- Ethiopia education

European Education Research Association Annual Conference
Dublin: 7-10 September 2005
The final version of this paper was published in: Educational Theory vol 56 no 4 2006 pp
The practice of higher education: in pursuit of
excellence and of equity
David Bridges
University of East Anglia and
Von Hügel Institute, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge
Higher education is, I suggest, a practice in its own right, though one of which the primary
function is to initiate people into a variety of other practices including study, scholarly enquiry
and research (each in a variety of forms) but also professional practices (at least I am content to
call them such but c.f., for example, MacIntyre and Dunne 2002 and Noddings 2003) associated
with medicine, law, teaching etc. It is a practice in its own right in that it is constituted by rule
governed and purposive behaviours, values and ideological framing which have some historical
continuity and which are shared (to a greater or lesser degree) by communities of practitioners –
albeit, as I shall go on to describe, that both the commonality of values and purposes and the
historical continuity have been increasingly disrupted. In the course of this paper I shall
consider some rather more nuanced analysis of this view of practice, but this rough account will
do to start with.
As someone engaged in the practice and practices of higher education in the UK and elsewhere,
the first thing which strikes me about them is the rapidity and radical nature of the changes
which are taking place, not least in response to economic and social agenda demanding wider
participation in higher education and the consequent ‘massification’ of higher education. I want,
first, to outline some of these changes and then to discuss some issues which they raise both for
the very nature of higher education and for considerations of equity in the variety of its
contemporary expression. While the account of change I describe here is mainly drawn from
recent experience in the UK, the association of the pursuit of wider participation in higher
education with its development in diverse forms can be observed in such diverse settings as the
United States, where of course it is a long established feature of the higher education scene, and
contemporary Ethiopia, which is currently pursuing one of the fastest rates of growth in higher
education in the world, albeit from a very small base.
Within living experience higher education operated pretty generally in the UK under the
following conditions:
residence in the physical environment of a university;
in the company of a volume of other students;
of a broadly similar age (roughly 18-21);
with a vigorous social and (broadly) cultural life;
for three consecutive terms for three years;
some combination of reading, writing, listening to lectures, participation in seminars
and tutorials and, where appropriate, laboratory work;
engagement with ‘academic’ knowledge in which on the whole abstract concepts
were esteemed above concrete practices and critical and creative capacity above
routinised skills;
with teaching staff who were similarly resident in proximity to the university;
who had qualified for their positions through successful scholarly work.
Even today universities like Oxford and Cambridge operate under broadly these conditions. In
Cambridge students are still required to live within three miles of the University Church of
Great St Mary’s and staff within 10 miles and, with only very few exceptions, to study full time.
All students and staff have an affiliation with a residential College community (housed in
buildings still largely modelled on those historically associated with monastic communities) in
which they are encouraged to dine on a regular basis. Terms are rigidly defined and kept,
though what was previously referred to as the summer vacation has been re-designated a
‘research period’! There is another side of Cambridge which tends to get less attention. The
Institute of Continuing Education (previously and rather revealingly the ‘Extra Mural Board’)
actually provides courses for some 15,000 part-time students across the region in which the
university is situated, and a recent survey in the University indicated that staff and students
committed something of the order of 202,412 hours in one year to voluntary work in the
community. Nevertheless, for an ordinary undergraduate or graduate student in Cambridge
University the features which have traditionally defined the experience of higher education have
very largely been maintained, albeit under increasing pressure for change.
However, one only needs to look to two other universities co-located in Cambridge to see how
diverse the higher education sector has become. Anglia Polytechnic University has one of its
main campuses in the same town as well as another 45 miles away in Chelmsford and some
fifteen further education colleges in the East of England ‘delivering’ its degrees as part of its
Regional Federation. A high proportion of its students are part time and mature. Many of them
take advantage of schemes for the accreditation of prior learning and prior experiential learning
which are almost non-existent in Cambridge University. Within a few hundred yards there is
the Regional Office of the Open University catering exclusively for distance learners, of which a
large number are scattered through the rural and coastal areas of East Anglia in which there is
very little opportunity to access conventional campus universities.
