The university debate: academic expertise in the conversation

If you are interested in how the university system is changing, or perhaps how it should change, there is plenty for you to read. A number of notable writers, including a fair number of university heads or former heads, have offered their analysis of higher education and how it will, should or should not change. Some of these contributions have been angry complaints about a system that, the authors believe, has abandoned (or perhaps been forced to abandon) its traditional values; others have suggested that change has not gone far enough. But there is no shortage of public analysis.

Now however one researcher into higher education reform has suggested that the debate lacks expert academic input. Kevin R. McClure, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, has suggested in an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that there is a ‘vast reform-industrial complex’, but a missing academic input:

‘The questions surrounding higher education’s future demand input from academics whose livelihoods are tied to rigorous scholarship, imbued with an understanding of history, theory, and data, not from policy centers pursuing a political agenda or entrepreneurs shoring up business. Yet out of the multitude of works on higher education I have read over the past year in completing my exams and writing my dissertation proposal, surprisingly few for general audiences are written by higher-education scholars.’

When a year or two ago I chaired the higher education governance review for Scotland, my colleagues and I came up with a similar finding: that there is an expert research gap in higher education literature. We recommended therefore that funding should be found for a Scottish Centre for Higher Education Research. This has not yet happened, but it seems right to me that a significant dose of scholarly expertise should be injected into this debate. Of course those, both within the system and outside it, who wish to use their experience of higher education to comment on it should have space to do so. But the time has also come for this debate to be informed by higher education scholarship; and I hope that in the near future more than one centre dedicated to this work will emerge.

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9 Comments on “The university debate: academic expertise in the conversation”

  1. V.H Says:

    Assuring you of the best will in the world. But if you weren’t so tied to the vagrancies of the political world and its short-term vision would higher education be so angsty.
    And it would be a real help for those of us that believe you are a core aspect of society if you’d settle on what you actually want. Then perhaps slim it down a bit and say what you actually need.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    Some of the most interesting insights come from doctoral students, I prrsonally find Melonie Fullick blog and tweets very valuable
    Taking ownership of the academic expertise debate etc. is one example of what I had in mind in my previous comment on the Rank confusion post, we don’t have to resign to playing the game someone else runs, we must play it ourselves!

  3. Al Says:

    One would have to resurrect a Madison or Lycurgus to create a higher education research centre that could stand between the student body, academics, management, trustees, politicians, government, quality people, general public, etc to create a structure that could balance competing and cooperating interests to find a harmony of the whole whilst initiating actual progress…..

    • It wouldn’t have to do all of that. What is missing isn’t really advocacy of any particular kind (we have lost of that), but groups of experts who can assemble relevant information, metrics and analysis. The policy conclusions can be drawn by others also.

      • ronnie munck Says:

        It would indeed be very unusual in any other line of business if those with expertise in that business were not centrally involved in setting its strategy or, at the very least, setting out the strategy options available. Across the public sector evidence based policy and practice is the accepted wisdom. Not so in higher education it seems….

      • Al Says:

        Things have become monological enough that I wonder if future paradigms of excellence in higher education will first start of as heresey…

  4. ronnie munck Says:

    well thomas kuhn of science paradigm fame wd argue precisely that….normal science only gives way to new discoveries reluctantly….its always a disruptive process….let’s try some heretical thinking?

  5. UrsulaKelly Says:

    “…there is an expert research gap in higher education literature. We recommended therefore that funding should be found for a Scottish Centre for Higher Education Research. ” I and my colleague Iain McNicoll ( now an Emeritus Professor) recommended this after the 1997 Dearing Committee and Scottish Garrick Committees found there was a dearth of research on higher education ( to the Committees’ surprise but not to ours…we were among the few people doing any economics based research on HE in the UK at the time ). We continued recommending it over the years . The Scottish Funding Council ( well done Ann Millar) made great efforts in the 2000s to partner with the ESRC and other funding bodies to support some research on HE ( The Impact of HEIs on regional economies – see for the outputs of that) but there has been no real follow up to this from the funders and the network of expertise that I and Peter McGregor (as Coordinators of the research initiative) tried to foster has largely drifted away (though individuals are still doing some work here and there on HE.. I personally found it was easier to research HE by becoming independent and sitting outside the sector – within institutions there seems to be a lack of interest in researching HE itself ( particularly the economics of HE.) The new Robert Owen Centre at Glasgow Uni has a commitment to including an economic perspective ( and one of our former Impact of HEIs economists ( Kristinn Hermannsson) has joined them, which is very positive, But of course they are not solely focussed on HE .. Have yet to see any university in the UK with the courage or vision to grasp the need for applied economic research on Higher education to the extent of setting up a centre ( or even hosting a network) – and economics research in particular is badly needed ( an interdisciplinary approach would be best overall and deliver the best outputs but an economics perspective is core.) . I suspect the same recommendation will still be being made again in another 10 years time.

  6. Thanks for this post and also the blog. On the subject of how higher education should change, I just thought you might be interested in one of my posts on Sustainable University Notes blog: Higher Education’s role in building a sustainable world

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