Higher Education Research Paper

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In most countries, teachers of the most prestigious institutions of higher education are assigned both teaching and research tasks, whereby ‘academic freedom’ is held in high esteem. A trend towards systematization notwithstanding, curricular approaches have remained varied across countries, fields and institutions, regarding the academic or professional emphasis, their adaptive or critical role to the world of work, the degree of specialization and the role higher education plays for personality development beyond the cognitive domain. Recent reforms react to trends of internationalization and globalization, increase the role of practical experiences, lifelong education, distance education and use of new technologies.

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Universities are often called surprisingly persistent institutions, though their organization is often weak and anarchic. The continental European tradition of a weak university leadership amid a major role of government and academic freedom of scholars gave way in the 1980s to reduced governmental bureaucratic control and increased formal autonomy of the central management of higher education institutions amid growing pressures for efficiency, accountability, and social relevance.

1. Definition

‘Higher education’ became a popular term in the second half of the twentieth century depicting the intellectually most demanding stage of pre-career education. Terms such as ‘post-secondary,’ ‘tertiary,’ or ‘third-level’ education underscore stages of learning: upon completion of primary and secondary education, i.e., after 10–14 years of schooling, varying according to national systems, students might enroll in the third stage of education, as a rule prior to embarking regular employment. The term ‘higher,’ however, suggests a specific quality, expecting students to learn questioning prevailing rules and tools and to understand theories, methods, and substance of ‘academic’ knowledge. Higher education also often serves a twofold function: teaching and ‘research,’ i.e. the creation and preservation of systematic knowledge.

2. History

Institutions and programs of advanced learning existed in various countries more than 1,000 years ago. However, the core elements of today’s higher education, i.e., teaching and learning of ‘analytic,’ ‘rational,’ ‘systematic,’ ‘critical,’ ‘skeptical,’ and ‘innovative’ thinking, emerged from the European universities of the Middle Ages.

Around 1800, a new historical stage can be noted when substantial changes of the European universities occurred. The British model of the Oxford and Cambridge approach regained strength which puts emphasis on the trained mind and the personality development through close communication between the teachers and the students. The French university, reformed under the Napoleonic regime, combined strong state coordination of organization and curricula leading to state-coordinated degrees with a decentralized organization within the university, thus reinforcing a divide between the faculties and notably intellectual and cultural approach of the facultes des lettres and sciences on the one hand and on the other the professional emphasis of other faculties inside the universities and ecoles outside the universities. The German model, mainly the ‘unity of teaching and research’ approach of the Humboldtian university, was based on the idea that academic freedom and institutional autonomy guaranteed by the state help to secure the university’s most appropriate service to society, and also underscored the freedom of learning, i.e., the student’s ability and responsibility of independent learning in communication with the professor. The German model became the internationally most influential in the nineteenth century.

The models spread through adaptations and misunderstandings which turned out to be creative in some instances. Notably, the US approach of being ‘as British as possible’ as far as undergraduate education is concerned and ‘as German as possible’ by combining teaching and research, and in establishing graduate schools as a completely new element, tends to be viewed as the most successful one in the twentieth century (Ben-David 1977).

The development of higher education after World War II is often regarded as the third stage of the history of modern higher education. Higher education was no longer expected to serve a small number of academics and socially exclusive professions, but rather became a ‘mass’ or an almost ‘universal’ phenomenon (see Trow 1974). Whereas less than 5 percent of the respective age group enrolled around 1950 in most industrial countries, the respective proportion was even more than 50 percent in some countries at the end of the twentieth century. The number of doctoral-granting institutions in the world had risen to about 10,000 and of other institutions to even a higher number, and the total number of students was more than 80 million in 1995.

3. Quantitative And Structural Developments

3.1 Access And Admission

According to OECD statistics (OECD 2000), about 80 percent of the corresponding age group on average of the OECD member states successfully completed upper secondary education in the late 1990s. Upper secondary education varied between countries structurally, i.e., ‘horizontal’ (graduates of all institutions and programs are eligible for entry to higher education) or ‘vertical’ (specific types and programs preparing for higher education), as well as according to the role vocational training plays and the way it is organized.

Modes of admission to higher education can be classified according to three types (see Teichler 1988).

(a) If secondary education is organized horizontally, the large numbers of those successfully completing secondary education are eligible to apply for admission to higher education, whereby entry to higher education is the major point of selection within the education system. The entry decisions rest with the higher education institutions (in the USA) or their departments (e.g., in Japan), and might be based on school grades, combinations of school subjects, admission tests, interviews, etc.