These examples illustrate what I want to treat a little more systematically – the changing forms
of practice of higher education which have challenged all of the characterising, perhaps
defining, features of traditional higher education.
The communities of practice
The massification of higher education (as the UK approaches 50% participation rates) has gone
alongside and partly been achieved through the bringing into the academy of sectors of
professional or quasi professional education and training that fell previously outside it. In the
1970s and 1980s separate teacher training institutions or, more accurately Colleges of
Education, were incorporated into the then polytechnics and in some cases universities. At the
same time new degree level qualifications were introduced (the BEd) which added an academic
gloss to the base of professional training. When in 1992 the Polytechnics were themselves re2
designated as universities, this completed the process of the ‘universitification’ of teacher
education. The 1992 universities (in particular) quickly engrossed other educational and
training institutions: horticultural and agricultural colleges, colleges of art and design and, then,
as a result of further policy decisions, colleges of nursing, occupational and physiotherapy,
radiography and pharmacology etc.. The integration of these institutions, their professional
practitioners and their professional and educational practice into universities had far reaching
The practitioners
One consequence was that university had to embrace people who brought to their teaching not
so much the fruits of scholarly learning and research but rather the fruits of their experience in
working environments. For all the benefits (or otherwise) of the scholarly study of philosophy,
sociology and psychology of education, would be teachers needed to learn how to plan lessons
and control noisy classrooms, and though academics might in some cases be able to provide
such know how it was not easy to combine both requirements and it was quickly clear that
practising teachers needed to be brought into partnership with university staff in order to provide
effective training. Similarly training for professions allied to medicine (which in some cases
expanded to around 20% of the undergraduate teaching of the university), social work and
business management required people with recent and continuing experience in the workplace
as a resource for students. Universities often laid on these staff the traditional expectations for
research and research publication that they had of other academics in the university, but the
tension between these demands has often been acute, and many universities have recognised that
they are unrealistic. Thus the contemporary academy includes in large numbers people whose
expertise lies in the area of professional practice rather than scholarship and whose teaching is
based on that expertise and its associated practice (albeit popularly glossed with what Schön
conveniently offered in terms of ‘reflective practice’) rather than the more traditional practices
of scholarly enquiry and research.
With this diversity of practitioners in higher education has come diversity in the conditions of
service. Many of those who contribute out of their professional expertise do so from and in their
workplaces (see below) and with very little direct contact with the university which they are
serving. Many are employed part time and on short term contracts. Similarly their counterparts
in research-only posts who live from one externally funded research project to the next can
spend years not knowing whether they have a future in a particular institution or not. It is not
uncommon for up to a third of academic posts in universities to be of this kind. One of the
consequences is of course a high level of mobility between institutions and a reluctance of staff
to put down roots and invest in property when their future is so unsure – so they commute,
often long distances across the country, and instead of an academic community contained within
a tight geographic and social space, you have one widely dispersed and only rarely encountering
each other.
The temporality of practice
The expansion of part-time courses (in evenings, week-ends and summer schools) and the
asynchronous periods of teaching and learning required by different forms of professional
education and training (not to mention distance learning programmes for which this is a boasted
virtue) compound the problem of holding the staff of a higher education institution together as a
face to face interactive intellectual community, albeit that modern technology provides
altogether more fluent and voluminous opportunities for other sorts of interactions, notably by email.
