GLOBAL: Future of higher education research

Higher education around the world has expanded massively in recent decades so that its character and performance have significant implications for all members of society, not only economically but for social cohesion, equity, mobility and integration, says a new report by the European Science Foundation. The report says more needs to be known about how universities and other higher education institutions are changing in the 21st century. It says that expansion of the sector has implications locally, nationally and globally, as well as how it shapes the lives of individual citizens.

Higher Education Looking Forward: An agenda for future research aims to set the basis for future studies into the changing relationship between higher education and society. The report, by the foundation's Higher Education Looking Forward project and chaired by Professor John Brennan of Britain's Open University, says the agenda should attract researchers from a wider range of social science fields, and remind future researchers they can build on an existing body of theory and research.

Future research, says the report, must question the relationships and interconnections between contemporary social and economic changes, the changes happening within higher education, and the roles of academics. This big question then leads to others which include:

* How might new forms of comparative research achieve a better understanding of the interactions between higher education and society, and the different forms these take in Europe and more widely?

* How do national, regional and local contexts help to determine the characteristics of higher education systems? What is the role of public authorities? How much do universities vary in the size and nature of their international connections?

* Do different types of HE institutions have different relationships with the wider social and economic worlds which they are part of?

* Must universities adopt new functions and blur their boundaries with other social institutions to retain their importance in the knowledge society?

* The report adds: "Of course, other questions can and will be posed. The answers to some of them may prove to be uncomfortable for many of the people currently working and studying within higher education. That may raise additional organisational questions about the condition and contexts in which higher education research is best carried out and the kinds of training and experience that its practitioners need to have."

Brennan thinks that new forms of social science methodology will be needed to answer these questions. As well as funding, he says the achievement of these objectives will also require "the arousal of greater scientific interest in higher education as a legitimate and rewarding field for future research from among social scientists beyond the specialist 'tribe' of higher education researchers. But without this new knowledge, we will not know how universities are adapting to the global world in ways that are compatible to their existing missions and their academic strengths".

His report notes that research on higher education can be characterised as a small, theme-based and relatively fragmented field, and as one with an enormously varied institutional basis. "These characteristics are seen both as risks and dangers as well as challenges and opportunities."

In Europe, research on higher education gained credence as an area of knowledge and relevance to policy in its own right in the 1970s, largely as a consequence of growing public awareness of the interrelationships between education and economic growth, social mobility, student unrest and reforms in higher education.

From the late 1980s, research on the sector attracted interest in the wake of debates about the knowledge society, new modes of management and increasing internationalisation. "In the current framework of the Bologna and Lisbon processes, research on higher education is again receiving growing attention," the report states.

There are now around two dozen institutes in Europe addressing higher education as the main or one of the major domains of their research activities and they employ up to 2,000 people between them.

Brennan's team included Jürgen Enders, University of Twente, Enschede, Netherlands, Christine Musselin, Sciences Po and CNRS, Paris, Ulrich Teichler, University of Kassel, Hessen, Germany, and Jussi Välimaa, University of Jyväskylä Finland.

They say that many of the pressing research questions would benefit from - and in some cases probably require - a comparative cross-European approach, and frequently beyond. The differences between the various countries are bounded by sufficient similarities to make comparative research particularly powerful as they set limits to the range of the 'unknowns' that may affect data.

The report concludes: "The purpose of researching higher education is not just to make higher education 'better'- although hopefully it will also do that - but to enhance our understanding of contemporary societies and the futures that are available to them. The parts that learning, knowledge and science in all their forms and in all their organisational settings have to play in achieving such understandings and in shaping such futures deserve, we believe, to have a central place in social science endeavours."

Higher Education Looking Forward: An Agenda for Future Research