Is educational studies a discipline?
As a preliminary to considering whether higher education studies is a discipline, it is worth spending a little time posing the same question for educational studies, which might, as we have argued, be seen as its parent discipline. Here are two somewhat contrasting perspectives from different parts of the globe. First, from Sweden, Sundberg (2004) confidently demarcates the period in which what he terms ‘educational science’ (note the use of the word ‘science’ to provide the emergent discipline with added strength) achieved disciplinary status:
Educational science became firmly institutionalised and established as a discipline in Sweden during the golden age of educational reform and the radical breakthrough of comprehensive schooling in the 1950s and 1960s. It is in this period that Pedagogik was separated from psychology and sociology separated from philosophy. (p.394)
Second, and alternatively, from the very different context of India, Sarangapani (2011) indicates that, while some may view education as a discipline, others strongly challenge this position:
Many of us who conduct research on and teach education in institutes of higher education have been socialised to think of education as a discipline. Yet not only do we find this status disputed, but we also frequently encounter challenges to our claims as experts and to the form and structure of our discourse, both by members of the public and, more disconcertingly, by fellow academics from other disciplines. (p. 67)
Indeed, one might go further in recognising that the status of educational studies as a discipline is also challenged from within education.
Her analysis leads Sarangapani, following Biglan, Becher and others, to apply the term ‘soft discipline’ to education. She notes that education ‘is non-paradigmatic and it is wholly ‘applied’ in the sense of being concerned with a practice’, and ‘it does not have distinct/distinguishing theories that are unique to it’ (pp. 72–73). It is, therefore, in her view, missing at least two of the characteristics of a discipline identified by Krishnan (2009).
Furlong (2013), also holding to the idea of educational studies as a discipline, provides a useful summary of the position, particularly in the UK:
As would be true of any discipline, trying to understand the discipline of education means taking into account its epistemological as well as its sociological dimensions… education presents a contradictory picture here. Sociologically, it is and always has been strong in key respects. It is large, complex and strategically important and despite recent policy challenges, particularly in England, it remains relatively well embedded in the university system. At the same time, it is epistemologically weak, largely because of important and unresolved questions about the nature of educational knowledge. It is these difficulties that, despite its size, have served constantly to undermine its position within the academy. (p. 13)
These difficulties have not, however, prevented several sub-disciplines, or specialisms, of educational studies from seeking to claim disciplinary status in their own right; including art education (Logan 1963), comparative education (Heath 1958), general education (Uljens 2001) and even teaching (Loughran 2009).
What then of higher education studies? I will use the six characteristics (or criteria) identified by Krishnan as a framework for assessing the claims of higher education studies to be a discipline. These offer a useful heuristic for attempting such a judgment.
A Particular Object of Research.
This is perhaps the simplest of the six characteristics to satisfy. It is arguably also the weakest, as it is difficult to imagine any field, discipline or sub-discipline of research that did not have a particular object. What we are talking about here is that higher education studies should have a focus.
Obviously, higher education studies focuses on higher education; that is the object of the research or study. Conversely, any research or study that focuses on higher education may be deemed to be higher education studies, however its investigators may classify it, even if it takes place within, for example, a department of politics, accounting or chemistry (see the later discussion of institutional manifestation).
Higher education is clearly a worthy object for research and study. To take the UK as an example, at the present time the equivalent of about 4% of the population are registered as students in higher education and about 1% work in higher education in some capacity (full-time or part-time: www.hesa.ac.uk). Overall, then, this is a substantial enterprise, and, at the level of individual universities and colleges, most are major employers and traffic foci in the towns and cities in which they are located. Looked at globally, the size of the enterprise is quite staggering:
Postsecondary education is now a major enterprise worldwide. Massification has dramatically increased global enrollments; there are more than 170 million students enrolled in 2013, with expansion continuing worldwide. This growth has transformed higher education institutions and systems, and there are now more than 18,000 universities worldwide. (Altbach 2014, p. 11)
A Body of Accumulated Specialist Knowledge.
It is also clear that, over the years, a significant body of specialist knowledge relating to higher education has been accumulated through higher education research. We have already quoted the estimate of over 16,000,000 words having been published in 86 specialist English language academic journals focusing exclusively on higher education in 2016 alone (Tight 2018). That figure increases year by year and does not include other sorts of journals (e.g. education journals, other disciplinary journals) or other types of publications (e.g. books, reports, conference publications), so the true output is much larger than this estimate.
