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Education: The State of the Discipline. Survey of education researchers

A survey of education researchers’ work, experiences and identities

Education: The State of the Discipline is a major BERA initiative that aims to provide a clear, comprehensive account of the state of education as an academic discipline in universities; as a field of practice; and as a significant and central element of social and political policy in the four nations of the UK.

This report is the third publication from the initiative and shares the findings of a survey of education researchers’ perceptions of their work and identities in relation to education research in universities in the UK. The survey intended to provide robust data about the state of education as an academic discipline, and examine the structures and processes that influence opportunity for, and engagement in, research activity for staff working in university education departments.

As the largest survey of its kind for education researchers in UK higher education, this study provides a comprehensive and wide-ranging picture of the state of the discipline.


This study forms part of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) ‘State of the Discipline’ (SOTD) initiative which seeks to develop high-quality evidence and debate to inform the ongoing strategic direction of the organisation and of the discipline of education. Its specific aim is to examine education as an academic research discipline, and to understand the experiences and perspectives of those working in education research. Building on other commissioned work within the SOTD initiative, we developed a survey to understand education researchers’ perceptions of their work and identities in relation to education research in universities in the UK. Questions focused on the following themes: 

  • identity and background 
  • employment, career and institutions 
  • research motivations, activities, experiences and expertise. 

We also invited respondents to share their views about current issues and debates relating to education research. 

We made the survey available to all education researchers working in UK university departments/schools of education (and associated research centres) for eight weeks during spring and summer 2022. We developed content for the survey around a conceptual map that drew from existing literature. We also used the formal and informal structures and processes highlighted in the BERA systematic scoping review (Boyle et al., 2021) as a framework for informing the survey sections and questions. An overview of these is in table 1. 

Table 1 

Themes relating to formal and informal structures/processes as identified by Boyle et al. (2021) 

Formal structures/processes 

Informal structures/processes 

  • Cultures of performativity and accountability 
  • Research impact agenda 
  • Research funding regime 
  • Debates about the quality and purpose of education research 
  • The ‘what works’ agenda 
  • Professional bodies 
  • Academic pressures 
  • Career stages (early-, mid-, later-career) 
  • Second-career researchers 
  • Non-traditional academics 
  • Departmental cultures 
  • Affective issues 

We disseminated the survey through a range of channels, including personalised emails to education academics; social media; contact with heads of university-based education departments; and the project advisory group, BERA networks, and other professional organisations. In total 1,623 people responded. Calculating an exact response rate is difficult given the complexity of defining the population of education researchers, as outlined in the main report, but nevertheless, we estimate it to be in the vicinity of 20 per cent. As we discuss further in the methods section, we believe our sample to be broadly representative of the overall population, with good alignment with population data such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data. Early career researchers (ECRs) and those in temporary or new contracts may, however, be under-represented. 

Key findings

As well as contributing to the SOTD initiative, this study makes a significant contribution to a body of literature about the nature and development of education research. We review key studies from this literature in section 1.2 of the full report. Here we summarise the main findings from the survey grouped by theme. 

Identity and background 

Education researchers held undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, including the humanities and natural sciences. Nearly three-quarters held a doctoral degree while only a small proportion reported having studied education at undergraduate level. The vast majority had some form of teaching qualification. In our sample, most respondents identified as women, and most were aged between 40 and 59, with very few academics aged below 30. Most researchers surveyed came from a white ethnic background, a proportion which is substantially higher than figures for UK higher education (HE) in general (87 per cent in our survey compared with 74 per cent across UK HE generally). This reflects wider findings about the under-representation of minority ethnic education researchers (see Belluigi et al., 2023) and also points to some of the challenges and barriers to career progression faced by these academics (see for example Arday, 2021). 

Some of these disparities between education researchers and the general HE population may be explained by the finding that over 80 per cent of survey respondents had a career or profession prior to being employed in HE, most of these in school teaching or other areas of education. This previous experience may, at least partially, explain why the education research community tends to be more female, white and older than the general HE population. The teaching workforce in schools is consistently predominantly female (DfE, 2022) and, until very recently, has been relatively ethnically homogeneous. 

