Historical methods applied to higher education policies and practices.
Professor of Higher Education Management and Co-Director Centre for Higher Education Studies, Institute of Education, University of London.
Aims of this resource
The purpose of this personal “showcase” is to demonstrate how historical scholarship can aid the analysis required to support policy-makers and practitioners in higher education.
Branches of historial scholarship
The particular branches of historical scholarship drawn upon are:
- social scientific – defined broadly as the longitudinal study of the economics of higher education as a sector; and
- the history of ideas – especially as it illuminates the philosophical and cultural contexts of higher education institutions and systems.
A model for the first approach is William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, The Shape of the River: long term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions (first published 1998; new edition with an introduction by Glenn C. Loury, Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2000). This seminal work assembles a huge data set and analyses it with great skill and responsibility in order not only to illuminate the history but also to influence policy and leadership. A model for the second is Harold Silver, Higher Education and Opinion-Making in Twentieth Century England (London and Portland : Frank Cass, 2003). As I state in the Foreword, “Silver's achievement is to reaffirm the importance of thinking about thinking about higher education (Ibid : xii). It may be no accident that all three of these authors are former heads of universities and colleges.
My own work
My own work has focused primarily on the internal workings of institutions and national sectors of higher education, especially as this raises questions:
- about strategies for universities and colleges, including the balance between governance, leadership and management;
- about self-study (or institutional research) in so far as it involves using information to inform decision-making; and
- about the civic and community role of higher education institutions.
As Elizabeth Maddison and I state in Managing Institutional Self-Study:
“Self-study is about collective reflective practice carried out by a university with the intention of understanding better and improving its own progress towards its objectives, enhancing its institutional effectiveness, and both responding to and influencing positively the context in which it is operating. As such, self-study is intimately linked to university strategy, culture and decision-making – with an emphasis on each of the collective, reflective and practical components of this definition” (p. 6).
From an external perspective this has also involved me in studies of:
- the evolution of the UK higher education system (particularly from the mid-twentieth century), including its demography (patterns of participation by students and staff) and its overall financial arrangements (including funding from various sources);
- patterns of regulation and quality assurance (leading, for example, to the development of the concept of the “reputational range” applying across the sector); and
- the framework and impact of official policies (mainly, but not exclusively from UK Government departments), including considerations of the structure of policy-making and motives of policy-makers , the strengths or weaknesses of what I have called ‘ policy-memory' , and the impact upon aggregate performance of the UK higher education sector.
As I state in the conclusion of The Dearing Report: ten years on the goal is to assist the development of:
“a sustainable sector, populated with autonomous but responsible institutions, less distracted and deflected by short-term and fickle policy interventions, and capable simultaneously of contributing to economic growth, social cohesion and international development” (p. 174).
From a methodological point of view this approach combines:
- rigorous longitudinal analysis of specially created and already existing data sets;
- thorough content and discourse analysis (or what others might call textual) of documents created by key agents (inside and outside the system); and
- effective links with scholarly developments in the cultural, social, political and economic history of the wider society; and
- sensitivity to cross-national comparative perspectives, synchronic and diachronic.
Key sources include:
- work by the Longer Term Strategy Group of Universities UK, notably the series of Patterns of UK HEIs (now in its seventh year – pdf available at http://www.bookshop.universitiesuk.ac.uk/latest/);
- work by the Wider Benefits of Learning Group (see http://www.learningbenefits.net/) and the Centre for the Economics of Education (see http://www.cee.lse.ac.uk);
- official publications, especially those by DES/DfES/DIUS (http://www.dfes.gov.uk/hegateway) , HESA (http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php/content/vuew/600/239/) , UCAS (http://www.ucas.com/about_us/stat_services/) and AGCAS (http://www.agcas.org.uk/publications/index.htm);
- the higher education funding councils (including HEFCE – http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs);
- other research projects, including those on higher education supported by TLRP (http://www.tlrp.org/proj/Higher.html), and reports by HEPI (http://www.hepi.ac.uk/);
- output from university-based research centres such as CHES (at the IoE – http://ioe.ac.uk/CHES/), CHERI (Open University – http://www.open.ac.uk/cheri/index.htm), IER (Warwick – http://www.warwick.ac.uk/ier/), and IES (at Sussex – http://www.employment-studies.co.uk/);
- international data, especially from the OECD (http://www.oecd.org/statistics/), and as published, for example by the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://www.chronicle.com/);
- materials produced by professional associations, notably the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) (http://www.srhe.ac.uk/), The Europe an Association for Institutional Research (http://www.eair.nl/) and the US-based Association for Institutional Research (http://www.airweb.org/).
For further description of these sources
Outputs include the following:
- a series of research-based guides to institutional practice;
- works on policy analysis, especially in the light of the higher education sector performance; and
- synthetic guides, or attempts to reach a wider audience with explanations of the significance of the work.
For examples of recent outcomes
In conclusion, a methodological health warning is in order. Applying historical methods to contemporary issues – especially those with both a political and practical resonance – needs to be approached with responsibility and care. The dangers of ideological capture and or elevation of advocacy over analysis are ever present. History is an open-ended, investigative discipline before it becomes a persuasive one (for cautionary tales see Jon Weiner, Historians in Trouble: plagiarism, fraud and problems in the Ivory Tower [ New York and London : The New Press, 2005]).
Three special dilemmas (or challenges), and works which I have found useful in addressing them, are:
- the often incomplete nature of the data required (historians can rarely directly interview their subjects, and can almost never set up the equivalent of randomly controlled trials [RCTs]) – for guidance on this fundamental dilemma a book which holds up extraordinarily well after over 30 years is Murray G. Murphey, Our Knowledge of the Historical Past (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs –Merrill, 1973) ;
- the necessary alignment of quantitative and qualitative analysis – for an attractive commentary see John Allen Paulos, Once Upon a Number: the hidden mathematical logic of stories (London: Allen Lane, 1998);
- the opportunities (and the threat) of methodological ecleticism – for a rich overview, including a description of his technique of “multiple narratives” see Richard Evans, In Defence of History (London: Granta Books, 1997) .
On the first two of these, the Research Capacity Building Network of TLRP (RCBN) is a valuable source of guidance (http://www.tlrp.org/rcbn/capacity/).
For personal “worked examples”
|How to reference this page:
||Watson, D. (2007) Historical methods applied to higher education polices and practices. London: TLRP. Online at http://www.tlrp.org/capacity/rm/wt/watson (accessed