Of course, it may be said that some of this output is repetitive, that a lot of it is small-scale and that it is of variable quality. But these are characteristics of research in general: only a small proportion is truly ground-breaking, large-scale research is very time-consuming and difficult to fund, and most research is not ‘world class’.
What is perhaps more concerning about higher education studies is the issue of accumulation, though, again, this could be said of many of the social sciences. Replication and revalidation studies – two of the criteria identified by Dressel and Mayhew (1974) - are vanishingly uncommon in higher education studies, and in educational studies as a whole. Thus, Makel and Plucker (2014) analysed all of the articles published in the then top 100 education journals – which included many higher education journals – but found that only 0.13% of them were replication studies.
Higher education studies also remains a fragmented area of research. Those focusing on particular topics, or applying particular methodologies or theories, or working in particular systems, typically have little to do with others researching higher education, even when they are researching closely related topics (Daenekindt and Huisman 2020, Macfarlane 2012, Shahjahan and Kezar 2013).
However, while the linkages within higher education studies could certainly be improved, that there is a body of accumulated specialist knowledge – or, rather, a series of developing and disparate bodies - cannot be doubted.
Theories and Concepts.
It is when we get to this characteristic that things become more problematic. Thus, an analysis of the output of 17 specialist higher education journals, published in English outside of North America in 2000, concluded:
an examination of the 406 articles found that 104 (25.6%) made explicit use of theory, that in a further 66 (16.3%) there was some evidence of the use of theory, and that the remaining majority, 236 (58.1%), were wholly a-theoretical. In short - and insofar as the sample examined reflects higher education research practice in general - theoretical engagement would appear to be a minority interest or need amongst higher education researchers. (Tight 2004, p. 400)
Higher education studies - as a field or discipline – will, of course, likely be lacking in organising theories and concepts if most (published) researchers do not even engage with theory.
However, more recent analysis (Tight 2012, 2014) of 15 leading international journals – this time including five North American journals - came to more positive conclusions. This analysis was of 567 articles published in 2010:
470 (83%) of the articles were found to be theoretically explicit, though the extent of engagement was often limited and the level of theory referred to was frequently low. (Tight 2014, p. 100)
Three main factors seem to largely explain the difference in these findings. First, the inclusion of leading journals from North America – where higher education research has been established for longer - in the sample, which typically expect authors to explicitly address theoretical (and methodological) issues. Second, the restriction of the non-North American sample to a smaller group of ‘leading’ journals; and, third, the passage of time, with one decade being long enough to significantly raise the quality of articles published in the most competitive, non-North American journals.
The point about the level of theory in use, however, still largely holds. At least two trends can be observed here. First, where better developed and higher-level theories are in use, they tend to be imported from other disciplines or fields and applied to higher education. Examples of such theories include academic literacies (from applied linguistics), activity theory (from psychology), human capital (from economics), institutional diversity (from biological sciences) and managerialism (from management).
There are a few exceptions to this trend, such as communities of practice theory, which arguably developed on the borders of management and education. There are also some examples of what appear to be fairly well-developed higher education theories which, on closer inspection, originate elsewhere. This would include both academic drift, which owes a great deal to institutional theory (i.e. institutional isomorphism), and student attrition, which, remarkably, builds on theories of both suicide and employee turnover (from sociology and business studies respectively).
Second, most theories in higher education studies seem to be developed largely from the topic being researched (i.e. in classic grounded theory or inductive fashion); that is, they may be regarded more as concepts than theories. Examples include theorising around the idea of the university, modes of knowledge, problem-based learning, the research/teaching nexus and student engagement. These may be seen as ‘native’ to higher education studies but involve little more than simple classifications (often dichotomous) or the reification of ‘good’ practice into a model.
There are a few examples of higher education theories which have developed further to become largely accepted within their sub-fields (or sub-disciplines) of higher education studies. Thus, learning approaches theory, which seeks to categorise (albeit in a quasi-dichotomous fashion) and explain students’ approaches to learning, and, by extension, how these may be altered, has wide acceptance within the academic/educational development community. Interestingly, this theory was substantially developed through the use of phenomenography, perhaps the only research design to have been developed (at least partly) within higher education research.
A second, and more recent, example of widespread acceptance is threshold concepts theory, which argues that, in any discipline, certain concepts are more difficult for some students to understand yet are essential if progress is to be made. This has been taken up widely by higher education practitioners, though arguably rather too widely as almost any curricular element may be identified as a threshold concept.
