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Educational Research in Australia: A Summary of the Interim Report of the Review Panel

Barry McGaw (Chair), David Boud, Millicent Poole,
Richard Warry, Phillip McKenzie
(Executive Officer)
Strategic Review of Research in Education
December 1991

This document is the Interim Report from the Strategic Review of Research in Education being circulated to invite comment prior to preparation of the final version. The Strategic Review is the first comprehensive review of educational research in Australia since 1972. It had its formal origins in a meeting convened by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in December 1990. That meeting, which was attended by representatives of major stakeholders in educational research, drafted provisional terms of reference and nominated a Review Panel to take responsibility for the detailed work of the review. Seventeen organisations have provided financial sponsorship for the review and 123 written submissions have been received in response to public advertisements and invitations.

The review maps the present state of educational research in Australia and develops proposals for where developments might best be pursued. It makes recommendations designed to ensure that Australia has the research capacity to meet the educational challenges of the 1990s. The recommendations are directed to government authorities, education providers and the research community itself.


The present state of educational research

Educational research is a very diverse enterprise undertaken by a broad range of institutions and individuals, operating from different discipline backgrounds and intended to address varying audiences. Despite this diversity, educational research is systematic and disciplined and coheres around a broad set of common concerns. Because of its concerns with the field of education, educational research is essentially an area of applied research. Despite this orientation, many education practitioners have a negative view of the contribution of research.

The research enterprise has many strengths and much excellent work is being done. There are signs of considerable strengthening in recent years but the enterprise is a fragile resource that requires reorientation and support if it is to contribute more effectively to the challenge of improving Australian education.

Areas of concern include the following:

While there is clearly considerable room for strengthening educational research, it has already established a strong base. This base is evident in nominations by higher education institutions of areas of research strength, increasing success in attracting ARC funding (although much still needs to be done in this respect) and the international standing of Australian researchers and research areas.

The impact of educational research

In part, the claim for greater support for educational research rests on demonstrating the contribution that research has made and its future potential to contribute to Australia's social, economic and cultural priorities and needs. There is good evidence of the valuable impact of Australian educational research in terms of: Examples of areas of Australian research that have made such contributions include research on learning; influences on educational participation; education and inequality in Australian society; history of education; management and organisation of education; and action research.

However, much more needs to be done. The educational research enterprise is too uncoordinated. Individuals researchers tend to work in isolation, fitting research activities around other commitments that frequently press more urgently and undertaking single, relatively short-term studies. Much more can be achieved if teams of researchers with complementary skills work together in a sustained way upon larger issues.

Building a research agenda

There are some dangers in establishing a national research agenda but, provided certain conditions can be met - existing areas of research activity are maintained, the process of priority setting is broadly based and the priorities are subject to regular review - the advantages of establishing priorities outweigh the costs.

Criteria for setting priorities include:

By using these criteria, a number of priority areas can be identified. It is recommended that the initial set of priorities should stand for three years before being reviewed. First and foremost, research in all areas needs to have a focus on improving learning, teaching and the delivery of educational services. This applies to learning in formal education institutions and to learning that occurs in non-formal settings and across the lifespan. Other areas of high research priority lie in better understanding and improving the linkages between education, training and work; areas of curriculum need, especially language and literacy, and mathematics and science; the organisation of educational systems and institutions; assessment of student learning; and improving professional practice.

Reorienting educational research

There is a need to build stronger teams in which the necessary mix of research skills and perspectives is represented, especially in areas of high research priority. The teams need not necessarily be located in a single place if appropriate communication procedures are developed to facilitate collaboration.

There needs to be closer collaboration between researchers, policy makers and practit ioners. Closer collaboration is necessary to lift the profile and funding of educational research, ensure better understanding of respective positions among the major stakeholders and to improve the prospects of research contributing to educational improvement. There is a need for a national forum where researchers and providers meet to identify research priorities and develop appropriate funding, training and dissemination strategies. At State and regional levels there is a need for more contact among groups of researchers, higher education institutions and education providers to consider research priorities and strategies.

Reorganising structures

A new national organisation is needed to perform at least three vital functions that are largely neglected at the moment: It is recommended that the Ministers of Education and Vocational Education and Training jointly establish an Education and Training Research Board. The Board should be jointly funded by the Commonwealth and other education providers by means of a small levy on education expenditures. Its composition should be broadly representative of the major stakeholders in educational research. Membership should be limited to about 15 people, of whom about one-third could be drawn from educational researchers, one-third from education providers and one-third from educational practitioners. Funding for the Board should supplement, not replace, existing funding sources for educational research.

