Establishing a Culture of College Research

Dr R G Evans, of Stockport College, outlines the range of research being carried out in colleges today

College Research quite rightly advocates a strong and effective culture of research in FE colleges and the sector. There needs to be a central focus for  research and development in a college to share and use findings and developments across the institution and, in some cases, to disseminate findings throughout the sector.

The publication College Research is an ideal vehicle for such  dissemination. To create such a culture, a college needs a comprehensive research policy and money from the college’s budget.

Colleges already carry out investigative activities and have, a tradition of entrepreneurism, and they cán build on these to create a more formal structure for research. The need for institutional research has become greater since incorporation, and because colleges have to respond the rapid transformations in education and training. The advent and increasing use of the new learning technologies raises fundamental questions about how the learning process can be designed, managed and supported in colleges. This requires colleges to research all aspects of their operations in order to maintain a presence in the highly competitive world of education and training. Management of learning and support systems needs to be reformed, and each college needs to research how best to provide quality products and services to its learners, its staff and its sponsors. Much can be achieved through research and development to secure value for money and improve the quality of service that colleges are trying to offer in the current volatile environment.

What kind of research should colleges -indeed the sector – be considering? Clearly individual colleges can commission and undertake research in strategically important areas. This institutionally focused research could, for example, investigate factors contributing to student success, and how best to manage more effective college planning and reporting systems. It can monitor current programmes of study and their quality, look to ways of improving them and research the market to develop new programmes of study. General research might seek to broaden and deepen knowledge in subject disciplines.

Increasingly, with government encouragement of a culture of collaboration, intercollege activities, research and development can be fostered. Clusters of colleges can commission and undertake strategic research. In other areas of research, a college or group of colleges can commission an external organisation to undertake research. Finally, colleges can consider college research national findings to enhance and enrich their performance. The research and development activity must have status, be valued and have a clear location in the college’s strategy in order for it to realise its purpose. These approaches can produce a more comprehensive, effective and efficient policy on research. It is then up to the colleges to interpret and use the findings of that research.

Once a comprehensive policy of research is developed by a college, the institution must ensure that the research culture and activities are embedded at all levels. An FE  college must adopt a broad definition of  research. It must not attempt to mirror research carried out in universities. Its out-comes must not be driven primarily by publications or the award of higher degrees. Its primary purpose is to add value to FE and  its own characteristic mission. Since incorporation, it is incumbent on colleges to broaden their definitions of research to include the range of activities normally associated with a corporate body. Once a research culture is developed, effective dissemination and implementation are essential. Figure 1 diagrams the stages in the research provision.



The definitions can be simplistically mapped into two main categories:

  • research and development required as a condition for continued valuation for programmes of study at both FE and HE professional level
  • research and development undertaken to support growth and development of the college.

The latter would apply to the full range of a college’s work and activities and may include:

Research and development and higher education

A college which is also a provider of higher education must recognise that research is often required to complement HE programmes, particularly degree programmes validated by universities. Universities may have a rigid, traditional view of research, often seeing it in terms of fundamental, ‘pure’ research resulting in publication; staff involved in such research are expected to have higher degrees. The high costs associated with both criteria present real difficulties to FE colleges. Usually colleges can develop collaborative projects with local universities and draw down joint research funding. Universities need to recognise that they need to discount higher degree registration study costs to college staff.

There is a real danger that staff will expect to tap into the limited staff development budgets for higher degree registration and the production of dissertations. There is a danger that, if a college moves in this direction, it may be accused of academic drift, or not being true to its FE mission.
Colleges need to develop special relationships with local universities based on a win-win philosophy. Universities need to accept colleges’ financial constraints and allow them to access their facilities so that FE staff can carry out research on expensive equipment and undertake higher degrees at discounted rates.
It must also be added that validating universities must recognise the uniqueness of FE colleges and that they are not mini-universities. Universities and colleges have very different kinds of academic cultures and communities; one cannot expect to impose the rigidities of university research on the colleges. Colleges can offer contacts and networks (based, for example, on their close relationships with employers), that are traditionally not evident in universities. The research carried out in colleges can be valuable, but is very different from that which is generally carried out in universities. It can include consultancy, writing books and articles, preparing research reports of teaching and learning, and market research. The kinds of research carried out in colleges are described below.

Research and development for college growth and development

Colleges need to develop innovative and pragmatic approaches for research into college growth and development. These can include:

*    Links with strategic developments: The research and related activities a college seeks to encourage are wide ranging. They incorporate systematic investigation in many categories which are overlapping rather than mutually exclusive. The overarching purpose is advancement of the strategic objectives of the college and the consequent benefit for learners and other customers served by the college.
*    Applied research: This strengthens and enhances the college’s links with industry, commerce and the local community, including local and public authorities. The college is ideally placed to develop research with a direct benefit to the college or community.

Applied research projects may arise from collaborative arrangements between the college and industrial/commercial/profes-sional interests, and can encompass most of the delivery departments of a college. They also may be associated with marketing, curriculum, student and human resource issues as well as product development. Many topics are likely to be interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary; it is important that the college ensures that departmental structures, and relationships between departments, do not act as barriers to an appropriate research ethos.

**Collaboration with external bodies **

A college must ensure collaboration with external bodies, including industrial/commercial undertakings, local schools, other colleges, health trusts and social services. Each college should encourage these links to grow; the college will have much to offer through @ its expertise and facilities. Collaboration requires an outward-looking approach to teaching, learning and socially relevant research.


A college must recognise and encourage the involvement of staff in their professional fields alongside their employment at the college. This may contribute to their personal and professional development as well as the development of the college. In this time of financial constraint, consultancy can generate additional income for the college. However, such work may also carry possible conflicts of interest, and there can be complex issues of contract law and possible liability.

Research and staff development

All college staff should expect to keep up to date in their professional fields and, therefore, to be continually involved in the activities appropriate to them. The development, continual updating and broadening of any educational service relies on staff improving their knowledge, understanding, skills and competencies. Staff contracts of employment should recognise opportunities to undertake industrial placements, or to carry out research and development activities. This is quite a complex area, because too often research and development are seen as synonymous with staff development. This has to be managed very carefully. The cost to the staff development budget can be significant and can distort or deflect the institution’s programme for overall staff development. There needs to be a clear delineation between staff development policy and that for research and development.

In conclusion, research in its many forms across the college and the sector is vital for the college’s future development and to keep it up to date.

Dr RG Evans, Principal, Stockport College of Further and Higher Education


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