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"World's largest" HE research centre launches £6m study programme

A new Centre for Global Higher Education, billed as the largest research centre in the world focused on HE and its future development, has been launched in London backed by £6 million funding for an ambitious five-year programme of studies.

Based at University College London’s Institute of Education, the new Centre will see academics from across the globe collaborate on research which aims to inform and improve HE policy and practice.

The Centre is backed by more than £6 million from a range of UK and international partners including the Economic and Social Research Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and Lancaster and Sheffield universities.

Around 200 delegates gathered for a two day launch event this week, debating ‘Higher education in a global context’ and ‘Fostering the impact of higher education and research’.

Director of CGHE and professor of international higher education at the IoE Simon Marginson emphasised how collaborative and inclusive the Centre will be.

“We’re inviting everyone to become involved in our work as stakeholders. We want you to join us in the dissemination events, our programme of public seminars, and interrogate our findings, giving us feedback about how our work could be developed to more useful,” he said.

Commenting on the research programmes of the Centre, Phil Sooben, deputy chief executive of the ESRC, said: “Independence from vested interests is vital for research. There are strong opportunities here to make the best use of social science to inform policy”.

The first day started with a lively debate following a presentation from Dr John Jerrim, reader in educational and social statistics at the IoE, who asked: “Why don’t more poor kids go to university?”.

Reviewing established links between income inequality, access to HE and its link to social mobility, he argued that the idea that tuition fees are unfair is “rubbish”. If tuition fees were funded by the taxpayer, the poor could end up subsidising the education of the rich, because children from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to go to university and would draw more from the pool of funds available, he said.

For the system to work well, prospective students must understand the point at which they are expected to pay back tuition fees, the benefit of income contingent loans and their likely future earnings if they do not go to university.

Robert Tijssen, professor of science and innovation studies at Leiden University, an expert on performance indicators for university rankings and research metrics, examined what he argued were the inadequacies of most current HE rankings.

“There are many areas where data is missing and information is not adequate,” he said. A key problem, he argued, is that “university ranking systems ignore the increasingly diverse and interwoven interdisciplinary environment within which universities operate.”Ranking systems urgently need to reflect such a trend if they are to be seen as credible and equipped to meet the ever growing demand for high-quality information, he added.

Professor Joshua Mok Ka-Ho, Vice President and professor of comparative policy at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, traced ‘massification’ and ‘marketisation’ trends stemming from the expansion of HE in Asia to meet demand from burgeoning middle classes. ‘Massification’ is already starting to produce more graduates in Asia than the market needs, causing gaps between promised benefits of going to university and lack of graduate-level jobs leading to lower-than-expected salaries.

On day two of the event, David Sweeney, Director of Research, Education and Knowledge Exchange at HEFCE, reflected on ‘Impact in learning and teaching: lessons from, and contrasts with, research impact’. A driving force behind the REF, he acknowledged challenges faced and the need to measure the impacts of university experience, not just teaching. But he warned: “We need to capture the difference universities make to individuals and more broadly. I don’t like being told it’s too complicated and too difficult. You have got to do it.”

Alis Oancea, Director for Research and associate professor in the philosophy of education at the University of Oxford,  said impact is cutting to the heart of how research is defined and constructed in the public space at the moment. But she argued that a more textured and relational notion of impact must be developed than that currently in use across the sector. “One big risk is that high-stakes assessment simply captures assessment-driven hyperactivity,” she warned.

CGHE researcher Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Research at  Lancaster University, looked at conceptual issues in measuring higher education impact. He contrasted prevailing measures of research impact and the impact of individual projects with the challenges of evaluating what impact university education has on individuals. What is it that makes a difference in higher education?” he asked. “What do students engage with? My argument is it’s knowledge.”

Professor Ashwin went on to explore some of the ‘transformational interactions’ that happen between stages of knowledge exchange, including teaching, and pointed out, with reference to government plans for a Teaching Excellence Framework, that “teaching doesn’t equal learning”. He concluded that it would make much more sense to examine impact at the level of the system rather than the project or programme.

Professor Simon Marginson