The (re)invention of tradition in higher education research: 1976–2021

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Reflection on the meaning of the word ‘tradition’, and related terms such as ‘traditional’, is conceptually complex but has been subject to limited critical scrutiny within academic discourse. The evidence of this study, drawing on the theory of tradition and a database of all 6947 papers published in Studies in Higher Education between 1976 and 2021, is that higher education researchers make extensive use of these words in a routinised and often un-scholarly way. The language of tradition is frequently invoked as an emotive means to both resist and argue for change in higher education often framed as a dualism where the words tradition or traditional are deployed as positives or pejoratives. Despite the intensification of empirical work since the 1970s and 1980s, and the increasingly international authorship of Studies of Higher Education, use of tradition as a rhetorical device continues to play a significant role in the literature. As the paper illustrates, this has contributed to the creation and perpetuation of myths about students, universities and academic work. Copyright © 2023 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)382-393
JournalStudies in Higher Education
Issue number2
Early online dateJul 2023
Publication statusPublished - 2024


Macfarlane, B., & Yeung, J. (2024). The (re)invention of tradition in higher education research: 1976–2021. Studies in Higher Education, 49(2), 382-393.


  • Tradition
  • Universities
  • Students
  • Myths
  • Non-traditional
  • Traditional universities


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