The structures and processes governing education research in the UK from 1990-2020: A systematic scoping review

Lauren Stentiford, George Koutsouris, Christopher Boyle (Lead / Corresponding author), Divya Jindal-Snape, Javiera Salazar Rivera, Simon Benham-Clarke

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    This paper presents the findings of a systematic scoping review spanning 30 years (1990–2020) that sought to understand the structures and processes influencing education research activities in UK higher education (HE). Review work of this scale has not previously been undertaken on the topic. The purpose of the review was to ‘take stock’ of research in the field, identify continuing and emerging areas of concern regarding education research as a profession, and point to directions for future research. Seven databases were searched and additional strategies included citation chasing and hand-searching. We located 114 peer-reviewed journal articles and one doctoral thesis. Six themes emerged relating to formal structures/processes: culture of performativity and accountability; funding regime; impact agenda; ‘what works’ agenda; heated debates; and professional bodies. A further six themes related to informal structures/processes: academic pressures; affective issues; non-traditional academics; second-career researchers; career stages; and departmental cultures. The themes were complex and appeared to interact with each other. Evidence of the negative influence of neoliberal regimes on working conditions and well-being emerged more strongly in the past decade. The review indicates that further research is required into the experiences and academic identities of education researchers from under-represented or non-traditional groups (i.e., women, ethnic minority, working-class, disabled, LGBTQ+ academics). There is also a need for more studies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to understand their unique political-economic-educational contexts. The findings have relevance to education researchers and policy-makers in countries across the globe, particularly in comparable HE systems (e.g., North America, Australia). Context and implication Rationale for this study The study examines structural changes in UK HE at the socio-political-economic and institutional level that have influence upon education researchers’ work and identities. Why the new findings matter The findings paint a picture of the complexities associated with education research in the UK and examine structures and processes salient over a period of 30 years. Implications for researchers and policy makers The findings provide an insight into the academic debates surrounding education research and highlight the effects of neoliberal reform, marketisation and competition on HE and the identities and experiences of education researchers; and examine both formal (rules and procedures) and informal (the way human actors take up roles within institutions and bring with them feelings and interests) structures and processes. The study raises questions with regards to the future of education as a field of research and the way academics perceive their roles as education researchers. Discussion on the effects of neoliberal reform can be of interest to policy makers.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere3298
    Number of pages43
    JournalReview of Education
    Issue number3
    Early online date26 Aug 2021
    Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


    • Education research
    • higher education
    • professional identities
    • systematic scoping review


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