Power plays to market moves

July 6, 2001

There was no 'golden age' of universities before they were tainted by those golden arches, argues Alan Hudson.

University experience might be more common than in the past, but the experience students have today is unlike anything they would have had even a generation ago. The argument that this is a degraded experience is at the heart of McDonaldisation theory.

While the above is true, I take issue with the implicit assumption that there was a golden age of the university in which critical thinking and the rigorous questioning of inherited wisdom was the norm. The historical role of the university has not been to question authority, but to constitute it.

The university of Bologna owes its origin to its geographical location: the place where Byzantine diplomats travelling from the Adriatic ports met papal clerks from Rome. Here the two legal traditions had to be reconciled and interpreted.

In late 19th-century British universities, the curricula in literature and history were established to celebrate British supremacy and all that had contributed to this historic mission.

Until recently, the university was a rite of passage into the ordered world of the elite. Edward Gibbon said of his experience of Magdalen College, Oxford, in the middle of the 18th century that it was "the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life" and that the majority of students filled their days with drinking and idle chatter until they collapsed into sleep.

The social habits of the students were part of a wider process of socialisation: to become familiar with and accept self-confidently their position in the world, which included the right to rule. A minority would understand and innovate social policy; the majority would administer it.

For most of the period of western intellectual development, great and critical ideas have developed outside the university: the work of Darwin, Freud and Marx is testament to this. There is a powerful tendency towards standardisation and mediocrity in most higher education today. But it does not help to distort what the university was in the past.

The relationship of the university to the political elites broke down in the 1960s and 1970s. In the United Kingdom, this was because of the objective decline of British power and a subjective crisis of confidence in the upper echelons. In educational terms, it was manifested as an attack on the traditional curriculum and concessions to cultural relativism.

Through McDonaldising higher education, a less than self-confident political elite tries to reassert its control over the university. The paradox is that, in order to do so, the sense of a common culture that students had and the high standards that the exclusive minority aspired to, have been jettisoned.

This did introduce a more critical edge to academic life, but in the name of an attack on elitism it has indulged rather than challenged the student. In turn, the university experience has become a less secure gatekeeper both to and for the elite. The more prestigious MBAs fulfil this role better as undergraduate degrees have become a necessary but insufficient credential for anything of consequence.

The university is being reconstructed not on the model of the positive elements of its tradition, but on the negative aspect of ordering the experience according to measurable and behaviourally acceptable objectives.

Instead of bemoaning the fact that the establishment wants to reproduce its view of society, we should be looking at how the present regime, in its glorification of the market through performance indicators, emerged so seamlessly from the relentless attack on traditional ideas of knowledge. A good place to start would be to retrace our steps and realise that the worst way to challenge elitism is to attack the pursuit of excellence.

Alan Hudson is director of studies in social and political science at the University of Oxford's department for continuing education. He is giving a paper at the McDonaldisation of Higher Education conference, Canterbury Christ Church University College, July 7. www.cant.ac.uk/college/events.html

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