Don't let the theorists be misunderstood

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Kathryn Ecclestone has hopes for a happy fusion between academic and vocational research cultures

How many academics does it take to change a light bulb?

Well, before we can address that complex question, we need to construct a theoretical framework in which to conceptualise and then evaluate critically the philosophical and epistemological assumptions on which the question is predicated.

As Laurie Taylor once remarked, academics seem to aim to "never be knowingly understood".

The stereotype of the other-worldly, over-theoretical university academic abounds in the media, where, even on Radio 4's Today, presenters will impatiently charge someone with accusations of "being academic". But a quick brainstorm with 50 further education lecturers on a part-time degree course revealed the same negative associations.

Recent debate in The TES about whether teachers or academics are best placed to do "practical and relevant" research adds weight to the stereotype of university academics who do not work in the "real worlds" of school and further education yet pontificate about research in these sectors.

So it's not surprising that, apart from a very few individuals, academics from universities are not the first port of call when important research or evaluation needs doing for policy-makers and government agencies. The negative image might also partly explain why so little research into post-16 issues carried out in universities reaches the ears and eyes of researchers in the Further Education Development Agency, the Further Education Funding Council inspectorate or the former National Council for Vocational Qualifications. There are some notable exceptions but by and large, the worlds of research and evaluation in government agencies and universities seem fairly closed to each other.

This autumn's British Educational Research Association conference was reported in The TES for findings relevant to the schools sector. Yet the conference also showed that academic research has a lot to say about important issues affecting students and teachers, trainees and trainers working in the post-compulsory sector. There is a growing interest in the groves of academe in post-16 issues such as retention, student choice and motivation, assessment, and policy-making for the vocational curriculum.

A special interest group for researchers in post-compulsory education and lifelong learning recently had its first meeting. It aims to draw together a network of academics and to make better links with researchers in government agencies.

Instead of carping about who is best placed to do "relevant" research, it is more important than ever to create links between universities and the growing research programme around developments in general national vocational qualifications and in the vocational curriculum. The new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has an influential research section, with a very diverse programme of projects.

This, in turn, connects closely with evaluation and development work carried out by FEDA and inspectors for schools and colleges. An important feature of this research is that it is carried out in a politically charged atmosphere. Researchers have to adopt technically efficient approaches, without generating too much controversy or coming up with findings which might be unacceptable or difficult to implement. Research to support GNVQs has to respond to complex and contradictory political tensions and often in ridiculously short timescales. Researchers working in this arena pride themselves on their practical and realistic approaches and their ability to communicate their findings easily and directly. To them, academic research can seem long-winded and problem-focused and does not offer "practical" solutions. As a result, it is easy not to bother reading it.

Academic researchers, on the other hand, pride themselves on careful, methodical research which is not afraid to confront problems, contradictions and dilemmas. They like to draw on detailed knowledge of other relevant research and are used to proving their expertise and scholarly skills by presenting their findings to other academics. To them, government-based research-ers can seem over-pragmatic, uncritical and instrumental. And as a result, it is easy to overlook their research.

Of course, this is a simplistic presentation of the problem, but it seems difficult for the two research cultures to draw closer. Yet one recent example shows that it is possible to reconcile some of the tensions. The recent report on youth training, Working to Learn, was published by the Institute of Personnel Development and produced by a group of academics who originally got together because of their research findings which gave serious cause for concern about current policy for youth training and contradicted government claims about its success. In spite of some of its radical and controversial ideas, the IPD published the report in July 1997. It is not yet clear how policy-makers will respond to it but the experience has some useful lessons for other academics and policy-makers who might want to join forces.

But what happens when academic researchers go out on a political limb with their findings? This is especially difficult if their work is funded by a government department or agency.

In the case of a large-scale programme like the one looking at the implications of creating a "learning society" and funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council, it is important that findings reach a wide audience. Yet only the most philistine could argue that this type of research wasn't essential to policy-makers and practitioners alike.

These are complex issues and they are hardly new. But as the QCA extends its influence into what is researched and how it is done, post-16 researchers will need to consider how their work relates to Government-driven agendas. It is easy to call for better links between different researchers from different research cultures. The danger is that in a climate which likes to denigrate educational, "academic" research for being irrelevant to teachers and policy-makers, independent, controversial and unpopular findings will be sidelined.

Somehow, the positive connotations of what it means to be "academic" have to be rescued from a negative image. Careful methodology, precision, openness, independence and critical analysis are important features for any research. Without basic links between organisations, researchers are not working to learn. Nor are they doing much to create a learning society themselves.

For information about the BERA special interest group for post-compulsory education and lifelong learning, contact Lorna Unwin, Division of Education, University of Sheffield, Glossop Road, Sheffield S10 2TN

Kathryn Ecclestone is senior lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Sunderland

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