But time gets disrupted in other ways too. Traditional higher education required sustained study
and attention even in England where the normal three year undergraduate course was
substantially shorter than some of its continental counterparts. But in most UK universities
programmes constructed largely within a single subject departments and with progression
through a programme under the direction of a relatively stable group of staff has been
significantly fragmented by the introduction of modular programmes designed to give students
more opportunities to pick and mix their studies and credit frameworks designed to facilitate
breaks in the continuity of those studies. Many of these modules were based on semester long
commitments, but service driven universities quickly realised that even this was too heavy a
commitment for some students, unsure perhaps about their ability to cope, and others engaged in
busy working lives. Thus the retail discourse and practice of ‘bite-sized chunks of learning’ and
‘just in time learning’ has come to be applied to the practice of higher education in what has
been dubbed ‘the theatre of fast knowledge’ (Besley and Peters 2004 but see also Ritzer 2000).
The sites of practice
These developments, driven by the inclusion of wider spheres of professional training within the
curriculum of the university, have also required movement of the sites of practice of higher
education outside the physical environment of the university. Learning to teach required
practice in teaching in schools. The professions allied to medicine required training in hospital
wards and social work training required placements in public service and voluntary
organisations. Indeed in recent years professional bodies and national quangos have required
higher proportions of professional training in all these sectors to be practically based in the
There are other important policy imperatives which are pushing the sites of practice of higher
education further and further from the cloistered, red brick or concrete and glass precincts of the
university, which some students may never attend at all. Perhaps the most significant of these
from the point of view of issues I shall discuss later is the widening participation agenda aimed
at making higher education more accessible to, especially, non-traditional students. One of the
ways that universities are responding to this is through outreach programmes – often as in the
example already given through partnership with Colleges of Further Education (which have
hitherto focussed almost entirely on sub-degree and vocational training programmes) but also in
the workplace in cooperation with the human resource development functions of businesses or
public sector organisations. More radically, of course, distance learning enables both specialist
universities like the Open University but also more traditional universities which are embracing
e-learning to bring an experience of higher education onto your kitchen table (or so it is
The stuff of the practice
This is a rather inelegant attempt to refer to the learning, the kind of knowledge with which
those involved in the university as students researchers or teachers are engaging. It is not for
nothing that the student is traditionally said to be ‘reading’ for a degree, for the library, the book
and the journal were, and in many contexts remain, the primary resources for a university, its
staff and its students. For students, ‘Directors of Studies’ and ‘Supervisors’ (to borrow from the
contemporary Cambridge terminology) are of secondary assistance. Moreover the kind of
knowledge which these resources dealt in is of a rather specialised kind in which meticulous
detail recouped over an extended period of scholarly endeavour competes with and sometimes
provides the foundation for sweeping analysis and theory – all of it conducted in the form of
disputatious criticism and debate. Whether you are researching and writing or studying,
reporting and attempting your own critical analysis, this was and in many parts of the academy
is today, the stuff of the practice of higher education.
However, contemporary universities embrace a much more varied body of learning. First, as we
have seen, the incorporation of professional education and training within the university means
that students have to learn to manipulate limbs as well as to study their anatomy; to keep order
in classrooms as well as to understand the psychological or moral bases of discipline in an
educational setting; to provide a sympathetic ear to psychologically and physically battered
clients as well as to understand the social roots of such experience; to absorb cultural and subcultural expectations and develop intuition at a tacit level as well as to be able to write essays
which render such understandings explicit. Thus a whole repertoire of practical and applied
skills, of interpersonal understanding and empathy, of contextual awareness and sensitivity and
of tacit and intuitive understanding has become the stuff of higher education.
This is not just the case in the context of professional education and training. New two year
‘Foundation Degrees ‘ in the UK are extending the vocational range of higher education and
locating it firmly in the demands of the workplace and the skills required for often very
narrowly defined areas of employment like ‘transport logistics’ or ‘e-commerce’. Curricula are
planned with employers; delivered in partnership with employers with a substantial element of
work-based learning; and designed to meet the needs of employers. Many of the students are
indeed in employment and their study may never take them anywhere near a university campus
(Mills and Seiffert 2004).
In other areas, too, ‘experiential learning’ may constitute up to two thirds of the credits for a
degree. At Anglia Polytechnic University, for example, such accreditation has been given for
experience of drug rehabilitation as part of a degree in social science and as a holiday life guard
towards a degree in sports science (Baty 2003:1).
