The Institute carries on the tradition of a predecessor institution, "Projektgruppe Hochschulforschung Berlin-Karlshorst" ("Berlin-Karlshorst project group for higher education research"), which since 1991 had studied the transformation of eastern Germany's higher education sector. Over the past 20 years, HoF has participated in the higher education research community's informed debate, and it has provided higher education institutions, and higher-education-policy stakeholders in the policy-making, administration and association sectors, with application-oriented findings of supportive relevance to reforms.
HoF is the only institute that carries out research, on higher education institutions, in the new German Länder. Its research thus has special project and application relevance. At the same time, the institute does not confine itself to studying regional developments. The content focuses of HoF's work can be subdivided into four different major emphases:
- Since 2006, studies on the spatial aspects of the higher education sector's development, in connection with demographic change, have played a central role.
- Another emphasis, for many years, has consisted of studies on young researchers and scientists, on academic personnel and their career paths, and on gender equality.
- Furthermore, HoF studies issues relative to higher education structures and governance, to development of quality at higher education institutions, and to higher education and reforms of studies programmes.
- In addition, HoF is the only German institution for research on higher education research that also continually focuses on topics of historical interest – such as the history of the education, higher education and science sectors.