By Kelly Coate
Those of us who research higher education, and universities in particular, are endlessly offered rich sources of data from one of the most enduring and fascinating institutions in the world. Higher education is an unusual site of research, given the wide range of disciplines that can be employed and the diversity of approaches that can be taken. It is unusual for other reasons too: here in the SRHE we continue to develop as a very strong community of higher education specialists, but we know that almost anyone who works in academia might fancy trying their hand at doing higher education research, most likely in their classrooms but increasingly with other groups such as administrators or managers. Some of us may despair at the lack of knowledge and depth that higher education research ‘amateurs’ bring to bear on the field, but others of us encourage novices to get involved, mainly through the postgraduate programmes in academic practice that have become embedded in many institutions. Therefore another distinctive feature of higher education research is that we speak to many audiences through our publications. Mainly – as in common with other disciplinary specialists – we like to talk to each other, but our books and articles are increasingly used in those academic practice programmes just mentioned, and so a wide range of other disciplinary experts are now engaging with our work.
It is not just the textbooks on teaching (eg Ashwin et al 2015) that end up in the hands of our colleagues across our institutions, but it is also the scholarly output of many of the speakers here today. We share this work with others in order to encourage reflection on academic practice and to promote change. I will hesitate before using the somewhat dreaded term ‘impact’, but I do believe that most of us are here because we value the role that higher education plays in society and we want to continue making positive changes for students and staff in universities. Our belief in the value of higher education then becomes something we want to share with our colleagues who may work in universities but who may identify more with their own disciplinary communities than with their employing institutions.
Yet those of us who do try to promote critical reflection on our practices in higher education soon discover how challenging it is to shift entrenched views as we bump up against old habits and traditions. The ‘new’ and the ‘old’ exists side-by-side in universities and this dichotomy engenders another unique feature of higher education research. Particularly in the contemporary context, those of us working in universities are facing enormous prospects of change, yet much of our day-to-day lives continue on in ways that would still be recognisable even to medieval scholars. There are a number of aspects of university life where it is possible to talk in terms of radical, unprecedented change while at the same time we continue on with very familiar practices.
Just to give a quick flavour: technology is one obvious example of an aspect of university life that prompts excited discussions about how a radically new approach to higher education is on the horizon. Technology does offer the potential for teachers to transform their practice, for example, and yet within universities blackboard and chalk are still sometimes used as teaching tools (unlike primary schools). The university itself is another enduring feature of higher education in spite of decades of discussion about its imminent ruin and death. The university as an institution might continue to exist today, but those of us researching higher education tend to write from quite defensive positions, lamenting the neo-liberal influences on academic life, managerial practices and the corporatization of universities. We note the lack of an articulation of humanitarian values and a social justice ethos. As Bob Lingard argued at a recent conference in Lancaster, the ‘world-class university’ as a concept is an empty signifier; or as my colleagues Alan Cribb and Sharon Gewirtz suggest, the ‘hollowed-out universities’ of today lack intrinsic value and have ‘no distinctive social role and no ethical raison-d’etre’ (Cribb & Gewirtz 2013: 340).
These paradoxes require a fine balancing act: we need to be cognisant of the importance of tradition, wary of over-hyped claims that radical change is on the way, and yet maintain the ability to foster purposeful change in the face of challenges to our core values. Working with those outside of the field of higher education research is necessary but difficult. Part of my motivation for ruminating on the value and impact of higher education research is because I believe it can and should encourage reflection and change amongst the wider academic community. Those who are not thinking, reading, reflecting and researching on higher education are allowing the value of universities to be ignored and eroded. Here in the SRHE there have been many discussions over a number of years about how we can turn our research into a positive force for change, particularly in relation to policy. I am suggesting we can also use our research more effectively to influence thinking and inform practice amongst our colleagues. We need our audiences to be broad so that together we can re-assert the role of universities in a contemporary climate which demands a clear articulation of purpose.
Kelly Coate is Assistant Director (Accredited Programmes) at the King’s Learning Institute, King’s College London. Kelly is also a member of the SRHE Governing Council and co-convenor of SRHE’s Digital University Network.