By Richard Budd
In March 2019 I attended the GfHf (Gesellschaft für Hochschulforschung – German Society for HE Research) conference, in Magdeburg. I was supported by the SRHE as part of their ongoing and developing relationship between the two societies; the GfHf sent two ECRs to Newport for our 2018 conference. I was presenting a paper at the conference anyway, but was also looking to build networks and think about potential research collaboration.
As is often the case, the comparative aspects, both the similarities and dissimilarities, spring to mind when thinking about the conference. As we might expect, German-speaking HE researchers are, by and large, talking about the same things in and around universities that we are: populism and the legitimacy of experts and university-produced knowledge; governance in and around research and teaching; big data, digitalisation and social media; aspects of social justice around widening participation, gender pay inequalities, and employability. In this way, it was familiar territory. What stand out as different, though, are the geographical scale and unit of analysis.
In the first instance, the majority of papers were about German-speaking countries, and predominantly about German HE itself. This contrasts with the SRHE’s annual jamboree, which while being fairly UK-oriented, also sees and attracts a great deal of internationally comparative/non-UK research and researchers. Part of this is no doubt cultural, given the limited geographical spaces where German is the first language, and also because the countries in this space operate a specific kind of university system. Another part, though, can be attributed to funding, in that the German government, either centrally or at the regional state (Bundesland) level commissions a lot of research into examining the lay of the land and analysis of their policies.
Secondly, almost all of the papers relate to the macro and meso levels, or nation/system and organisational. As an admittedly crude generalisation, much of our UK-based research is macro-micro, connecting social and governance trends and/or analysis of individual/group experiences and responses. We do look at organisations, but for ethical/access reasons, universities’ identities tend to be anonymised, and this means that much of the case detail goes unreported. This is often not the case in Germany, they are much more matter-of-fact about what’s working, as well as where it’s going wrong. I’d argue that this is a good thing, being far healthier than sweeping problems under the carpet for reputational reasons, but then also German universities aren’t involved in the same kind of bun-fight for funding and students as we are.
This macro-meso orientation in German HE research probably connects to the fact that, as the majority of universities over there are state institutions, many changes to the system have to come from the top. Education in Germany falls within the remit of each of the 16 Bundesländer, and they are very protective of their regional turf. This means, though, that while universities and academics do have some autonomy, they are not as flexible (or as responsibilised) as in the UK. It also means that change is somewhat pedestrian by UK standards, but systemic. It has been well-documented that, for this reason, German speaking countries have been relatively slow to embrace (or have been immune from) the marketisation and performance-based elements that are so prevalent in many other countries.
A secondary observation is that nearly all of the papers are applying the same theoretical approach, neo-institutionalism. Neo-institutionalism is largely concerned with organisational behaviour, and sees organisations embedded within fields (i.e. sectors). It is therefore well-suited to what German HE researchers are looking at, but it was striking to see it appearing almost ubiquitously across the presentations I attended – including mine! We do see it in management/organisational studies in the UK, but not so much in HE research. Methodologically, the spectrum is as we see it, everything from multi-level modelling to discourse analysis and interviews etc. However, the qualitative work was invariably being utilised to examine the effect/effectiveness of interventions at the organisational level, rather than the personal experiential aspects.
What the conference really offers, then, is a different set of references and perspectives, as well as a different set of people, and therefore an opportunity to step out of our UK-oriented bubble. Many of us do research on an international and comparative basis, but we inescapably bring at least an element of ethno-centricity into our work. Being in Germany allowed me to step outside that a little more, and identified some of my own biases. Maybe, I’m wrong, and perhaps this says more about my methodological nationalism than anything.
As a caveat, most of the presentations – and both of the keynotes – are, naturally, in German. (It also reminded me that the non-native English speakers at our conferences have to work so much harder to follow presentations, ask/answer questions, and engage with colleagues; this is incredibly tiring.) As of 2018, though, there has been an English track in the conference – I presented my paper in this. German colleagues are almost invariably more than happy to converse in English for those who can only ask their way to station auf Deutsch. Culturally, the food is different, and there was an endless supply of (really good) cakes and coffee. Also, for those not familiar with German higher education, audience participants rap their knuckles on the desk at the end of presentations rather than clapping, which can be unsettling the first time you experience it!
In closing, it’s probably worth mentioning that nobody mentioned Brexit until the second round of drinks after dinner. There’s certainly absolutely no schadenfreude in Germany for the political corner we’ve painted ourselves into in that regard.
SRHE member Richard Budd is Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Lancaster.