Mr Brown, please balance our cultural capital

July 13, 2007

Government must democratise excellence, Alan Skelton writes in our series on new ideas for higher education

It would be unwise for Gordon Brown to make any appeal to the excellence of our "world-class universities", since such claims sound increasingly hollow.

The annual conference of the Higher Education Academy featured a debate entitled "Has excellence become a meaningless concept in higher education?" This captures the prevailing mood of many in the profession: at best, it is a term that arouses confusion; at worst, deep suspicion or even hostility.

Such reactions are understandable because, although access to higher education has increased significantly, excellence has yet to be adequately recast as part of a democratic project.

The trouble with excellence is that its meaning has become increasingly unclear with the shift from an elite to a mass system of higher education. In the mid-19th century there was a relatively stable idea of the university and therefore some consensus on excellence based on a reputational view of excellence: it was deemed to exist in the prestigious ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge. But this consensus has gradually eroded.

Excellence has now entered into our everyday discourse, used strategically as part of a broader neoliberal educational reform project to address two main problems. First, it wards off any notion of falling standards as the student body has expanded and become more diverse.

Second, it drives out inefficiency and waste by encouraging competition between institutions and offering students greater choice. This "egalitarian" conception of excellence - that multiple forms can coexist, have equal value and be subject to customer choice - has been vigorously pursued by new Labour.

There is a growing recognition, however, that the notion of different yet equal is problematic. It is clear that the higher education system is stratified with significant inequalities in the material wealth of institutions as well as symbolic differences in terms of their cultural capital. This is evident in the way so-called "research-intensive" universities are distinguished from "teaching-intensive" ones.

Finally, support for institutional diversity can lead to relativistic understandings of excellence. For example, the recent Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning initiative, while leading to many interesting innovations, has made many wonder: if there are so many different and contradictory claims to excellence, then perhaps excellence means nothing at all?

It is evident therefore that new Labour has not completed its project of democratising excellence. Three options seem to be open to Gordon Brown.

* Forget about excellence. Recognise that it is no longer signifies anything. Adopt a new language fit for today. Perhaps we should talk about "good enough" higher education as we talk about "good enough" parenting? But this is unlikely to be politically palatable as it smacks of mediocrity.

* Develop a universal understanding of excellence fit for the 21st century. Have the political vision and will to imagine a new idea of the university to which excellence contributes and that is rolled out in all institutions as part of their core mission. This will involve identifying a more ambitious ontological and epistemological project for higher education beyond meeting the needs of commerce and industry. All students will have an entitlement to this form of excellence.

* Continue with the project of encouraging different forms of excellence to emerge within different types of institution. Here, excellence is about "fitness for purpose" rather than a position on a standard scale. However, if different forms of excellence are to carry equal status and weight then they must be funded equally and culturally prized for their particular contribution to society.

So what policies and practices might be pursued to complete the democratisation of excellence? I would recommend that the Government starts by instigating a serious debate about its meaning in higher education and what broader purpose(s) it should serve. This would involve an in-depth discussion as to the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different options above.

Then, irrespective of the outcome of this discussion, all higher education institutions should be funded equally and quasi-market mechanisms, such as the research assessment exercise, should be abandoned, since these perpetuate inequalities and shore up reputational understandings of excellence.

After this, the culture of measurement that has trivialised excellence in recent years and the language of business that has reduced it to a product (economy, efficiency and effectiveness) need to be replaced by more appropriate forms of judgment and expression. Government ministers can act as role models here in talking up excellence, and policy texts can instantiate new ways of thinking about it.

Policies on excellence need to be more than rhetorical or performative devices - politicians need actually to believe in them. If different forms of excellence are to have equal value then perhaps it is time for leading politicians to support them through actions and the choices made by their sons and daughters.

Alan Skelton is a senior lecturer in higher education at Sheffield University and editor of International Perspectives on Teaching Excellence in Higher Education , soon to be published by Routledge.

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