Excess charges

The Quest for Quality
January 24, 1997

About seven billion pounds a year are spent on higher education in the United Kingdom and voices are understandably being raised about its character, its purposes and its future. Sinclair Goodlad's book is therefore to be welcomed, offering, as it does, an astute and accessible commentary on some of the thinking and practices in higher education.

Goodlad sets his views within a simple but productive framework. Two axes are proposed: theory/practice; society/individual. These are superimposed on each other and the resulting grid is exposed to four sets of inquiries: the curriculum, teaching methods, research and college organisation. In each quadrant of the grid, an exaggerated practice or idea is identified, against which Goodlad contends; and so the discussion is built around 16 "heresies", as he terms them.

Goodlad's heresies go under such names as academicism, occupationalism, opportunism, homogenism, determinism, survivalism, pedagogicism, abstractionism, sponsorism, departmentalism, and monasticism. Some are self-evident (abstractionism is an "over-emphasis on systems of thought, concepts (and) intellectual structures"), others less so (homogenism turns out to be a heresy of college organisation in which there is "no attempt to separate 'college' from "the world").

The basic grid offers a neat schema, perhaps overneat, and it leads Goodlad into some awkwardnesses. Some heresies seem simply to be in the wrong grid space. It is not clear, for example, why academicism is seen to be a heresy arising out of an over-concern with individuals (as well as with theory). Academicism surely is a heresy of social organisation and social interest, albeit that of academics, where the world is seen through an unduly academic perspective. Also, the schema yields overlapping heresies. For example, utilitarianism ("learning seen as a means to some social end") is contrasted with "survivalism" ("the over-emphasis on education as supplying job skills") and they appear in different quadrants of the grid space.

The notion of heresies, the use of the "isms", and the depiction of these practices and ideas as extreme variants of their genre is indicative: clearly, these are traps to be avoided. There is, therefore (and Goodlad is open about this), a normative view in his analysis. The dogmas of university life are to be eschewed - some long-standing, some of a much more recent hue - and, therefore, a balanced approach to higher education is recommended. Each of the poles of the two axes - theory, practice, society, individual - are to be given their due weight. The cautions against exaggerated practices work at different levels in academe. Individual academics can assess and locate themselves in the grid spaces; so can departments and whole institutions.

Goodlad lives up to his own implicit advice by anchoring his analyses with examples of good practice, much of it culled from Goodlad's own activities at Imperial College, London, over the past 20 years (where he has been at the forefront of many innovations with a national or international significance, such as study service and peer tutoring).

Much is packed into 100 pages and, inevitably, some matters are passed over lightly. The book's title, for instance, is problematic. There is little mention of "quality". The heresies have to be seen, presumably, as a falling short of quality but, without a separate sense of Goodlad's idea of higher education, we are left in the dark as to the relationship intended between higher education and quality.

Goodlad's view of higher education would seem to contain the suppositions that, first, a balance is always available to be struck between the contending heresies and that, second, balance is always desirable. But it is not clear why balance is itself desirable in principle. For that, a further premise would have to be admitted such as that the goods in question were all of equal worth; but this should not be presumed. Values or ends in higher education will differ in the weight that we should attach to them. Balance between them cannot be an unqualified good in itself.

All engaged in higher education can profit from this book. It would be an immodest academic who could not identify himself or herself in some of Goodlad's heresies. If the book assists in causing those in the system to think about moderating some of the excesses in higher education,whether of academicism or of utilitarianism, it will have been worthwhile. Its combination of provocative thinking coupled with practical ideas produces a lively book, immediately accessible on different levels and likely to appeal to different audiences. It should also act as an aid to developing ideas and practices about higher education, again whether at the individual, institutional or even the national level. If the busy academic reads just one book on higher education this year, this should be on the shortlist.

Ronald Barnett is professor of higher education, Institute of Education, University of London.

The Quest for Quality: Sixteen Forms of Heresy in Higher Education

Author - Sinclair Goodlad
ISBN - 0 335 19351 X and 19350 1
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £37.00 and £13.99
Pages - 121

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