HE research: we must seek out, and listen to, new voices

Twenty years ago, the sociologist Barry Schwartz coined the phrase the ‘paradox of choice’ to describe a feeling of paralysis when faced with a dizzying array of consumer choices in the marketplace.

Schwartz’s argument at that time was that, despite what traditional economic theory might suggest, choice is not always a benefit to consumers, especially when there are too many options.

A choice between a small number of options can be helpful, as it allows consumers to feel less restricted and gives them the chance to choose against something that is really not of interest to them.

However, once there are too many choices, consumers become anxious, as it becomes far more difficult to make an informed choice, which then raises the possibility of making a ‘wrong’ choice that you might regret.

Over the past two decades, technology has only augmented this challenge for consumers of all kinds of goods. It has also augmented the effects of another important theory: the psychological theory of ‘cognitive overload’.

This theory argues that, when our brains are overloaded, our ability to make decisions is limited – and there is no doubt that technology is fuelling cognitive overload in our contemporary moment, as we are inundated every day with a veritable deluge of information, both profound and mundane.

When combined, the impacts of choice paralysis and information overload make it unlikely that we will try something new.

I believe that this phenomenon – that of a crippling choice paralysis/information overload combination – can be observed in the field of higher education research, to the detriment of both research and practice.

Despite the democratic promise of technology, I would contend that we generally continue to make the ‘safe’ choice – when consuming research, searching for information, selecting research collaborators – by gravitating towards names we know and theories, concepts and perspectives we recognise.

As such, we are not benefiting from what has been a truly exciting expansion of our field over the past few decades. Rather, we are experiencing our own version of the ‘echo chamber’ phenomenon that has been so broadly criticised in the realm of electoral politics.

Expansion of the field

The world of science has expanded exponentially over the past 60 or so years. Higher education has become central to the economic development strategy of all nations, with governments investing significantly in the expansion of existing universities and the creation of new ones.

Although most of this expansion has focused on the formation of human capital via the teaching function of universities, research has also been an important priority, and – as such – academic research output today is far more diverse than it was even 20 years ago, at least when it comes to the country of origin of heavily cited academic papers.

And, of course, thanks to technology, we can now actually consume the research that is published all over the world. We can locate papers published elsewhere, much scholarship is available open access, and we can even use technology to translate content we cannot read in its source language.

On paper, this is a hugely exciting development. We know that rigorous scholarly research should be built on a foundation of prior understanding and that many of today’s challenges require an interdisciplinary approach.

Higher education is, by nature, interdisciplinary. But comparative and international higher education is even more complex, as, by definition, it also requires understanding of multiple geographic contexts, and their histories, politics and cultures.

So, the growing number of researchers in our field gives us much cause for hope. But has the scholarly literature in our field really started to incorporate more diverse viewpoints? Are we, in fact, doing a better job ensuring that our policies and practices are informed by contextually relevant evidence?

To a degree, yes, certainly, but not, I would argue, to the extent that one might expect.

The reality is that, despite the enormous expansion of the field, the same authors continue to be cited over and over again, the same theories are used to support study after study, and we continue to see policies and practices rolled out in higher education systems around the world which rely on theories developed for and within drastically different contexts, to detrimental effect at times.

Power imbalances

So, why is this the case? Why has the expansion of our field not helped to intellectually diversify our field? Well, clearly, part of the answer to this question can be found in long established critiques of the power imbalances in our field.

It continues to be the case that many researchers located in less traditionally powerful geographic contexts receive their academic training at institutions in the Global North, which can reproduce the tendency to continue to rely on Western methodological and theoretical perspectives.

It also continues to be the case that metrics driving higher education around the world devalue papers written in languages other than English – and that researchers whose first language is anything other than English are far less likely to be published in the most often read and cited journals in our field.

We may also need to reference certain seminal authors, theories or concepts in a journal article if we want to be published, even if we believe emphatically in the importance of disrupting entrenched hierarchies in our field.

These are truths that we have long recognised and understood. But they are not the only explanation, because the things that should offer some possibility of finally counteracting, or at least destabilising, these tendencies – the expansion of our field across the world, and the promise of technology to democratise knowledge – do not seem to be making the difference that one might assume that they would.

My argument is that they are not addressing the problem because, counter-intuitively, they may actually be making the problem worse, by making it even less likely that we will expand our worldview.

Academic echo chambers

We know that social media is creating echo chambers – online spaces where we only interact with others that share our worldview – and that these echo chambers are having a dramatic and detrimental effect on political systems around the world. It’s clear to me that this same phenomenon is now occurring in academic circles as well.

Although technology should, in theory, help us to easily expose ourselves to new work and new perspectives, the algorithms built into our current online platforms actually work against such exploration.

As we ‘follow’ those we already know, we can easily keep track of their new work, but we are not exposed to the work of others. In fact, it becomes harder to find anything beyond our own orbit. Of course, we could more actively seek out new perspectives, but the tools available for finding new information are also working against diversity.

When we use online search engines and other tools to seek out sources, bibliometrics push us towards sources that are already heavily cited, which, of course, entrenches the hold that certain authors, theories and viewpoints already have on our field.

The pressure to produce

At the same time, the pressures baked into our current structures limit both the time and space needed to seek out new viewpoints and exacerbate our cognitive overload problem.

As our institutional metrics and promotions structures push us to produce, produce, produce, we are incentivised to create knowledge, but not to review what is already known – and, given the pressures of time that all of us in academia experience, we are far more likely to fall back on authors and theories we already know, rather than pushing ourselves to grapple with new perspectives.

It is also possible to see similar pressures militating against the time required to seek out new viewpoints in the more applied branches of our field.

