Those in the know

The Limits of Competence
April 28, 1995

Ronald Barnett's writings are not to be overlooked. Not only is he one of the most prolific writers on the philosophy of higher education, he has also been an important participant in the making of policy. (He was, for instance, the author of the recent review of the quality assessment exercise by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.) His latest book sets itself the ambitious task of charting recent changes in higher education and proposing a new course for the future. The greater part of it is devoted to arguing that a fundamental change has taken place in the relationship between higher education institutions and society. In the past, these institutions, small though they were, were society's main source of knowledge. Today, by contrast, though vastly larger, they are but one of many sources of knowledge.

Barnett contends that higher education is beginning to find it can no longer decide its own forms of knowing but has instead to "respond to an epistemological agenda being put to it by the wider society". High on this agenda are notions such as "skills", "competence", "outcomes" and "enterprise", aspects of a ideology he describes as "operationalism". Though he accepts that relevant competence and skill are desirable in graduates, they result in closure, narrowness and the neglect of the worthwhile aims once characteristic of higher education when they become the organising principles of a course of study. He laments the supposed loss, or decline, of such once-central values as "understanding", "critique", "interdisciplinarity" and "wisdom": victims, it appears, of the advance of "operationalism".

Apart from one sentence in the introduction, the first three-quarters of the book give little indication that its purpose is to do more than chart the erosion of cherished academic values by the tide of operational competence. Then, quite abruptly, another version of competence, "academic competence" is introduced. Though not discussed in much detail, this appears to involve the initiation of a student into the values, ways of seeing, habits of thought, tacit understandings and suchlike that are characteristic of a particular discipline. According to Barnett, operational competence" values "know-how" and "outcomes" while "academic competence" values "know-that" and "propositions". Both forms of competence are criticised for being narrow and ideological.

Finally Barnett sketches a conception of higher education that goes beyond competence, which he entitles, drawing on a term of Jurgen Habermas, "Life-World Becoming". This alternative conception is not examined in detail but involves an emphasis on such attributes as reflective knowing, openness, dialogue and consensus.

It is hard to judge how Barnett intends his alternative conception of higher education to be understood. Is it simply a utopian dream or a blueprint for reform? What are the social forces whose interests it might advance? (A particularly telling point considering the emphasis the author gives to the power his two versions of competence derive from their roots in social interests).

Although the book is thought-provoking and draws on an extraordinarily wide range of scholarship (to the point sometimes of being a little like an annotated reading list), its overall effect is disappointing. Not only is its conclusion rushed and in apparent tension with earlier parts of the book, but it also frustrates the reader by making many rapid allusions to major intellectual issues (for example, the mind-body problem and post-modernism), which it leaves hanging, with tantalisingly little elaboration.

Peter Wright is an assistant director, Higher Education Quality Council.

The Limits of Competence

Author - Ronald Barnett
ISBN - 0 335 19070 7 and 19341 2
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.99
Pages - 205pp

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