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Theme of this issue

How relevant is SSH research to National Policies?

An interview with Prof Louise Morley, Professor of Education, Sussex School of Education, University of Sussex, UK

The inclusion of New Member States into the European Community has brought with it great social change - not just for the new members but for all of Europe. The disparity between nations has triggered a number of EC funded research programmes into how best to accommodate and facilitate educational equality within the confines of rapid social adjustments.

Equality in education is of vital importance as it covers a host of issues, many of which are highly integrated into the social constructs of society - and a broader European dimension. According to the Bologna Declaration, one of its underlying principles is to "establish a more complete and far-reaching Europe, in particular building upon and strengthening its intellectual, cultural, social and scientific and technological dimensions". It further stresses that the importance of education - and international education co-operation- is of utmost importance in fostering "stable, peaceful and democratic societies".

Speaking at the Triple E-DOSE conference in Krakow, Professor Morley, from the School of Education at the University of Sussex outlined her work from several research projects she has undertaken over the years and points to the discrepancy that exists between this principle spirit of the Bologna Declaration and between the perception and support of elitism within educational institutions. Her central argument was that policies on quality assurance in higher education have been developed and implemented without consideration of equality issues.

"My research," she explains, "has primarily looked into issues of gender and social equality and equity within the political constructs of the Commonwealth nations. I have investigated a number of key elements relating to equality throughout these nations, from Sri Lanka to South Africa, looking at the factors that impede or facilitate gender based participation in higher education. The research also looked at other concepts such as curriculum transformation and professional development. In other work, we looked at how UK universities were implementing equal opportunities policies".

While the extent of her research is enormous, covering more than ten years, Professor Morley outlined some of her more fundamental findings for the conference. One such, for example, is that equality in education is not merely gender inclusive, nor is it solely pertinent to students. The issue of equality is often pursued on separate policy trajectories from that of quality. In a very subtle manner this is highly controversial argument simply because discussions on quality are not automatically related to concepts of equality.

Moreover, perceptions of quality are rather one sided. During a survey of employers and what institutions they perceived as producing better candidates (2006), Morley explains that most employers "tended to favour graduates from universities which had the highest and most rigorous selection process. Conversely it was found that universities with the most diverse student bodies, for example, the newer universities were not favoured by employers".

This common perception; that elitism is synonymous with quality, a situation, Professor Morley explains arising from the pretext "that the indicators of quality are based on reputation built over the centuries". flies directly in the face of education access and widening participation, and, more importantly, undermines any policy based on equality formation. The direct correlation therefore that Professor Morley makes between education equality and a candidate's future economic potential is associated not on quality matters per se, but to a common antiquated perception of quality's exclusivity on behalf of employers.

While Professor Morley does not deny the excellence with which these institutions provide education, she is concerned about their selection processes and whether or not the regime of quality upon which they are based is exclusive of social equity. She argues that the criteria for excellence these institutions have established are counter-equality in that they are too exclusive and rigorous. "Equality is multi-faceted, it's not just about quantitative change and widening access for students. It's also about qualitative change e.g. student rights, curriculum, social relations, organisational culture, and professional development. Universities have been rather slow in recognizing this, citing the principles of meritocracy upon which they are founded. In so doing, they tend to forego any need to include equality as merit is perceived as transcending identity".

While there has been much discussion of how the number of women entering higher education as students has increased, women still lack power as providers and producers of higher education. One example of exclusion, Professor Morley cites is that "Internationally, women are grossly underrepresented in the professoriate, even within these institutions that have highly evolved equality policies". "Britain has had equality legislation since the nineteen seventies but has fewer women professors than Sri Lanka or Jamaica.

Other considerations of equality also pertain to a form of cultural heritage or ideology promoted by certain universities. Research in the UK identified the fact that many students coming from lower socio-economic groups, tend not to apply to elite institutions. "A number of reasons explain this," Professor Morley admits, "for one, they anticipate rejection and secondly they often don't feel comfortable in elitist organisations as there's a cultural mismatch".

So there is a multifaceted dimension to providing equality. One which would require a flexible resolution. One solution for Professor Morley, lies in a transparent auditing process whereby quality audits themselves meet the requirements of the diversity found within the higher education sector. It is unfair, Professor Morley says, for such diversity in the sector to be assessed according to one set criteria of quality. She illustrates the point by stating that "equity issues frequently are not factors in taxonomies of excellence".

Professor Morley expanded on the example through exemplification, citing student completion of their course studies as a case to point. In the UK, this is a performance indicator in quality audits of teaching and learning. She highlighted that often able students coming from financially deprived backgrounds are not able to complete their studies due solely to economic reasons.

