by Ariane de Gayardon
In contrast to comparative education, whose history dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, comparative higher education is a relatively recent construct of research originating in the 1970-1980s. This early period gave us the first comparative instruments, still widely used today, as lenses to analyse national higher education systems. These include Clark’s triangle of coordination (1983), Altbach’s use of the concept of centre and periphery (1981) and Trow’s definition of elite, mass and universal systems (1973). Therefore, early on, comparative higher education proved very successful in increasing our understanding of higher education globally. But, since then, what has it accomplished?
While there are many users of comparative higher education – that is, researchers whose research could be considered comparative – there is still little written critically on comparative higher education research. The debate is alive, led by individual researchers, including Kosmützky, Bleiklie, and Valimaa. However, there is little acknowledgment of their efforts by users of comparative research, showing a clear divide between efforts to conceptualise and theorise comparative research in higher education and actual research practice. As a result, the field of comparative higher education is lacking rigour, as exemplified by the lack of appropriate rationales for sampling choices – why countries are included – in the vast majority of comparative papers (Kosmützky, 2016). This puts comparative higher education at odds with comparative studies in other disciplines, that have been focused on the comparative method as a way to reach causality or improve generalisation.
What researchers in comparative higher education have failed to achieve in the past 40 years is to elevate comparative studies in higher education to a (sub-)field of study. An academic field is built on the emergence of two dynamics: an intellectual debate and an institutional structure (Manzon, 2018). The debate around comparative higher education has been focused on proposing conceptual and theoretical frameworks, but it remains marginal. Additionally, questions that are still to be raised and answered include the objectives and purpose of comparative higher education, as well as what unites researchers undertaking comparative projects. At the same time, there is a lack of academic space for this debate to happen. Comparative higher education lacks specific journals – with the exception of the Journal of Comparative and International Higher Education, societies and associated conferences, and research centres. Unlike comparative education, it has not yet permeated into the teaching function of higher education, with an absence of textbooks and dedicated degrees (although some courses do exist). Comparative higher education therefore remains on the margins, a practice of research that is still to be properly understood.
This deficit of reflective and critical thinking on comparative higher education matters. The use of comparative higher education for cross-country comparisons remains essential in understanding higher education systems. It provides unique settings to deepen our knowledge of higher education phenomena through the way they manifest in different environments and in contact with different cultures. This leads to improved theorisation of higher education phenomena that transcends borders, helping to fight assumptions and opening new avenues for conceptualising higher education. Consequently, it helps us understand our own higher education system better, through knowledge of the ‘other’ and combatting “comparative chauvinism” and “comparative humility” (Teichler, 2014). And because comparative higher education is not limited to international comparisons, it provides an opportunity to increase our knowledge of within-system variations through tools to analyse both the local and the global in higher education.
Comparative higher education research is also of tremendous importance to evidence-based policy. Higher education policies remain decided at the country (state) level in most countries around the globe, which means that comparison is essential to understand the consequences of different policies. Policy evaluation in higher education needs comparative studies, internationally and historically in particular. Understanding higher education policies beyond the national context is also important in a world where policy-borrowing and lending is prevalent. Knowledge of the ways different policies adapt in different environments helps prevent the spread of seemingly successful policies that would have detrimental consequences if translated elsewhere.
Finally, higher education research already evolves in an international context. Higher education stakeholders – students and faculty in particular – are mobile beyond borders, while knowledge does not know national boundaries. As a result, the vast majority of researchers in higher education have frames of reference that extend beyond their national context. This means that most higher education research might be unintentionally comparative. This is problematic in two ways. First, the way you do research is important to recognise and understand to reach research rigor. Second, researchers might not be acknowledging properly their positionality and bias, by not reflecting on what they know and don’t know about higher education globally.
After 40 years of existence, it might be time to stop and reflect on comparative higher education research and decide what its mission is. To do so, we can rely on endless research and debate in the field of comparative education, as well as a robust literature on comparative studies, that would provide strong basis for the construction of a field of comparative higher education. This reflection will help strengthen the higher education research done comparatively, leading to a tremendous increase in our knowledge of higher education generally.
Altbach, PG (1981) ‘The university as center and periphery’ Teachers College Record, 82(4): 601-621
Clark, B (1983) The higher education system : Academic organization in cross-national perspective Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
Kosmützky, A (2016) ‘The precision and rigor of international comparative studies in higher education’ in Theory and Method in Higher Education Research (pp 199-221) Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Manzon, M (2018) ‘Origins and traditions in comparative education: challenging some assumptions’, Comparative Education, 54(1): 1-9
Teichler, U (2014) ‘Opportunities and problems of comparative higher education research: The daily life of research’ Higher Education, 67(4): 393-408
Trow, M (1973) Problems in the transition from elite to mass higher education Berkeley, CA: Carnegie Commission on Higher Education
Ariane de Gayardon is a Senior Research Associate in the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education and is Assistant Editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education