It is based on conceiving of higher education almost exclusively in terms of its relationship to political economy. But is there an alternative saga available? Is there any prospect that higher education in the future will no longer be seen, theoretically and in policy and practice, predominantly with regard to its relationship to the wider political economy?
And is there any prospect of the current emphasis on the primacy of the market, and transactional relationships being replaced by a new emphasis, or at the least one that is substantially modified?
At the present, both – the emphasis on political economy and on transactional markets – appear to be unchallenged. They continue to dictate higher education policy in many countries. Despite unease among academics and many students, they also continue to shape many institutional structures, strategies and processes.
However, that unease too has been persistent. This saga has never felt complete. While it dominates policy and organisation, it has never been as successful in mobilising that other component of a saga – namely, belief and especially loyalty.
The possibility of an alternative saga has always been open a crack; now that opening may be widening.
Shifts in political economy
One reason is that the wider political economy itself seems to be shifting. Some key features of neoliberalism (or old-fashioned economic liberalism) have been sharply challenged.
In the aftermath of the unparalleled restrictions and the equally unparalleled increases in public expenditure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhaustion of the small-state or deregulation model appears to be complete.
While those restrictions will be removed and that expenditure scaled back, it seems unlikely that the mistakes made following the banking crisis in 2008 – cutting back public services and pumping up asset values through ‘quantitative easing’ (central banks ‘creating’ money) – will be repeated.
It seems reasonable to predict that the 2020s may be different from the 2010s. Only time will tell whether they will mark as clear a punctuation point as the shift from welfare state to market in the 1980s.
The case for believing in significant change is strengthened by increasing resentment of the income and wealth gaps that have yawned in many countries during the 30 years of neoliberal ascendancy.
There does seem to have been a shift in public mood. This shift in public mood reflects deeper social and cultural changes.
Two are worth noting in particular. The first is a renewed emphasis on human rights – the outcome of a new sense of the fragility of democracy (most dramatically on display in Ukraine), and the uprising of previously marginalised and oppressed groups (examples include #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, campaigns on gender identities and a new focus on coloniality).
The second big change is the growth of what can be termed ‘ecological conscience’, a new sense of urgency about not simply looming environmental disaster but also the oppression of nature, and other species, by a single species – ourselves – with its inevitable blowbacks.
There appears to be growing resistance to seeing the wider political economy as an overwhelmingly transactional market space, and a longing to define the wider political economy relations in less reductionist and more human terms.
That chimes with the enduring unease about regarding higher education merely as a transactional space – filled with targets, metrics, deliverables and performance with much else missing. Together they open up the possibility of a new saga emerging.
Putting ‘education’ back into higher education
What could be the elements of a new saga, which might allow us to escape from the conditioning of the current dominant saga?
The first can be described in simple terms – putting the ‘education’ back into higher education.
What is remarkable, with higher education defined almost predominantly in relation to political economy now seen through a transactional lens, is how recessive its core educative role has become. It has been swamped by other, non-educative, roles – principally training graduates in the skills needed to secure high-status jobs in the knowledge economy and promoting social inclusion, although producing good citizens is still somewhere there in the picture.
These other, external and instrumental, roles only tangentially refer to the education that students receive.
For example, the destination of graduates – a favourite metric often glossed as ‘success’ – is determined more by the status of the institutions they attend (even more than the courses they take) than by the knowledge and skills they acquire during their higher education. Graduate ‘success’ tells us rather little about the quality of that education.
We all know already that graduates of elite universities, socially as well as academically selective ones, get ‘better’ jobs than graduates from other universities, with more open admissions policies – and why.
The fact that graduates are more active citizens, more engaged in society and commit fewer crimes than non-graduates reflects the higher social status, greater economic security and stronger stake in society enjoyed by the social classes from which graduates are disproportionately drawn.
Again – it is far from clear that the actual education they receive contributes to their greater engagement or lawfulness (and how could we tell anyway, because for the middle classes higher education is close to being a universal experience so it would be impossible to construct a control group?).
This emphasis on externalities sits uneasily with the experiences of both teachers and students. Instead, we experience, and practise, university education differently – as primarily an educative process, which has some beneficial economic and social spin-offs.
At heart a university education is not about these spin-offs. It is about the intellectual formation and self-realisation of individual students. Imagination, growth, criticality – these are among its attributes.
These attributes are achieved through multiple engagements – with teachers and other students; crucially with bodies of knowledge and professional cultures; but also with wider society and culture.
All these engagements are complex, subtle, and inherently reflexive. It is hard to pre-plan and pre-package higher education in a transactional marketplace with learning outcomes guaranteed, still less high-status (and high pay) ‘graduate’ jobs.
Expressing the core of the higher education experience (‘experience’ – sadly a word much misshapen by current usage and now narrowly aligned with ‘satisfaction’) in these terms is not to assert that higher education is superior or special – the educative process in schools, even primary schools, is very similar.
