Fragmented higher education?

In the mid-1970s I was a student at Trinity College Dublin. At that time the College was re-assessing its role in Irish public life, but nevertheless most of the students felt comfortably superior to their counterparts at University College Dublin. TCD was founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. UCD was much newer, having its origins in either the mid-19th century or the early 20th century, depending on how you interpreted its history. At any rate TCD students tended to see the ‘other place’ as something of a parvenu, trading in vocational or maybe rural values that were worthy but not high value.

In the mid-1990s, when I was a Professor of the University of Hull, staff and students there felt themselves to be nicely superior to the then next-door University of Humberside (it later became the University of Lincoln), which had only just graduated from Polytechnic status. In the following decade I was President of Dublin City University, an institution whose transition to university status in 1989 had been fiercely resisted by many of those in the existing universities. And meanwhile back in the UK, the institutions that had become universities in 1992 were, in general parlance, seen as being in a different category from the pre-1992 institutions, referred to as ‘new’ or ‘modern’ universities.

Now a report has been published by a firm of consultants that suggests that in the United Kingdom (although actually I think the authors mean England) there is a taxonomy of universities with four distinct groups: (i) internationally competitive research universities; (ii) UK-focused research universities; (iii) teaching-focused universities with a UK-wide and international student base; and (iv) teaching-focused institutions with a predominantly regional student base. If one were to accept that these categories reflect recognisable divisions in the sector, it would suggest a fragmented system based not so much on diversity of mission as on age and perceived respectability. In football nobody is in League 2 because that’s where they prefer to be: they are there because their resources and reputation doesn’t allow them to play in the Premier League. In the university league, history and resources place (to use an example referred to in the above report) Northampton University in the regional teaching league, but if they could I have no doubt they’d love to be up there in the international champions’ league.

Britain loves a class system, and that’s what they’ve got in higher education also. As a result university ambitions are built around upward social mobility, whether that is attainable on traditional methods or not. But actually, what the system needs is not a yearning for the good times of league table elitism, but a genuine diversity of mission, with each mission being pursued because the institution believes in it and would want it even if something more traditionally respectable were available instead.

Today’s society needs at least some universities that are willing to be different, and that are willing to experiment with imaginative aspirations in relation to pedagogy, economic and social impact, cultural regeneration, and so forth. These aspirations need to be seen by those institutions as representing excellence that is as desirable as anything offered by Oxford, and they need to be quality-marked accordingly. The trick to achieving this lies in niche-based prioritisation and high value resourcing. And success probably lies in being visibly outside any category that a consultant’s report might produce.

It is time to diversify higher education based on vision and mission, not on history and old-age respectability.

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18 Comments on “Fragmented higher education?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    ‘Britain loves a class system, and that’s what they’ve got in higher education also. As a result university ambitions are built around upward social mobility, whether that is attainable on traditional methods or not.’

    This is the crux of the matter. What is proposed in the post is difficult to achieve exactly because universities are part of a social context which, in a capitalist system like our own, is built around notions of upward social mobility. Universities by themselves cannot change unless the system changes as well, the fragmentation of HE advocated here must be part of an overall social change universities can certainly contribute to bring about. Knowledge itself is becoming more *rhizomatic* (http://tinyurl.com/ydp397z) and technology (which, if I am not mistaken, is not mentioned at all in the report quoted in the post) are going to have an impact on HE of course, however it is not so strange that at times of transition like ours so called ‘core’ values like prestige and respectability are highly praised, as this recent study has shown ‘the assumption underlying market policies, that consumers base their higher education choices on factors that institutions can change such as the content, quality and price of their programmes, and not on factors beyond their control such as their history and their past reputation, is questionable.’ http://tinyurl.com/co2f8kc

  2. MunchkinMan Says:

    Just a couple of quick comments. First: the report cited by Ferdinand has no rationale, no commissioning statement, and no context, other than an attempt by some consulting firm to add their tuppence-worth to the almost tiresome debate on ‘Whither UK Universties?’ However, it adds nothing new to the debate, just regurgitating maxims (geddit?) with which we are all familiar. Second: the report is seduced by the conventional apparent divide of ‘research intensive’ universities on the one hand and ‘teaching’ universities on the other. In truth, ALL universirty research, (that is, with the involvement of graduate students in programmes associated with research-funded university units that lead to a further degree such as a Masters or Doctorate) are, in fact, teaching programmes. The students are being (or should be)taught the fundamental elements of knowledge acquisition, analysis, logic, thesis, critique, etc.

    As for the statement that ‘Britain loves a class system’, where’s the hard evidence? The Maxxim report certainly doesn’t show it (nor much else for that matter).

  3. Al Says:

    If we could start with honesty! divested of ambition, self interest, and speculative promotion…….

    • MunchkinMan Says:

      Good point, Al. it seems to me that vested and self interests are the driving forces behind the current crisis in UK (and Irish) universities. If only the true teachers (those with a sincere belief in the power and good that knowldege can offer society) could take the helm of the universities then all would see the significant benefits that universities can bring. In the meantime, self-serving career-minded researchers who sniff out the next bag of money from avaricious commercial influences will continue to hold sway over the next generation of highly educated young people. This will only continue the turmoil that universities are currently experiencing.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Regarding the statement that ‘Britain loves a class system’, one could quote an extensive literature on the matter, this chapter alone from Carradine’s The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain is rather useful in presenting a balanced view, which I personally share http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/c/cannadine-class.html
        However you only need to consider popular culture to appreciate the role that class plays in British society, have you heard of Downtown Abbey ??

