The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Are these transformative times for research into HE?

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by Rob Cuthbert

The title of the 2021 SRHE International Research Conference was ‘(Re)connecting, (Re)building: Higher Education in Transformative Times’. Chosen as usual after much deliberation by SRHE’s Research and Development Committee, the conference title aimed, as always, to give broad scope for contributions and participation. But does research into HE also need to (re)connect and (re)build? What exactly is the territory for research into higher education now, what needs to be joined up, where should we be building?

 There are several maps and guides. SRHE’s Research into Higher Education Abstracts aims for comprehensive coverage, so new editors Roz Collings (Wolverhampton) and Shweta Mishra (Kassel), like their predecessors Gerda Visser-Wijnveen (Anton de Kom University, Suriname) and Roeland van der Rijst (Leiden), constantly review and from time to time modify the categories they use to organise 600 or more abstracts each year. Their recent addition of ‘Contributory Studies and Research Repositories’ points in the same direction as the structure of omniscient SRHE Fellow Malcolm Tight’s (2021) latest book, Syntheses of Higher Education Research: What We Know. Since Tight produced Knowledge and Research: the Developing Field in 2018 his categories remain unchanged but he has added the overarching ‘Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses’. These changes, to Abstracts and to Tight’s œuvre, suggest a field that is maturing rather than one in immediate need of reconnection and rebuilding.

Conference offers another guide: it attracted more than 620 researchers from more than 50 countries, at every stage of their academic careers. The chosen domains or themes for the Conference largely mirror the structure of SRHE Networks, reflecting the interests of SRHE members and the foci of their current research into HE. Figure 1 summarises the categories in these three ‘maps’:

 Figure 1. Some categorisations of research into HE

SRHE Conference 2021 domainsSRHE AbstractsSyntheses of HE Research
 *Contributory Studies and Research Repositories*Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses
 *Research*Knowledge and Research
*Academic practice, work, careers and cultures*Staff*Academic Work
*Postgraduate scholarship and practice  
*Digital University and new Learning technologies*Curriculum Design*Course Design
*Learning, teaching and assessment*Teaching, Learning, and Assessment*Teaching and Learning
*Student experiences*Students*The Student Experience
*Technical, Professional and Vocational Higher Education  
*Employability, enterprise and graduate careers  
*Higher education policy*National Systems and Comparative Studies*System Policy
*International contexts and perspectives 
*Management, leadership, governance and quality*Institutional Management *Quality*Institutional Management

Conference shows where research is going rather than where it has been: can we infer anything from its rather different categories? Perhaps research into policy, management, quality and comparative perspectives continues unabated but unchanged, whereas the clearer recognition of ‘Postgraduate scholarship and practice’ and (in particular) ‘Digital university and new learning technologies’ signals growing interest in and research into these areas.

Prompted by the SRHE Conference, Wonkhe asked SRHE Research Committee Chair Jacqueline Stevenson (Leeds), Leo Havemann (UCL) and SRHE Director Helen Perkins to reflect on the state of research into HE, publishing their thoughts – emphasising “compassion, openness and impact” – on 6 December 2021. Similarly for Wonkhe on 6 December 2021 SRHE member Camille Kandiko Howson (Imperial), former SRHE Vice-President Peter Scott (UCL) and Liz Austen (Sheffield Hallam) picked out “belonging, history and practice”. Camille Kandiko Howson emphasised belonging and internationalism and noted: “the major shift I saw were numerous papers on China … This signals a maturing of the field, going beyond research about Chinese students coming to Western institutions.” Peter Scott argued that: “HE research should be at the centre of our understanding of modern society … although there is excellent research on the history of universities, HE research still lacks historical perspective. Policy memory is notoriously short … 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.”

In a November blog for SRHE Ruth McQuirter Scott (Brock, Canada) and her colleagues articulated five principles of ‘generous scholarship’ – social praxis; reciprocity; generous mindedness; generous heartedness; and agency – as a ‘vision for academic life’. These principles were much in evidence at the 2021 Conference. The SRHE Conference has gone from strength to strength in recent years and the great popularity of the Celtic Manor venue in Wales even led in 2020 to some regular attenders organising an online ‘Celtic Manor experience’. Sadly Covid-19 forced cancellation in 2020, and presented major challenges in 2021. However the early decision to stage the 2021 Conference online allowed careful planning and prompted the merging of the previously separate Newer and Early Career Researchers Conference, previously held successfully at Celtic Manor immediately before the main Conference. The quality of submissions in 2021 rose once again, as judged by the 40 or so academic referees; 223 individual papers, 16 symposia, and 17 posters were accepted for an event which had been fundamentally reconceived. It still felt like the Conference: there were still plenary sessions, meet-the-editors, how-to-get-published, SRHE Network events, poster sessions and the parallel themed presentations of groups of papers. But all of these had been thought through from first principles to make them work online. Plenaries were interactive panel sessions with a range of shorter presentations. The grouping of papers in presentation slots was not only exceptionally coherent, it also did all it could to recognise the time zones of the global participants (with some apologies to the night owls and early birds, especially in Australia and New Zealand). There was even an opportunity, exploited by many, for the informal conference mingling which is usually commonplace, via the software and a Mural board on which all participants could post comments and reflections. All this was supported by external specialist IT help which ensured that the week-long event ran smoothly. It was a triumph of design, organisation and presentation, with congratulations and thanks to the entire SRHE team: Helen Perkins, Rob Gresham, Sinéad Murphy, Katie Tindle, Adam Dawson and Franco Carta.

In 2021 all SRHE Network events and seminars have been freely available to global audiences, their reach has exceeded all expectations, and the Conference accelerated and reinforced this internationalisation. In that Wonkhe blog Jacqueline Stevenson emphasised the field’s ‘compassion and criticality’, adding: “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.” For Helen Perkins the dominant theme was impact, and: “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.” It seems that, for research into HE, rebuilding and reconnecting has not been the issue. On the contrary, building has been booming across the world and connecting has perhaps never been better. What the 2021 SRHE Conference told us was that, against all odds, research into HE is in good health, worldwide.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics Twitter @RobCuthbert

Author: SRHE News Blog

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

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