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date: 19 October 2018

Mixed Methods Approaches and Qualitative Methodology for Higher Education Policy Research

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Please check back later for the full article.

The complex nature of the higher education system in India demands a nuanced understanding of its functions, outcomes, and impact on various stakeholders, the economy, and society. Policy research aims to develop such an understanding through generating evidence-based perspectives for higher education planning and development in national contexts. Equity is one of the major domains of inquiry in higher education, and institutionalizing equity in the higher education process and its outcomes is therefore a major concern in policy discourse. A multi-sited study confirms that integrating quantitative and qualitative methods yields vital insights about the nature and forms of social exclusion and discrimination on campuses as well as about how institutional policies, structure, and practices contribute to the shaping of the lived experiences of students from diverse backgrounds. While a quantitative approach helps to assess the magnitude of the prevailing practice of discrimination and social exclusion on university campuses in an era of massification and increasing student diversity, a qualitative approach facilitates the understanding of how and why discriminatory practices continue to prevail on campuses. These insights are critical in developing an equity perspective in national and subnational contexts and formulating policies, strategies, and practices for institutionalizing equity in higher education.

The strength of the qualitative approach, including focused group discussions, has the capacity to generate evidence on collective experience and shared values, assumptions, and perceptions of the student body sharing common social belonging and life chances. It helps to unveil group-specific issues in a comparative framework. Because interviews with teachers and institutional leaders were conducted alongside focused group discussions with students, the contradictions and similarities of perceptions on each issue could be taken forward for further probing and cross checking. It was actually helpful to unravel multilayered narratives on diversity and discrimination in higher education contexts.

Focused group discussion, for example, helped to bring out the voices of the “invisibles,” or those who are not part of the mainstream. The contradiction observed between dominant narratives and counterculture further contributed to a nuanced understanding of the issues of diversity and discrimination. Issues like gender stereotyping and micro-aggression against marginalized social groups hitherto unknown to dominant discourse could not have been adequately captured with survey methods alone. Therefore, field work as a process not only generates experiential evidence but also serves a political purpose by giving voice to the silenced or to those student groups who remain on the margins of campus life.

It may be argued that qualitative and quantitative approaches are complementary rather than conflicting approaches, and the limitations of methodological monism in understanding social phenomena can be triumphed over by integrating quantitative and qualitative methods. Undoubtedly, there are challenges in integrating insights from data collected through quantitative and qualitative methods, and the overall research process is labor intensive and rigorous. One may, however, conclude that the critical insights developed through a mixed methodology are robust. While making a significant contribution to the body of knowledge on the system of higher education, a mixed methodology approach also makes a substantial contribution to developing new perspectives in policy discourses and directing transformations in the system to institutionalize equity.