The bureaucratisation of learning

In 1988 the American Historical Association celebrated its 100th anniversary. At the conference held to mark the event one of the speakers, the distinguished historian Theodore S. Hamerow, reflected on the many advances and achievements witnessed over the century, but then concluded that all was not well; he identified what he described as a ‘broad cultural process by which scholarship in the course of he 20th century became bureaucratised and rigidified in institutions of higher education’. Part of that had come about, he suggested, by the growth of ‘disciplines’ and the methods they used to protect their integrity, and partly by a bureaucratisation of learning.

In fact in 1989 the bureaucratisation of learning had hardly even started. Over the years that followed quality assurance processes, research assessment and other tools for developing transparency and standards could legitimately be said to have created anti-intellectual impulses in the academic system. The concept of ‘learning outcomes’ is a good example: a concept that completely misunderstands the process of learning by assuming that when you dress inputs as outputs something profound will happen. Learning should engage and stimulate the learner, and the result may (and in an ideal world will) be something unexpected. Learning outcomes are a tool to subvert that experience and suggest that the scholar’s mind can only go one particular way.

What has been happening is that we have tried to suggest that scholarship and learning, at their best, should be predictable, or that standardisation of learning is more important than originality of thought. If we go on this way it will not end well. It is time to reconceptualise education.

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17 Comments on “The bureaucratisation of learning”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Might it not be a function of opening up to the wider community and not a very pampered reserve for the very wealthy.
    In reality would you not say that there is an opening for such a pampered reserve yet again. There is bound to be some estate coming out of military use (Ad ripas Sabrina) with a plethora of accommodation blocks that would make profound financial sense for an old fashioned 1/4 ratio between staff and student.
    That way even the Porterhouse and the saddle of lamb would have shorter trips from Hereford and Gloucester. And loads of space for the ponies😀.

  2. One of the problems is that in moving to defining learning outcomes we are assuming that we can measure them. I know from casually chatting to experts in the area of measurement that there are ways of evaluating the reliability of measurement systems yet I know of no learned study on the reliability of the techniques we generally use for measuring learning. Perhaps the last thing we want to do is to critically examine the effectiveness of what we do ourselves.

  3. Niall Says:

    I’d have to disagree with your comments on learning outcomes. I would expect that academics and teachers have some idea of what they would like students to gain from their classes. That idea can be stated in terms of learning outcomes. An unexpected outcome is rarely profound and not always welcomed by lecturers indeed in many cases can lead to failure in assessment. If you are assessing, you are looking for expected outputs. You should be able to say what they are.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    Hamerow’s defense of the virtues of the amateur historian over the professional one seems to prefigure, somewhat ironically, today’s debates on the dangers of the ‘Cult of the Amateur’

    If Hamerow were to write today he would still complain about the burocratisation of scholarship and yet he might also be hopeful about the potential for the Web 2.0 revolution for injecting into learning and research the enthusiasm and spontaneity that he lamented were lost. Maybe it’s no accident that an historian, Robert Darnton, was among the the first in 1999 to advocate the production of scholarly books on the Internet (if anyone is interested in an historian’s perspective on the impact of the digital revolution on the discipline this might be a good read: Hitchcock, Tim, 2011: “Academic History Writing and its Disconnects.”

    Digital technologies aside, what I find most discouraging when it comes to the vast spectrum of criticism of higher education and universities currently in circulation (excessive managerialism, business-like models, corporatization, standardization of learning etc.) is the fact that such body of criticism is only destined to become another *discipline*, in other words to contribute to the same burocratization it purports to criticize.
    The recent piece in the Chronicle ‘Deconstructing Academe The birth of critical university studies’
    clearly demonstrates this. Pity that what is achieved by institutionalizing criticism is far from being a ‘deconstruction’ in the true meaning of the word, rather in Derrida’s sense we are caught up in “the necessity of an interminable analysis” ( We need to move away from this conundrum and bring about effective change.

  5. Learning outcome statements as an expression of intent are one thing, especially as they’re typically expressed with a wink in the direction of contingency (“Students who do such and such will successfully achieve so and so”). So, students who spend the semester lying under a tree may not achieve this goal etc.

    The emerging risk is big data: institutional attraction to standardised graduate testing that treats learning outcomes as a measurable indicator of the value that has been added to students by the fact of their completing university study. The outcome is what they can do now that they couldn’t before. The problem is that sometimes this transformation is subtle, idiosyncratic and slow-burning, and really not amenable to blunt comparative investigation.

    So it’s also a question of mistaking value-add for value proper. The agitation generated by Arum & Roksa’s Academically Adrift is an indication of what can happen within the broader public conversation about higher education’s value, when standardised testing fails to produce encouraging evidence that university participation is worth the debt.

  6. There are many ways that reliance on poor measurement and incentives can lead to bad decisions but does that let us off the hook in regard to proving that higher education is providing good value for money?

  7. Al Says:

    Well said!
    Its not so much that there is something wrong with the system, its that systems cast a shadow and the question of how to deal with them is the important question.
    To maintain a purity of the system and only cover material that can be an achievable outcomes ignores a much greater ecosystem of learning.
    One that stands out for me would be the importance of “practice outcomes” which would occur after a potential learning outcome has been met and the depth could be achieved through practise?

  8. Vincent Says:

    In all seriousness, is not the real question here whether you are educating people to answer questions or ask them

    • Al Says:

      In the terms that you put them, probably not
      It may take years to be able to ask a question, nevermind research an answer.
      There are two forces interacting here, the democratic where all opinions deserve to be heard, and the meritocratic where peer review is the modus operandi!
      What makes it interesting is that the democratic force is funding the meritocratic?

      • Vincent Says:

        That Democratic versus Meritocratic argument really doesn’t stack at all. You either have a Democratic or a Oligarchic. Use of merit is just a sweetened pill. Who in their correct mind would call Grammar schools anything other than gymnasium for an oligarchy. That was the why of my jokey comment about the use of a decommissioned base, see above. If the Rupert’s are the only ones getting a full top class education then they may as well be within a laager.
        To my mind if the universities are to have any credibility they should ensure that membership of college means equality within, while being armed to the teeth mentally for the coming fight outside the community.

        • Al Says:

          “Democratic versus Meritocratic/Oligarchy”
          Yes, I see that, an after thought to my posting of comment.

          Why cant one have a Republican one, in the Polybian or Hamiltonian sense?

  9. Vincent, might that comment be related to my observation that there are a lot of statements around here about what is wrong with the system, and what is wrong with some attempts to improve it, but not a lot of suggestions as to how it might be improved. Yes, a good education will encourage people to “ask the right questions” but may be of little benefit if they are incapable coming up with solutions.

  10. cormac Says:

    Glad to hear you say that Ferdinand. I have always hated learning outcomes. I thought they sounded ridiculous the first time I encountered them, and have thougt so ever since.
    Perhaps they suit some courses in businesss studies. All I know is the classic short syllabus was far more appropriate in physics – and still is.

  11. Dr Marc Cashin Says:

    This is an excellent article with which I wholly agree, even at the risk of incurring the wrath of the various Learning & Teaching Units, peppered throughout our HEI establishments. It appears to have gotten to the stage that LOs (even acronymed themselves!) have become very ‘processised’, with checklists and prescribed action verbs being used to validate student learning

  12. Wow. This debate is so constructive. Is this what it’s like taking an arts degree? I really missed out.

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