I have described briefly some of the ways in which the practice of higher education has changed
in particular in the UK over the last twenty years. Though these changes have probably touched
all higher education institutions, they have certainly not done so evenly, with the result that the
practice of higher education now takes increasingly diverse forms in different institutions as
well as within any single institution. The Higher Education Funding Council has indeed
positively encouraged ‘mission differentiation’. We have as a result what Smith and Webster
describe as:
‘different academics pursuing different knowledges, different teams of researchers
combining and recombining to investigate shifting topics, different sorts of students
following different courses, with different modes of study and different concerns
among themselves, different employment arrangements for different types of staff –
difference everywhere in this postmodern, flexible, accommodating university’
(Smith and Webster, 1997: 104).
The huge diversity of the practice of higher education and, hence, of the experience which
different students have of higher education raises many issues for policy makers and
practitioners of which I want to consider just two in this context. The first, perhaps
somewhat conceptual, is the question of whether all that goes on in or under the auspices
of a modern university is ‘properly’ regarded as the practice of higher education. The
second and more substantive question is whether such diversity of practice meets or
undermines the principle of social justice which is often claimed as the basis for this
diversification. I shall explain and consider these two issues in the sections which follow.
Unsurprisingly for what is in a sense such a commonplace word, ‘practice’ is used in a
number of different ways. Its most commonplace use is perhaps in its application in eg
sporting contexts to designate the repeated performance of certain skills with a view to
their improvement. Although this use is some way away from the kinds of applications
with which I am concerned here – to social practices and communities of practice -- those
two ingredients of sustained performance and of activity aimed at improvement are,
nevertheless significant features of practice in this sense. I shall probably not be the only
contributor to this volume to quote Alisdair MacIntyre’s account of practice as:
‘any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human
activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in
the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are
appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the
result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of
the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended’ (MacIntyre,
1985: 187).
In terms of more traditional conceptual analysis, MacIntyre sets three main clusters of
conditions for something to count as a practice:
the requirement for human activity which is socially established, cooperative,
coherent and complex. Thus far practice is seemingly morally neutral.
Organised crime, street gangs or call centres might claim to be practices in
these terms.
the requirement for there to be goods internal to that form of activity which are
realised through standards of excellence that are partially definitive of that
activity. This invokes the notion of internally referenced values or goals , but
not any wider moral standards. This might rule out organised crime as a
practice (or indeed, as MacIntyre has argued controversially, teaching) on the
grounds that these were simply means to ends which lay outside the activity
rather than to the realisation of intrinsic goods.
The requirement that human powers to achieve excellence, and human
conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. This
clearly takes the notion of practice into different territory in which, if we are to
follow MacIntyre, coherent complex, cooperative and established human
activity would not count as practice unless it also contributed to the
development of human goodness or virtue.
I have a problem about recognising, in particular this third requirement in terms of the
ordinary language use of the concept of practice, but MacIntyre himself acknowledges that
he is ‘using the word ”practice” in a specially defined way which does not completely
agree with current ordinary usage’ (MacIntyre 1985:187). McLaughlin (McLaughlin
2003) helpfully distinguishes two approaches to the notion of practice. The first is the full
blown, morally endowed and honorific concept (my words not McLaughlin’s) which
MacIntyre offers us. The second is much more empirically approachable, not surprisingly,
because it is associated with the work of the ethnographer Etienne Wenger (Wenger 1998).
Wenger’s project in examining ‘communities of practice’ is not so much to prescribe or to
stipulate definitions of such practices but to investigate them empirically with a view to
illuminating how they actually operate, in particular, in the interests of fostering learning.
