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In my opinion

The paucity of higher education research centres in Canada

An excerpt from Making Policy in Turbulent Times: Challenges and Prospects for Higher Education.


One of higher education’s many paradoxes is that the sector values research but devotes little effort to scholarly inquiry about how to improve the performance of the higher education sector itself. This is particularly so in Canada compared to other English-speaking countries, contend Ian D. Clarke and Ken Norrie in a chapter from the recent book, Making Policy in Turbulent Times: Challenges and Prospects for Higher Education. In this excerpt, the two authors elaborate.

In Canada, the number of faculty doing serious research into ways to improve university education is low relative to the task at hand – perhaps a dozen or so researchers out of 42,000 full-time faculty – and appears to be low relative to the number of faculty engaged in such research in Australian, UK, and US universities.

Let us look briefly at centres that specialize in higher education. In the UK, the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information was operated by the Open University until mid-2011, and it generated several publicly available reports every year and a steady stream of journal articles and book chapters. It created the web-searchable Higher Education Empirical Research database, which was transferred to the Quality Assurance Agency of Higher Education. In Australia, the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education is one of the longest-established centres of its kind in the world. The Griffith Institute for Higher Education in Brisbane is both the Griffith University’s academic development unit and a centre for research on teaching and learning. The websites of the directors of these two institutions, Richard James and Kerri-Lee Krause (who collaborate on many projects), provide a good deal of useful material on teaching improvement and measurement.

In the US, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, established in 1956 to study systems, institutions, and processes of higher education, has among its many resources a marvellous Research and Occasional Papers Series, with all of its material publicly downloadable.

Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, directed by Philip Altbach, a prominent writer on international trends in higher education, publishes the quarterly International Higher Education and maintains a database of international publications on higher education.

Other well-established centres include the University of Southern California’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis; Pennsylvania State University’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, publisher of Higher Education in Review; the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education; and Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research, which hosts the NSSE. And there are many more centres associated with US universities that publish research on higher education.

There are only three long-standing research centres in Canadian universities that focus on higher education. The University of British Columbia’s Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education and Training was established in 1984 with a focus on the relationship between higher education and the economy. The University of Manitoba’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Development was established in 1987 and is particularly focused on the professional development of faculty and administration in post-secondary education. The University of Toronto’s Higher Education Group was founded in 1969 within the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Although many of the scholars associated with these centres are active researchers, their work is typically not published in working paper series or other publicly accessible materials on their centres’ websites, as is the case in some of the UK, Australian, and US university-based centres.

A perusal of recent publications by some of Australia’s higher education scholars reveals how dynamic the scholarship of higher education is in that country. A cursory comparison of institutional and personal websites suggests that Australia does several times more applied higher education research than Canada to serve many fewer students. This is also reflected in the publication record of government agencies. For example, Ontario has recently created HEQCO, an agency that has conducted an impressive research program for the last five years. But Australia has the Australian Council for Educational Research, which has been operating since 1930 and has 41 current higher education research projects. The Australian Universities Quality Agency has frequent workshops and an active occasional paper series. The Higher Education section of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations produces a wealth of statistics in its annual reports on staff, students, and finances, and it has a substantial list of publications on higher education, much longer than can be found on any Canadian federal or provincial government site.

Higher education research generally does not require expensive laboratories and equipment. The main cost is in faculty salaries for research time. Canadian governments and students are already paying faculty salaries for research time, so the issue is essentially one of academic research priorities.

Excerpted from Making Policy in Turbulent Times: Challenges and Prospects for Higher Education, edited by York Professors Paul Axelrod, Roopa Desai Trilokekar, Theresa Shanahan and Richard Wellen (Queen’s Policy Studies Series, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013).


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  1. Gavin Moodie / March 20, 2014 at 13:00

    As a former long time resident of Australia I was surprised to read Australian higher education research compared favourably with Canada’s.

    But I am not convinced that the method chosen by the authors is adequate for their goal, at least for Australia. Yes, centres are more prominent and easily identified by people unfamiliar with the field. But much good Australian research on higher education occurs outside the prominent centres, and perhaps Canada is similar in this. Perhaps a bibliographic analysis would be more convincing.

    Interestingly, 2 of the Australian centres championed in the excerpt are university centres for teaching academics how to teach. While Canadian universities appear to have such units, I am not sure that they have the number of faculty, funding and broad role that allows them to develop into the type of centres the authors seek. That might be a comparison worth making.