By Rachel Brooks
How healthy is the area of higher education studies? When we look at the extant literature, there seems to be cause for concern. Scholars have noted: the frequent absence of theory and short-term focus of such research; the proximity of researchers to policy-makers which, it is argued, can make critical distance hard to achieve; and the fragmentation of the field. Higher education research has also been critiqued for occupying a relatively marginal place within the wider discipline of educational research. Nevertheless, I suggest that an analysis of recent data paints a rather different, and more optimistic, picture.
Indeed, there is mounting evidence that higher education research is an increasingly vibrant area of enquiry. In relation to research funding, for example, data from the UKRI’s Gateway to Research on the number of grants awarded from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) (Figure 1) indicate that, since the turn of the century, higher education-focussed projects have regularly been funded, albeit still not to the same extent as those that are schools-orientated. The grants from these bodies are relatively large (for the arts, humanities and social sciences), and are typically expected to make a theoretical, not only empirical, contribution.
Figure 1. Number of ESRC and AHRC grants awarded by ESRC and AHRC, with higher education or school in title, 2006-2022, by date of award*
Source: UKRI Gateway to Research database
*The data show only the date of the award, not the years over which the award was spent.
NB Data are available from 2004, but no education grants are recorded for either 2004 or 2005.
Vibrancy within the field of educational studies is also evidenced in data from the most recent national research assessment exercise in the UK (REF2021). As the exercise allowed researchers to be much more selective about the work they submitted for assessment than in previous exercises (ie they were required to submit a minimum of one research output and, across submissions as a whole, an average of 2.5 such outputs per full-time member of staff, compared with a minimum of four submissions per staff member in REF2014), the work submitted is clearly only a relatively small proportion of the overall research conducted within the area. Nevertheless, the data do facilitate comparative judgements over time, as well as giving a good sense about what is considered, by both individuals and institutions, to be high quality work within education. As Table 1 shows, the percentage of outputs submitted to the Education unit of assessment for REF2021 that focussed on higher education, at 14 per cent, was markedly higher than the corresponding proportion in the previous exercise, at nine per cent. A similar increase was evident in relation to the impact case studies submitted for both exercises, with the number of higher education-focussed impact case studies increasing from 15 per cent of all those submitted to the Education unit of assessment in REF2014 to 21 per cent in REF2021 (see Table 2). The increased vibrancy of higher education scholarship was also noted within the final report for the Education unit of assessment, which explicitly remarked on the growth in this area since REF 2014.
Table 1. Submission to REF2021 Education sub-panel: outputs
|Total number of outputs||HE-focussed outputs||Percentage|
Table 2. Submission to REF2021 Education sub-panel: impact case studies (ICS)
|Total number of ICS||HE-focussed ICS||Percentage|
The third source of evidence for the vibrancy of higher education within educational research is individual journals. The British Journal of Sociology of Education is a well-established international journal, based in the UK, which publishes work across many areas of education from pre-school to adult education and workplace learning. A comparison of the content of articles published in this journal since the turn of the century indicates that the proportion of work focussed on higher education has seen a steady growth, with a particularly large number of articles published over the most recent period (see Figure 2). Alongside this, new higher education journals have emerged over recent years. Policy Reviews in Higher Education, for example, was launched in 2017, with the remit of publishing articles that engage explicitly with topical policy questions and significant areas of higher education policy development.
Figure 2. Percentage of articles focussing on higher education published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, by issue number: 20 (1999) to 43 (2023)
Source: British Journal of Sociology of Education website
Evidence from these three sources – research funding bodies, the UK’s national research assessment exercise, and education journals – indicates that higher education research now occupies an important place within the wider educational research landscape, and has grown in vibrancy over the past ten to twenty years. Moreover, it appears to have successfully addressed some of the weaknesses identified by scholars a decade or so ago, which were outlined above. The success of higher education researchers in securing grants from prestigious funding bodies suggests that they are no longer dependent on the short-term grants from policy organisations, enabling the exploration of issues in more depth across longer timescales. All three sources of evidence discussed above also indicate that the ‘absence of theory’ is no longer an accurate characterisation of the field. As noted above, UKRI grants typically require grant-holders to make a theoretical contribution, as well as an empirical one, through their work, while a robust conceptual framework is obviously important to work published in high status journals (such as the British Journal of Sociology of Education) and likely to be a consideration for work selected for submission to REF2021, given the relatively low number of submissions required per individual.
The vibrancy of higher education research can be explained by factors at a variety of levels. First, despite the points above about the ‘critical distance’ between researchers and policymakers, it seems very likely that much higher education research is related to the wider national policy context in the UK (and other parts of the world), in which politicians and policymakers have shown a high level of interest in the higher education sector, and taken up an increasingly interventionalist stance. Researchers are likely to be, in part, responding to this political prioritisation. The ongoing massification of higher education in the UK, with around 50 per cent of each cohort going on to degree-level study, may also have driven research activity in this area – with researchers cognisant of the importance of the sector to many people’s lives. As scholars have noted previously, higher education research is also encouraged at the institutional level – not only through the work of academic development units (or similar) – but also through the funding made available by universities to their academic staff to better understand their student populations and/or to pursue pedagogical research, with the aim of improving processes of teaching and learning. Often these are bound up quite closely with the wider policy environment: a desire to use research to improve ‘the student experience’ may be underpinned by market imperatives – for example, to improve an institution’s performance in the National Student Survey. Increased support from professional organisations (such as the SRHE and the network of Early Career Higher Education Researchers) is likely to have also played a role in the stimulation of higher education research. Finally, the ease and low cost of access to research participants (ie students and higher education staff) may also have driven enquiry in this area, in a context where research funding has become extremely competitive. While there are many reasons to be concerned about the focus of researchers’ gaze (ie the state of UK higher education itself), the current vibrancy of higher education studies is, in many ways, to be celebrated.
This blogpost is based on an article that has recently been published in the British Journal of Educational Studies.
Professor Rachel Brooks is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research and Innovation at the University of Surrey, UK. As well as being co-editor of the Routledge/SRHE book series, she is editor-in-chief of Sociology and an executive editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education. She has published widely in the sociology of higher education. Recent books include Student Migrants and Contemporary Educational Mobilities (with Johanna Waters); Reimagining the Higher Education Student (with Sarah O’Shea) and Sharing Care (with Paul Hodkinson).