Celebrate Higher Education - Palgrave Macmillan Authors
In Their Own Voices - Ellen Hazelkorn
Ellen Hazelkorn is the author of Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education, now in its second edition. In her own words, she speaks about the why we need to care about higher education policy research.
Why should we care about higher education policy research?
Higher education: a key differentiator for the future?
Globalisation’s biggest effect on higher education has been to transform it from a local institution into one of geo-political significance. As global competition for a greater share of the knowledge economy accelerates, higher education’s success is tied directly to that of its nation state and vice versa. This has placed higher education at the centre of national (economic) policy with implications for research and innovation capacity and capability. Global university rankings have made global competition more visible while putting a premium on elite universities. Through one simple exercise, rankings have succeeded in putting higher education into a comparative international framework with geo-political implications.
Despite the importance of higher education, mass public higher education faces many challenges that could threaten its long-term sustainability. Alongside global population growth, student demand is rising in many countries while others (primarily in developed countries) face a demographic deficit. This has placed a premium on talent – educating smart, creative and entrepreneurial people at home while attracting them from abroad to contribute economically, especially in science and technology. The lucrative international student market has raised the global competitive stakes.
In some sense, the adage that higher education is too important to be left to the academy holds true. Because higher education creates competitive advantage, the state has taken a keen interest in the governance of the overall system, and its outcomes. But, competition is ratcheting up costs and heightening the reputation and prestige of resource and research intensive universities. While some governments are able to invest, others are restrained by accumulated public and private debt.
Everywhere the sustainability of the system is a prime political and policy issue, balancing the need to close the funding-demand gap while maintaining quality. In different governmental settings, tensions within the state, as to which ministry (e.g. education or economic) should preside over higher education and research, and monitor its performance, transcends simple political considerations. Considerable discussion is taking place about the balance between societal values, requirements for human capital, and national competence in world science. It seems clear that only a few societies will be able to fully support the quantum of higher education and research that society and individuals require. Tough choices and trade-offs are inevitable.
Common Policy Themes
Ireland is an interesting case study. Over the last years, the level of investment has fallen steeply in line with the country’s economic collapse. Since 2008, absolute public funding for higher education has declined by over 30% and core expenditure per student by 15%, leading to reduction in exchequer funding from 76% to 56% of total funding. At the same time, full-time student numbers have increased by c. 11% and will continue to rise by 29% until 2029/30. The demand for highly skilled people is also growing, with estimates that 48% of all job openings in 2025 will be for graduates. Overall government funding for research has remained relatively constant albeit real funding has fallen by c. 16% between 2008 and 2012. A review of the HE system was undertaken in 2011 leading to radical changes in structure and governance; government reviews of funding and research policy are currently underway.
As Ireland emerges as the fastest growing economy in the European Union, with growth of 3.5% predicted for 2015, what are the policy choices now? The government’s strategy for economic renewal is dependent on the ability to educate and attract talent, to participate in and be connected to world-leading research, and to concentrate such activity increasingly around regional hubs. All three elements have a co-dependency with a high-quality sustainable higher education system. But they are also factors which all countries around the world are targeting – a situation which serves to highlight the on-going global competitive environment.
Ireland’s experience is perhaps more dramatic than many other European countries but it is not unique. Accelerating competition, changes in the global labour market, urbanisation and worldwide pursuit of talent, contributing to world-leading research, and demographic and technological developments are putting all countries under pressure. Policy choices are vital to ensure each country can maintain and strengthen its position globally while ensuring that higher education continues to underpin societal objectives. Context is clearly important, but broadly speaking, there are some common policy themes that arise across most countries:
- Shift from institutional autonomy to increasing government and public accountability accompanied by a move from government steering to changes in the regulatory environment. Depending upon context, the latter can entail a combination of re-regulation and/or de-regulation;
- Restructuring higher education systems to emphasize greater institutional/mission differentiation and to enhance competitiveness and create greater critical mass. In many instances, this has involved a change from an egalitarian system where all HEIs were broadly similar to one in which status and reputational factors come into play;
- Aligning higher education funding to performance and national objectives as part of a more general move towards greater accountability, improved efficiency, and strengthened institutional governance. Particularly in Europe where there has been traditional reliance on public funding, there is now a move to more demanding and competitive funding frameworks, with pressure to explore new sources of income;
- Increasing emphasis on research targets and outputs which are measurable and supported by competitively earned funding. These developments are part of the overall push for greater accountability, but they are also related to a further shift from measuring inputs and outputs to evaluating outcomes, impact and benefit – and relevance – with implications for research practice, organisation, funding and management;
- Enhancing linkages between higher education and enterprise/industry and technology/knowledge transfer activities in order to strengthen economic growth and recovery. The knowledge economy paradigm has focused attention on higher education’s multifaceted contribution to the economy, a source of human capital and new knowledge, and a link to industry and the professions;
- Changes in academic work and terms of employment have seen the transformation from a relatively autonomous profession operating within a self-regulated code of “collegiality” to an “organizationally managed” workforce comparable to other salaried employees. Many countries have experienced casualization of the academic work force, an unbundling of academic functions especially between teaching and research, along with changes to the academic contract and more emphasis on measuring productivity;
- Emphasis on collaboration and networking between HEIs has been promoted at national/regional levels as well as internationally through the formation of global networks. The emphasis is on building critical mass, with a stress on enhanced synergies and/or mergers between HEIs and other knowledge-actors, capacity and capability building, and global reach.
