The appearance of incoherence

Contemporary Higher Education - Volume Five - Contemporary Higher Education - Volume Four - Contemporary Higher Education - Volume Six - Contemporary Higher Education - Volume Two - Contemporary Higher Education - Volume Seven - Contemporary Higher Education - Volume One - Contemporary Higher Education - Volume Three
December 10, 1999

These seven volumes, in a series sub-titled "international issues for the 21st century" and edited by Philip Altbach, add up to almost 2,500 pages and comprise 130 separate articles excluding the introductions written by the 17 separate editors. Whatever else may be said about the series - and there is plenty to say - it is certainly big.

Big like America - and here is the first of several qualifications that have to be made about these books. Despite the "international issues" tag, they are rooted in the experience of American higher education. Of course, this need not be a fundamental objection. The United States has the largest and finest system of colleges and universities in the world. Other systems have a great deal to learn from the American experience.

But four volumes out of seven bear witness to the exceptionalism of American higher education. One is explicitly concerned with graduate education in the United States, which is unlike other postgraduate systems because of the special character of American undergraduate education and the organisational pattern of most American institutions, in particular the presence of powerful graduate (and professional) schools.

A second is concerned with Catholic higher education, a substantial presence in the United States, where many institutions have religious affiliations.

But in Britain and the rest of Europe, universities are secular institutions with only a few small colleges retaining any religious connections, which typically are largely of historical significance. The same is not true of some other higher education systems, for example in Japan or the Philippines, which have been heavily influenced by the American example. But secularism is the global academic norm.

A third volume (volume four) is concerned with psychological, intellectual, social and moral aspects of the college experience. But although this volume is ostensibly of more general significance, several of its articles reflect particularly American preoccupations - issues concerned with "minority", that is, black and gay identities (although the latter article is written by an Australian researcher). Perhaps such issues will become more important in British colleges and universities. They probably will, but maybe not on the scale or with the intensity experienced in the US.

A fourth volume is about higher education in Latin America, which reflects the Monroe-doctrine perspective of American researchers. No Asia, no Africa, no Australasia. Apart from Latin America only European higher education is covered in this "international" series - and in a curious way.Many of the articles in volume seven are either by European authors, but not necessarily about Europe, or they are concerned with Europe-wide organisations, notably the European Union.

The second qualification is more serious than the American slant, which at least has the advantage of challenging our instinctive insularity (we in Britain are quite capable of producing an even more insular "international series"). These seven volumes should be a treasure-house of higher education research. But the effect they produce goes

far beyond eclecticism and is, frankly,


The articles, all reproduced in their original formats without alteration range from heavyweight research reports, which are impeccable as scholarly productions but often suffer from having an extremely specific - not to say myopic - focus, to popular articles, which, although more readable, have often lost their immediacy and therefore cogency.

The appearance of incoherence - each volume resembles a jumble of photocopied hand-outs bound within elegant blue covers - is not mitigated by the brief introductions supplied by the editors.

The third qualification is the most serious. Many of the articles were written in the early 1990s, the 1980s and even the 1970s (I was unable to track down any contributions written in the 1960s, although a few are undated). In other words, some of the articles were written 30 or more years before the beginning of the new century they are allegedly illuminating.

In some cases this may not be too much

of a problem. Theories of system development and institutional change are slow- changing and, cynics allege, cyclical. For example, the work of James March on universities as organisations and presidential leadership, although the bulk of it dates

from the mid-1970s, contains important insights that are still useful to contemporary researchers.

In other cases, of course, it is a significant, even fatal, weakness. Time marches on. Even an article on the funding of higher education in the Czech Republic published in 1994 has lost much of its relevance now. Several other articles in volume seven on higher education in Europe, that relate to European Commission exchange and mobility programmes have been overtaken by events. Volume one on the academic profession contains an article with the title "Are women changing the nature of the academic profession?" - a good question, still without a proper answer, but it was published in 1990 and the data is from the 1980s.

