Louis Coiffait is Head of Research at the London -based (UK) Pearson Think Tank. Louis and I had a chance to speak recently.
KCH: It’s quite unique to have a think tank directly associated with a private company. From where did the idea for launching a think tank at Pearson come? What are its main objectives?
LC: The Pearson Think Tank is certainly pretty unique, if anybody can find a similar example please let us know because we’d love to talk to them! There was no one big bang, rather just a slow evolution as the policy team at Pearson began to find a need for its expertise outside the company in the wider sector and in turn Pearson wanted to develop its voice in the education debate. With our growing focus on research we’re still changing, hopefully to meet those external needs even better. It’s really exciting, to be starting a new education think tank from scratch, attached to ‘the world’s leading learning company’, to use the Pearson tag-line.
There are a lot of unknowns and tensions within the model and we’re still exploring those, though I think if you look at our outputs to date we’ve done ok so far. I think people are often sceptical but that’s a healthy pressure on us to do transparent and credible work that addresses external issues and is based on evidence. Those are our objectives – to help address those external ‘problems’ that education policy-makers and practitioners around the world are grappling with. Sometimes that’s about highlighting issues, supporting the voices of external experts and being a platform for debate. Other times it’s about us doing robust research ourselves, using our growing expertise and Pearson’s capabilities to gather new evidence. The ROI for Pearson comes in the long-term, by association, if we prove to be a valuable and trusted partner to those working in education. We also help bring the outside in, encouraging Pearson staff to engage with and respond to the changes in education.
KCH: Think tanks, at least in North America, tend to be launched in order to have a certain type of impact on their sector; a desire to influence policy in particular ways. What type of impact would you like to see the Pearson think tank make?
LC: Ultimately we want to help improve the education system, finding new ways to help people to make progress in their lives. That’s the broad intention; on a practical level we aim to identify tricky problems in education, gather and analyse new evidence about them, suggest some solutions, and then see actual changes to policy and practice. Our focus is on access and quality, with fairness being the strong under-pinning theme throughout. In every educational setting around the world there are still highly unequal opportunities, which leads to highly unequal societies. We think there’s an opportunity for us to have a positive impact because there are still so many unanswered questions and problems in education, it’s such a hotly contested field, and it’s so important. As we keep building our capacity I think we’ll be quite a unique player; with a broad remit, a lot of freedom, and without political bias.
KCH: The model of higher education in the UK served as a key influence on the design of institutions in North America. Today, though, UK higher education appears to be at something of a turning point. How would you characterize the mood and sensibilities of UK higher education in 2012?
LC: It’s hard to deny that higher education around the world is undergoing some pretty unprecedented changes. Global demographic, economic and technological trends are all converging at once, with individual nations and institutions responding in a wide variety of ways. Here in the UK we have some real strengths in HE; whether it’s on some measures of widening participation, relatively high positions in global rankings and a strong international reputation, research excellent and citation rates, or efficiency and low costs, we really ‘punch above our weight’ to use a well-worn phrase. However we can’t be complacent, many of those advantages are historic. The rise of BRIC economies and populations – along with their HE investments – are beginning to put pressure on the UK, USA and others. Recession and budgetary austerity is reducing the capacity of the UK HE system to invest for the future and to enrol certain types of students – such as mature learners. The radical changes to funding policy here have created a lot of uncertainty for institutions and learners, making it hard to plan for the future. The mood has been pretty down-beat at times with people often feeling on the back foot, but I see a few glimmers of hope. For starters the sector here is still pretty big and diverse, reacting to these changes in different and interesting ways. For example some institutions are really focussing on what makes them unique – whether that’s a focus on entrepreneurship, international partnerships or the way they forge deeper connections with their local communities. The growing popularity of the English language in higher education is another great asset, though other nations such as Canada and Australia are being very strategic in how they approach the huge international student market. I always have a lot of faith in the higher education sector to not only respond to change but to actively shape it as well. My one hope for the future is that it can be a bit more coherent when it really counts.
KCH: You recently held an event entitled Blue Skies: New Thinking about the Future of Higher Education. What were your key takeaways from that event? Do you plan to hold other, similar events?
LC: Yes that event was to launch the latest book in an ongoing annual series we’re doing for the Blue Skies project. It’s an edited collection of short new articles by leading thinkers about the future of higher education. We did one last year, and have two editions this year – one for the UK and one for Asia Pacific. It’s a real privilege to approach and edit some really eminent thinkers, I’ve done over 60 articles in the project so far. It’s a diverse collection, reflecting the variety that you get in HE. You can view the articles, download the PDFs, watch author videos and comment at http://pearsonblueskies.com/. We’re also doing some research projets around fair access, the impact of tuition fees and admissions criteria.
KCH: How did you come to find yourself as Head of Research at the Pearson Think Tank?
LC: I’ve had quite a varied career but education policy and research is the golden thread running through it all. My first degree was actually Politics with Education so it all looks very prescient now, I assure you it wasn’t! Since then I’ve worked inside and outside of government, in consultancy and with politicians. At the end of the day education is the thing I really care about and that’s reflected in my voluntary interests too – I’m Chair of a board of school governors, I work as a mentor and I run a social enterprise called Work&Teach. Both my parents were teachers and despite some experience working in the health and charity sectors it is always education that I care about the most. It’s exciting to be working at the world’s biggest education company, I’ve been here two years now and I hope we can do something quite special with the think tank.