Employment, career and institutions 

The majority of education researchers who completed the survey (84 per cent) reported being employed on permanent, open-ended contracts with the remainder working on a fixed-term or casual basis. Among researchers who worked part-time or in fixed-term or casual roles, just under half stated that they would prefer an open-ended or full-time role for reasons of job/financial security and opportunities for career progression. There was also a significant group of respondents who were uncertain about their future in HE, and unclear about whether they would still be working in education research in the relatively near future. 

Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported being on teaching and research contracts, although less than half of all respondents indicated that they were entered in Research Excellence Framework (REF)2021. Just over a quarter were employed on teaching-only or teaching/scholarship contracts. While most positions below the level of professor were held by women (65 to 72 per cent), at professorial level, the gender split became more equal (46.1 per cent men; 50.9 per cent women). A lack of career security and progression were recurring themes in the survey. Just over a third of respondents (37.6 per cent) agreed that promotion procedures at their institution were fair, and less than half (44 per cent) felt there was a clear pathway to progression. The problems were more pronounced for women and respondents with a disability, impairment or condition. Only 29 per cent of respondents on research-only contracts agreed that their institution provided a clear pathway to career progression. 

For opportunities and support for research and career progression, we noted some variation by type of institution. In this report, we have used Boliver’s (2015) typology of elite, higher, middle and lower status universities to classify the different institutions where respondents work (described further in the methods section (2.3.1)). Respondents at ‘lower tier’ (Boliver, 2015) universities reported less favourable experiences compared with their peers in middle or higher tier universities. In lower tier universities, less time and fewer resources were available for development and participation in research-related activities. In addition, respondents in ‘higher tier’ universities reported feeling a greater sense of clarity about their career trajectory. Findings such as these add to our understanding of inequalities between different types of university and the varying experiences of education researchers depending on where they work. 

Workload was another important and prevalent issue, with respondents sharing experiences of how their time is used in their role; the pressures of workload; and the potentially negative impact on their role and wellbeing. The picture that emerged is one of a discipline where employees routinely reported working more than the hours for which they were paid (64.9 per cent reported working more than 40 hours a week), and where workload was often presented as a barrier to the type, quality or quantity of research work that they were able to do. For some, work (over)load was the biggest challenge they faced within their job role. Overall, it appears that respondents’ attitudes, values and behaviours did seem to differ considerably both between and sometimes even within institutions: we received responses praising supportive institutions which had a positive developmental influence but were also told about institutions where some individuals were experiencing extreme pressure and, in some cases, exploitation and alienation. Just over half of respondents told us that they would recommend their university as a place to work with similar proportions reporting a strong sense of belonging to their environment. In addition, most respondents reported being treated with kindness and support by their colleagues. However, we also noted inequalities in the experiences of individual education researchers according to their background and personal characteristics, with women, minority ethnic staff, those who reported a disability and those who identified as members of a sexual minority reporting more negative experiences both in their professional interactions and in their relationships with colleagues. 

Research motivations, activities, experiences and expertise 

The survey gathered views on what motivated researchers. By far the most common motivating factors were related to respondents’ personal and social values and ideals. Alongside these, respondents reported being strongly motivated by professional and personal circumstances, often linked to previous and current work roles. Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that the most common topics of research were related to the teaching profession, teaching and learning as well as issues pertaining to social justice and inequality. Alongside these popular topic areas, researchers reported being interested in many other areas – from the theoretical to the highly practical – further underlining the diversity within the discipline. 

The education research community uses an eclectic range of research methods. There is a breadth of expertise and knowledge covering many aspects of research design, data collection and analysis. Respondents reported using a broad range of skills, and there was little evidence of any obvious skills gap or deficit in expertise. While, on balance, more researchers reported that they used ‘qualitative’ approaches to data collection, there were, nevertheless, significant numbers who adopted ‘quantitative’ approaches. Mixed methods approaches and theoretical or philosophical approaches were also well embedded. One area that warrants further focus is research methods training. Two-thirds of respondents sought to improve their methodological skills, and half rated their formal methods training as limited/none or basic, suggesting further scope for responding to a clear need from the education research community to develop and enhance research methods skills. 

