Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Benefits and Challenges of Conducting Higher Education Research in Other National Contexts

Part of the Division J Post-Conference Download series

by Laura Perna, past AERA Division J Vice President and Professor, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education

How have you translated, extended, or challenged local issues to the global in your research?  This was the guiding question posed to panelists participating in one of the Division J Vice Presidential sessions at the April 2014 AERA annual meeting.  Entitled, “Theories and Methods for Understanding Higher Education in a Globalizing World,” the session was convened by Jenny Lee and Amy Metcalfe. Other members of the panel were Vanessa Andreotti, Simon Marginson, and Kristen Renn.  Division J Vice President Adrianna Kezar moderated the session and Bryan Gopaul chaired.  

This session provided a wonderful opportunity to reflect with other session attendees about the benefits and challenges of conducting higher education research in other national contexts. In short – although not without difficulties – there are also numerous joys and benefits.  I have not only been privileged to travel to faraway lands, try new foods, meet new people, and learn about different traditions and cultures, I have also gained invaluable insights that enhance my understanding of fundamental issues facing higher education in the United States and around the world.

My engagement in international higher education research is relatively recent.  Through service as the co-instructor for an international higher education course that is required for students in Penn GSE’s Executive Doctorate management program, I have had the opportunity to learn about the relationship between public policy and higher education attainment in Ireland (summer 2012) and the nature of higher education access, finance, and governance in Hungary (summer 2013). Through a multi-year research project with partners at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan and colleagues at Penn GSE, I have also been learning about the internationalization of higher education generally and the role of government-sponsored student mobility programs in promoting a nation’s human capital in particular.

Engaging in higher education research in other nations requires considerable time and effort. Developing even a basic understanding of the educational, political, economic, historical, cultural, and many other dimensions of a nation is not simple or easy.  Acquiring these understandings is especially challenging when you do not speak or read the dominant language.  Even when speaking the same language, the words used may mean different things to a U.S. researcher than to those living and working in another nation.  And then, of course, there are the inevitable issues associated with gaining access to relevant, reliable, and consistent quantitative and qualitative data.

One strategy for overcoming these and other obstacles is to identify research collaborators. My research in Kazakhstan, for example, would not be nearly as rich or enjoyable, without partnering with “insiders” in the host nation (Nazarbayev University) or collaborating with colleagues in my home institution (including Matt Hartley, Kata Orosz, and others at Penn GSE).    

Through my recent activities, I have gained a priceless appreciation of how the national context in which we are embedded shapes the characteristics, structure, and outcomes of higher education.  The fundamental role of the national context was made visible to me only after I stepped outside of my very familiar U.S. context and struggled to make sense of a higher education system in a different nation. I believe that the process of learning about higher education in other nations is productively enhancing my understanding of how higher education in the United States and other nations is structured to limit and promote higher education opportunity. I encourage others to think about how to extend their understanding of key research questions and interests through work in other national contexts.

This post is part of our Post-Conference Download series. Over the weeks following the 2014 Annual Meeting, we will feature several reflections on the conference.

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