Nor is it to ignore the professional orientation of many university courses – but simply to argue that professional education in a higher education setting has educative dimensions that are regarded as crucial to the formation of future professionals and go beyond the development of expert technical skills.
Nor is it a reactionary defence of traditional teaching styles, the perhaps archaic organisation of the academic year or a rigid taxonomy of traditional disciplines, to assert that, beneath and beyond these things, higher education is fundamentally about education. Why does that sound controversial?
Higher education and democracy
The second element is to relate the university more strongly to democracy at the expense of, or certainly alongside, its currently dominant association with political economy. In the past universities may have been reluctant to engage with democracy directly.
They may even have seen such engagement as providing cover for intrusion into their autonomy as institutions and also for the imposition of those wider socio-economic goals at the expense of purely educational ones.
As a result, autonomy and accountability came to be regarded as a zero-sum game. But is this correct – or inevitable? The fear that autonomy and accountability are inherently opposed arises from the way in which, in recent decades, higher education has been yoked to a particular view of political economy. This required the subordination of universities to the bureaucratic State, first as a burgeoning welfare state within which mass higher education was positioned and later as the regulator of the higher education ‘market’.
Under different conditions, with a different view of political economy, the relationship between autonomy and accountability has the potential to become more reflexive. There are three contexts within which a stronger relationship with democracy can be developed:
• The first is to develop more distributed and reflexive forms of accountability. At present universities are held accountable to the bureaucratic State, both as funder and regulator (and supposedly authoritative interpreter of the ‘public interest’); to students (but only in the contrived guise of ‘customers’); to the employers of graduates; and to the funders and users of research.
None of these accountabilities relates strongly to democracy. But it is possible to conceive of much more distributed and pluralist forms of accountability – for example, to regional, civic, and local communities, local government and social movements.
To incorporate these wider accountabilities has two advantages. First, it would reflect plural voices, a foundational principle of distributed democracy. Secondly, universities, within this more democratic diffusion of accountabilities, can become more active agents – hence, the inherent reflexivity.
• Second, universities could become more democratic in their governance and management. Largely in response to the currently dominant saga of higher education centred on its tight linkage with a market-oriented version of political economy, many (most?) universities have developed into corporate bureaucracies – although their increasing scale and complexity of mission have also been factors.
As a result, they have developed a significant democratic deficit in their internal working. Academic self-government has withered, and power has been concentrated in the hands of a new managerial class.
There can be no return to an imagined ‘donnish dominion’. But, if there is a shift in the saga of higher education, this drift towards corporate culture might no longer appear so inevitable. The democratic deficit could be addressed by increasing representation of both staff and students in university governance – without compromising organisational efficiency.
• Third, universities could incorporate democratic agendas into their teaching and research – social justice, human rights and environmental rebalancing. That would be different from the non-educative and instrumentalist goals that have come to dominate the contemporary university.
The development of more open and distributed systems of knowledge production and consequently of more highly contextualised disciplines (and also the growth of mass higher education systems with students drawn from much wider social groups) has made it harder to distinguish between the educative and social roles of the university.
Society will inevitably speak back to the academy. The only choice is whether that will be in the voice of the market or the voice of democracy. A more organic connection between academic and democratic values is a necessary element in an alternative saga to the currently dominant one.
These are two examples of potential contributions to a new saga of higher education – putting the education back into higher education and establishing stronger links between higher education and democracy. Both imply substantial changes in institutional, national and global perspectives on the future of universities.
They are not the only possible components of a new saga. Others could include a focus on the new conditions for university-based research in more distributed knowledge production systems with multiple actors, or the role or status of university-based ‘public intellectuals’.
A new saga?
The overarching saga of a model of political economy based on technocratic modernisation is now beginning to fray. Its latest neoliberal variant is challenged from inside by its own contradictions. Its most notable failure has been its congenital inability to develop a clear sense of the ‘public good’ – the Common Wealth, if you like – despite presiding over a massive extension of State and corporate power.
But it has also been challenged from outside by the irruption of populism in flight from modernity, the rise of new social movements and other insurgent forces. It has not – yet – been tumbled to the ground, but it has been weakened.
This may create space for higher education to recover, but crucially also to reimagine its own saga and in the process regain a greater sense of independent agency. In turn, that recovered and reimagined saga could feed into a new and more human form of political economy.
Peter Scott is emeritus professor of higher education studies at IOE UCL Faculty of Education and Society, and commissioner for fair access in Scotland. He was previously vice-chancellor of Kingston University London. This is an edited extract from his 2022 Burton R Clark Lecture on Higher Education – ‘Sagas of contemporary higher education: Foreground and hinterland’ – delivered at this week’s Centre for Global Higher Education conference.