It seems to me that an ethnographic approach to the practice of higher education would be
to approach institutions with a certain designation, let’s say ‘Higher Education Institutions’
and then to look for ‘coherent and complex form [or forms] of socially established
cooperative human activity’ which seem to characterise their behaviour as well as, perhaps
the ‘goods internal to that form of activity’ which are realised through it. It would describe
what was going on (and perhaps people’s perceptions of and understandings of what was
going on), but would provide no basis for judgement of the kind which suggested that
some of these activities were or were not ‘properly’ the functions of higher education. It
might, however, provide a basis for an evaluation of the kind which judges people’s
experience of the practice against the standards contained in the institutional rhetoric or
(pace Wenger) illuminate what features of those practices do or not contribute to the
realisation of the goods internal to them. The kind of observations I have made about the
changing and diversifying practice of higher education would be of interest in terms of the
changing social, value and ideological structures which they reflected but would not raise
any problems as to whether the practices were or were not the practices of higher
By contrast, perhaps, MacIntuyre’s approach to practice might very well raise such
questions. If a practice is, by definition, not just a ‘coherent and complex form of socially
established cooperative human activity’ but additionally one through which ‘human
powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are
systematically extended’ then observable human activity would not even count as a
practice unless certain kinds of human excellence were extended.
I am not sure how much work such a principle would or would not do in discriminating
between the different kinds of higher education which I distinguished earlier. Traditional
forms of higher education are pretty clearly linked to certain kinds of human excellence
describable in terms of both intellectual virtue and academic capabilities: could the same
be said of eg a part time programme in social care or technical engineering with a
substantial work and experience based programme? It would perhaps be unusual for the
developmental goals of such programmes to be couched in terms of intellectual virtue, but
what if they were expressed in terms of higher levels skills in childcare or automotive
repair along with eg team working, interpersonal relations, communication skills and
relevant IT skills. Might these not legitimately be represented as ‘human conceptions of the
ends and goods involved’ which are ‘systematically extended’?
There is, however, another condition which MacIntyre makes which it is relevant to apply
here. This is especially relevant insofar as some forms of contemporary higher education
are defined and interpreted simply in terms of developing skills required, from a student’s
point of view, in order to compete successfully for employment and, from an employer’s
point of view, to improve their business competitiveness. For MacIntyre any such form of
higher education would fall foul of his principle that practice required the pursuit of ‘goods
internal to the activity’ ie of something which was perceived as intrinsically worthwhile
and not just of instrumental value. It would also fall foul of a second principle:
‘A practice, in the sense intended, is never just a set of technical skills, even
when directed towards some unified purpose and even if the exercise of those
skills can on occasion be valued or enjoyed for their own sake. What is
distinctive about practice is in part the way in which conceptions of the
relevant goods and ends which the technical skills serve – and every practice
does require the exercise of technical skills – are transformed and enriched by
these extensions of human powers and by that regard for its own internal goods
which are partially definitive of each particular practice or type of practice’
(MacIntyre 1985: 193)
MacIntyre goes on, of course to make a connection between practice defined in this way
and the cultivation of virtue, and it seems to me that this is where his analysis offers
something important to our consideration of higher education in it diverse forms. Is higher
education just about the development of instrumentally useful skills – or is it about
initiating people into forms of activity which have intrinsic value and forms of excellence?
Is it merely about the development of skills or also about the cultivation of virtues related
to the goods which are at the heart of the practice? The conceptual question of whether
higher education does or does not satisfy the necessary conditions for it to count as a
practice are less important than the substantive question to which it has led us about the
kind of activities and the kind of human qualities which it is the proper business of a higher
education institution to promote.
I don’t want to suggest that diversified forms of contemporary higher education cannot
meet these sort of requirements. I do want to suggest that these ought to be one test of
their legitimacy as part of the practice of higher education.
There is at least one other major substantive issue which is raised by the developments
which I have described, and this relates not so much to questions of excellence as to
questions of equity.
