How often can you get an overview of the field in which you work in just over an afternoon, and finish it off drinking bubbles on the balcony at the House of Lords? Every 50 years?! I was lucky enough to snaffle a ticket to the 50th anniversary of the main academic society I’m a member of. Attending was interesting and useful for me but not directly relevant to the current project I’m on. Thankfully my current boss is enlightened enough to still let work cover the train fare.
So, my field is higher education. Can I summarise the main themes that researchers, policy makers and practitioners think about and struggle with? Let’s see…this is clearly not going to be a definitive guide – and it’s a bit UK-centric – but consider it a bit of an aperitif.
Social setting: universities are a relatively small cog in a much larger engine, and it’s important to understand what that engine looks like. While they can contribute to some of the problems that exist, they in themselves can’t take all of the blame or be seen as the sole solution. For example, after World War II, there were greater opportunities to get a better job than your parents had through attending university. This is part of where the idea that universities can create social mobility comes from. But if the wider political/economic situation means that if those opportunities shrink, it’s not entirely universities’ fault that people from certain backgrounds have better career chances than others.
Teaching and learning: as the numbers of students have increased, this means that volume of people being taught, the diversity in the student body, and the range of subjects being taught, have all changed massively. There is also a wide range of research on, and theories in, teaching, and this can on the one hand be confusing to people learning how to teach, but also interesting because it means that there are many different approaches to learn from. There are also changes in the technology we can apply in teaching, although the extent to which these are used (or over-used) varies.
Academic practice and careers: the situation around university work is changing. As recently as 40 years ago, academics in the UK were predominantly focused on teaching. Research was part of the role, but it has become increasingly dominant in many parts of higher education. The nature of jobs in academia are also different, in that they are often – particularly at the early career stage – casual in that they’re short term, and are more often divided into research- and teaching-focused, rather than being a combination.
Student experience: who studies and where they study is very different from what higher education looked like 50 years ago. There are more students, and more universities, and – as mentioned earlier – the student body is more diverse across genders, ethnicities, class and so on. As numbers have gone up, so the means of funding those numbers have changed, and now students have to pay (often through an income-contingent loans system) for their studies. There is a huge amount of discussion around the equity and effect of this.
Transnational Perspectives: universities offering courses overseas can be a solution to local under-provision but there is also a danger that these either outcompete domestic universities and/or teach material that is western-centric. Also, the global competition for status is dominated by a few countries/universities, and this can come at the expense of poorer nations. Universities have the potential to be a force for social progress but also a means of reinforcing inequalities, and understanding this involves thinking about how they fit within wider social/political contexts, as well as within countries and groups of countries.
Higher Education Policy: as more and more people go to university, and universities are increasingly seen as central pillars in the economy, policy is becoming an ever hotter topic. One big theme at the moment is who contributes to the agenda (as well as what they contribute), as we can see organisations such as the World Bank and OECD or EU strongly influencing what national or regional policies look like. This – like much of education – is a diverse area, with economists, anthropologists, political scientists and so on bringing their disciplinary views to the mix.
Globalisation: international students are very much on the rise, and this changes the composition of the student body and the attention paid to comparative tools such as rankings or other ‘objective’ measures such as expenditure, graduate salaries, gender compositions, and so on. Rankings, for one, have come to – misleadingly – dictate how quality is judged, and the implication is that those with high status have better degrees and more capable students, while this is not necessarily the case. We need to be very careful of the ways in which comparisons are made and what sort of models of education are being given higher status.
Access to university: this again refers to the increasing size and composition of the student body comes under inspection. There have been major – and successful – attempts to make the student body more representative of wider society, but there is still some distance to go. Where there is less work is around how different groups can engage with, enjoy, and benefit from higher education. Someone whose family and friends all study/studied, has no financial worries while at university, and then has access through social connections to companies for internships and so on, the main difficulty at university will be in the learning. But for people who know little to nothing before coming, have to work a lot to support themselves, are a minority in their university, and don’t have access to meaningful work experience, it will present a much broader set of challenges.
So, there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of research into higher education: globalisation and geopolitics, growth and diversity in the student population, precarious career pathways, fees and loans, rankings, and social equality. There’s something for all the family!