Comparative Research, Higher Education

  • Anna KosmützkyEmail author
Living reference work entry



Within higher education, the catch-all term “comparative research” typically denotes inter- or cross-national or inter- or cross-cultural comparative research. For an overall terminology, this type of research is defined here as empirical research that collects data and/or carries out observations across national, geographical, and cultural boundaries in at least two of such entities, and systematically relates those entities in a comparative analysis.

Core Characteristics

Typically, studies that compare research objects in two or more social entities are seen as the “truly” or “genuinely” comparative studies. Comparative research can, however, also be comparative over time as well as cross-sectional. In fact, many studies are comparative without being internationally comparative in nature. They compare, for example, organizations within one higher education system, groups of students, types of higher education institutions, academic disciplines, or developments in different time periods. These types of comparative studies share essentially the same comparative logic: the combined and simultaneous observation of similarities and differences. Moreover, the same process of data collection and data analysis is carried out within a number of analytical units that are systematically compared. However, only international comparative studies collect data in different macro-social units (countries, cultures, systems, etc.). Furthermore, international comparative studies usually proceed simultaneously on at least two levels. Whereas the analysis proceeds at one or two within-system levels – the meso-level, e.g., higher education organizations, university boards or decision structures or the micro-level, e.g., academics at work, student experiences or curricula (Teichler 1996; Musselin 2000; Bleiklie 2014) – the explanation is usually situated at the macro-level (Ragin 1987; Hantrais 2009; Smelser 2013). Similarly, the comparative analysis of national higher education systems can be conceptualized as part of a larger or supra-level system, e.g., the European Union.

Comparative studies also belong to a larger family of international, and global or transnational studies in higher education. Single-country studies are commonly included in this family, because they can contribute to the comparativist’s knowledge base through their country-specific analyses (e.g., Kogan 1996; Bleiklie 2014), particularly when they are published together with other single-country studies (e.g., under the umbrella of a comparative framework) in an anthology or joint report. Studies that compare units on a spatial scale below the country level, e.g., analyses of different (federal) states or regions of a country, are considered by some scholars to also belong to the comparative family and have been labeled as “home comparison.” Also, global and transnational higher education studies, which investigate transnational and world-spanning phenomena (and, e.g., focus on transnational or cross-border higher education), are part of the family (Transnational Education), although heir conceptual frameworks are usually not defined in terms of geographical boundaries. But they contribute to the comparativist’s knowledge base and belong to the family because they typically focus on international or cross-national diffusion processes. Such studies often consider themselves as an alternative to international comparative research and are explicitly formulated as a critique of its conditions (the autonomy of nations, cultures, or societies) and approaches (highlighting cultural specificities of countries) (Kosmützky 2015). Similarly, international higher education research, which is any research on international phenomena in and international properties of higher education (e.g., that focuses on international activities, developments, and movements) and encompasses studies without a comparative approach (Kuzhabekova et al. 2015), is a sibling of comparative research. However, only international comparative research is interested in identifying similarities and differences among different macro-social units (countries, cultures, etc.) and only this type of research typically deals with international comparative data and analysis (but, admittedly, there is a lot of overlap between the types belonging to family empirically).

Comparative research is not a method by itself but utilizes established methods of quantitative and qualitative empirical social research and can therefore be described as a meta-method (Schriewer 2009). Based on previous typologies, Bleiklie (2014) has distinguished five approaches to international comparative higher education research: (1) single-country studies, (2) juxtapositions of two or few countries, (3) thematic comparisons, (4) identifying causal regularities, and (5) analyses on the basis of grand theories. To this typology one could add comparative studies with a focus on global and transnational developments and respective interrelations. Furthermore, international comparative studies differ with regard to the number of macro-social units that are included in the analysis: from small-N country comparisons that, e.g., include two or three countries to large-N studies that, e.g., include all 27 OECD countries or more countries worldwide. Another distinction of research approaches can be made between the individualizing and case-centered, ideographic comparative approach, which typically utilizes qualitative research methods, and the generalizing and variable-centered, nomothetic approach, which typically applies quantitative methods (Reale 2014; Välimaa and Nokkala 2014).