Professor Morley is quick to assert that issues of quality are a matter of discourse, having multiple interpretations. "some see it as a positive involvement, making organisations more accountable. The externality of audits makes accountability more transparent to equity issues. Students too can benefit from such in that it provides them with clearer rights, more entitlements and greater support". "There is however", Professor Morley points out, "another side to it".

One such counterpoint is the huge financial burden such audits place on organizations in terms of the bureaucracy involved. There is a larger issue at stake in that some institutions lack funding to provide good quality services e.g. libraries and IT resources. However, seemingly unlimited funding appears to be available for quality assurance audits of the sectorAnother objection academics often raise is that they feel auditing imposes a "non-negotiable orthodoxy, that forces people to perform to standards of quality that they could not challenge or question".

Professor Morley explains that one response from academics is that the indicators for auditing were over-simplified and reductive for such complex issues. "Traditionally", she points out, "academics have been invited to be critical of this sort of performative approach, whereas now they're being told not to be, and just have too meet the criteria".

There are no easy or straightforward answers to ensuring equality in education, nor will the problems involved, or the complexities associated with equality be immediately addressed. What is certain, says Professor Morley, "is that there has to be more negotiation with the providers of higher education about performance indicators in quality audits.

It is clear however, that change is needed and with the work of Professor Morley and others like her, we can be assured that they will encompass the dynamisms of change, making equality synonymous with quality and inclusive of equity.

Triple e-DOSE conference, Poland, 2006

A dose of heritage, culture and education

The Vistula River meanders its way through Poland stretching over a thousand kilometers long. Not far from its grassy banks, as it winds its way through Krakow, nestles one of the oldest universities in Europe. The Jagiellonian University, founded by Casimir III the Great in 1364, has a long history of education and turmoil. Like the city itself, it is no stranger to adversity and progress and as such, provided a highly symbolic venue to host the Triple E-DOSE International Conference on Education, Employment and Europe.

With the recent inclusion of new Member States into the European Union, the discrepancy between education, opportunity and employment has become increasingly visible. In the immediate sense, Europe is changing. Dramatic events are sweeping societal changes to the fore, research is pressurised to bring answers to potential difficulties or provide solutions for current demands, and policymakers want practical answers to their concerns.

To address these extensive societal changes, the Triple E-DOSE conference brought government, research and educational practitioners under one roof to discuss the relevant issues dominating education and employment in the broader European arena.

The conference titled 'Days of Socio-Economy: Education, Employment, Europe'' had a rather unique structure to it. Divided into two categories; the Voice of Science and the Voice of Practice, its intention was to have these 'voices' speak out, not as a means of opposition, but as a means towards a further understanding regarding their differences and common goals, and more importantly, a common road of progress.

There by the good grace of government goes education

Education has a direct and potent impact on the future economic growth of nations. "It is the youth of today", says Constantinos Fotakis, Director of the European Commission DG Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, "that will provide the ideas for restructuring tomorrow". He further reiterated the importance of education by stating that through improving its educational lead Europe can "survive the competitive edge of other countries".

But the role of education, given the rapid paces of social change, is not clear-cut. Nor is it a matter of 'traditional educational structures' that will lead the way. During a number of the workshops of Triple-E DOSE, it became abundantly clear that education reforms need to address issues across the board. From lifelong education through continued education programmes to the role that the elderly play as proponents of 'active ageing', changes in education will have to firstly be understood, and secondly, be implemented within the proper context and manner.

More importantly, since there is a global side to both educational and employment reforms, the European Commission has placed great emphasis on international cooperation. Integrated collaborative research is so strongly encouraged that it is almost the by-word for the European Commission, the 'holy-grail' for the encouragement and exploitation of research potential.

A continuing theme throughout the conference was that in promoting both education and opportunity, the role of the government cannot be underemphasised. Since the growth of employment is directly related to the growth of education quality and opportunity, National Contact Points need to be engaged in dialogue to fully exploit national results. Moreover, other incentives provided by governmental bodies need to be encouraged. Tax benefits and reforms, pension and retirement schemes and the promotion of anti-discrimination policies such as age based employment opportunities, are examples of policy areas government should address.

The scope of education, employment and Europe

One of the initial and predominant senses that arose from these meetings is one of disjuncture and the discrepancy between research and policy formation. While various educational institutions continue to employ high standards for education, there is little in the way of a unified, homogenous standard throughout Europe, and the gap between policymakers and researchers seems to be growing. One such point of debate is that for many government officials, such social science orientated research has little immediate and practical bearing, while researchers feel a growing tendency from policymakers to dictate to their research.

The above highlights just one area in which the voice of Science and the voice of Practice have opposing points of view. It is such contrary opinions as these that the conference intended to smooth out in an open platform of discussion and exchange of ideas. It is such activities as these, says Angelos Agalianos, in his opening address in "Crossing Borders: The European Dimension in Educational and Social Science Research" that sums it up best, as being the drivers for providing "a coherent, and interlinked understanding of the challenges contemporary European societies are faced with and to support policy, thereby enabling Europe better to understand itself and face its future".