I have described how the practices of higher education now take on a variety of forms, and
how this variety is to be found not just in the differences between, for example, history,
science and philosophy as forms and communities of practice within the university but also
between the forms of engagement which are involved in higher education itself -including independent distance learning programmes, work based learning, professional
training in a hospital or school classroom, e-learning from a base in a local community
centre, evening attendance at a local FE College or the cocktail of intellectual curiosity and
low gossip at table in a Cambridge College. The practice is hugely diverse and it seems to
me fairly safe to predict even in advance of the ethnography that student experience of this
practice is hugely diverse. This diversity invites the question: are the variety of practices
which are now included under the umbrella of higher education of equal value?
It is relevant to observe that at least one of the driving motives for the creation of this
diversity has been a principle of equity and social inclusion. The UK Government White
Paper on The future of higher education (DfES, 2003), for example, argues:
Education must be a force for opportunity and social justice, not for the entrenchment
of privilege. We must make certain that the opportunities that higher education brings
are available to all those who have the potential to benefit from them, regardless of
their background. This is not just about preventing active discrimination; it is about
working actively to make sure that potential is recognised and fostered wherever it is
found (DfES, 2003: 67).
Many of the changes in higher education which I have described have been driven by a
desire to make what might be regarded as the traditional content of higher education
accessible to people who, for one reason or another, have not been able to access one of
the traditional sites of higher education. The creation of the Open University in the UK
was a clear example of this ambition. The OU took great pains to ensure that the academic
character and quality of its curriculum stood comparison with that of any long established
university even if in its approach to entry requirements and to its teaching it was highly
innovative. Similarly the validation and accreditation requirements imposed by established
universities on partner further education colleges involved in the delivery of their
curriculum, were intended to demonstrate that a degree awarded by the university
represented the same, whether study had been part-time in an FE college or full time on a
university campus. Thus, one interpretation of the requirements of equity within the
widening participation agenda is that the intellectual practice(s) into which students are
initiated are of the same kind, even if the social and pedagogic practices through which this
initiation takes place are different.
This aspiration raises its own questions. Can one really separate the two? The retail
metaphors of ‘delivery’ and ‘product’ which abound in contemporary higher education
make such separation sound easy. Clearly ‘products’ can find the customer to whom they
are destined by post, by electronic communication or in the back of a van. Your new
washing machine is not transformed by the form of its delivery (except perhaps for a few
dents and scratches!) But is the same true of the practices with which higher education
institutions seek to engage their students? How important is face to face interaction with
fellow students and with people who have dedicated their whole lives to particular areas of
scholarship to initiation into the practice(s) of higher education? How important to higher
learning is the social presence in an academic community? How is intellectual virtue
represented and cultivated through ‘bite-sized chunks of learning’? How much of what is
important about a traditional campus based university is passed on through the informal
curriculum rather than the official one – and how much of this is lost or sustained through
eg the course intranet café? What do differences in ethos between, for example, a
university and a further education college make to the experience of study in these
different environments? All of these questions seem to me to invite empirical
investigation. For the moment I simply want to make the point that it may not be possible
to change the practice of teaching and learning in higher education – the sites, the
temporality, the communities of practice -- without also having some impact on the quality
of the intellectual practices (of science, medicine, philosophy, literary criticism etc) into
which students are being initiated. It is possible that the changes in teaching and learning
are beneficial ones in terms of the kind of educational experience provided. I have heard it
plausibly argued that FE colleges can provide a more secure and supportive learning
environment for some students than can universities, which were, for example,
particularly slow to adapt to the needs of disabled students. Whatever the benefit or
disbenefit, the probability is that they will be different in some important respects.
So, one aspiration underlying the diversification of higher education provides for different
practices in teaching and learning (suited to the different requirements of different learners)
linked with access to the traditional academic and professional practices of the university.
It is, nevertheless, not surprising that a second part of the equity agenda with respect to
higher education in the UK is to ensure that students from all backgrounds have access to
sites and communities of higher education practice – notably to Oxbridge and ‘the elite
Russell Group’ of universities – which are widely perceived as offering particular benefit
to students which lie in the formal and informal learning experience and not just in terms
of the (commonly unspecified) learning outcomes of the curriculum.