There is a broad consensus that international comparative research has many benefits. International comparative perspectives are important in order to deconstruct narrow and often parochial national perspectives by illuminating intriguing differences and similarities among higher education systems, practices, and policies throughout the world. They provide the opportunity to reflect upon phenomena within a higher education system through the lens of other systems. Based on similarities and differences, international comparisons might also make more general patterns and regularities of phenomena visible on which theoretical assumptions can be built. By providing a picture of what happens/occurs elsewhere in the world, international comparative studies also foster the analysis of the growing international and global dimension of higher education (Teichler 2014). However, comparative research also has a particularly challenging and complex research design with an additional methodological dimension compared to noncomparative research. What makes international comparisons more challenging methodologically is, first, the comparative intellectual operation: the assertion of a (partial) sameness and simultaneous difference of research objects. Second, this research design is more complex methodologically because the analysis usually proceeds simultaneously on at least two levels (as mentioned above). Moreover, international comparative research is practically more complex and complicated. In practice, data is collected and compared in different (national, cultural, etc.) contexts and the data (and findings) have to capture both the peculiarities of all cases that are compared, while still being comparable (Kosmützky 2016).

Historical Roots

Comparative research is historically rooted in the birth of modern disciplinary science of the late nineteenth century. Its emergence coincides with the intensification of cultural contacts and cultural comparison in European modernity and in the era of nation-states. The comparative methodology of the natural sciences, e.g., the classifications of comparative botany, zoology, paleontology, and anatomy, became a model for comparisons in the humanities and the later emerging social sciences. Scholars at that time believed that through exact description, surveying, and systematic classification, comparative social science research could become equivalent to the natural sciences experiment with the underlying notion of implementing a methodology as rigorous and precise as that of real experiments. Thus, international comparison has been labeled as quasi-experimental (Schriewer 2009).

Based on this notion, comparative studies in the social sciences and humanities prospered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and comparative subdisciplines emerged within several humanities and social science disciplines (e.g., comparative politics, comparative education, comparative sociology, comparative economics, comparative anthropology, comparative psychology, comparative history). These subdisciplines were typically grounded in the work of the founding fathers of those disciplines (e.g., John Stuart Mills in politics, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber in sociology, Marc Antoine Jullien in education, Claude Levi-Strauss in anthropology, Alexis de Tocqueville in history). Their epistemic and methodological approaches to comparisons, as well as their preferred methods, have differed and still differ considerably (Schriewer 2009). Today, we still see a prevalence of nomothetic comparative approaches in comparative administration and politics and a tendency toward ideographic comparative approaches in comparative education. Because the interdisciplinary field of higher education comprises all of the abovementioned disciplines, comparative higher education research draws on all of these comparative traditions.

Although comparative higher education research has systematically developed only from the 1960s onward, comparisons of higher education and higher education systems in the form of field reports and travel reports date back to the nineteenth century. As Jarausch (1985) points out there were numerous such reports, also sometimes published in scientific journals. A further step in the (pre-)history of international comparative higher education research is marked by Flexner’s book Universities: American, English, German, first published in the late 1930s (Flexner [1939] 1994). “Universities differ in different countries” was the starting point for his idiographic studies on the idea of a modern university in which he analyzes similarities and differences between the character and characteristics of the university in the three countries (ibid, 4).

Institutional Development

Within and along with the field of higher education research, comparative research has developed continuously from the 1960s onward and has played an important role for its evolution (Teichler 1996). During the 1970s, following the first wave of university expansion in different countries, higher education research became an institutionalized field of studies in various countries around the world. Simultaneously, international comparative higher education research developed from descriptions of peculiarities and characteristics of national higher education systems to systematic analyses driven by concepts and variables and often included international networking (Jarausch 1985; Teichler 2000).

Burton R. Clark was one of the pioneers of international comparative higher education research. He made international comparative research central to his research program to overcome parochial national perspectives. His seminal triangle of coordination (state – market – academic oligarchy) is based on an international comparative investigation of academic organization and governance (Clark 1983). Early initiatives for international networking within the emerging international higher education research community were stimulated by his “Comparative Higher Education Research Group” at the University of California, Los Angeles (Teichler 2000). Such networking initiatives were joined by larger ones, inside and outside the USA, until the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. They have led to several newly founded associations for higher education research, which explicitly devote themselves to the promotion of international comparative research. Examples are the European “Consortium of Higher Education Researchers” (CHER) (see “CHER”) (founded in 1988) and the Standing “Committee on International Higher Education” (CIHE) (founded in 1990) of the “Association for the Study of Higher Education” (ASHE) (see “ASHE”).

