November 08, 2003

Still More on Credentialing (Among other Things, and from a UK Perspective)

It's true that it isn't easy to characterise what universities are and what they now do, and so not easy to lay down a 'vision' of what they might do in the future. That is partly because of the intrinsic difficulty of talking about intellectual activity in terms that are both general and useful, partly because the 'higher education sector' embraces a diverse range of institutions each of which is something of a palimpsest of successive social and educational ideals; but above all it is because the populist language that dominates so much discussion in contemporary market democracies is not well adapted to justifying public expenditure in other than economic or utilitarian terms, and it is principally as a form of expenditure - a problematic or resented one - that universities now attract political and media attention.

The result is that even, or perhaps especially, within universities, opinion tends to congregate around two almost equally unappealing extremes. On the one hand, there is the mournful idiom of cultural declinism: 'standards' are falling, 'philistinism' is rampant, 'autonomy' has been lost, and even the barbarians are going to the dogs. And on the other, there is the upbeat idiom of brave new worldism: 'challenges' and 'opportunities' abound, 'partnerships with industry' beckon, 'accountability' rules, and we're all 'investing in the future' like billy-oh. As with larger questions of social and cultural change, it can be difficult to escape the magnetic pull of these extremes, difficult to get the measure of the changes that have been taking place without either falling into the absurdity of suggesting that everything would be all right if we could just go back to universities as they were c.1953, or the equal absurdity of proposing that more ruthless cost-cutting and more aggressive marketing could soon have HiEdbizUK plc showing healthy profits for shareholders.

-- Stefan Collini, "HiEdBiz"

Though its immediate context is specifically British (more specifically, the above-linked piece responds to a recent British government White Paper on higher education), Collini's review of The Future of Higher Education raises issues of relevance to American higher ed and of interest to many of the readers of this weblog. Among the topics he addresses is one that is currently the subject of some rather lively, not to say overheated, discussion in this entry: namely, the matter of class and credentialling.

One strength of his discussion is his insistence on the significance of historical context against the "numerous ahistorical pronouncements one currently encounters about what defines a 'real' university or about what a 'proper' university education ought to be." As Collini points out, what we generally understand by the traditional university is a relatively new phenomenon:

It was in the mid and late Victorian period that two developments took place that were to determine university development in Britain for almost a hundred years. First, the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, which had long functioned as a cross between finishing schools for the sons of the landed classes and seminaries for the Anglican Church, were reformed. The public-school ideal of character formation took hold; 'modern' subjects, such as history, languages and science, were introduced; a new self-consciousness developed about educating the governing and administrative class of the future; and the sense of the universities' place in the national culture grew. Second, in the 1870s and 1880s new universities were established in the great cities which had grown up as a result of industrialisation, such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. Initially, these colleges were the result of local initiatives and aimed at meeting local needs: they were not afraid to teach practical subjects such as 'commerce' alongside the traditional curriculum; many of their students lived at home. A different 'idea' of the university was required to take account of them.

Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century there were already at least three different kinds of institution among British universities, even leaving aside the various medical schools, teacher-training colleges, and numerous ecclesiastical, voluntary and professional institutions. There was the Oxbridge model: residential, tutorial, character-forming. There was the Scottish/ London model: metropolitan, professorial, meritocratic. And there was the 'civic' model ('redbrick' was a later 20th-century coinage): local, practical, aspirational.

I think this longer view is important. So many discussions of higher ed. tend to presuppose an ideal model of the university as a more or less natural entity that is now under unprecedented attack either by, on the one hand, tenured lefty radicals who are bent on destroying the university as we know it, or by, on the other hand, no-nothing right-wing ideologues who are bent on destroying the university as we know it. A bit of history reminds us that, whatever else they may be, these alleged attacks can hardly be seen as violations of a natural order of things.

