Viva Voce Podcasts cross-posts with SAGE’s Social Science Space (http://www.socialsciencespace.com/), and I was asked to blog a bit about the background and rationale to my PhD…
I’ve been looking at education all over the world for almost fifteen years now. I started comparing educational systems for government agencies in the UK and New Zealand, work that related to international university applications, visas, and jobs. This gave me a ‘top down’ insight into the real diversity that exists in how education is put together in different parts of the world. My doctoral research, though, took a more student-centred, philosophical approach.
Universities are in a period of real change at the moment; according to one writer, this is the most significant shift in higher education for 200 years. Generally speaking, we are seeing governments lose the will to fund universities, and this coincides with more and more people wanting to study. From the research perspective, academics increasingly need to bid for public or private sector grants. This could present a problem if sponsors want to limit what is made public from those projects, or perhaps some important areas might be ignored if nobody wants to fund research into them. For students, tuition fees are becoming more widespread. There is a worry here that those from poorer backgrounds will be excluded from university, and/or that people will only choose to study degrees that lead to well-paid jobs. Some disciplines, particularly in the humanities – which are socially important but perhaps not as lucrative – might fall by the wayside. Along with the risks to certain subjects or topics and less affluent students, there are a slew of other issues that cut across all of this, including globalisation, rankings, and privatisation/private funding. These themes also appear elsewhere, in education more broadly, as well as in areas such as health, transport, pensions, prisons and law enforcement, the armed forces, and so on.
This clearly involves a hot set of topics. There is a great deal of scholarship on the impact of this for universities, mostly from the point of view of seasoned academics. Some of these issues also make it into the mainstream media, particularly when there are student demonstrations or academic staff strikes. One area that is largely missing so far, though, is a student perspective on the broader issues at play, rather than single issues. There is a lot of discussion about students, but not much that asks them what they think. This is the area that my research explores.
I chose Germany and England as the two countries I wanted to look at for a number of reasons. Part of this was because I’m half German, half English; the study provided a way to explore my own cultural identity/-ies. Also, when I started my doctorate in 2010, Germany was in the process of abolishing tuition fees while England was rapidly heading in the opposite direction. The differences don’t just stop there. Traditional German ‘Universitäten’ are (nearly) all state owned and funded, and university rankings are relatively weak. The idea that universities might have varying statuses would have been baffling there fifteen or twenty years ago. In England, on the other hand, universities are independent organisations, rankings are strong, and there is a well-established hierarchy in the sector. Then, in addition to the changes in tuition fees, there is much more private or selectively allocated research funding than before. Student numbers in both countries have skyrocketed, but more so in England than in Germany. What emerges is a picture of two university contexts which are similar in many ways – universities, after all, engage in the same kinds of activities – but are quite different in some crucial aspects, too. What I was interested in was, first, what students in these two national settings thought university’s social role might be, and how (or whether) they fulfilled it. What did they think about tuition fees, private research sponsorship, and rankings? Secondly, did they make decisions about university differently, and were ‘ingredients’ such as the cost of study or the ‘league table’ position of the university influential?
I interviewed undergraduate students at two similar universities, one in Germany, the other in England. We discussed how they thought universities acted or should act, and how they experienced higher education. Within this, I asked them to describe what they did in relation to university, and why. My samples were small – I was targeting depth, not breadth – so the findings are not generalisable. Overall, what they described, understood, and how they behaved, was in many ways quite similar. However, within this, certain aspects were nationally idiosyncratic, and some of the decisions they made and ways they thought were specific to their own countries. What emerges is a picture in which who we are and where we study can fundamentally change the way that we make sense of the degree ‘in front of’ us.