During the 1980s and 1990s, a growing awareness of national divergences and international convergences at different levels of higher education (policies and governance, institutional and organizational setting, learning and teaching, etc.) stimulated an interest in international comparative higher education research. Because of its focus on differences and similarities among national higher education systems, international comparative higher education research enjoyed a high reputation in policy advice and considerable attention by higher education policy makers. Supranational organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); the World Bank; United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); and the European Union (EU) have played a major role in increasing the interest in comparative perspectives of national higher education systems (see “UNESCO”, “OECD”, and “World Bank”). A plethora of comparative studies on higher education themes have been commissioned since the end of the 1980s, especially by these supranational organizations (Teichler 1996, 2014). Thus, higher education research in general, but comparative higher education research in particular, has been highly influenced by policy contexts from the very beginning. An additional growth of comparative higher education research from the mid-1990s onward has been spurred by the further (global) expansion of higher education systems, the establishment of a European higher education and research area, and comprehensive higher education reforms in many countries around the world. In Europe, particularly the Bologna Process and the reorganization of higher education governance, management, and funding stimulated comparative higher education research.

Up to the 1990s, a so-called safari approach of comparative research had been pursued, which means that national research teams ventured into foreign countries to collect and analyze international data (Hantrais 2009). From the 1990s onward, international research teams with scholars from different countries and international research networks have become a more common mode of comparative research – in higher education research and beyond (Teichler 2014). International collaborative research is growing in popularity and its proliferation is driven by interrelated push and pull tendencies. The growth of collaborative comparative research has been pulled, e.g., by the aim to build international databases and work with internationally comparable data, and it has been pushed, e.g., by funding agencies and funding programs both at the national and supranational level, particularly by the European Union (Slipersæter and Aksnes 2008). But the move toward international team research also mirrors the internationalization and globalization of society itself. Furthermore, cost-effective and fast worldwide travel opportunities, as well as new information and communication technologies (ICT), allow research teams that are geographically spread over continents and time zones to work together. However, the proportion of collaborative comparative higher education research cannot be quantified easily. Recent bibliometric studies, which offer at least a partial indicator, have shown for comparative higher education research that the proportion of international coauthored articles is already nearly twice as large compared to noncomparative higher education research (Kosmützky and Krücken 2014).

Current State

Today, comparative research is one of the key methodologies in higher education research (Tight 2012) and has become a growing type of research in recent years. As bibliometric studies show, international comparative higher education research has been a small but steady research area since the 1990s. Journal articles that report results of international comparative research account for around 10% of the articles in international journals with an increase to 15% from 2004 onward (Kosmützky and Krücken 2014). International comparative research takes place in many different institutional settings: in university departments and research centers, in extramural research institutions, in private foundations and nonprofit institutions, in units for institutional research and development, etc. In a survey among 146 higher education research facilities around the world conducted for a “Worldwide Inventory,” more than 40% responded that international comparative and international higher education research is one of their five most important research areas (Rumbley et al. 2014).

As Teichler pointed out at the end of the 1990s, higher education research has so far “not entered into the methodological debates on questions of comparison” (Teichler 1997, 164, translation A.K.). Methodological reflections of comparative research have taken place here and there since then, e.g., in final book publications of comparative research projects, which do not form a visible and coherent methodological discourse. More visible, but still sporadic, were special issues of one of the field’s major journals, “Higher Education” (Journals), devoted to comparative higher education research, which were published in 1996, 2000, and 2014. These special issues provide important reflections on methodological aspects and the challenges in the application of certain theories and methods (see for an overview of their topics: Kosmützky and Nokkala 2014). Another important resource and contribution to the development of international comparative higher education research are encyclopedias (like this one) which provide an overview of developments in different national higher education systems. Moreover, the book series “Theory and Method in Higher Education Research” (edited by Malcolm Tight and Jeroen Huisman) contributes to the methodological discussion of comparative higher education research. Furthermore, since 2008 the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) (founded in 1956) has a “Higher Education Special Interest Group” (HESIG) which provides a platform for dialogue on comparative and international higher education.