        • MunchkinMan Says:

          There’s no doubt that social divisions (or classes) do exist in Britain, as they do in all societies across all ages of human existence. The ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have-Nots’ (mostly in terms of ‘having’ wealth or status) has been a feature of the human condition from time immemorial. But my call for ‘evidence’ was not in relation to the existence of class in Britain but in relation to the observation that Britain (British peole?) actually LOVE a (their) class system.

          Ah, yes, Downton Abbey: now, I DO admit that the ratings for this TV drama showed that many TV viewers (including those in this fine republic of ours) tuned in. A good TV drama that’s all. And you mentioned Downton because…?

          • MunchkinMan Says:

            BTW, when you cite a reference, as you do with CaNNadine, and whose opinions you personally share, make sure you spell his name correctly [Cannadine, not Carradine]. Not doing so can leave readers of this blog concluding that if you can’t even type his name, then you may simply be name dropping….(the letters r and n are sifficiently wide apart on the keyboard to make an excuse of a slipped typo rather unbelievable)…;)

      • Al Says:

        I don’t think its a case of kicking the money changers out of the Temple. …
        If one accepts the class construct of society then are we in a dangerous position where all classes are at a potential loss with the current situation. …

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    That was an obvious typo, besides habitual readers of this blog know that I strive to get references right in my comments
    (also, have you deliberately mistyped ‘sufficiently’ and ‘people’ in your own comments above to prove the unbelievability of my own typo? ;)
    As for Downtown Abbey, it has been a global success of course but I don’t think it is just ‘a good TV drama’, this Slate article offers an interesting perspective from the US http://www.slate.com/articles/life/roiphe/2012/01/downton_abbey_and_our_new_obsession_with_class_.html
    particularly when it states: ‘There is something reassuring about the retrograde class structures in Downton Abbey, something elegant and comforting in their rigidity’ and in conclusion
    ‘Our feelings about class are muddled and wildly complicated, and in order to truly understand the conversation going on in the culture, we might want to look not only at editorials and protests and political debates, but at the people escaping into episodes of Downton Abbey’.
    The Slate article refers to an ‘obsession’ with class, of course the British love for class mentioned in today’s post, as any other kind of love, can degenerate into an obsession..

  5. Eduard Says:

    I think that the four categories in the report do represent pretty accurately the UK H/E “landscape”; what’s most noticeable is that there has been very little mobility since the abolition of the binary divide twenty years ago. Most 1960s unis are now in the 1994-type category and the old unis are Russell group etc.
    This is a legacy which is hard to break, especially as govt and other funding disproportionately goes to the haves so, although I’d like to share Ferdinand’s cri de couer for lower ranking unis to be braver and break the mould, I feel that if anything, the divide will widen

  6. OMF Says:

    It is time to diversify higher education based on vision and mission, not on history and old-age respectability.

    It’s worth asking the question: Why does diversifying HE mean that the number of HE institutions have to increase? In particular, what would be the problem with simply increasing the number of students in existing universities?

    (The short answer to this question involves considering just how many DCU students TCD would like to take in. Damo and Ivor know the answer.)

  7. V.H Says:

    Is not this something of a non question or answer depending where you are looking at it. Either way, non.
    If a PhD awarded in one university is of a different standard then we might be heading someplace and since it isn’t it’s not. Another way of looking at it would be if blue sky thinking were it posited at Cambridge would it get more legs than at say the last place given university status in league IV. I would suggest it wouldn’t.

  8. Eddie Says:

    @MunchkinMan. Read your observation with interest! Carradine versus Cannadine, that is David Carradine, the Kung Fu TV series actor versus David Cannadine, the historian! You could say at least both are David (sadly, David Carradine is no more!)

    • MunchkinMan Says:

      …I used to having a slanting regard for all that Kung-Fu stuff in the 70s. The connection between to the two men may be stronger than is widely otherwise apparent. CaRRadine was an on-screen portrayer of that ancient oriental martial art, while CaNNadine wrote a historical treatise entitled Ornamentalism, in which he juxtaposes his views in the context of an earlier book entitled Orientalism, a thesis on the former British Empire and its relationship with the East. So, how about that? Maybe I was too harsh on Anna in my earlier post…?

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        ‘The errors of a man are what make him really lovable’ (Goethe)

      • Eddie Says:

        “Maybe I was too harsh on Anna in my earlier post…?” Not at all! You did very well there!
        I used to like Carrdine Kung FU series when it was first shown in US in 1970s,, when I was a postgraduate/research student there. I have met Cannadine, when he was at London U- he was working in the Instute of Historical Research at the Senate House not long ago. He gave some good lectures there. I am not in Humanities, but a STEM guy., still was interested in his talks. As a Londoner, I could attend his lectures with ease.

        • MunchkinMan Says:

          If I had to choose between the two, I’d go for Carradine these days. 40-odd years ago I could settle my imagination on what the future held for me, and Carradine portrayed that noble fight against the odds. Was it Thomas Jefferson who said ‘I prefer the dreams of the future to the history of the past’? I’m a Londoner too (born near Southwark Bridge, near the now-trendy Borough Market), but long since left…


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