Education has changed - but who changed it?

Reforming Higher Education

June 30, 2000

The expansion of higher education since 1960 has arguably produced the most far-reaching effects of any post-war social movement. As a result Britain has become a "college (or a graduate) society". Quite simply, Britain is a different place, more intellectual, more entrepreneurial and certainly less class-bound and deferential. As R. H. Tawney said to Lord Robbins of the United States: "So many of the people have had at least the smell of a higher education".

Yet for some this is a preposterous claim. Higher education is widely regarded, even today, as a side-show. The mainstreams of social change are health, housing, social security, even, at a pinch, comprehensive schools (now sadly Woodhead-ised).

What are the reasons for this denial of the claims that developments in HE are of primary rather than secondary importance? One banal reason is over-familiarity. Most analysts of social change reside within universities, so they find it difficult to imagine the domestic as dramatic. A second reason is that the HE revolution is incomplete. Quantitatively, Britain clearly has a mass system; qualitatively it feels elite. It is difficult to tell a story still unfolding.

A third reason, addressed by Maurice Kogan and Stephen Hanney in this book, is that the process of reforming HE has been so muddled, inchoate and contingent that it is difficult to write a grand narrative to describe it. Robbins was perhaps its only totemic reformer. Because the expansion of HE is such a disappointing example of policy formation, it is difficult to accept that this expansion has nevertheless been an agent of profound social change. We are instinctively reluctant to ascribe grand outcomes to projects with petty motives.

Kogan and Hanney conclude: "We can thus find no simple explanation of the changes. Our theoretical position will be seen to be that of eclecticism." More concretely they argue that, although both ideology (Thatcherism, the horrors of managerialism) and interest groups and lobbies (from the vice-chancellors' committee to The THES ) were significant, neither drove the process of reform.

This is an important and honest conclusion. There is a wealth of literature that describes the development of higher education almost exclusively in terms of the "attack" of the state on the autonomous space of the academy. Kogan and Hanney offer a less paranoid account, although they still insist that higher education has been prised unwillingly away from the "professional-collegial" angle and dragged kicking and screaming to the "market" and "governmental-managerial" angles of Burton Clark's triangular paradigm.

The final chapter heading sums up their dilemma - "Organic revolution or imposed change?" On balance the authors lean towards the latter, but reluctantly and tentatively. They insist there can be no single-cause explanation of the reform of HE, no "smoking gun", and they even cast doubt on how radical that reform has been, rightly emphasising the enduring continuities of HE.

This is an important book. It is the most successful attempt so far to conceptualise the postwar development of higher education. The problem is that by concentrating on structural change it offers only half the story, arguably the less interesting half. The other half is offered by Mary Henkel's companion volume on academic identities. My own guess is that better explanations of HE reform can be provided by inquiries outside the scope of Kogan's and Hanney's book - into, for example, the distribution of knowledge production and the role of "graduateness" in constructions of post-sociality.

Peter Scott is vice-chancellor, Kingston University. 


Reforming Higher Education

Author - Maurice Kogan and Stephen Hannay
ISBN - 1 85302 715 1
Publisher - Jessica Kingsley
Price - £25.00
Pages - 2

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