Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The University Experience: Then and Now

West quadrangle at the University of Glasgow
Quadrangle at Uni of Glasgow (euanfreeman)
by Professor Robert Manne, Personal Chair in Politics at La Trobe University, The Conversation: http://theconversation.edu.au

Before the second world war, a very small minority of the population in Western societies went to universities. Most were men, most were from the social elite.

From the late 1950s that changed. With a growing movement towards gender equality, a progressively larger number of people attended university.

Even though there was talk about the value of liberal education and the virtues of a more highly educated population, it is probably true, as British historian Eric Hobsbawm argued in his masterwork, Age of Extremes, that the central reason for the post-fifties growth in universities was the need to train the upper echelons of the administrative and teaching workforce of what was becoming an increasingly sophisticated manufacturing and service economy.

In the absence of any alternative site of training, universities, the principal existing institutions of higher education, filled that need. In Western societies universities moved in half a century from elite institutions where typically less than one per cent of the population spent their late adolescence or early adulthood to mass institutions where eventually 30 or 40% did.

Hobsbawm regarded this change as so dramatic and significant that he analysed it in detail in his chapters dealing with what he calls the most consequential transformation in human history - the post-war economic and social revolutions of capitalism’s 1950-1975 golden age.

It was inescapable that when institutions that once introduced the elites of society to the great disciplines of learning within the Western tradition and prepared them for some of the gentlemanly professions were turned into mass institutions aspiring both to educate and train almost half the population, their character would undergo profound change.

Universities were once governed by their permanent, senior residents - the professors - according to the principle of collegiality. It was unrealistic in the extreme to imagine that mass universities could continue to be managed by academics.

Universities - communities of permanent and temporary residents dedicated to the idea of the pursuit and transmission of truth - once claimed for themselves considerable autonomy from the state.

It was also unrealistic to expect that especially in those countries, like Australia, where a large proportion of the costs of running the universities was borne by taxpayers, that the kind of autonomy universities had once expected and been granted, would be able to be maintained.

Freedom and purpose

One part of the autonomy universities once claimed for themselves was lifelong tenure for their permanent residents. If the disciplined pursuit of truth was the university’s purpose, untrammelled freedom of thought was its condition and lifelong tenure its guarantee.

The hope that lifelong tenure might be maintained in mass institutions - a central purpose being to train the workforce of a technologically sophisticated and also rapidly evolving economy - was altogether unrealistic.

Another part of the autonomy universities claimed for themselves was the right to choose among the scholarly traditions and among the gentlemanly professions which disciplines or fields of vocational training would be pursued within their walls and which would not.

There was once a time, not so long ago, when the collegial bodies of governance at the universities would debate with some intensity whether or not a newfangled discipline was worthy of being allowed to join the scholarly community of the university.

In the new regime, this form of autonomy was also unsustainable. Now new disciplines or fields of study were introduced by a non-collegial managerial strata responsive both to the pressures of the market and to the wishes of their paymasters, governments. Universities had once rejected sociology, but they now happily embraced information technology or tourism.

Change by degrees

The university systems of different Western countries have been affected to different degrees by the changes brought to tertiary education by the rapid expansion for economic reasons after the 1950s.

In countries where tradition had the deepest hold and where the oldest universities were not reliant on government funding - like the Ivy League universities in the United States and Oxbridge in the United Kingdom - universities were much more able to retain aspects of their traditional character.

In these countries much of the technical training beyond the older professions took place in other, newer, more purely vocationally oriented, higher education institutions, sometimes also called universities.

In countries where all universities were very heavily reliant on government funding - like Australia - the character of the university sector was most deeply affected by the new social pressures.

Australia was, in addition, even more deeply affected because of the impact of the native strand of egalitarianism which was intolerant of the vestigial atmosphere of what could easily be construed as elitism surrounding the traditional university.

The general process which undermined the traditional conception of the university in all Western countries was radically sped up in Australia with the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s where the universities were merged with the purely vocational Colleges of Advanced Education.

A different education

I am not an expert or an authority on universities. I was, however, once a beneficiary of a university education, at a time when the traditional idea of the university was still quite strong, and have since then spent my entire working life at the university, trying to the best of my ability to give to my students an experience of the kind of university education I was fortunate enough to receive.

Let me describe briefly the central elements of what was valuable about the kind of university I studied at in Melbourne in the mid to late 1960s. The university of the mid-1960s could be experienced, genuinely, as a community composed of permanent residents - the academics - and temporary residents - the undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Academics were believed to be, and to a large degree in fact were, the stewards of the university tradition and the governors of the community. Administrators seemed to exist at the margins. I still remember my surprise when I first learned that there was a modest building devoted to those working in administration.

The university self-consciously saw itself as the heir to something which had deep roots in the soil of medieval Europe. It also saw itself and was experienced as an unworldly institution.

The 1960s was a radical moment in the political culture. But because of the self-conception of unworldliness, there was a common - probably mythical - view that draft dodgers might take sanctuary on university grounds because police were not permitted to enter.

As it was thought that the university was always likely in one way or another to betray its essentially unworldly character, the ironic description given to it was “the shop”.

To read further, go to: http://theconversation.edu.au/the-university-experience-then-and-now-10135?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%2022%20October%202012&utm_content=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%2022%20October%202012+CID_5e5112e2c580235647a9f666d9bc8bcb&utm_source=campaign_monitor&utm_term=The%20university%20experience%20%20then%20and%20now
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