Globalised knowledge societies

Eva Barlösius

Eva Barlösius, professor for macrosociology and social structure analysis (since 2007) at Leibniz Universität Hannover, is head of the Leibniz Center for Science and Society (LCSS) at Leibniz Universität Hannover. Her research emphasis lies in the area of science research. The areas she covers include scientific infrastructures, concepts of scientific originality, data sharing, departmental research and scientific language.

WiHo editorial team: How would you describe your Center's mission?
Eva Barlösius: The LCSS brings together research on higher education and science, theoretical and empirical research, and interdisciplinary perspectives, especially perspectives from philosophy, sociology, political science, economics and law. The LCSS carries out "bridge projects" that are directly in keeping with this research mission. It carries out interdisciplinary projects that both comprise empirical studies and contribute to theory development – and that link topics from research on higher education with topics from research on science. The LCSS conducts its research in close cooperation with the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) and, in the "Science and Society" graduate school, works with that Centre in training doctoral candidates. The LCSS also collaborates with the DZHW in connection with a "Science and Society" master's degree programme.

WiHo editorial team: What challenges do you think the Centre will face in the coming years, and what sort of profile do you think it will have 10 years from now?
Eva Barlösius: Thus far, research on higher education and science has relied extensively on basic theoretical and methodological assumptions that were not developed specifically for the science and higher education sectors. In recent decades, science and higher education have become axial principles for the social order comprising globalised knowledge societies. In the perspective of the LCSS, the greatest challenge will thus be to develop a theoretical concept, with a proper empirical foundation, in keeping with this importance that has grown over time. We plan to tackle this challenge in the coming years.

WiHo editorial team: Regarding the status quo of research on higher education and science in Germany: In what areas is such research especially strong? In what ways does it still need to improve?
Eva Barlösius: In recent years, researchers who study higher education and science have increasingly been speaking out on science policy, in order to highlight the growing requirements for systematic, institutionally backed research on the science and higher education sectors. As far as I am concerned, this strategy has been highly successful in some cases. The website for the BMBF's relevant area (WiHo) attests to this success, for example. On the other hand, higher education researchers work with science researchers at only a few locations, although the higher education sector has expanded enormously, and none of the following would have been possible without this expansion: the great increases in the percentage of people pursuing higher education, the expansion of the science system, and the rapidly expanding provision of scientific foundations for many areas of society. Needless to say, the converse is also true; expansion in the area of science has fuelled higher education expansion. Another weakness of this area could be outlined as follows: While research on higher education and research on science are regularly defined as interdisciplinary research fields, very few disciplines actually pursue research in these areas, and the few specialised-discipline researchers who do pursue such research rarely collaborate in this regard. Furthermore, German research on higher education and science still has too little international visibility. Finally, the field is subject to a weakness that is typical for the German research sector overall – fragmentation into small locations that hampers large-scale research lines with longer-term perspectives. 

WiHo editorial team: What topics do you think will be central in research on higher education and science in the coming years?
Eva Barlösius: In our view, large areas of research on science and, especially, large areas of research on higher education, are still too focused on the period prior to the enormous global knowledge expansion of the recent decades. The first central priority would thus be to systematically study the societal positions that the science and higher education sectors have in globalised knowledge societies. The second, directly connected to the first, involves studying how science and higher education systems need to be set up in globalised knowledge societies. This would lead into issues of practical implementation. Finally, we need to study the societal impacts of changes in science and higher education systems.

WiHo editorial team: If, during the next budget negotiations, you had one wish, what would you wish for?
Eva Barlösius: Research on science has shown us that research perspectives get established only when they find their way into lasting structures and institutions that do not depend on the results of the next budget negotiations. At the LCSS, we have been able to establish a number of lasting structures, including LCSS professorships, permanent memberships for additional professors and scientific staff, and a guaranteed basic suite of resources. In budget negotiations, I would thus use my wish to assure lasting funding for the "Science and Society" graduate school and for our interdisciplinary "bridge projects."

WiHo editorial team: Currently, we are seeing a strong trend in which more and more people are enrolling in higher education programmes. In addition, the numbers of study programmes being offered have grown rapidly in the past few years. Can you explain these trends from your perspective as a researcher who studies the higher education and science sectors?
Eva Barlösius: This is a global trend, one often referred to internationally as "massification of higher education" and "postsecondary education anarchy." Such terms give a vivid idea of the reservations that higher education researchers have about this trend. Basically, there are two competing explanations for it. One is functional, seeing the reason for the expansion of higher education in changes in labour-market requirements, or, in other words, finding that a globalised knowledge society simply needs more academics. The second explanation relies on arguments pertaining to social structures. It asserts that the reason for increasing participation in higher education has to do with increasing social competition, especially within middle classes, for attractive professional and social positions. Unfortunately, a growing demand for higher education, and a growing interest in higher education, pure and simple, are almost never cited as explanations. This is indeed unfortunate, isn't it?