Although universities of applied sciences have been engaged in research activities for some time now, the introduction of professors [lectoren] and their research groups [lectoraten] at universities of applied sciences in 2001 has meant that the research function is gradually becoming more structural. A research group works together to promote knowledge development and knowledge circulation in relation to a certain theme within and beyond a university of applied sciences, in the interest of education, professional practice and society as a whole.
The year 2001 was also the year in which the Knowledge Development Foundation for Universities of Applied Sciences [SKO] was created, on the basis of a covenant [lectorenconvenant] between the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The main tasks applicable for the SKO are to issue subsidies on the basis of a quality assessment of applications for research groups submitted by universities of applied sciences. In 2003, the research group is given a strong boost with the introduction of the so-called SIA-RAAK regulations. These regulations are intended to promote knowledge circulation between regional parties, particularly between knowledge institutions like universities of applied sciences, SMEs and public institutions.
In 2004, the professor covenant was updated to include a quality assurance system to be introduced with effect from January 2009, amongst other things. This is linked to the new funding system, under which research resources are granted to universities of applied sciences in the form of a lump sum. With the introduction of the new covenant, the assessment of quality by SKO ceases and is replaced by the quality assurance system.
In 2007, the general meeting of the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences formally adopts the sector protocol for research quality assurance. This adoption marks the agreement on a joint definition of research at universities of applied sciences and on the contours of the quality assurance system to be developed.
Extent of Research
Since the introduction of professors, their numbers have grown quickly from slightly more than 20 in 2001/2002, via more than 100 in 2003/2004, to more than 250 in 2006/2007. In 2008, the Netherlands has almost 400 professors. Nevertheless, with less than 400 professors (for 380,000 students) and a total research budget of approximately 75 million (lump sum and the Knowledge Development Foundation for Higher Professional Education/SIA), the extent of research can be called ‘modest’ for the time being.
In 2004, the Lectorenplatform (professor platform) was created. During the first stage of the development of research groups, this platform is responsible, in collaboration with the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, for external communication and for profiling research groups. In 2008, this platform was followed by the more network-oriented forum for practice-based research [Forum voor praktijkgericht onderzoek]. This forum plays an important role in the further design, positioning and development of research groups.
Nature of UAS Research
In the sector protocol, the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences makes a clear choice for the joint designation and definition of research at universities of applied sciences. By using the term practice-based research as the umbrella term for this research, the sector protocol is giving preference to this term above other terms such as applied research and design-oriented research. These terms do less justice to the nature and diversity of research at universities of applied sciences.
Practice-based research is defined as research that is rooted in professional practice and that contributes to the improvement and innovation of professional practice. This is achieved through the generation of knowledge and insights, but also through the provision of usable products and designs and concrete solutions for problems in the field. Added to this, this research is usually of a multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary nature and is embedded in a range of internal and external organisational contexts, while retaining the academic reliability and validity of the research itself. Research is closely connected to education, via its contribution to education activities, lecturer professionalisation and curriculum innovation. Because the research done has relevance for – and an impact on – professional practice, education and the broader society, knowledge is circulated and published via a very wide range of channels and to various target groups.
With these characteristics, practice-based research complies with what is referred to as Mode 2 of knowledge development. The term Mode 2 refers to research that, in contrast to Mode 1 research, is less bound by traditional disciplines, and that is effected more in the context of applications. This research is performed in networks of experts from the field and networks of researchers and (as such) the quality of this research is assessed by a number of parties. This is based, on the one hand, on the recognition that scientifically valid research is concerned and, on the other hand, on the basis of the recognition that its impact on education, professional practice and society is the most important gauge for the quality of this type of research.
Besides academic standards is the excellence of practice-based research is measured particularly on the basis of the relevance and impact of research within professional practice, education and society as a whole. Incidentally, the evaluation and assessment of research on the basis of these perspectives is still in its infancy (worldwide). To date, emphasis in quality assurance systems elsewhere (English, Australian and Dutch universities, for example) has always focused strongly on the quality of research in the sense of scientific and academic impact.
So, traditionally, this impact is measured particularly on the basis of publications, citations and peer reviews. Within these countries and systems, steps are already being taken to find indicators and evaluation methods that place the importance and impact of research in a broader perspective. The Netherlands has a reasonable lead in this respect. For example, the ERiC platform (Evaluating Research in Context) has been created. The parties involved in ERiC include the Association of Universities in the Netherlands [Vereniging van Universiteiten (VSNU)], the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences [Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschapen (KNAW)], the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research [Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO)], the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. These organisations work together to promote knowledge exchange and method development (at both a national and international level), with a view to more context-oriented research evaluations.
Diversity and Variation
Because of the diversity and variation that exists between universities of applied sciences and domains, the system leaves responsibility for quality assurance, including the performance of evaluations on research units, with the individual universities of applied sciences. The idea behind this is to promote a situation where it is possible to achieve optimal alignment between the nature and extent of quality assurance and structure, culture and (quality) policy within a specific university of applied sciences. Added to this, professors and other researchers must experience quality assurance as something for which they are responsible and which does actually promote quality. Finally, the system must do justice to the individuality of every research domain and sector.