ECER 2014: The past, present and future of educational research in Europe

Ana Sofia Ribeiro dos Santos (Bielefeld Center for Education and Capability Research)

Ana Sofia Ribeiro dos Santos
(Bielefeld Center for Education and Capability Research)

This review is written by Ana Sofia Ribeiro dos Santos. She is a graduate of the Hedda Master programme, and currently undertaking her PhD dissertation research at the Bielefeld Center for Education and Capability Research and Instituto de Ciências Sociais at the University of Lisboa. Her research is undertaken as a part of EduWel, a Marie Curie Initial Training Network funded by the EU. Her dissertation is titled: Mapping vulnerability through a capabilities approach: a biographical study of first generation students in Portuguese Higher Education. 

The European Conference of Educational Researchers (ECER) is easily the largest conference on education in Europe, both by the high number of participants and its comprehensive approach of the educational field. The Conference is an initiative of the European Educational Research Association (EERA), and its 2014 edition gathered in Oporto around 2500 participants, and I was among them. Although the ECER is not a specialised higher education conference, one of its largest networks is the higher education one, and for that reason the ECER has become a relevant meeting point for the field.

This year’s conference theme was “The past, present and future of educational research in Europe”, a self reflexive call for the need to evaluate the field’s evolution and its challenges, that range from budget cuts to interdisciplinarity demands. The theme also celebrated the 20th anniversary of EERA, and to this effect a specific event was held at Casa da Música, where Prof. Lejf Moos, from Aarhus University, delivered the Presidency of the Association to Prof.Theo Wubbles, from the University of Utrecht.

For those who never been to the ECER, I will explain its organisation. The Conference is divided in 2 sections: the Emerging Researchers conference, where PhD candidates present their on-going research projects, and the Main Conference, where the 31 research networks have their presentations, what generally means that there are over 20 parallel sessions from which to choose from! The variety of the sessions in one of the strongest points of the conference, since there are tracks about vocational training, pedagogies, history of education, assessment, ICT in education, you name it. Having said that, researchers interested in higher education can not only follow its track of expertise, but also take a look at other areas and topics that may match their own research. From my own experience, network sessions from Sociology of Education and Policy Studies and Politics of Education were very inspiring, namely a symposium about Early School Leaving in Europe, whose discussant was Roger Dale, from the University of Bristol. This year, the Higher Education Network (Network 22) presented 121 papers, 9 posters, 8 symposia and 1 workshop. The contributions were divided into 5 topics:

  1. Teaching, learning and assessment in higher education
  2. Student transitions and graduate employability
  3. Academic work and professional development
  4. Policy, management and governance in higher education
  5. Inclusion and diversity in higher education settings

The Network 22 also organised a one-day workshop together with Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE), under the title of European Higher Education –exploring effective strategies for turbulent times. This was a pre-conference workshop that went on parallel to the Emerging Researchers Conference, and counted with a keynote from Rosemary Deem addressing the nature of the relationship between changes in social sciences research on higher education and the European Higher Education itself. Prof. Deem observed that the landscape of higher education research portrays the field as very permeable, since everyone has a different disciplinary background. However, this diversity is not reflected in the scholarship’ outcomes, as the field is dominated by few established research centers that work with the EU, and hold very conservative theoretical positions, not allowing for much debate. To counterpoise this trend, she advocated symmetry in terms of power, admitting treating all knowledge claims as legitimate, and acknowledging the importance of localism and contextualisation in knowledge production. The keynote was followed by 4 sessions running parallel (again!), one directed to early stage researchers, and the others dedicated to higher education and employability, professional development and quality in teaching and learning.

In such a large event, with so much options and sessions, there are also some crowd gathering moments: the keynotes and the network meetings. There were 5 keynotes, from which I have seen partially two, the ones from Prof. Gert Biesta and Prof. António Nóvoa, former Rector of the University of Lisbon. My aim was to attend Biesta’s session about the two cultures of educational research, but the streaming was so bad that I could hardly listen to it, so I joined Nóvoa’s speech about “What is Educational Research for?”. Prof. Nóvoa delivered a passionate speech about the pains of pressure publishing, the importance of slow research, and the urgency of free, pure and unbounded science. So what is educational research for then? To change the world, obviously.

It was a very productive week, full of hard choices, great ideas and even better questions. But by Friday afternoon I decided to take the freedom of being a local and I headed to the Piscina das Marés (an open air pool with seawater, designed by Siza Vieira), running my own parallel session. It was the perfect goodbye to summer and to the ECER 2014. The ECER 2015 will be in Budapest, and I heard that there are pools in there as well…

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