Contrary to common perceptions, British universities are new inventions, three-quarters of them being established in the past 30 years. More recently still, they have been expanding apace, doubling their numbers, quadrupling their student body, and achieving an age participation ratio of one in three. This is usually represented as the transition from an elite to a mass higher education system that brings Britain into line with the United States and continental neighbours.
As former editor of The THES and current professor of education at Leeds, Peter Scott is eminently qualified to provide a general account of what all this amounts to. The Meanings of Mass Higher Education is essential reading for all concerned with universities today. Though many, like me, will sharply disagree with much of it, there can be no doubt that it stimulates, provokes and illuminates areas urgently in need of intellectual analysis.
The book is divided into three long sections, covering the history of higher education, the connections between mass higher education and a series of changes associated with post-Fordism and post-industrialism, and the links between today's universities and postmodern culture and knowledge. This is an enormously ambitious project, and Scott flounders at times, but if one starts from the premise that the only adequate way to understand what is going on in our universities is to situate developments in wide social, economic and political contexts, then it is justified. It is a welcome counter to the majority of writing on the subject which is obsessively concerned with practical proposals for future development (without examining the bases of strategy).
In fact, it is not very hard to link these three broad areas. For instance, one argument has it that the rapid growth of higher education owes most to the demands of socioeconomic restructuring that require graduates with transferable skills, more market-oriented knowledge, and above all flexibility. This is consonant with a postmodern mentality that relativises knowledge (there is no truth, only versions of truths), encourages the dismantling of disciplinary traditions, and promotes a view of education as a matrix of different (modular) choices made by the individual consumer.
There is something of this in Scott, but just when one thinks he might be offering a general argument, he characteristically qualifies his points. If there is a thesis here it is, in fact, that pretty much everything about higher education is complicated, even contradictory. For example, he observes that, though British universities are beneficiaries of the postwar welfare state, they yet developed as elite organisations that admitted few students and had few links with state planners. Moreover, while it is easy to imagine a homogeneous university system, the reality is extraordinarily heterodox, elite institutions and teaching-only centres coexisting, many staff continuing with elite values (intimacy with students, disinterested research etc) while having to come to terms with pressures of hugely-expanded classes, a market-centred research policy and colleagues who might once have been employed in corporate training departments. While some might claim that this is a consequence of the novelty of the switch to mass higher education and the end of British exceptionalism, Scott is unwilling to endorse altogether such a line of argument. He acknowledges much of this failure to adjust, but also puts it down as an expression of of the emergence of a post-Fordist and post-modern era.
If there is a consistent argument here it is that everything is in a state of flux, is divergent and different. All of this is in keeping with an attraction to postmodern thinking, but it does make for a difficult read. At times Scott is hard to follow, his prose dense, and he runs away with the likes of Lyotard and Bell. At times, too, he is irritatingly unspecific, making a point - such as the development of post-Fordism - only to remind readers that its arrival is possibly overstated.
As a rule, he is far too willing to endorse the idea that we are entering an "entirely new kind of society" , namely postindustrial, post-Ford and postmodern. This does give the book an up-to-the-minute feel, and it is a real advance on much educational writing that resolutely ignores theoretical issues, but Scott is overly uncritical when it comes to such trendy terms. Post-Fordism, like postindustrialism, is a dubious concept in 1996, having met with a barrage of empirical and theoretical criticism, but there is little acknowledgement here of this sceptical work. The book would have been better had it been longer and the theory more resolutely substantiated.
My biggest, however, is the book's continuous repetition that everything is extremely complicated on the ground, hence difference is found everywhere. Words like "fuzzy", "volatile" and "plural" crop up over and again. To be sure, a system of 90 universities is certain to contain much diversity, and it is not a difficult task to argue that this means we cannot make any safe generalisations, and even that this is indicative of a postmodern culture which is characterised by its variability. This is even a nice retort to those who thought that Thatcherism had profoundly negative effects on higher education, and it is a (momentary) pleasure to learn from Scott that her real effect was modest and even positive. Far from curtailing the independence of our universities, he says, Thatcher's major contribution was to introduce more pluralism into the system by introducing market practices since, while it reduced resources, it gave more room for institutions to manoeuvre.
Perhaps. However, the real task is not to identify the details within a huge university system, but to account for the major directions in which it is going. In my view it is possible to explain these in ways which reject the obfuscations of this pseudo-sociological 'post' thought so prominent in Scott's book, while of course recognising that Oxbridge remains different from Huddersfield. Bluntly, it is the task of substantive analysis to highlight the most consequential developments in higher education. While minor differences will continue, and will be of real significance, the major reality of mass higher education is a decisive shift towards cheaper and meaner conditions, towards more ruthlessly managed universities, towards more applied learning, and towards a weakening of academic collegiality and independence.
Frank Webster is professor of sociology, Oxford Brookes University.
The Meanings of Mass Higher Education
Author - Peter Scott
ISBN - 0 335 19443 5 and 19442 7
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £42.50 and £14.99
Pages - 208