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Mere echoes

There is more pressure on researchers in FE to make only the noises that the paymaster wants, argues Kathyrn Ecclestone

Research into further education and lifelong learning finds an enthusiastic advocate in the minister for lifelong learning, Malcolm Wicks, whose responsibility covers that area. His upbeat message about its usefulness to government was a high spot of last year's third research conference of the Further Education Development Agency, engendering a new optimisim. The worlds of researchers, teachers and students, and policy makers are undoubtedly drawing closer and officials are now committing themselves to an annual research conference for lifelong learning.

Despite Malcolm Wicks' genuine request that researchers should provide "evidence" for policy decisions, it is not at all clear how far they must comply uncritically with an agenda set by government. A recent example was the furore caused when David Blunkett criticised research at the University of Durham on the negative effects of daily homework. He also criticised a Sheffield Hallam University report about the effects of council housing policy.

This political condemnation raises questions about how far researchers should investigate issues that contradict or oppose government policy. It seems to suggest that research should make policy and practice look good for the organisation footing the bill.

Without debate and openness, these submerged tensions mean that research runs the risk of becoming little more than what Stephen Ball, professor of social policy at King's College, London, calls "policy entrepreneurship" - research which seeks findings that help turn practice in schools, colleges and universities into a mirror image of policy imperatives and then proselytises them uncritically.

A more subtle problem is appearing. As divisons between further and higher education begin to break down for students hoping to progress more easily between sectors, a new chasm is beginning to yawn over the role of university-based researchers.

Those in private and commercial organisations, colleges and universities see increased interest in their work and, more importantly, funding to do it. But there is growing criticism that higher education researchers are little more than parasites who scrutinise other sectors but leave the "real world" untouched.

Fuelled by criticism from people like Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, this view taps into a belief that "academic" research equals "irrelevant", "abstract", "elitist" and, worse still, "patronising". The corollary is that the best people to research and improve practice are teachers themselves. Instead of trying to create and disseminate research that addresses political and social dilemmas, asks difficult questions and helps improve practice, rivalry over who should do it is combined with demands that it complies with policy agendas.

Allegations of elitism, with uncritical acceptance of the latest concerns of government departments will make critical research very difficult. All this could quickly "Balkanise" researchers into self-interested enclaves and sideline proper debates about what we mean by good research. Unless we somehow find ways to discuss our role, we could succumb unwittingly to the temptation to curry favour with the policy-maker.

The opportunities for dialogue between researchers in diverse sectors and agencies have never been more overt. The question is how to harness them productively, critically and openly.

Kathryn Ecclestone is a lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Newcastle and visiting research fellow for City and Guilds

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