I will confess that, until it was announced that the 13th Annual Conference was to be held at Liverpool Hope, I had never heard of the British Educational Studies Association. Perhaps because there are other, larger, more well-established subject associations in the field (with very similar acronyms) that make it less visible. Perhaps because, as a philosopher of education, it just hadn’t appeared on my radar. Perhaps both. But for a society that is less well-known than others, it has provided an important space within the field of educational research. As Stephen Ward, founder member of BESA, fourteen years ago, told me, it was founded by those working in post-92 universities who were all developing education studies programmes at around that time.
The role of the university, the researcher, and of higher education in general has arguably undergone profound change in the intervening years – increased metrics on all aspects of the institution’s activities; overseas campuses; the introduction of tuition fees – to skim over just three. Each of these has presented challenges to education studies as a field and, in doing so, has raised ever more complex questions about why we do what we do and how best to do it. Questions that are able to be addressed at conferences such as BESA in ways that go beyond a purely instrumental approach to improving metrics and outcomes.
That these questions – and how to address them – continue to engage new researchers was very evident at the BESA Conference. Not only in the high level of attendance and engagement at the Early Career Researcher Day, but also in the number of postgraduate and early career researchers presenting in the main conference. Among the papers I attended, ethics was a recurrent theme. It was a central focus not only of the keynote given by Colette Gray, but also of the papers and discussions in the concurrent sessions. The discussions were driven by a concern to do the right thing, and an acknowledgement that, increasingly, we don’t always know what that is or how to work it out: What are the ethics of using visual material posted online in our teaching? How do we apply a UK Research Ethics Framework to students studying in very different cultural contexts? Increasingly, it seems, and understandably, we reach for guidelines: instructions written and ratified by experts that tell us how to proceed and that will protect us when things go wrong.
A clear tension arises, though, in the discussion of ethics in education and educational research between the need to adhere to such guidelines, and the desire to resist them and the audit and risk management cultures they represent. It became clear in a number of discussions that these more resistant conversations weren’t able to take place within universities, but were reserved for the ‘safe space’, to borrow a phrase from this very culture, of the conference. ‘Ethics’, as some of these discussions acknowledged, itself becomes instrumentalised as part of the research process; a tick box exercise to complete before we get on to the proper business of gathering data and writing outputs. But this not only fundamentally misunderstands ethics, but also why our thinking about it is central to both research and educational practice more broadly.
Professor Gerald Pillay made a very important observation in his opening remarks when he commented on the notion of ‘entanglement’ being used in the conference theme. He drew attention to the notion of ‘quantum entanglement’, which – as I found out from Wikipedia when I went back to my office and googled it – refers to the “physical phenomenon that occurs when pairs or groups of particles are generated or interact in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the others, even when the particles are separated by a large distance—instead, a quantum state must be described for the system as a whole” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_entanglement). The relevance of quantum physics has recently been brought to bear on the social sciences and humanities through the work of Karen Barad and the emerging field of posthumanism. Quickly, unfortunately, being reduced to the latest fad in research methods, what this field draws our attention to, in part, is the very complexity of the constitution of the world and our human practices within it, and the very inescapability of ethics. They can never be fully individualised or reduced to instrumental purposes. Hence, in the reflective practices that we engage in as lecturers and researchers, we should be considering not only the right thing to do within those existing measured and audited practices, but also the ethics of those practices themselves and how they are constitutive of what the university is today. Because it is not a safe space for challenging ideas if those conversations are not able to take place there. That researchers have BESA as a scholarly association, and Educational Futures as an open access journal, is crucial, not least for the conversation about what that future might look like and, therefore, what we need to acknowledge and protect in education today.
Dr Naomi Hodgson is Lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope University where she teaches and researches in philosophy of education.