Hands-on not heads in clouds

7th April 2000 at 01:00
There has been an explosion of research in FE. Despite the discouraging noises from universities, the sector is making its mark. Justina Hart reports

The old-fashioned view still hampering the growth of research in further education is that it should be left to the "academic" universities. This perception of colleges lags substantially behind reality, says John Field, Professor of Lifelong Learning at Warwick University. Moreover, it is in the interests of colleges to get involved, he insists. "The reality is, of course, that FE is far more experimental and diverse than many potential or past users of research realise."

Professor Field is working on a three-year research project with 12 colleges which reports this month on the impact of FE on local communities.

Intrinsic to the culture of FE is a spirit of enquiry that should lend itself quite naturally to research, he says. But the sector is still in the early stages of understanding what sorts of research are required and why.

Cash shortages have not helped. As recently as 1997, research funding policies were described as "hostile" to FE. But the list of potential sources is growing rapidly.

Colleges must take some blame, says Field. Too often, senior staff see research as undermining traditional management strategies, while staff may be wary of additional, unnecessary demands on their time. But where colleges have a substantial higher education commitment or where staff are encouraged to do further degrees, research is more easily accepted and assimilated.

Like pharmaceutical companies, colleges need cost-effective research to develop better products, courses and assessment methods. Research is crucial to professional development, bringing new skills and knowledge to teachers. It can assist institutional development, changing the way students are enrolled and the way processes are managed.

Peter Funnell, head of learning development at Suffolk College, says:

"Research can become another product range in itself; another set of skills the local economy might want to tap into. It has to be a college priority." Much has been achieved in a relatively short time, according to Andrew Morris, head of research and development at the Further Education Development Agency. In the mid-Nineties, interest in research grew in FE and in exploiting research in the wider community. Three years ago, the FE Research Network (FERN) was created.

A common criticism is that academic papers are written for other researchers. The FERN journal insists that findings and reports are practical and applicable to managers and teachers.

Leo Salter, director of research at Cornwall College, says FE research is more broad-based than traditional work. Colleges tend to go for market research and surveys, along with scientific study. Many conduct "action research" that has a direct, practical application.

Universities are often snobbish about what makes good research but those involved in action research have no such hang-ups. The core work of Greenwich University's school of post-compulsory education and training is in training FE teachers. "We have had battles with the HE sector over their definition of research and the need to include things like action research," says Jocelyn Robson, a research co-ordinator.

Most colleges beginning to build a research culture take small, incremental steps. Angela Myers, vice-principal of Solihull College, says: "We recognise when staff are doing new things and put that on a research basis - however loosely defined."

Others, such as Norwich City College or Blackburn, have developed a commercial model: bidding and tendering for contracts in their community. Some further and higher education colleges, such as Colchester, Suffolk and Cornwall, have found that their involvement in degree studies has helped to create a more academic resarch culture.

The national picture is patchy, but more colleges are getting into research, says John Field. Fewer than 20 colleges have created formal structures - with the necessary head of research and committees - but many more are doing small-scale work.

Most colleges have some "structures" to support development work, says Andrew Morris. But, with typical diffidence, they don't call it that. Setting up a research culture is a matter of trial and error, says Leo Salter, from Cornwall. Fortunately, there are some fairly infallible guidelines. "Crucially, you need a champion from senior management, preferably the principal. They (researchers) must have a free rein across the college, backed up with authority and support."

Small research projects on flexible learning or student retention can build consensus because they give senior management valuable evidence on which to make decisions, he says.

"Focusing on centres where staff are always looking at delivery, through action research to improve curriculum or classroom technique, stops those areas becoming mediocre and sterile." Linking research opportunities to higher degrees for staff development also helps.

Cornwall College carries out many small consultancy projects, that generate funds as well as enthusiasm. "Entrepreneurs, farmers and fishermen come with small, pragmatic problems and small amounts of money," says Leo Salter. He gives students the option of carrying out the research work which creates a "feel-good" factor in the college.

Managers who argue that there's never the time or funds for research should not be deterred, says Brian Chappelow, head of research at Stockport College. He seeks volunteer staff. "Part of the reason for becoming involved is that it may help their promotion prospects," he says.

Brian Chappelow offers a strategy for colleges. Put research on a formal footing by setting up a committee to formulate policy. It will approve "abstracts" and set out how research will link into the college's policy. If principals and managers don't put up too many barriers, staff can be surprisingly keen to get involved.

Stockport started with the college's traditional areas of construction and engineering, but is now branching out into information technology and the social sciences. "We're not restrictive but, as an engineer myself, I always wonder what would happen if someone wanted to do research in the history of art," says Brian Chappelow.

The work creates a more unified college identity through a collective sense of purpose: "It is very interesting to watch groups of staff from different disciplines sitting down and talking about research. They find they have a common need." Crucially, colleges new to the practice must remember that research is, by definition, experimental; there is a risk of failure or of poor work being undertaken. Leo Salter describes a "hit rate" of 60 to 70 per cent producing "real results".

Since its earliest days, FERN has striven to promote FE research in partnerships between colleges, universities and other players in post-16 education. Andrew Morris and Geoff Stanton at Greenwich believe that, when combined, academic (university) research and developmental (college) research can influence practice and policy to raise standards of teaching and learning. The Warwick university partnership is a rare example of this, says Andrew Morris.

John Field agrees but argues that the barriers between universities and colleges still need to be broken down if the sectors are to work effectively together.

"We need a strong voice to shape policy and strengthen capacity. If the Government is willing to put money in, we could be very well-placed to start to push the agenda forward."

College Research (pound;10 for three volumes), available from FEDA. Tel: 0207 840 53024.Email: publications@feda.ac.uk

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