• August 2, 2014

Research Centers Look To Sharpen Global Study of Higher Education


This is an article from University World News, an online publication that covers global higher education. It is presented here under an agreement with The Chronicle.


The directors of higher-education research centers from around the world flew to Shanghai for their first ever global meeting this month and, encouragingly, policymakers also attended. The aims were to discuss the future of research on higher education, to debate common issues – and to create a global network of higher-education research experts.

The “International Higher Education Research and Policy Roundtable” was organized by the Center for International Higher Education, or CIHE, at Boston College, and held November 2-3.

It was hosted by the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiaotong University and supported by the Innovation, Higher Education, and Research for Development, or IHERD, program of SIDA, the Swedish International Development Agency.

Participants discussed links between researchers and policymakers in the field of higher education, and the nature and character of those links.

As Robin Middlehurst of Kingston University in the United Kingdom noted, “research and policy is a dynamic ecosystem.” Usually, however, research is done in isolation from the context of possible policy implementation of the research results.

According to Pawan Agarwal, advisor in the Indian government’s Planning Commission, “there are difficulties in making real, practical use of the inventions of researchers.”

In order to efficiently disseminate research results, and to lobby for the results to be taken into consideration in policy-making, Agarwal said, there was a need to consider fostering better communication and interaction between the research and policy communities.

It was also pointed out that researchers very often do not understand how the law-making process works and how, in reality, public policy is created.

Professor Glen A. Jones, Ontario Research Chair in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said: “We should play a bigger role in capacity building in order to create good public policy and train policymakers and educate them to understand research.”

Network of HE experts

Creating a new network of higher-education research experts was an important aim of the Shanghai roundtable.

“Our goal is to try to build a so-called ‘invisible college’ of colleagues who direct centres of higher education research, and for those who are involved to work more closely together, to think about common issues,” said Professor Philip Altbach, director of the CIHE.

Leo Goedegebuure, director of the LH Martin Institute at the University of Melbourne, said: “There is a lot of potential in this network in respect of building our discipline further and strengthening our research.”

Professor Nian Cai Liu, director of the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiaotong University, contended: “We need some kind of a platform for exchange of information about centers conducting research on higher education. There is no such body existing now. In this respect, this meeting is a milestone in the history of higher-education research.”

Representatives of policymakers also seemed to support the idea of the new network.

“There is a very important need to strengthen the community of higher-education researchers. And it is crucial to connect their work with the policymaking process, policy implementation, and policy evaluation in higher education,” said Francisco Marmolejo, tertiary education coordinator in the Human Development Network of the World Bank.

“In our practical work in the World Bank, such a network will be a great help.”

Lesley Wilson, secretary general of the European University Association, thinks in a similar way. “It is very important that this meeting will have some kind of continuation – that we learn what is happening in terms of research on higher education around the world and that we can cooperate. This issue has become very global lately. And there is a need for global networking.”

The Shanghai Statement

An important outcome of the roundtable will be the "Shanghai Statement," titled “The Future of Research and Policy Centers on Higher Education: Directions for research, policy, and training.”

The document, to be released soon, will express thoughts on what is important for higher-education researchers, and how to build the next generation of excellent higher-education research centers. It will also reflect the thinking of those who gathered in Shanghai on the future development of the field of higher-education research, policy, and training, at a crucial point for the sector globally.

Among other things it will call for necessary infrastructures for the field of higher-education studies – a range of institutions and, importantly, a cadre of researchers, scholars, and professors to provide research, analysis, and training for an expanding and increasingly complex sector that has become a major policy arena in most countries.

Among the necessary infrastructures are: research centers to build research capacity in higher education; training programs to help professionalize administration; strong data and analysis at the institutional, national, and international levels; regional and international research centers for a globalized world, since no international organization systematically researches a range of higher-education themes; and specialized centers that respond to higher education’s increasing complexity.

Regarding the policy environment, participants at the Shanghai meeting identified key themes of special relevance to higher education today. These include the implications of globalization, challenges of quality and equity, models of governance, organization of higher-education systems, private higher education and privatization, and the role of research on higher education.

Altbach said a draft statement would be revised, based on the discussions in Shanghai, and would be widely disseminated around the world, to the media as well as organizations in various countries and regions. “People will pick up what they find useful, to push the agenda forward.”

The hope, Altbach added, was to achieve better recognition worldwide of the importance of higher-education research centers, to get centers more involved in policy “and maybe get policymakers to think more about the higher-education research community – but I am not optimistic on this particular issue.”

Research Centers Globally

There are very few internationally oriented research centers focused on higher education. Most centers conduct institutional research for domestic needs only. Some are established by ministries, some are at universities, and some are private and independent. There are also units, mostly within universities, that offer academic programs at the masters or Ph.D. level.

In general, higher-education research centers are small – most have fewer than 15 people.

Although quite diverse, the centers face similar challenges across the world: declining public financing, crisis of the academic profession, and/or lack of good data allowing for international comparison.

On the other hand, the centers analyse similar topics because, despite differences in national systems, higher education around the world is affected by similar phenomena: massification, globalization, the rise of privatization, and so on.

As a result, research topics are also alike. The most common topics seem to be access and equity, globalization and internationalization of higher education, comparative or international studies, management and accreditation, assessment, and quality assurance.

As Altbach stated: “The history of the discipline of higher-education research is quite short.” The first formal academic course on the topic of higher education was offered at the end of the 19th century in the U.S. at Clark University in Massachusetts.

The first countries to address higher-education issues were those affected by massification. There was a need for data, for steering the process and for good management in the field of higher education.

“It is worth mentioning that the majority of Ph.D.'s specialized in higher-education research become university leaders and not researchers. In some countries, like China, the development of such research was implemented top-down – by the government,” Altbach said.

In terms of numbers, the system of research centers in China is the largest in the world. Nian Cai Liu estimated that there were some 10,000 higher-education researchers in China, and over 1,000 research centers focused on higher education.

But most of the centers were very small, concentrated on domestic needs, and mainly concerned with institutional research.

Altbach estimated that 75 percent of all higher-education researchers in the world are located in China.

The field of higher-education research has been expanding dynamically in the past 25 years. However, it is still in the very early stages of development. But the internationalization of tertiary education and challenges of the global knowledge economy are serving as catalysts for progress in the field.

New Global Inventory

The organizers of the Higher Education Research and Policy Roundtable also announced in Shanghai the forthcoming publication, Higher Education: A worldwide inventory of centers and programs 3rd edition.

CIHE has been collecting information on higher-education research centers and academic programs around the world. Previous editions were published in 2001 and 2006. Data collection for the next inventory will be completed by mid-November.

Until now, the Inventory has included 108 research centers in 26 countries and 259 academic programs in 18 countries – including 134 Ph.D. and 220 master's programs, most of them located in the United States and in China.

The new inventory will be complemented by a list of journals and other key publications focused on higher education around the world. Currently the research has identified 295 publications, a 30 percent increase since 2006. The paper publication has been scheduled for 2014, and CIHE also hopes to eventually provide an online tool for easy access to the data.

* A selection of papers prepared by centre directors who were at the roundtable will be published in a special issue of the peer-reviewed journal Studies in Higher Education.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.