The Board's focus would be on research and development activities designed to meet the long-term needs of Australian education. It would respond to researcher-initiated requests for support as well as commission and support work in designated priority areas. Proposals for educational research that were more clearly discipline oriented and fundamental in nature should still be supported through the ARC and government authorities should still be encouraged to undertake and commission work relevant to their current concerns.

Regardless of whether the proposal for establishing the Education and Training Research Board is accepted, it is recommended that no separate Education Panel be established within the ARC provided that at least one education representative is a member of the Humanities and Social Sciences Panel and appropriate assessors are chosen to review education proposals.

Educational researchers need to develop a united voice on major issues of concern to research and to education more generally. It is recommended that the professional associations concerned with educational research investigate the establishment of a peak council or confederation. There would also be advantages in several of the larger associations combining to offer a conjoint annual conference. It is also recommended that every two or three years the professional associations should forego their own conference for an Australian Education Conference focused on issues of national importance.

Increasing funding

The proportion of education expenditure allocated to research needs to be increased to match the scale of work that is required. The proportion should be doubled to at least 0.70 per cent of the education expenditure over the next 10 years. Of this, 25 per cent should be raised through the 'industry' levy to support the Education and Training Research Board and 75 per cent should come from current sources such as higher education recurrent expenditure, commissioned research and the ARC.

Over the longer term the goal should be to lift the proportion of education expenditure allocated to research and development to at least one per cent. This would still provide funding for educational research at a rate two thirds that of health research which in 1988-89 was funded at a level equivalent to 1.4 per cent of health expenditure. Without new funding sources the nation's educational research effort will be largely constrained by the size of the teacher education sector, a sector that is projected to grow little during the 1990s.

Improving dissemination

There is insufficient attention by the research community to consolidating and communicating the achievements that have been made by research to date. More state-of-the-art reviews should be undertaken and research funding agencies persuaded of their importance. Publication of a directory of Australian educational researchers and research-in-progress should be undertaken and more effort devoted to research dissemination in general.

Improving training and career paths

At present there are considerable difficulties in attracting people, especially young people, to a career in educational research. It is desirable that the majority of researchers come from a background in teaching or some other form of educational practice. However, for many people, research is a second or even a third career. It is important that more people have the opportunity to undertake full-time PhD study in education. The part time PhD generally takes too long and has too high an attrition rate to constitute a reliable and flexible source of recruits to educational research. To facilitate full-time PhD study by people with a teaching background and with an aptitude for and interest in research will require fellowships and scholarships with relatively high allowances. Recruits to educational research should also be sought from able young graduates in fields that can bear directly on education, especially psychology, sociology and economics.

The former CAE staff in university education faculties constitute another important source of recruits to research. Many have the interest and capacity to become active researchers and should receive support to do so. However, for some former CAE staff, and for some pre-1987 university staff for that matter, the demands to do more research will be unwelcome and will divert them from their teaching, administrative and service functions. In a situation of scarce resources, the emphasis should be on providing more opportunities for the next generation of researchers than on providing more research resources to older academics with little interest in or inclination for research.

The PhD degree should remain the major entry qualification to a research career. For a field such as education, however, there are some problems with relying on the traditional research-only PhD as the major form of training. Moves to provide more research training at Master's level, to require completion of a course in research methodology before commencing doctoral study and to include more coursework in the PhD degree should be encouraged.

Perhaps the most important training in educational research comes from working closely with a team of experienced researchers. There are too few opportunities for gaining such experience at the present time. There needs to be more research internships, fellowships, secondments and exchanges to increase opportunities for young researchers to gain experience in higher education, State and Territory Ministries and Departments and research organisations. There is also a need for a small number of graduate centres for advanced training in research.

The benefits of exposure to research and training in research is not confined to the relatively small numbers who enter a research career. All educators can, and perhaps should, be researchers in their own setting. It is important that pre-service and in-service courses for educators develop research knowledge and skills, and that these be recognised in educators' career paths.