The workshops hosted, proved an essential element is breaching the gap of understanding. Based on open, informal discussion, the various workshops addressed a number of issues the growing concern of Europe's educational systems are wrestling with.

Some of the areas covered included the impact of active aging; people with disabilities; immigration on education and labour markets; the nature of life long learning; the inequalities of education and labour markets as well as the inherent restrictions of career potential female educators face.

Measure for Measure; taking steps forward

Equality in education is a predominant theme, vital in ensuring that the bar of quality education and more importantly, opportunities for education is raised in an appropriate manner. Not just on a gender specific focus, but also on a platform of immigration, financial status and social class.

Equality was also dealt with in the framework of the 'Persons with Disabilities in Education and Labour Market' workshop, revealing how marginalised they were, not just in their educational prospects, but as the voice of Practice pointed out, also in their lifelong struggle for employment and opportunities. One conclusion coming from the debate identified the necessity for policy to stipulate the formation of accessibility standards across Europe in all educational institutions.

In the 'Active Aging' workshop, for example, the discussion identified that education was synonymous with quality of life, as the higher educated had the necessary empowerment to lead quality lives based on the ability to make better, more informed decisions regarding improved lifestyles, health and greater participation in socially beneficial events. Additionally, the discussion addressed more ethical questions regarding active aging and whether or not there is any real necessity firstly, to include the aged in the labour market, and secondly, what the pros and cons of such an inclusion would be.

The complexities of such inclusion however have more than just ethical concerns. For the labour market, many may view the 'age drain' as a leak of vital skills and experience. Others, where entrance into the labour market may be more competitive, perceive the aged as obstacles to attaining employment opportunities. The 'Intergenerational Learning and Employment' workshop identified that the senior sector of the labour market still has a vital role in the transmission of skills and experience.

The inclusion of the younger generations were also seen as beneficial in that, specifically, they could teach their elders in vital ICT skills. In fact, primarily in this area, Fotakis acknowledges that "knowledge is diffused via various new instruments of ICT like blogs, chats, website etc. This is the place where the older generations would require support from the young". While other recommendations were made during this workshop the primary consensus arising was that further research was necessary in order to present policymakers with a more solid evidence-basis.

The recent breakdown in dialogue between Greek students and educational bodies is a prime example of how important quality education is viewed and how deeply seeded it is within social constructs. In fact, during the Education for a Civil Society workshop, one of the first recommendations agreed on concerning policymakers was to ensure an open and continuous debate about engaging higher education in a process for developing civil society.

From one workshop to another, common findings began to emerge. Consistently the role of family became increasingly encouraged, and viewed as one of the vital means in which furthering opportunities could be acquired. Financial status too was identified as an important means by which opportunities for education were offered. Even in the earliest stages of education - kindergarten - it was seen that the more money the parents paid for such, the more was offered to their children.

In order to level the playing field, several recommendations emerged, calling for greater participation of welfare systems, educational bodies and labour systems. Continuous support for long-term solutions coming from the political sector was stressed as an important measure.

A voice to policymakers, advice to research

As the second day of the conference drew to a close, one of the most obvious weaknesses identified was that there seemed to be little common ground between policymakers and researchers. The slippery slope of policy inclusion, for most researchers who struggle to preserve the integrity of their research, is where should it begin and where would it end.

Likewise, the voice coming out of government bodies seems to echo a similar charge; that research is not providing tangible results that can contribute effectively to the development of policies.

Perhaps, the most clear-cut advice that promises to bridge the two worlds came from Steve Bainbridge, a former Commission member with experience in research, now part of the European Center for the Development of Vocational Training, who advocated strongly for researchers "to seek a mandate". He encouraged researchers to seek existing calls for tenders in order to raise interest from parliament in their research. As the voice of experience in this matter, he warns that from both sides there is a tendency "to interpret results to suit themselves".

In seeking mandates, he explained, both an audience for and a level of objectivity are raised for researchers. More importantly, policymakers then attain answers to problems they need for immediate issues. This imperative instruction, he concluded, is one of the most important means by which research can come to the "political wedding".

In this framework it was also identified that under the Bologna Process, the 45 countries that committed themselves to higher education reforms, still have a long way to go. Specifically in adopting policies that integrate education with the development of the labour market. During his speech, Jerzy Buzek, member of the European Parliament stated that the Bologna Process highlighted only one objective in integrating education and the labour market. It was, he felt, a severe shortcoming.

The conference provided a significant and important first step towards dealing with all important issues. Everyone left feeling progress had been made, not only in furthering their own cause, but in identifying issues for future consideration.