Given the tendency of those on the right to decry the rise and development of new areas of study, for example, it's worth noting that many putatively "traditional" disciplines are actually of fairly recent vintage. Economics, for example (though we could say the social sciences more broadly, along with much of the humanities). Adam Smith was a U of Glasgow professor not of Economics but of Moral Philosophy: just two hundred years ago, economics as a discipline did not yet exist (to be sure, Smith did lecture on something that we might now call economics, but he did so under the heading of "Natural Jurisprudence," which area was in turn one of several branches of moral philosophy). But there is something equally ahistorical, I would suggest, in some of the anti-corporate arguments made by those on the left (including, I will freely admit, my own self). The university has never been fully, has probably never been mainly or even significantly, autonomous from the values, goals and aspirations of the wider culture of which it is a part. Indeed, it would be very surprising if an institution could survive for any length of time as an insitution if it were completely separate from and even in opposition to the broader society and culture within which it would have to be situated. Collini understands this very well. And though he decries "NewLabourSpeak" pronouncements on education as the "the language of the personnel departments of commercial companies," he realizes that

it is no good just saying that universities are autonomous bodies and what goes on inside them is no business of the state's. That idea would have seemed pretty odd at most times and places in the history of universities, whether in Renaissance England or 18th-century Germany or, for that matter, contemporary France.

Not that Collini is ready to give his government a free pass, much less sign on as an enthusiastic supporter of the new regime of excellence in the field of excellence. Far from it. This is not a rave review but a stinging indictment of the lack of thought (or, in the current jargon, "vision") in the uncritical adoption of "psuedo-market guff" and "the idiom of management consultancy." As they say in the blogworld, read the whole thing.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 8, 2003 02:58 PM

Yes. The Collini piece is good. I especially enjoyed the first two paragraphs. And it is important to take the long view (though the history of US higher education doesn't parallel the history of UK higher ed.).

But it is dangerous to generalize from British universities to any others, particularly to US ones. The British higher education sector is much more concentrated than the US and much less diverse. The US has only about four times the population of the UK, but we have more than 1400 four-year institutions and something like 2500 community colleges; they have 115 or so universities. Except Oxbridge, British universities all try to conform to a single ideal type. There is no British equivalent of Williams or Swarthmore. A fortiori, there's no equivalent of Smith or Wellesley. Nor Reed nor Hampshire (nor VMI: this is not due to ideology). Certainly not St. Johns. There are a few small colleges; all want to grow up to become universities. Concentration permits the UK government easily to exercise control over the sector; conformity is the result of that control. Self-image follows the money.

British universities, too, live in an anti-intellectual culture. A previous thread cited the study which said you were better off in the UK not to have gone to university than to have taken an arts degree. Parallel is the attitude towards university dropouts. in the UK, someone who starts university but doesn't get a degree is thought--by potential employers, too--to have wasted his time and the taxpayers money (it really is about the little bit of paper). In the US, such a person is considered to have "some college." He's literally credited with the studying he's done. Education is a good in itself.

US politicians want tuition kept down. UK politicians seek to raise it. "Access" in the US means affordability and financial aid. "Access" in the UK means admitting poor kids in the first place.

But, yes. Read the whole thing.

Posted by: jam at November 9, 2003 05:12 PM

As an interesting aside, the consensus among economic historians is that England's traditionally weak educational system was a major cause of England's economic weakness (compared to England's huge economic dominance in the nineteenth) in the twentieth century.

Universal, free pre-college education was not established in England until the very end of the nineteenth century, meanwhile it was a centerpiece of government policy in the US and Continental Europe (and Japan) for decades before then. In addition, there was essentially no engineering or management education available at all until the very late nineteenth century. In the case of management education, there was essentially none available until after WWII. Germany graduated approximately 100 times the number of chemical engineers that England did.

The consensus (though obviously one can challenge it) is that England was unable to compete in the new technology industries of the late nineteenth century (chemicals in particular, but also the automotive and related industries) due to their lack of trained engineering and management staffs.

Posted by: alex at November 10, 2003 12:51 PM

For every action there is an equal and opposite government program.

Posted by: StalkerWilde Julie Wilde at December 20, 2003 03:49 PM