Nevertheless, one can still agree with Teichler’s statement above, because methodological issues are still not being discussed actively and consistently and there is no codified knowledge base within the field, e.g., in the form of a handbook of comparative higher education research that comprises some ground rules and quality criteria. As a result, researchers engaged in comparative higher education research have to “re-invent the wheel” regarding methodological aspects and the application of methods in comparative contexts.

Future Challenges

Three kinds of challenges have emerged in international comparative higher education research in recent years and are key to its development (see for a discussion: Kosmützky and Nokkala 2014):

First, comparative research – in higher education and beyond – has to deal with the accusation of its methodological nationalism. The main point of this accusation can be summarized very briefly as follows: comparative research conceptualizes its macro-social units of comparison as closed “containers” or “boxes” and examines them isolated from larger contexts and, thus, contributes to unequal power relations. However, social conditions cannot be reduced (anymore) to forces within national “containers” because processes outside the “national container” are increasingly influential (e.g., through supranational organizations). Methodological nationalism can manifest itself in research questions and designs, theories, objects of investigation, as well as data collection and analysis (Shahjahan and Kezar 2013). Thus, comparative higher education research should become conceptually and methodologically more reflective and should expand its analytical scope toward new and emergent global and transnational realities in higher education and try to balance between national and global and transnational accounts in their research frameworks to avoid a methodological nationalism (Kosmützky 2015).

Second, as mentioned above, international comparative research is seen as a promising approach in making sense of the complexities of higher education and the more and more globalized higher education world. At the same time, however, it is methodologically complex and practically complicated research. Comparative research projects often fail to achieve an actual comparison and merely result in a collection of mostly unconnected country cases or descriptions of similarities and differences without generalizations or explanations. Thus, the additional dimension of comparative methodology and the advancement of methods of data collection and data analysis utilized in comparative research – whether it is mixed-method approaches, advanced statistical techniques, or new data sources and ways of data collection – require more attention from scholars in the field. The intensification of the discussion at conferences, in journals, and with regard to Ph.D. education is desirable in order to develop some ground rules and quality criteria of comparative research within the field (Antonucci 2013; Kosmützky 2016).

Third, as comparative collaborative research is growing in higher education research, it is very likely that many researchers will find themselves participating in (or maybe as principal investigator in charge of) an international collaborative team at some point in their careers. Thus, practical constraints and challenges related to international collaborative team research, e.g., its task-related complexity and social team diversity, need to be reflected more within the field. The social diversity of the international team members is a “two-sided medal” that can positively influence as well as hinder the comparative research process. On the one hand, the multiple perspectives and detailed contextual knowledge of the countries under investigation among the diverse team members make rigorous comparative research possible. On the other hand, the (cultural, academic, methodical, disciplinary, etc.) diversity of the team members increases social complexity and makes it more difficult to achieve shared perspectives and methodological precision (Brew et al. 2013; Kosmützky 2017). Thus, it is crucial to intensify the debate about the characteristics that contribute to a research team’s success (or failure) as the collaborative mode of research increases.

The interdisciplinary field of higher education research itself may be too small to develop into a comparative subdiscipline (Teichler 2014), but an intensification of the discussion of epistemological, methodological, and practical questions (especially with regard to aspects of collaboration in international team research) seems essential for the future development of comparative higher education research. Due to its interdisciplinarity, higher education research is predestined to carry out a methodological reflection in dialogue with the comparative subdisciplines of its source disciplines (e.g., comparative education, comparative politics, comparative sociology) and other comparative research fields.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER)University of KasselKasselGermany

Section editors and affiliations

  • Jussi Valimaa
    • 1
  • Terhi Nokkala
    • 2
  1. 1.Higher education studies team (HIEST)University ofJyväskyläJyväskyläFinland
  2. 2.Finnish Institute for Educational ResearchUniversity of JyväskyläJyväskylän yliopistoFinland