The Society for Research into Higher Education

Jeroen Huisman

Research on higher education policy

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By Jeroen Huisman

Research on higher education in general, apparently, is alive and kicking. Tight (2012) calls higher education “big business” and other authors refer to the massification of higher education (read: more students, more staff, potentially more researchers interested in higher education) but also to the increasing important of higher education and research in contemporary society to signify increasing interest in higher education research.

The growth is also evidenced by an increase in journals focusing on higher education (Altbach, 2009) and in the growth of research centres on higher education (Rumbley et al., 2015). Although that growth may be uneven: with considerable growth in new economies in e.g. Asia and Latin America and stabilisation in (Western) Europe and the US, Rumbley et al (2015, 7) argue that “higher education is fast moving from the margins to the centre of much discussion and debate among policymakers around the world”.

Elsewhere (Huisman, 2015), I argued that behind this growth there are patterns of diversity, some of these to celebrate and others to worry about. This diversity is e.g. visible in the organisation of our field (e.g. disciplinary versus theme-based) , in who is involved (researchers from the disciplines, specialised higher education researchers, applied researchers/practitioners) and in who funds/supports research on higher education.  I will take the diversity as point of departure to reflect on research on higher education policy.

The diversity of the theme itself: a celebration

Even if we think that market mechanisms do not belong in higher education, one of the positive results of marketization is that higher education policy studies have been broadened from doing “another policy evaluation project” to a rich set of studies that also focus on how, why and to what extent governments increasingly rely on market mechanisms, but also focus on how stakeholders beyond governments are playing an increasingly important role in higher education (as they do in other [semi-]public and even in private sectors). In other words, higher education policy is broadened to depict “… a change in the meaning of government, referring to a new process of governing; or a changed condition of ordered rule; or the new method by which society is governed” (Rhodes, 1996, p. 652-653). I welcome this development for it allows us – higher education researchers – to broaden our scope and to see policy (change) as part of the larger politico-administrative fabric.

The disciplines and the field specialists: some concerns

The labelling “another policy evaluation project” above, does not do justice to the richness of approaches to policy analysis in general. The disciplinary journals and book series (in political sciences, public administration and public policy, and economics) continue to explore in greater depth aspects of the policy process. Not everything that happens in the disciplines should be welcomed by default, but one should admire the continuing creativity depth of further exploration of key facets of the policy process. To give a couple of examples: I have put Jordan and Turnpenny´s (2015) “ The tools of policy formulation: Actors, capacities, venues and effects” and Thissen and Walker´s (2013) “Public policy analysis” on my list of books to read.  Interestingly: although I cannot present the full evidence of this, my impression is that higher education policy researchers make very limited use of the rich toolbox offered by the disciplines (see also Huisman, 2009). This relates both to the use of general policy theories (as developed by e.g. Sabatier, Kingdom, and Baumgartner and Jones) and the more specialised literature on elements of the policy process (e.g. policy design, policy implementation, policy evaluation). I have the impression that much more synergy can be realised if we would rely much more on the advances made in the disciplines, instead of developing another short-range idiosyncratic explanation of higher education policy.

Who does the research: overall a celebration … but some concerns

Another impression, again one that would need further substantiation, is that much research is carried out by those who have not been “educated” in the core policy disciplines or as higher education (policy) researchers.  I emphasise the value that this brings to our field. Insights from scholars from the humanities (particularly history) and social sciences (anthropology, sociology) have greatly contributed to refined insights in higher education policy and its impact. One of the downsides of the diversity is, however, that it is difficult – even for seasoned scholars – to keep abreast of everything that appears in sometimes very specialised journals. E.g. I would never have come across the illuminating work of anthropologist Strathern (1997), if I had not been nudged by a colleague. And if an interesting source has been discovered, it is not always easy to come to terms with it, for it often requires a deep(er) understanding of the discourses in that particular discipline.

The value this diversity of backgrounds brings is sometimes distorted by  contributions from those that think they can speak authoritatively about higher education, for the simple fact that they have “experiences” in that field. Many higher education managers and institutional leaders suffer from this misplaced authority. Most of these contributions are not very productive, because they do not go beyond anecdotes and storytelling and are seldom embedded in the broader knowledge we have on the specific topic.

The love-hate relationship between research and policy/practice

But maybe this is a benign form of “scholarship”, for at the same time I think that some higher education policy research does not take sufficient distance from its object of study. Higher education (policy) researchers are studying something they are also subject to. This can bring along tensions and it may be difficult to stay impartial. However, this seems to me key if one of our aims as policy researchers would be to improve policy and practice. We need to continue to speak truth to power (with reference to Aaron Wildavsky´s 1979 book title), while at the same time adhering to Merton´s values of disinterestedness and organised scepticism.

Jeroen Huisman is Professor of Higher Education at the Centre for Higher education Governance (CHEGG) at Ghent University in Belgium


  • Altbach, P. G. (2009). Higher education: An emergent field of research and policy. In R. M. Bassett & A. Maldonado-Maldonado (Eds.), International organizations and higher education policy: Thinking globally, acting locally? (pp. 1-31). New York and London: Routledge.
  • Huisman, J. (2009). Coming to terms with governance in higher education. In J. Huisman (Ed.), Internatonal perspectives on the governance of higher education. Alternative frameworks for coordination (pp. 1-9). New York/Abingdon: Routledge
  • Huisman, J. (2015). Higher education experts and commissioned research: Between stability, fragility and ambiguity? in M. Souto-Otero (Ed.), Evaluating European education policy-making. Privatization, networks and the European Commission (pp. 144-163). Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Rhodes, R.A.W. (1996). The new governance: Governing without government. Political Studies 44(4), 652-667.
  • Rumbley, L.E., Altbach, Ph.G., Stanfield, D.A., Shimmi, Y, Gayardon, A. de, and R.Y. Chan (2015).. Higher education: A worldwide inventory. Bonn: Lemmens.
  • Strathern, M. (1997). ´Improving ratings’: audit in the British university system. European Review, 5, 305-321.
  • Tight, M. (2012). Researching higher education (second ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press McGraw Hill Education.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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