There is, however, a third and more radical project underlying the changing practice of
higher education which has to do with the stuff – the knowledge, skills, personal qualities
and their embededness in social practice – which is at the very heart of the institution and
to giving equal value in institutions of higher education to practices which previously had
little or no place in that environment: the practices of teaching, social work, and
professions allied to medicine and the modes of knowing -- often tacit, contextually
sensitive, local – which Gibbon and others have labelled mode 2 knowledge (Gibbons et al
1004); work based learning; experiential learning, team working, presentational and
communication skills. So what has happened is that kinds of knowledge which are valued,
in particular, in working lives, have been brought into the sphere of higher education,
accredited, validated and honoured with the award of a degree, albeit, usually, when mixed
with an element of more traditional academic learning.
Different motives lie behind these developments. Some of them are to do with an
economic analysis of the requirements of the labour market and/or the stated requirements
of employers for people equipped with practical and social skills and not just the narrow
range of capacities developed in a traditional higher education. This has little to do with
equity and a lot to do with the need for a differentiated labour market.
Some of them are driven by evidence that many of the people whom government is trying
to draw into higher education under the widening participation programme are not attracted
to conventional academic programmes and want something more directly applicable to
work and perhaps accessible in combination with paid work. (See eg research carried out
recently on the life and life-style aspirations of young people who had opted out of higher
education: Watts and Bridges 2004). An equity driven ambition to include such people in
higher education, on this analysis, requires higher education to adapt its offer to meet their
A third set of motives invokes a different principle of equity. This has to do with affirming
the value of knowledge (and linked practices) other than the traditional academic ones –
even if, ironically, the mechanism for achieving this is to provide a validation which draws
its authority from its association with this tradition.
The crunch issue which is raised by these last two projects is, again, whether these
different kinds of knowledge and the associated practices which have now found their
ways into higher education are really of equal value. Has justice at last been done to the
young person who is studying ‘Sports and Leisure’ with two thirds of her credits being
awarded for prior experience working in a sports and leisure centre and a programme
designed with and substantially taught be local employers – or another doing a two year
Foundation Degree on Child Care while working as a classroom assistant in a local
primary school and a large component of the course based on assessment of practical
competence in the classroom? Or has the principle of equity been betrayed?
How does one begin to answer this question (and in this context I can do no more than
One response is to run with the subjective choices of the students. These are after all adult
people or very nearly so. Most of them have 11 to 13 years of educational experience
behind them. They have their own views on the goods which they wish to pursue in their
lives and the routes which will enable them to do so. The choice may be surrounded by
‘advice and guidance’ issues (Is this really what they are interested in? Are they being
realistic about their own abilities? Are they being under-ambitious? Will what they have
chosen to study really enable them to do what they want to do afterwards? etc). If they
themselves choose let’s call them the mode 2 practices for their experience of higher
education, then perhaps that indicates their value -- and the principle of equity is saved.
There is of course the underlying risk of adaptive preference being at work ( I discuss this
more fully in Bridges 2005) but for current purposes I will discount this and go along with
the principle of preference autonomy succinctly expressed by Harsanyi as ‘in deciding
what is good and bad for a given individual, the ultimate criterion can only be his own
wants and his own preferences’ (Harsanyi 1982: 55). On this principle, the fact that higher
education institutions provides students with opportunities to engage in different kinds of
practice as part of their higher education experience could be a proper response to the
students’ own different priorities and demands and thus shows that they are being treated
with equal regard.
