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A Double Paradigm Shift? Transforming higher education systems – and research practices

Two paradigm shifts are under way, which are both complex and intimately linked.

The first is in the character of higher education (HE) systems. In the 20th century this transformation was typically described in terms of student growth - from elite to mass and then universal systems. In the 21st century it is more commonly described in terms of HE’s funding base and its organisational (and managerial) culture – as a shift from the ‘public’ university to a more open ‘market’ system. Both reflected the dominant ideology of their age – the culmination of the post-war welfare state in the case of the former, and the triumph of neo-liberalism for the latter. Both accounts claimed to describe paradigm shifts, but neither captures the complexity of this transformation which has many, often contradictory and even antagonistic strands – the evolution of the welfare state into the so-called market state, the impact of new social movements, the growth of a ‘graduate culture’, the emergence of ‘clever cities’, and the advance of globalisation (in its market-oriented form but also in the shape of global resistances). The HE system is suffused by the knowledge society – and the knowledge society is suffused by higher education.

The second shift is in research practice. Once the dominant paradigm was of ‘objective’, empirical and/or experimental research conducted by suitably qualified (i.e. university trained) ‘experts’ in specialised sites (typically universities). Other forms of ‘research’ (including institutional research and action research), although acknowledged, were regarded as inferior. Even traditional scholarship in the humanities and critical social science struggled to compete with this dominant paradigm (rooted in the research practices of the natural sciences). Recently its dominance has been challenged – theoretically by new accounts of knowledge production which emphasise trans-disciplinarity, contextualisation (and contingency), the problematisation of expertise and social reflexivity; and practically by changes in research policy (for example, in the UK the replacement of the Research Assessment Exercise by the Research Excellence Framework with its greater emphasis on ‘impact’) and also the ‘fight-back’ by alternative forms of research inquiry grounded in practice and (occasionally) more politically engaged.

In this keynote I will argue that these two paradigm shifts are, first, complex – and, therefore, not easy to reduce to a simple ideological discourse whether ‘social purpose’ in the case of mass HE, or the ‘market’ in the case of more recent changes in higher education’s funding base and organisational culture – and, secondly, that both reflect larger changes in intellectual culture and social structures. I will also emphasise the opportunities and challenges facing institutional research – in particular, its choice between acting as the R&D arm of the new more market-oriented organisational culture in HE, or whether it assumes a wider and more critical role.

Keynote Information

  • Sir Peter Scott
    Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education, previously Vice-Chancellor at Kingston University and President of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) will weave together some of the conference themes when reflecting on the current and future contribution of institutional research to contemporary higher education institutions worldwide in an increasingly borderless world.

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