April 16, 2012, by Paul Greatrix

Killing the myths in higher education

Misunderstandings and myths

An interesting new pamphlet has just been published by HEPI. Misunderstanding Modern Higher Education: Eight “category mistakes” is a brief and snappy read and is available from the HEPI website:

In this HEPI occasional report, Professor Sir David Watson discusses eight myths – category mistakes – concerning higher education that are widely believed, and argues that these need to be exploded if higher education is to maintain its current comparatively healthy state. This report is based on his presentation to a joint HEPI/HEA seminar at the House of Commons on 26 January 2012.

It’s quite a challenging set of propositions. Here a category mistake is defined as a “sentence that says one thing in one category that can only intelligibly be said of something of another” eg “what does blue smell like?” Watson suggests there are at least eight category mistakes in higher education discourse at present. Some of these I’d agree with but other I think are less convincing.

1. “University” performance

Watson argues that it is the sector or the subject rather than the institution which is the more meaningful unit of analysis. This is certainly true in certain areas, eg NSS, as suggested here. BUT the institution is the key organisational unit, indeed the primary one. While it can reasonably be argued that the university is no more than the sum of its (academic) parts and the staff in those units identify with them more strongly than with the university itself, it is surely wrong to imagine that the subject/department can regarded as an entirely independent unit. There is a mutual dependency here.

3. HE “Sector”

We should be talking about tertiary, ie post-secondary, education rather than exclusively about higher ed. I’m not sure I agree nor does it seem to me that this is a category error. “Higher” education is a sub-category of tertiary education. It is funded differently and has a different set of traditions and regulatory frameworks to other tertiary provision. We might want to take a more rounded view of tertiary education and, indeed, it would be short-sighted not to. But do we gain much by preventing sub-divisions within the very wide range of activity that is tertiary education?

4. Research “selectivity”

Research concentration, which the system encourages, is running counter to the national need and the general trend towards inter-institutional collaboration. In the long run, concentration of research will be counter-productive and isolated work will wither. Two tiers won’t work therefore. But surely this is just an argument for a different kind of selectivity, one based on different criteria to those generated through RAE/REF? For example, signficant collaboration could be the primary criterion. With limited resources to go round though there is always going to be some selectivity.

Probably mythical

5. World-classness

Watson highlights the madness of the international league tables and notes that what everyone says they want is not reflected in what league tables measure. The international tables, which are the determinant of ‘world-classness’, are fundamentally related to research. Again therefore this is about the criteria selected.

7. Informed choice

The paper rightly notes that student choices over time have moulded our system. The idea that students need more information which will then persuade the market to do what government wants is, Watson argues, fundamentally misguided. Additional information is simply not going to get students to do government’s bidding.

8. Reputation and quality: the confusion between the two

Clearly there is some form of relationship between reputation and quality but Watson argues that the gap in reality is much smaller than it often appears. Good quality can clearly exist independently of reputation. Also Watson rightly notes the perception of student instumentalism and its dominance in the discourse.

(I’ve ignored number 2, Access, and number 6, The public/private divide, here.)

And finally…

Finally, Watson asks “What is to be done”?

Rather than Leninist solutions though he offers three particular suggestions. First, the system will need to be messier, more flexible and co-operative. Secondly, we should not chase the Harvard model but rather aim to develop a system more like the California Masterplan – this is really about the national direction of tertiary education. Thirdly, he argues that a proper credit accumulation and transfer framework is needed: “we fail to use these systems for reasons of conservatism, snobbery and lack of imagination”. (Actually, I’d suggest it is much more about a desire to protect institutional autonomy.)

Watson concludes by arguing that we should start by tackling these category mistakes and then learn to live with “flux and contingency”. I’m not sure we would want to spend a huge amount of time on the former or that we have any choice about the latter. It’s the nature of the world we operate in. Do read the piece though.

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