But is there any more objective standpoint from which we might argue and conclude
differently? Suppose, for example, that we could demonstrate that let’s call them the mode
1 practices of higher education were actually more personally empowering than the mode
2; that the articulate, critical, analytic, synoptic and synthetic capacities (supposedly)
associated with traditional academic learning actually enable people to think for
themselves; to spot public deceit and spin and reveal it for what it is; to understand things
in their wider context; to absorb large amounts of information and make sense of it for
themselves and others; to see pathways through complex decisions and debates – and to do
all of this in ways which mode 2 knowledge does not make possible. Might we not then
start to wonder whether the substitution of mode 2 for mode 1 in the practice of higher
education was really to offer something which was different but of significantly unequal
value? A debate around the higher education curriculum in the United States found the left
wing Stephen Aronowitz and the right wing Allan Bloom in a remarkable consensus
around the importance of the ‘Great Books’ tradition in higher education. But while for
Bloom these were to be admired for their Truth and Beauty, what Aronowitz saw in the
Western canon was ‘a legacy of power, both epistemologically and ontologically’ (Weiner
2001: 39). ‘My approach’ writes Aronowitz, ‘does not assume the superiority of the
conventional over the alternative or oppositional canon, only its power’ (Aronowitz 2001:
169). Though in the case of ‘work based learning’ there is of course hardly an alternative
canon, let alone one which will provide the ‘basis for any critique and transvaluation’
which Aronowitz is looking for (ibid). So do we have an objective basis for esteeming
some knowledge and its relationship with practice above other kinds of knowledge on
graounds of its greater power?
One of the problems about this argument is that the notions of power and the fashionable
‘empowerment’ do not have much purchase in the abstract. People are not just generally
‘empowered’: they are empowered to do certain kinds of things and to pursue certain kinds
of lives. So what kind of knowledge counts as empowering depends on what kinds of
things people want to be able to do. There is a long history of eg university programmes
designed to enable people to teach, to practice medicine, nursing, engineering or other
professional work which have been regarded as insufficiently empowering (in terms of
enabling them to lead the lives they wanted to live) precisely because they have focussed
too narrowly on academic knowledge at the expense of practical knowledge and skills,
contextual awareness and interpersonal understanding. But for others, the traditional
academic practices of a university may indeed be exactly what they wish to engage in
either as a life sufficient unto itself or because of what they see these practices as enabling
them to do, to be or to become.
We are brought back, then, to the point that different people choose different forms of life
and therefore, sensibly, forms of education which will prepare them for these forms of life
and to the difficulty of providing objective grounds for giving higher value to one over
another. As John White pointed out in discussing this very issue:
‘One may, of course, reject the pluralism in all this i.e. the view that different
individuals may have different ways of life and are none the worse for that. One may
hold that there is a particular way of life which everyone should follow, thus
translating a personal ideal into a moral imperative. This seems wholly arbitrary.
Gulfs have existed since the beginning of civilisation between one preferred way of
life and another: no-one has succeeded in producing a “knock down” argument that
eliminates all rivals’ (ibid 44-45).
If we have no basis for demonstrating that (at least among the sort of options we are
discussing here) one is superior to another, then, presumably, there are no grounds either
for suggesting that forms of higher education practice which provide an effective
preparation for or initiation into these different forms of life are of different value, even if
they are of different character. Nor are there, therefore, any grounds for suggesting that
higher education practices constructed around this variety of ways of life offend against the
principle of equity, provided that (taking into account relevant differences) they are all
equally accessible to people wishing to engage in them.
I am conscious that this is a peremptory treatment of a huge debate. My real concern,
however, is not so much to present a conclusion to the debate as to bring the debate into
the discussion of contemporary higher education policy. The diversification of practice
which characterises contemporary higher education lies justified at least in part by
considerations of inclusiveness, equity and equal valuing. But are we being persuaded to
treat as equal practices and, more particularly, forms of knowledge which are actually
unequal – in power, in value, in terms of the forms of life in which they enable us to
participate, in terms of the forms of human excellence which they allow us to develop?
Are we observing (and this is where my own argument seems to lead) a genuinely
emancipatory project or, as I still uneasily suspect, simply another subtle exercise of those
processes which ensure the reproduction of social inequalities under the guise of their
eradication? It would be useful to know.
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