Is "higher education" a singular or a plural? Some of us would like to believe that institutions around the world bearing the name "university" have, if not in actual fact then at least in aspiration, sufficient unity of purpose and similarity of function to justify the singular. Others are more sceptical. Some are keen to distinguish "real" universities from wannabes, imitators and impostors. Some believe that "higher education" is turning into a plural. Some, despairingly, think that the term may now be vacuous.
Here is a second question: how can we go about answering the first question? One way is the good old-fashioned exercise of writing a paper on "The Idea of the University", "What Universities are For" or "The University in Ruins". Another way is to look at what academics actually do in various places and under various circumstances, and to use such case studies as a reality check against responses to the big questions.
If you like the second methodology, you will be interested in this book. It is essentially a conference proceedings volume, where the aim of the conference was to be small in terms of the number of participants but wide in terms of their geographical spread. It has no particular thread or theme, little coherence and little consistency. It is light on theoretical big-question contributions, but it contains honest descriptions of real-life issues at disparate institutions, in different places around the world, by people who clearly take pride in being academics.
Reading this book, you learn, for example, that in South Africa 30 per cent of students drop out in their first year of study and 22 per cent of the total cohort graduate by the end of their third/fourth year of study.
You learn that in Russia, the number of higher education institutions has quadrupled since 1994-95 and, as a result,"many scholars teach a lot in several universities or institutions; this is the way to earn enough money for a living". You learn something about teacher training in the US, nursing education in Ireland, the relationship between tertiary education and regional development in Greece, law schools in Canada, and career prospects in the humanities and social sciences at regional higher education institutions in Russia.
You learn how a recently appointed director of a centre for teaching English at a Turkish university invited her staff to write a letter about what they found most enjoyable and most frustrating in the school, and what the 32 responses revealed. You have an entire paper on the the views of 22 senior staff members at a South African university, expressed in 2002, regarding a possible three-way institutional merger, which never took place.
So what has all this got to do with Oxbridge or the Ivy League or the Shanghai Jiao Tong index - or, indeed, with "The Idea of the University"? If nothing else, then surely this: that if we wish to think of the term "higher education" as a descriptor of a single definable and coherent activity, then the kind of vignettes described in this book must be part of it, since this is how by far the greatest number of academics around the world spend their time. How to marry "The Idea of the University" with the experiences of real people at real universities remains, to borrow a phrase from one of the contributors, "exquisitely problematic".
Education and Leadership
Edited by Tom Claes, Frank McMahon and David Seth Preston
Published 10 May 2008