Nevertheless, the series has two strengths. First, it holds up a mirror to higher education research. The state of research into colleges and universities in the US is not dissimilar to that of higher education research in Britain, although probably superior. There is certainly more of it, and it has higher peaks of quality largely because first-rate social scientists have not been so reluctant to make higher education their field of study.

But the essential contours are the same: a comparatively small number of journals, not of the first-rank in terms of scholarly prestige, colonised by a relatively specialised cadre of researchers and surrounded by a penumbra of more popular forms of writing, whether in the form of presidential rhetoric of the higher journalism.

It is interesting to speculate on why higher education has not caught fire as a research field - even in the US. One reason is perhaps that it struggles to escape from the shadows of educational research, which is mainly focused on schools; in the research assessment exercise it is awkwardly classified as a "adjunct" discipline to education, and even this semi-independence is largely due not to a clear recognition of its present and future standing but to the anachronistic autonomy enjoyed by adult and continuing education.

Another is that the field is fractured into, on the one hand, studies of policy, organisation, management and the larger theories generated by such studies, and on the other hand research into pedagogy and student development. The third reason, of course, is that researchers are reluctant to research their own world, because it raises difficult issues of objectivity and critical distance and also because the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. A fourth reason, at any rate in Britain, is that there are only a few courses in higher education on which a research superstructure can be built. Things are better in this respect in the US. Perhaps the Institute for Learning and Teaching will change things here, too.

The second strength of this unwieldy collection is that it allows us to observe the different emphases of British and American higher education, and perhaps to speculate about whether our system will become more like theirs.

A generation ago the latter was a routine assumption. Today we are more aware of the exceptional characteristics of higher education in the US. The European dimension has also become more influential, although it can be argued "Europeanisation" is the bastard child of "Americanisation". We have more in common in Europe because we have all become more American - and also because we have reacted against it.

So, on the evidence of these pages, are the agendas of American and British higher education substantially different? The pride of place given to the academic profession in this collection may also suggest a rather different priority and perspective.

In Britain studies of the profession have generally been more concerned to place the "dons" (a term only just going out of use) in the larger context of the formation of elites. It may not be a coincidence that the pioneering study of British Academics , by A. H. Halsey and Martin Trow, was an Anglo-American co-production. The redefinition of the academic profession as a large-scale community of post-secondary education teachers is both a novel and, to be frank, unpalatable idea in Britain.

Two other differences are also worth noting. The first is the absence of a volume on research, in British eyes a startling omission. Instead, "academic life" is defined in relation to, not even the curriculum or learning and teaching, but student development. In the US, higher education is strongly customer-

focused (outside the elite universities where value systems familiar to us prevail). Students are at the heart of the enterprise, to an extent to which even the most enthusiastic advocates of top-up fees and ardent privatisers in Britain would be reluctant to subscribe.

In Britain knowledge still is at the centre of the enterprise: not academic "producers", which is the usual charge made by impatient politicians and philistine managers. This contrast between "students" and "knowledge" is a key difference. But it is not necessarily true that the American way is the way of the future. Putting student customers rather than knowledge at the centre of higher education may produce a less dynamic system, especially in a less socially inventive society such as Britain and against the background of an emerging global knowledge society.

The second difference is the emphasis in this collection on institutions rather than systems. To some extent this is an accident of selection; there is a substantial body of American research on systems. But in an equivalent British series the balance would probably be the other way round.

These seven volumes are too loosely arranged to be judged a successful series that lives up to the ambitions announced in its title and subtitle. The quality, and currency, of these republished articles is too un-

even. But, most important of all, it does not tell a coherent "story". Texts and subtexts have to be teased out. The overall effect is that produced by Nennius's dark-ages History of Britain ; Altbach and his co-editors have made "a heap of facts" - or, rather, hand-outs.

Peter Scott is vice-chancellor, Kingston University.

Contemporary Higher Education - Volume Five: Catholic Higher Education at the Turn of the New Century

Editor - Joseph M. O'Keefe
ISBN - 0 8153 2660 2 and 0 8153 2659 9
Publisher - Garland Press
Price - $80.00 and $547.00 (Set of seven volumes)
Pages - 384

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments