EAIR 2014: Higher Education Diversity and Excellence for Society

Maria João Manatos  (ISEG and CIPES, Portugal).

Maria João Manatos
(ISEG and CIPES, Portugal).

This guest entry is written by Maria João Manatos  who is a doctoral research fellow at ISEG and CIPES, Portugal. In this post, she will give her views on the recent 36th EAIR (The European Association for Institutional Research) conference.

The 36th Annual EAIR Forum was held in the University of Duisburg-Essen, so-called open-minded (“Offen im Denken”) university. The theme of the Forum was “Higher Education Diversity and Excellence for Society”. Indeed, diversity is as an appropriate term to describe the EAIR Forum: diversity of people and professional backgrounds, diversity of topics and approaches to higher education research, diversity of experiences. This is a forum where there are not only researchers, students and professors but also members from accreditation agencies and government bodies. In fact, here lays one of the most distinguishable and remarkable characteristics of the EAIR forum: the range of people and the consequent diversity of the debate.

The Eair forum has an exceptional informal and friendly environment. All the people are extremely nice: the members of the EAIR Executive Committee, the keynote speakers, the track chairs, the Forum chairs and all participants in general. Thus, this environment really makes us feel more comfortable and more willing to present, share and discuss ideas. Moreover,  the social activities (the visit to the World Heritage Zollverein Gold Mine and the tour dinner on a boat on the Baldenneysee) were very interesting and enjoyable.

20140830_124904After the first day of Sig Sessions and Opening Plenary, the second day began with Professor Peter Scott, in the first Plenary Keynote Address. On the basis of the Forum motto, he discussed whether higher education markets promote diversity and diversification, or if, on the contrary, they promote conformity. He addressed the complex synergies between pure markets and the higher education context or between marketisation and managerialism. The discussion is always hybrid and complex. Peter Scott had the ingenious ability of raising questions, which make us reflect on the relationship between higher education markets, managerialism and diversification, which are not necessarily connected, as we may argue. In fact, there is a wide range of questions around diversity and its deficits, differentiation and conformity, requiring reflection and discussion: the (im)balance in student population, the (lack of) flexibility in course delivery, the (bias against) vocational subjects. Moreover, the market characteristics often collide with some constraints of higher education: markets promote unfettered costumer service, but students cannot always choose their course or institutions; markets promote effective price management, but fees often do not relate to the costs; there is an open market for new providers, but there are constraints caused by historical advantages and by needs to maintain academics standards. In the end, markets and differentiation no not necessarily go together.

Subsequently, 8 different tracks took place: governance, missions and impacts, excellence, access, student experience, quality, institutional research and emerging topics in higher education. Each session had 30 minutes, which allowed around 10 to 15 minutes of discussion, which was extremely fruitful, since one of the greatest advantages of a conference (mainly to new researchers) is to have feedback from the presentations and the papers and to have the possibility to discuss research ideas and perspectives. Furthermore, the 15 minutes break between each presentation allowed the participants to change track without missing any minute of the previous or the sequent presentation, not to mention that it is significantly less tiring than when there are several consecutive presentations.

However, it is not easy to choose between several striking and appealing papers. Personally, my research interests led me mainly to track 3 and 6, but also to some interesting works in tracks 1 and 5.

As the theme was diversity, I also highlight the diverse ‘types’ of presentations: the non-academic and work experienced based presentations, one from Jon Haakstad from NOKUT (Norway) discussing the adequacy of internal and external sources to evaluate quality factors in Norwegian higher education; another other from Camila Gerogsson and Agneta Rolfer from the Swedish Higher education Authority, presenting the new external quality assurance system for Swedish higher education and the way evaluations’ results are communicated; as well as a presentation of the first results of the ranking tool U-Multirank, by Ben Jongbloed (University of Twente); and a research on the external members of Norwegian and German university boards, by Jens Jungblut and Daniel Houben.

In a Forum focused on diversity, the Vice-rector for diversity management of the University of Duisburg-Essen, Professor Dr. Ute Klammer, as it could not be any other way, gave an inspiring speech about how the management of the diversity promote a better quality education, and explained several initiatives to promote diversity, in an university with a peculiar social environment, with many immigrant and first generation students.

The third day started with Professor Dr. George Krucken, Director of INCHER (International Centre for Higher Education Research) and Professor in the University of Kassel, who, in a very systematic and clear manner, discussed higher education reforms – the ‘academisation’ of society, the new forms of university governance and the perception of universities as organizational actors – and their transnational consequences, at different levels. At the teaching level, we observe the national enactment of Bologna, new study programs with very little flexibility at the bachelor level, new enrolment of university bachelor graduates in master programmes, and the emergence of national accreditation systems. At the research level, there is an increasing number of research units, of tensions between research and teaching orientations between and within universities, and also the emergence of strong veto players within universities. At the third mission level, technology transfer shifts from voluntary individuals to an organizational responsibility, at the same time that the patenting rights of inventions shift from professors to the university, and informal cooperation patterns persist. Finally, at the governance and organizational level, there are new remuneration schemes for professors, with a variety of income sources; the formal structures tend to drive to more informal structures, in a very complex decision-making process; and the organizational structures tend to expand. The day ended with a very exciting and lively panel discussion on internationalization, their different meanings and forms.

In the last day, Professor Martti Raevaara, Vice-president in charge of Academic Affairs, in the Aalto University in Finland, presented suggestion on how to rethink learning, teaching and education and reach world class universities by: giving students an active role in their learning process and making them ‘co-creators’ in that process; creating synergies across borders; developing curriculum contents for future; supporting innovation and entrepreneurship at universities; and boosting multidisciplinary co-operation.

It was also particularly pleasing and even inspiring to see EAIR rewarding the quality of young researchers, as the Erasmus Mundus student Luís Carvalho, who won the best paper award, by his research entitled “Merit and student selection: views of academics at the University of Porto”.

In the end, Matthias Klumpp rephrased the theme of the Forum, emphasizing that diversity is in excellence, as excellence is in diversity within society.

The 37th annual Eair Forum announced by Dr Attila Pausits will take place in the Danube University Krems, in Austria. I definitely want to attend, not because of the breathtaking landscapes of Wachau, but because EAIR is undoubtedly an experience to repeat!

Here is a list of the other higher education conference reviews.