Recommendations

Chapter 4
4.1The national educational research effort needs to be guided by a set of priorities.
4.2The procedures by which priorities are e stablished should be as broadly based as possible and subject to periodic review.
4.3The criteria for setting priorities for the national educational research agenda should be:
  • social and economic needs
  • the needs of professional practice
  • important gaps
  • existing research strengths
  • advances in the research field
  • nature of the research field
4.4Priorities should stand for a three-year period before being reviewed.
4.5The suggested initial priority areas in the national educational research agenda are:
  • a focus on learning
  • mathematics and science education
  • language and literacy
  • education, training and work
  • organisation of educational systems and institutions
  • assessment
  • improving professional practice
Chapter 5
5.1There should be a greater concentration of research effort on areas of high research priority.
5.2The increasing scope and complexity of educational research requires building stronger teams that combine a mix of skills and disciplinary perspectives.
5.3Although much useful work can be done through networking research activities, there needs to be more key research centres established, especially in areas of high research priority.
5.4State, regional and local initiatives to promote greater collaboration between educational researchers, policy makers and practitioners should be encouraged and extended.
5.5The Ministers for Education and Ministers for Vocational Education and Training should jointly sponsor the establishment of an Education and Training Research Board at national level. The Board's functions would be to:
  • support and encourage research to foster long-term improvements in Australian education;
  • improve the dissemination and application of research in educational practice; and
  • develop and implement strategies to ensure that research careers are attractive and that high quality research training is provided.
5.5The Board's composition should be broadly representative of the major stakeholders in research. Membership should be limited to about 15 people of whom about one-third could be drawn from educational researchers in a way that ensured the major sub-disciplines were represented, one third from authorities responsible for educational provision (government and non-government schools, TAFE, universities and adult and community education) and one third from educational practitioners, including representatives of teachers' professional subject and industrial associations. Membership should be part-time and of limited tenure.
5.6The Education and Training Board should be jointly funded by the Commonwealth and other education providers by means of a small levy on education expenditures.
5.7The Board should be reviewed after say, five years, by a body similar in composition to the Reference Group for the present review.
5.8No separate Education Panel be established within the Australian Research Council, provided that at least one education representative is a member of the Humanities and Social Sciences Panel and appropriate assessors are chosen to review education proposals.
5.9The success of education faculties in attracting commissioned research and other external research with a strong competitive element should be incorporated by the Australian Research Council and higher education institutions in the mechanisms for allocating Small Grants Scheme and research infrastructure funds.
5.10The major professional associations concerned with educational research should investigate forming a peak council or confederation.
5.11Several of the larger professional associations should investigate holding conjoint annual conferences on a regular basis. Professional associations as a whole should investigate the possibility of replacing, every two or three years, their annual conference with an Australian Education Conference focused on issues of national educational importance.
5.12The proportion of education expenditure allocated to research should be doubled to at least 0.7 per cent over the next 10 years. The long-term goal should be to increase the proportion to at least one per cent. Of this total, 25 per cent should be raised by the levy and managed by the Education and Training Research Board.
5.13More emphasis should be placed on improving the dissemination and application of research.
5.14The research community and research funding agencies should give higher priority to the preparation of state-of-the-art reviews of major fields in educational research on a regular basis.
5.15Production of a new edition of the directory of Australian educational researchers and research-in-progress should be investigated.
5.16The implications of the increasing pressures on former CAE staff to do more research should be investigated. University promotion criteria should give more emphasis to high quality teaching, administrative and service functions so that fair treatment is possible for those who do not choose to reorient to a research career.
5.15The moves to require completion of a course in research methodology before commencing doctoral study should be supported and the North American PhD model of including coursework as well as a research thesis should be investigated for application in Australia.
5.16The merits of a specialist Master's degree in educational research should be investigated.
5.17There should be an expansion in the opportunities for new researchers to work with teams of established researchers in higher education, Ministries and Departments of Education, and specialist research organisations.
5.18The career structures of professional practitioners in education should recognise and reward research experience and skills.

Editorial note: The errors in section numbering of 'Recommendations' occur in the original publication.

Please cite as: McGaw, B., Boud, D., Poole, M., Warry, R. and McKenzie, P. (1992). Educational Research in Australia: A Summary of the Interim Report of the Review Panel. Queensland Researcher, 8(1), 2-12. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr8/mcgaw.html


[ Contents Vol 8, 1992 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 21 May 2006. Last revision: 21 May 2006.
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