Research should be providing a new deal for learners
If, as Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel University argued last month, much research is pretty useless, it is a waste of public money. The answer lies not only in the subjects chosen for research or how the research is conducted. There is a also question of who carries out the research.
There is no doubt that FE has been under-researched, while the scale of recent changes and new challenges make research an urgent priority. There have recently been ripples of interest, caused partly by the availability of Economic and Social Research Council funds and partly by concern with the politically-fraught frontiers between FE and higher education.
Government promotion of lifelong learning has also aroused interest, as has the inventive and sometimes controversial ways FE has responded to the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.
Current patterns of research into post-school learning are predictably familiar. Apart from small projects by think-tanks, development bodies or research consultancies, it is, unsurprisingly, HE which wins the public funds. But such research is not leading to clear improvements or helping develop better policies. It is time we questioned where it comes from and offered positive alternatives.
In 1995, the Association of Colleges (then AFC), the ESRC and the Further Education Development Agency ran joint seminars to hammer out a research agenda for FE. The research community of HE and the practitioners in FE agreed that strategic research was the crucial area to develop, alongside more practice-based action research.
Strategic research aims to improve learning, to help colleges take strategic decisions, to give policy-makers robust evidence. Like other education research, strategic research does not have to "discover something new about the Earth", as Alan Smithers said at the British Association's Annual Festival of Science. The point is to change it.
At the end of our seminar series it has become clear to FE people - and many in HE - that we need to challenge the old ways. Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Leeds University, has called for more research in FE. He cites as examples corporate governance and management and the need to re-balance imperatives of educational community and business efficiency.
He argues that "none of these topics can be researched in the traditional manner with HE researchers as active subjects and FE colleges as passive object".
Co-operation is called for in the age of partnership and shared agendas. And the shifting FEHE frontiers provide opportunities in research as well as teaching.
This view excites some HE colleagues but disturbs more. HE is the "natural" home of all education research barring market research, snapshot surveys and down-to-earth good practice guides. There is a clear presumption in favour of HE as the sector with the telescopic overview and the underpinning gravitas to make sense of the activities of the rest of us.
This belief is so strong that it is not systematically questioned. The regular rubbishing of research by fellow academics is based on an understanding that the players may be in different teams - unless someone comes up with the right transfer fee - but they are all in the premier league. And Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry into the future of HE, while extolling collaboration, sees research funds being divided between fewer HE institutions.
FE is not seen as an intellectual sector. Yet it is a sector which knows that thinking about learning and teaching is crucial to better practice. That is also part of the fabric of FE and recent FEDA surveys show that research in FE is alive and well and on the increase.
Technological and curriculum innovation flourishes, nurtured by initiatives like the Beacon Awards or Adult Learners' Week. Thousands of FE staff complete research degrees with dissertations on highly relevant topics - most, sadly, never see the light of day.
Now an FE research network, owned and run by college staff, is up and running. FEDA publishes a new journal of college research. Many colleges have research departments. Confidence is growing. Approaches to research must change and there could be new strengths in partnerships between sectors, based on equal and different contributions.
One piece of strategic research in progress now is an innovative partnership between a major research university and 12 FE colleges in the West Midlands and Yorkshire on the changing relationship of colleges with their communities. FE college researchers are getting appropriate training in research methods. If you walked into the steering group of this project, you would not know who was HE and who was FE by the quality of their contributions round the table or the level of work they were undertaking.
FE is moving forward to develop new research methodologies, based on unlikely and imaginative partnerships for strategic change - a practical and optimistic way of entering the debate about educational research and working together for a better deal for learners.
Ursula Howard is FEDA director of research