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How to cultivate a research culture in your college

04 July 2024

By Neale Gardiner, Policy, Research and Business Intelligence Lead, Edinburgh College and Laura Kayes, Group Research Practitioner, Luminate Education Group.

In this collaborative piece, we explore the shared experiences and distinct challenges faced by our colleges in their journeys towards cultivating research cultures.

After being involved in the Association of Colleges’ Research Further initiative, we have both recently transitioned into new research posts at our respective colleges: Edinburgh College in Scotland and Luminate Education Group in West Yorkshire, England.

This piece reflects our joint insights on how initiatives like Research Further are fostering research momentum, addressing some of the challenges to developing research cultures, and championing curiosity-driven inquiry to uncover context-specific solutions for colleges, practitioners and learners. By weaving together our narratives, we present a shared reflection on the transformative potential of research in further education.

Why is it important to cultivate research cultures within colleges, and how have initiatives like Research Further impacted research momentum?

In my view, creating research groups, and cultivating research cultures, in colleges can be beneficial for individuals (through providing professional development opportunities), institutions (through supporting an improved organisational culture and as a catalyst for new ideas) and, ultimately, our students (through the enhancement of practice).

At Edinburgh College, our Research and Innovation forum provides an opportunity for people to share their research and exchange ideas, and the college and the college’s development trust have, in recent years, supported practitioner research through a small-scale research funding initiative. The college’s research plan links to our three overarching strategic pillars of people, place and performance, and I think research activity can contribute a huge amount to the college’s goals under all of those themes.

By extension, initiatives like Research Further provide an important national scaffold for efforts to cultivate research cultures locally, serve to connect those interested in research across the UK and provide a platform for ideas and findings to be disseminated across the country, thus multiplying their potential impact.

For me personally, being part of AoC’s Research Further programme was incredibly valuable. It ultimately led to a career move into research-focussed roles within the sector: firstly, a nine-month secondment to CDN, where I managed the Research and Enhancement Centre and, since returning to Edinburgh College in March, a new role focussed on the college’s engagement in research and policy.

For me, cultivating a research culture within colleges feels like an important act of empowerment for FE; a sector traditionally built upon and measured against knowledge generated externally. I think that our current model often leaves FE colleges ill-equipped to effectively leverage data and knowledge, which in turn further perpetuates a mystified public view of the sector's roles and valuable contributions.

Initiatives like Research Further feel transformative in inspiring and supporting the development of these cultures, and I think the direct investment in practitioners is a powerful strategy to do so. Direct investment in individuals contributes to wider sector-specific knowledge creation and exchange, and also bolsters practitioner professionalism and autonomy in roles that can feel tightly regulated. Generating and exchanging knowledge within FE, for FE, feels like a fundamental shift from passive adherence within high-stakes measures of accountability to active engagement in shaping educational policy and practice. I agree with Neale that the network is invaluable. The pan-organisational collaboration enabled by Research Further really models the need for a collective effort in mobilising this cultural shift towards research-led advocacy and advancement.

What are some of the challenges of developing college centred research cultures and how are these best addressed?

I think the biggest challenge in developing college centred research cultures is one of (self) perception. That is, many practitioners I meet in the sector struggle to see themselves as qualified to carry out research, or worry about the academic merit of whatever research they do carry out.

In my view, while there is certainly something to be said for ensuring the scope and scale of any research you carry out is consistent with your level of experience and expertise (not biting off more than you can chew), the view that just because you don’t have a PhD, or a back catalogue of prestigious publications to your name, you can’t carry out research that is useful and insightful is simply not right. On the contrary, I believe our sector is best served when actions aimed at improving it are informed by research generated from as many different contexts and perspectives as possible.

In terms of actions that may go some way to addressing this issue, I recently joined the editorial board of the (soon to be re-launched) CAIRN journal. The journal will publish articles, opinion pieces, and book reviews and aims to be a vehicle for practitioner-oriented publication that advances scholarship and knowledge exchange within the Scottish college sector. It will welcome contributions from anyone who teaches, researches, leads, develops, manages or evaluates provision in the sector.

I think any meaningful cultural change brings an array of challenges. I agree that there’s a need to remove the perceived academic prestige of ‘research’ and welcome the thinking and the voices of practitioners who bring life to the sector every day. The diversity of identities in FE is one of our most valuable assets. I think recognising and championing this sector strength, whilst supporting transitions and fluidity between a plurality of identities, not only as industry professionals and, or educators, but also as researchers, could support the demystification of research activities. Institutions could support these periods of curious transition by providing structured time and resources, streamlining essential responsibilities, celebrating and modelling curiosity, and providing access to research.

I also think there is a tension between the perceived time-intensive nature of meaningful research and the reality that practitioners are time-poor. Change-making in FE can often operate on the goodwill of its staff, which is unsustainable in a workforce already battling recruitment and retention challenges.

Additionally, the sector is risk-averse, conditioned by the constant need for justification of all actions and outputs. Tackling the 'impact trap' – the weighty pressure to demonstrate immediate, tangible outcomes from research – is essential. I cannot overstate the need to promote a longer-term view of research benefits, where the value of exploratory inquiry is recognised alongside outcome-based studies. Encouraging a culture that values process and learning as much as results will help shift the focus from short-term impacts to sustained innovation and improvement.

How can colleges champion curiosity-driven inquiry to uncover context-specific solutions to the challenges faced by practitioners and learners?

Building on my answer above, in my view, there is huge value in external academic research about the college sector, and there are, of course, lessons that colleges can learn from research carried out in other parts of the education sector (and beyond). However, there is also an important space for research about the sector that is generated by practitioners from within. It is practitioners that understand the challenges their institutions and their sector face better than anyone, and they are therefore best placed to ask the right questions and test the validity of any answers that come back. In other words, while some policy questions may best be addressed through traditional academic research, I believe practice is often best enhanced by research that is practitioner-led, enhancement focussed, and which responds to the challenges faced in that particular context. The way I see it, that is ultimately the point of curiosity-driven inquiry within the sector, and championing it, in an environment where time and money are perennially in short supply, ultimately relies on articulating this case.

We’re very much at the beginning of embedding research and inquiry into our professional learning, so my answer to this question is a nod to others trailblazing in this area.

Championing curiosity-driven inquiry within colleges relies on trust and community. Trust empowers practitioners to ask questions and pursue research without fear of failure or repercussions. This trust must be established at all levels, ensuring that the college environment supports risk-taking and values the learning derived from exploration, and not just outcomes. This is a fundamental element of the research culture at Coleg Sir Gar in Wales, where Bryony Evett-Hackfort has framed such inquiry through the lens of curiosity. Staff design action research projects around their unique professional curiosities, unaffected by departmental, leadership or college priorities, and are granted time to delve into their research. Progress and findings are shared college-wide through a central site and an annual, joyful Festival of Curiosity.

Community-building is equally crucial. A supportive community can facilitate bravery in knowledge-creation and collaboration amongst a rich diversity of practitioners. There are rich spaces demonstrating the power of community across FE, including, but not limited to, Joy FE, the Learning, Skills and Research Network, and Amplify FE, all powered by an exceptional team of volunteers connecting and championing the FE sector. I’m trying to model lessons learned from these movements internally within Luminate Education Group. We have our staff Research Development Group, where nearly 100 colleagues have joined our online forum to share, celebrate and participate in FE research. We also have a new Staff Study Space, championing colleagues undertaking qualifications alongside their roles with opportunities to share and create together. Externally, the FE Research Collective is an exciting new initiative bringing together further education colleges to share research from practitioners across the sector.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.