In the dark on research;FE Focus

Neil Munro

IT IS a mark of the higher ambitions the further education sector has now set for itself that research is the latest issue on its agenda.

But some will see this as yet another irrelevant manifestation of the colleges continuing search for a place in the sun alongside universities, a distraction from their main "vocational mission".

Research funding can certainly expect little help. John Sizer, chief executive of both the FE and higher education funding councils in Scotland, said recently that it was unlikely to be a priority.

Undaunted, Alison Reid, chief executive of the Stirling-based Scottish Further Education Unit, wants to set up a research advisory group. "Policy is not informed by research at the moment," Ms Reid says, "and there is no proper evaluation once the policy has been decided."

Staff in every college are doing research or interested in it, she said. A network would promote their work and combat "the loneliness of the lone researcher".

In an audit of research and development, the unit found that of the two-thirds of colleges that responded, 82 per cent were supporting staff on research work. But half attached conditions that the work must be relevant to the college.

Jim Dignan, HMI, has given Scottish Office blessing to building up research expertise in colleges. But this should focus on issues which "play to the strengths of FE", he told a recent Scottish Office conference.

Topics might include investigations into effective vocational training and analysis of employers' skill needs as well as the college curriculum.

Most research on FE is done outwith FE, Mr Dignan pointed out. David Raffe, of the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University, says that research about FE is often "invisible" because it is about many other things as well. Even more than research about other sectors of education, Mr Raffe adds, FE research should take account of the socio-economic context of education.

A warning that the prospects for expanding research in FE will only be as good as the management drive behind it came from one of the few research directors in FE - who is based in England. Leo Salter of Cornwall College told the conference that research success needs to be rewarded as "a measure of the seriousness of the commitment of senior management to a college's research effort".

He said: "Research can improve marketing, management, administrative structures and programme delivery which could all benefit. Colleges are multimillion pound businesses and should see research as essential to their business success."

Colleges could make a start by establishing a small pool of cash for which lecturers would be invited to bid, Dr Salter suggested. Research could be linked to work or be community based. New staff appointments should be made "with an eye to recruiting research capable personnel".

The idea that research should be seen not as an extra cost but as an investment for the greater health of the college is not yet an established virtue. A research director, in Dr Salter's experience, has "a difficult and exposed role" in which resistance from management is likely. Budget pressures make research an easy target.

For Ray Harris, depute principal at Perth College, the justification is to develop "reflective practitioners", who will in turn produce a reflective sector capable then of dealing with issues as they arise.

Research can also be an engine for further research, Professor Raffe says. "Every good project contains the seeds of several more."

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