Most respondents reported favourable experiences of undertaking research: it was a source of satisfaction; they found their role rewarding; they were generally well supported to undertake research; and did not feel under excessive pressure to secure external grant income or to publish their research. Other views were more mixed: a minority of respondents reported having effective mentoring support for their research and sufficient time to apply for research funding. Opinions varied about the need for education research to be useful and relevant for those outside academia – just over half agreed that this should be the case with a substantial minority disagreeing or holding a neutral position. The majority of respondents thought that education research should have some practical value, and some were concerned about the potential for it to be ‘too theoretical and detached from reality’. Some respondents thought that an emphasis on ‘what works’ research has been detrimental to other forms of scholarship, and has had a negative impact on aspects of academic freedom. Despite some differing views about the potential value and use of research findings, education researchers reported a significant appetite for disseminating and engaging with research both with stakeholders, including fellow academics and policymakers, as well as the wider public. 

When asked to reflect upon some of the wider issues associated with education research, many shared concerns about cultures of accountability and performativity. Only a small proportion of all respondents (13.1 per cent) agreed that the REF was a valid measure of the quality of education research in HE, although only 44.1 per cent were entered for REF2021. Concerns were also raised about the competitive environment in which funds for research were allocated with only a small proportion (10 per cent) believing that the system was fair. 


Education research in the UK is concerned with myriad questions and challenges, including those relating to practice, policy, systems, theory and philosophy, and is carried out by people from a diverse range of educational and disciplinary backgrounds. Despite this diversity, our findings showed significant under-representation of various groups, in particular those from minority ethnic backgrounds and with non-UK nationality. 

Within this diverse discipline there was evidence of a shared experience of being an ‘education researcher’: for many respondents this manifested most positively in being part of collaborative and collegial professional communities. There was belief in the value of education research and its potential value for society. However, there were also common negative experiences, especially in relation to workload, and institutional and HE cultures and employment conditions. Our findings also point to significant inequalities of experience which vary according to the status of an individual’s institution as well as their educational/career background and personal characteristics (for example ethnicity and disability status). 

As the largest survey of its kind for HE-based education researchers in the UK, this study provides a comprehensive and wide-ranging picture of the SOTD. We have been in a privileged position to hear from education researchers from across the UK, from different backgrounds and institutions, and at different career stages. We have reported their perspectives and experiences throughout the report. Some of these have been uplifting. Some deeply troubling. As the SOTD initiative continues, a complex landscape is emerging. These results help build the picture, and we hope will contribute to its development and flourishing.


Profile picture of Rebecca Morris
Rebecca Morris, Dr

Associate Professor at University of Warwick

Rebecca Morris is an associate professor in the Department of Education Studies at the University of Warwick. Her research interests include education and social policy; teachers and teaching (in both schools and higher education); social justice...

Profile picture of Thomas Perry
Thomas Perry, Dr

Associate Professor at University of Warwick

Thomas Perry’s research and teaching focus on research- and evidence-informed education policy and practice. He has specialist methodological expertise relating to systematic review and evidence synthesis; quantitative methods and secondary...

Profile picture of Emma Smith
Emma Smith, Professor

Professor at University of Warwick

Emma Smith is a professor of education at the University of Warwick. Her research interests are in the field of sociology of education, specifically exploring issues of social justice, inequality and policy as they apply to access and engagement...

Profile picture of Jess Pilgrim-Brown
Jess Pilgrim-Brown, Mrs

Research Associate at University of Bristol

Jess Pilgrim-Brown is a research associate at the University of Bristol and a current EdD student at Oxford Brookes University. Her thesis research focuses on social class and organisational culture in higher education through the experiences of...