Of babies and bathwater

January 19, 2001

Europe's rush to mass education has not been matched with money or clear policies, Sheldon Rothblatt writes.

I recently asked some European colleagues, all in the social sciences and mostly historians, to identify a central or overriding policy challenge for higher education. Their politics vary but not hugely. Essentially pragmatic and large minded, they also believe in an "idea of a university".

Until the 1960s, when secondary school access had greatly improved, the university looked like its ancestors earlier in the century. It was happily elitist, participation rates were low, meritocratic selection the norm, staffing ratios generally good, academic standards exemplary. Teaching commitments varied by country, but maintaining quality of learning in an elite system is relatively simple since students teach one another.

Mass access policies have permanently disrupted such uniformity of purpose. My colleagues are filled with misgivings, but all of them regarded the expansion of their national systems as perhaps the most important of government achievements. All agree, however, that the transformation of an elite into a mass-access system has not been accompanied by the thinking and financial policies essential for its success. A good intention, advancing the opportunity structure, is beset by frequent and schizophrenic mid-course corrections by the state.

Mediocracy replaces meritocracy. In some countries, external assessment agencies and exercises measure achievement by mechanistic criteria, because a real test of quality requires finer distinctions and a sounder basis of trust.

Invariably, money is the dominant topic, but colleagues in Britain gave variations on that theme. The elimination of the binary line removed a justification for differential funding and hence for a differentially segmented national system of higher education, with clear institutional responsibilities for different functions and categories of student.

The principle of diversity of purpose needs to be respected: diversity in selection of students, in access, in quality, resources and mission. The government is fighting diversity, and that, more or less, is also the opinion of a Norwegian historian, who welcomed the principle but finds it disregarded since about 1990. In Sweden, writes a friend there, the regional college missions are uncertain, their quality uneven. As in the instance of the British polytechnics, they aspired to university ranking and its attendant unit of resource, but even where they were successful their income is insufficient for their assigned role.

No one finds the flexibility, so noisily trumpeted by the political leadership of their societies, reflected in actual policies. None of my respondents specifically mentioned institutional bloc grants that could be used at discretion as desirable. Nor were tuition charges suggested, a major sticking point in Europe.

However, one friend expressed the possibility of a compromise, lump sums targeted to disciplines, allowing the specialists to determine their best use.

Government legislation that decentralises institutional decision-making has the approval of colleagues in Sweden, Belgium and Scotland. At the same time, the point is made that such freedoms exist mainly on paper. In practice, revenues are earmarked in ways that utterly prevent initiative. The use of fiscal policy to drive institutions to market is well understood; but in different ways, as in France and Britain, governments wish to control both markets and universities.

With respect to France and Holland, another friend deplores the concept of knowledge as a commodity rather than for citizenship or even culture. It is not the markets themselves that are wholly to blame. Market economies are distinguished by enormous variety, but the rhetoric of consumption is the premise that students know their "needs", or governments do, and "needs" are always to be defined in the form of skills and proficiencies.

As for the dons, one colleague notes the absence of an imaginative response in Sweden and the disappearance of any serious discussion about the career objectives of teaching and research. Another remarks that English academics are ambivalent about differentiation (except for those once below the line eager to get above it). None of my friends deplores the weakening of chairholder authority. They appear to welcome the disappearance of former status distinctions in rank. One, writing of the Low Countries, is emphatic. Knowledge, and perhaps the authority of knowledge, rather than the authority of the person, is what matters.

In Norway, where I have been teaching, the government of one of Europe's richest countries is accumulating a large surplus while education and health needs are unmet. Such is the common criticism. Rather more alarmingly, discontent has led to the emergence of a populist political party, now high in the polls. The demand is for increased spending.

A commission on higher education has just issued a gigantic report. A preamble unusual in such documents is a model of sensitive understanding of the traditions of universities. It is astonishingly literate, even elegant. The body of the report, however, bangs away on the familiar drum of efficiency, innovation, standardised credit units and the international marketing of Norwegian higher education. Friends find their institutional settings problematical.

Enthusiasm cannot survive in a sea of policies that, however worthy, do not have at bottom an understanding of what Lord Annan called the struggle to know something, "to produce out of the chaos of the human experience some grain of order won by the intellect".

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.

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