The role of Higher Education Researchers
A distinguished American scholar told me some years ago that EAIR was the higher education association that he liked most because nowhere else there was an active mixture of theory and practice, conceptualization and application. I always agreed with our American friend.
This idea was embodied by old EAIR colleagues who had the brilliant idea of designing the current logo “Linking research, policy and practice”. This logo perfectly represents the goal of EAIR, but in my opinion this logo represents something more: the ultimate goal of higher education as a field of study.
Paul Krugman, a not-very-traditional Nobel laureate in Economics, said that increasing the happiness of human beings, not increasing GDP, is the true goal of the economy. We could move this idea to higher education and ask ourselves: what is the objective of research and analysis of higher education?
For some people, it is a field of study in itself which aims to analyse the past and present of higher education, defining more or less brilliant conceptual frameworks that allow a conceptual understanding of higher education, institutions and systems. Certainly, these studies produce many books and scholarly articles that in many cases only reach the community of researchers themselves and have little impact, at least in the short term, on the development of higher education.
For others, research in higher education also has other objectives. Higher education studies can and certainly should deepen the conceptual framework of the field, but above all, the objective is to better serve the community of students, the companies that use knowledge generated by universities: all in all, higher education should better serve society as a whole. In other words, the study of higher education should do the same Krugman’s ideal economy (although hardly ever does): increase the happiness of its users and society in general.
For this reason, research in higher education does not make much sense if it does not go hand-in-hand with the implementation of continuous improvement in the management and governance of institutions, in the process of teaching and learning and in the effectiveness and efficiency of the system. Research in higher education, without practices and policies, is an intellectual exercise that does little for the common wellbeing and happiness.
I think social scientists should reflect on its role in social events. One wonders how economists were unable to predict such a deep economic depression that we are still suffering and also why they are unable to find real solutions. A clever analysis of what happened seems to be the main output of this science. Something similar has happened with research in higher education in Europe. The main structural reform of higher education in Europe since the early nineteenth century, the Bologna Process, has been carried out largely at the margin of the world of higher education researchers, which have not, with few exceptions, participated in the processes they describe.
Economists and researchers in higher education (and other social scientists) would do well to become agents of change and not mere spectators. The happiness of human beings will increase. At least, in EAIR we try to pursue that goal.
José-Ginés Mora Ruiz
Visiting Professor, Institute of Education University of London