Although higher education researchers based in agencies and international organisations may not have to contend with the pressures of academic promotions structures, for example, they have their own pressures to contend with, which drive similar results.

Information overload

The pressure to constantly produce new work – in both the academic and applied corners of our fields – does, of course, mean that our knowledge is expanding, when measured in terms of new research output, and that should be another reason for hope when it comes to diversifying our perspectives.

In addition to the fact that the field itself has grown, the individuals within it are also producing lots and lots of new content. In the aggregate, therefore, our field ‘knows’ more than we have ever known before. And yet, as a rule, this explosion of new knowledge is not helping us build something exciting and new.

In fact, I would argue that the opposite is often true. As we gain access to more and more information, our cognitive load increases, and we are faced with our own intellectual version of the paradox of choice.

And so we gravitate towards that which is familiar. We opt for what we know will be of high quality, because our time is limited and the risk of ‘consuming’ something less than helpful is not one that we are generally willing to take.

This can be seen in our conference-going behaviour, where most people attend sessions delivered by people they already know or on topics related to something they are already working on, and in our consumption of research, where most people are likely to read things recommended by those within their existing orbit or at least published within one or two specific journals.

These choices, at the individual level, are entirely rational. We all need to make a series of micro-decisions every day within our overly pressured and busy lives in order to succeed – or even just survive!

But, in the aggregate, these behaviours are deeply problematic, as what all of this means in practice is that our current structures are leading us to actively contribute to – and, ultimately, become the victims of – our own version of the political echo chamber.

And so, just as we are (rightfully!) calling on our field to decolonise and recognise the validity of different viewpoints, perspectives and ways of knowing, we are also preventing ourselves from doing this in any meaningful way, at least as a collective.

As we are critiquing tendencies towards isomorphism and the uncritical application of approaches developed in one context to another, we are preventing ourselves – and our field – from moving away from the long-established ‘truths’ that have contributed to such processes of convergence.

A few possible solutions

The question is, can anything be done about this? I would like to believe that there is something we can do about it – because the alternative would be too depressing, but also because I do have faith that human beings can undo problematic structures that they themselves have created.

I have certainly not figured out ‘the answer’ to this problem, but I propose here a few possible solutions – none of which will solve the problem in their own right, but all of which, if pursued simultaneously, might at least start to address this problem.

First, at the individual level, I challenge all of us to actively think about how we might expand our own knowledge of what is known in the field, via the work that we already have to do.

The structures within which we are all operating are unlikely to change dramatically, at least in the short term, so it is unrealistic to expect ourselves to carve large swathes of time out for intellectual exploration, interesting and fulfilling as that might be!

However, we can rethink how we do the things that we already have to do. When we create syllabi, for example, we can challenge ourselves to seek out new perspectives on the topics we have taught for years.

I also challenge us all to look critically at our own conference-going and research consumption behaviours. Perhaps it’s something as simple as seeking out one presentation per conference that addresses something about which you have never thought – or listening to one webinar per year that comes from a different disciplinary perspective but might offer a new insight on a topic you know well, but have only ever considered from one viewpoint.

All of us feel the pressures of time and the siren call of productivity, but one or two webinars a year are hardly going to push us over the edge.

Relatedly, we all need to educate ourselves about how to more responsibly seek out information – because, of course, some of the challenges of our contemporary moment have nothing to do with behaviour and are much more about the tools at our disposal and the algorithms that drive them.

As individuals, we cannot be complacent in the face of these challenges, assuming that technology is a problem ‘out there’ for other people to work out. We are the ones that feed the beast of citation counts and other metrics, so we also have a role to play.

Small changes

And, it turns out, even small changes can make a difference here. In a recent study, Katy Jordan and colleagues at the University of Cambridge investigated the ‘sort by relevance’ criteria used by Google and most other academic search engines, and concluded that simply turning off that sorting preference can help to diversify the results you receive. I’m fairly certain that all of us have the time to make that change!

At the organisational level, of course, there is even more that could – I would argue, should – be done.

Within higher education, we could work to change our promotions structures to equally value research that brings together what is already known, rather than only valuing the production of new knowledge that may never be read beyond a very limited audience.

Similarly, within the policy domain, organisations could better incentivise in-house researchers and consultants to rely on the knowledge that already exists (rather than always conducting new work) but also to actively identify newer perspectives, ideally coming from parts of the world or intellectual traditions that have not yet been well-represented, so that we might consider new ways of addressing entrenched problems in our field – even if such perspectives have only been identified by one or two researchers.

Journals and other publishers also have a role to play. At a minimum, I would argue that there needs to be a stronger commitment to representing new voices and perspectives – not only in terms of the authors of accepted articles but also in terms of the works cited in those articles.

Although it may be hugely important – for many reasons – to publish more articles written by authors from less globally powerful parts of the world, that fact alone does not necessarily ensure intellectual diversity.

I also see an important role for research centres and those organising and convening the field, via conferences or other models.

At the Centre for International Higher Education, we are working hard to push against the echo chamber phenomenon in a few ways. Our new biennial conference, for instance, did not feature traditional papers and was instead organised entirely around interaction and dialogue, in an effort to connect researchers with others in the field who might come from different contexts or intellectual traditions.

Clearly, these suggestions cannot address all of the issues in front of us. But I am hopeful that they might help us to at least take a few steps forward.

And, whether or not these specific solutions are the answer, I strongly believe that what I have highlighted here is a problem that is worth acknowledging, debating and seeking to address within our field.

The alternative is to simply put our heads in the sand and ignore it, and, if we do that, we risk losing a significant opportunity to finally diversify the ways in which we talk about and understand higher education, to the likely detriment of everybody our field affects.

Rebecca Schendel is managing director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. This is an edited version of her keynote address at the recent Centre for Global Higher Education conference 2023.