Role for higher education researchers
We hear repeatedly, from every international and national agency, about the importance of higher education for national and personal success and achievement. However, this message does not always seem to translate into pro-active engagement between policymakers and higher education researchers. Until recently, higher education (policy) research has remained a fringe interest for researchers and the policymaking community. Fora which involve researchers, policymakers and practitioners are rare events. Public discourse alternates between alarm about quality and a country’s position in global rankings to criticism about the value of the credential and graduate attributes; many people see higher education as too self-serving. Informal conversation with colleagues around the world suggests many higher education institutions fail to take advantage of the expertise of its own faculty to help inform its own strategic decision-making.
Lunn and Ruane acknowledged a growing trend in favour of evidence-based policymaking since the 1990s – thus opening the door. They identified some trends:
- Decline in ideological positioning and greater emphasis on using evidence in a systematic way to inform policy;
- Vast increase in availability of research micro-data and associated opportunities for statistical (and macro-) analysis;
- Successes in medicine/health (e.g. smoking, obesity) has had knock-on effects for social science, “both indirectly through promotion of the practical benefits of applying scientific method rigorously and directly through the sharing of techniques such as randomised controlled trials and meta-analyses”;
- Drive for more open government, coupled with legislation for freedom of information, etc. has been accompanied by increased levels of education and greater knowledge and understanding of public issues and how government operates.
But it takes two to tango. Policymakers’ reluctance to engage academic researchers is matched by faculty mistrust. The academy’s traditionalism plus a reluctance to engage stems from concerns about “academic freedom” and, more generally, the view that application-focused research is not “real research”. Research is driven by disciplinary criteria as reflected in traditional bibliometric assessment and appointment/promotion criteria, and reinforced through rankings, which often discounts policy-focused work. Scholars at a recent US meeting talked about “barriers to entry, including finding the time to translate research into accessible prose, and framing their work in ways that tap into the questions policy makers and the public are asking”. 
On the other side, government is often suspicious and disinterested in overly-theorised and impractical views of a self-interested academy which are difficult to translate into pragmatic solutions to complex problems. Policy makers often “want to hear what they want to hear…[and]are not super-interested in a deep empirical explanation of why they are wrong."
In my view, researchers are pushing at an open door. Researchers can help open up new thinking and widen understanding, challenge and evaluate existing practices, and help underpin new policy directions with evidence. Sometimes the challenge is obvious; sometimes less so. Sometimes it is a global challenge with national implications; sometimes, a unique national challenge. It is the job of the researcher to identify, quantify, assess and analyse – to: shine a light on the complexities of the issue; to garner evidence and lessons from various quarters, nationally and internationally; to identify possible solutions – can something be done? What happens if nothing is done? What should be done?; and to look beyond the short-term and help policy-makers understand the unintended consequences of actions taken.
It’s perhaps my naive view that policymakers are clamouring (often silently) for help. They face tough choices and often fail to see the woods from the trees. They have often limited experience – and many actually would welcome new thinking. Higher education research is finally being recognised within the academy and within government – there are huge opportunities. More policy relevant research is required.
Ellen Hazelkorn is Director, Higher Education Policy Research Unit (HEPRU), Dublin Institute of Technology and Policy Advisor to the Higher Education Authority (Ireland).
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan
-  E. Hazelkorn (2nd edition 2015) Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education. The Battle for World-Class Excellence, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/rankings-and-the-reshaping-of-higher-education-ellen-hazelkorn/?sf1=barcode&st1=9781137446664
-  DJEI (2014) Policy Statement on Foreign Direct Investment in Ireland, Ireland, p3. Accessed 22 September 2014, from http://www.djei.ie/publications/enterprise/2014/Policy_Statement_FDI_Ireland_July_2014.pdf
-  EUA (2013) EUA’s Public Funding Observatory (Spring 2013). Brussels: European University Association, Accessed 11 March 2015, from http://www.eua.be/Libraries/Governance_Autonomy_Funding/EUA_PFO_report_2013.sflb.ashx
-  E. Hazelkorn (2015 In Press) “International Trends and Challenges: How does Ireland fare?”, HEPRU Working Paper Series, Dublin: Higher Education Policy Research Unit, Dublin Institute of Technology.
-  HEFCE (2010) “Public Perceptions of the Benefits of Higher Education”, Bristol and London: Higher Education Funding Council for England, Accessed 11 March 2015, from http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/hefce/content/pubs/2010/rd2410/rd24_10.pdf; Immerwahr, J. and J. Johnson (2010) Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety on Cost, Harsher Judgments on How Colleges Are Run. Washington D.C. and San Jose: Public Agenda and National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education; Lumina Foundation (2013) America’s Call for Higher Education Redesign. Study of the American Public’s Opinion on Higher Education, Indianapolis: Lumina Foundation, Accessed 11 March 2015, from http://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/americas-call-for-higher-education-redesign.pdf
-  P. Lunn and F. Ruane (eds) (2013) Using Evidence to Inform Policy, Dublin: Gill and MacMillan.
-  B. McMurtie (2014) “Scholars Wrestle with Challenges of Engaging with Policy Makers”, Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 April, Accessed 11 March 2015, from http://chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Wrestle-With/146265/