This characteristic is, arguably, not as critical as the others identified by Krishnan. After all, all academics – though some more than others – tend to use specific terminologies (or, more pejoratively, jargon). For example, the terms academic drift, modes of knowledge and threshold concepts, amongst others, have already been used in this article, each of which would have a particular meaning to other higher education researchers, but probably not to researchers or others outside of this field.
It would be difficult to argue, however, that higher education studies has its own developed technical language, like other more established disciplines such as physics or psychology. Rather, higher education researchers have adopted a great deal of terminology – as well as theoretical perspectives – from other disciplines, particularly across the social sciences but more widely as well. More generally, it is probably the case that higher education researchers would have relatively little difficulty explaining their work to researchers in established disciplines, whereas the reverse would likely be rather more problematic.
Specific Research Methods.
As with theories and concepts, the verdict here would also have to be that higher education researchers have been responsible for little in the way of methodological development. Rather, they predominantly tend to make use of common social sciences research methods, such as interviews, surveys and documentary analysis. The level of sophistication in analyses varies widely, and has a geographical element, with North American-based researchers being much more likely to employ multivariate analysis techniques. Other research methods, such as auto/biographical, observational and conceptual methods, are much less commonly used (or published).
This reliance on the standard social science research methods and methodologies is, however, common to many social research fields, including education in general. Even amongst established social science disciplines, such as human geography, political science and sociology, most research relies on these generic methods. But these established disciplines have also developed their own specialist methodologies, such as geographical information systems and ethnography.
The only methodology to have been substantially developed by higher education researchers of which I am aware, and already mentioned in the discussion of theory, is phenomenography. Phenomenography focuses on people’s understandings or perceptions of particular phenomena of interest. Here, though, the honour has to be shared with education, as the originators of phenomenography were interested in teaching and learning in general, not just in higher education.
Phenomenography is probably better termed a research design, rather than a theory or a method, as it embodies both theoretical (i.e. there are a limited number of ways of perceiving a particular phenomenon) and methodological (typically the phenomenographic interview) perspectives. Even within higher education studies it is very much a minority interest, but it has been picked up and applied to some degree outside higher education (and education) as well.
Some Institutional Manifestation.
The final characteristic suggested by Krishnan is, as already noted, probably the most obvious, and probably the way in which most people would immediately think of disciplines: are there university departments, professors, degrees, journals and professional associations with ‘higher education’ in their titles? There are indeed all of these things.
The identification of 86 specialist academic journals focusing on higher education in 2016 has already been referred to (Tight 2018). This is undoubtedly an underestimate, as there is no definitive listing to check. While they are fewer in number, and similarly unlisted, there are also dozens of professional associations or societies focusing on higher education.
However, the presence of higher education studies within the university is both partial and particular. The Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA, maintains a very useful Worldwide Higher Education Inventory, which provides plentiful evidence on this characteristic (Rumbley et al. 2014). In 2014 it identified 277 graduate-level higher education programs (two-thirds of them in the United States) and 217 higher education research centres or institutes (50 in the USA, 44 in China and 18 in the UK) in 56 countries worldwide.
However, the programs identified are all graduate level; that is, they are postgraduate certificates (typically induction programmes taken by newly appointed academics), master’s degrees or doctoral programmes. Higher education is rarely studied at first degree level, unlike most disciplines. And the institutional presence of higher education usually takes the form of research centres or institutes, rather than fully fledged academic departments.
In the United States the most common higher education studies presence is in the form of an institutional research office, charged with benchmarking the university’s performance against its competitors, and more closely linked to the administration than to other university departments. In the UK or Australia this presence is most likely to be an academic development or teaching and learning centre, charged with improving the teaching performance of new and established academic staff. Typically, these will have fewer than 10 staff. The presence of a group of actively researching academic staff, focused on higher education studies, in a university or college – located in an education department or higher education research centre – is unusual.
Altbach comes up with the following summation: ‘a total conservative estimate of professionals who are involved in research on higher education is probably more than 12,000’ globally (2014, p. 15). While this is, indeed, a conservative estimate, and is out of date, the key point to emphasize for present purposes is that most of these people will only have a part-time commitment to researching higher education, and it may also be short-term. The number of full-time, career track higher education researchers is much smaller.
Higher education studies is unusual – as a field or discipline – in that those contributing are spread all over the academy, in all disciplines and often in the university administration as well. This does have some disadvantages, including lack of communication between those focusing on higher education studies and those focusing on discipline-based educational research (le Roux et al. 2019).
Higher education studies may, therefore, be described as an interdisciplinary field (or fields) of research, or, in Harland’s (2012) words ‘an open-access discipline’; in other words, interested parties from all disciplines are welcome to contribute.