stress, and anxiety that has arisen for both students and staff.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that the pressures, uncertainties and, for many, the distress which has been experienced by the global higher education community should also have resulted in an even greater focus on the need for compassionate, critical and relational pedagogies; greater consideration of what it means to have a sustainable higher education sector; the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship, and the need for adaptive and enabling leadership.

But what is also clear is that although the pandemic has contextualised, shaped, or sharpened the focus of research, many of the same concerns are being raised this year as they were pre-pandemic such as the role of higher education in resolving ‘wicked issues’ and in contributing to local, national and global economies, societies, and the environment; issues of fair access, equity, inclusion, social justice, and debates over decolonisation; the importance of belonging and the higher education community; and consideration of graduate outcomes, post-graduate employment, and inequitable progression to post-graduate study.

What is perhaps different this year, however, and which is evident across the papers, is that the shift to digital ways of working, as well as delivering the conference online, has allowed for even greater global collaboration, and for an even greater and more equitable exchange of international information, ideas and knowledges. Hopefully this too will be sustained.

Opened and opening education

Leo Havemann

Higher education policy debates often frame participation as a route to employability, earnings, and equality of opportunity. The rise of casualised work, the gig economy and so-called portfolio careers highlight the business case for lifelong learning, while beyond the requirements of the workplace, engaged participation in society and culture also demands opportunities for learning to be lifewide. The UN’s SDG 4 calls for inclusive and equitable quality education, including lifelong learning for all.

Partly because of a diversity of senses in which aspects of education can be open(ed), it can be difficult to sum up the concept of “open education”. Contemporary open educational practices and related research themes have tended to arise within the context of digitalisation, although they also continue a longer tradition of efforts to increase access and participation. Open learning blossomed through correspondence, broadcast media and eventually online last century In the 21st century the term “open education” has been associated particularly with open educational resources (OER) which can be freely accessed, distributed and very often amended (including, though not limited to, open textbooks), as well as the development of massive open online courses (MOOCs). In parallel with these moves to open educational content, social media has assisted the development of networked, participatory forms of learning and professional development. Students are also increasingly asked to respond to authentic assessment tasks and present their work to real audiences. A critical turn in the field is asking important questions about where the benefits and risks of openness accrue.

HE sectors and institutions have moved quickly to embrace the principle of open access to research, but open education perhaps remains less well-understood, and certainly less clearly linked to funder mandates. Much open education work occurs at the grassroots level, but there are increasing calls to orient policy and funding in this direction, notably from UNESCO through its 2019 Recommendation on OER to member states. The pandemic has further highlighted the urgent need to build capacity in digital and open skillsets, both to support pedagogy and to reduce reliance on commercial content, the cost of which has increased even more rapidly during the period of remote learning.

Influence and impact

Helen Perkins

Curating the SRHE 2021 Conference – (Re) connecting (Re) building: Higher Education in Transformative Times – has confirmed for me that research into higher education is very healthy. Research submissions to conference were high and the quality, range and diversity of topics has been especially good this year. This has been in contrast to other conferences in humanities and social sciences.

Registered attendance at the conference ,which starts on Monday, is also high, greater than we would have been able to accommodate at our usual venue, but recognising that this reflects high registrations for virtual events, where actual numbers may be lower. But the field is definitely lively and busy with the range of topics addressed expanding in all manner of different directions. It is not really possible to pinpoint this year any one ,or handful of topics, which dominates the discourse.

Research into Higher Education is a well-developed and established field of research globally, and the Society for Research into Higher Education most especially has, from its formation in the 1960s, been an international body. What is markedly different, especially during the course of the last few years, is the much wider range of countries where there are developed centres of research in this area and researcher contributing to journals and conferences.

Much as the in-person conference experience has been, understandably, greatly valued for the connections and the sharing of knowledge and formation of research partnerships, the virtual conference has all the potential to do this, and more, in terms of much wider international engagement but also, just as importantly, in terms of inclusivity, diversity and accessibility.

Influencing, shaping and commentating on policy still needs more effort and we need to find new and more effective means of engaging with policy developments in higher education. The effort expended in responding to large scale consultations does not really feel like the best means of knowledge exchange, especially when the questions set limit the range of responses, but the connection between research knowledge and policy discourse is still weak. SRHE and parallel organisations and Societies will continue to try and find new ways of contributing to policy formation.

We also need to examine the higher education experience, from the perspective of students and academics. How good is it? How might it be better? How serious are some of the present schisms in terms of expectations and delivery? There is analysis of both experiences but where will new directions and new thinking come from, and would it stand a chance of making it into the “real lived experience”?

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