(b) If secondary education is vertically organized, those successfully completing the academic track (being awarded the Abitur, Matura, Baccalaureat, etc.) tend to be entitled to enroll at institutions of higher education (e.g. Germany and The Nether-lands). As a rule, entry is a nondramatic point of allocation, and selective admission applies only for few fields and institutions.

(c) Finally, some countries provide for both selective secondary education and selective admission at entry to higher education (e.g. the UK).

At all modes, most of those applying for higher education will eventually enroll. The admission system in industrialized countries is not primarily a gate-keeper of the overall quantity of enrolment, but rather allocates primarily with respect to type, institutional prestige or field of study.

3.2 Enrolment, Drop-Out, And Graduation

The ‘youth’ in most countries acquire entry qualification for higher education at the age of 17 to 19 years. The average age of new entrant students varies in industrial countries between 18 and 23 years.

The OECD reports an average ‘net entry rate’ to higher education in terms of programs leading to a (at least bachelor) degree of 40 percent in industrialized countries for 1998. In addition, almost 20 percent begin short tertiary-education studies. Altogether, women have enrolled as frequently as men, on average, in industrialized societies since about 1990. UNESCO calculated a gross enrolment rate, by comparing enrolment figures of young people within five years of the normal school-leaving age: 63 enrolled percent in ‘more developed regions,’ 38 percent enrolled in countries in transition and 7 percent enrolled in ‘less developed regions’ in the mid-1990s.

About two-thirds of those enrolling in degree programs in industrialized countries are eventually awarded a degree. The estimated dropout rates are 10 percent in Japan (lowest) and about 65 percent in Italy (highest).

In 1998, 22 percent of the respective age group on average across industrial countries eventually was awarded a degree (in comparison, 1 percent on average were awarded a doctoral degree). In addition, 11 percent completed other tertiary education programs.

3.3 Diversity Of Levels, Programs, And Institutions

Universities, i.e., multidisciplinary institutions in charge of both teaching and research, entitled to award advanced academic degrees (notably the doctorate) and, where applicable, entitled to award subsequent degrees qualifying for senior academic positions (the ‘doctor scientiae’ or the ‘Habilitation’), are considered the key institutions of higher education. Except for France, where Grandes Ecoles lead to the highest professional careers, entry to university is viewed as most prestigious. Most other institutions, i.e., mono-disciplinary institutions of technology, theology, etc., initially viewed as less prestigious, often gained the same status over the years.

Since the 1960s, two developments reinforced a diversification of higher education. Pressure towards increasing systematic knowledge in the middle-level occupations led to an ‘up-grading’ of the institutions serving the training of these occupations. Concurrently, the university sector came under pressure to diversify because the growing student body became increasingly heterogeneous in terms of motivations, competencies and career prospects and because resources were not made available for an expansion of research-oriented higher education in tune with increasing students’ enrolment (Teichler 1988, Meek et al. 1996).

In various countries, an additional sector of higher education was established, called for example ‘polytechnics’ in the UK (which eventually became universities in 1992), ‘instituts universitaires de technologie’ in France and ‘Fachhochschulen’ in Germany which initially were expected to provide applied educational programs, but not to undertake research. This sector was named ‘short cycle,’ ‘non-university’ or ‘alternative’ without any of these terms being generally appreciated.

Countries varied substantially, however, according to the extent of which differentiation of higher education was realized through:

(a) types of higher education institutions;

(b) curricular approaches of programs (e.g. academic versus professional–vocational);

(c) levels of programs and degrees; (e.g. the OECD’s ‘non-university certification, ‘short first university degree,’ ‘long first university degree,’ ‘second university degree,’ and doctoral or similar degrees);

(d) length of programs (in terms of years of study or credits–points, etc.); and

(e) varied reputation and prestige among formally equal institutions and programs.

Higher education systems, for example, were characterized as ‘unitary,’ ‘binary,’ ‘dual’ or ‘multi-type,’ ‘stage’ or ‘level,’ ‘comprehensive,’ etc.

4. Knowledge, Teaching, And Learning

4.1 Learning And Pursuit Of Knowledge

Students are expected to learn questioning the available wisdom and the established ways for problem solving and to be prepared for indeterminate work and other life tasks. A close link between teaching and research should ensure that teaching is at the ‘cutting edge’ of research development. In some countries, curricula are very open and teaching is conceived more or less as a by-product of research.

4.2 Trend Towards Systematization Of Curricula

With the expansion of higher education, however, a trend could be observed towards systematization of content, structures, and processes. Study programs were divided into sequences and stages. Curricular regulations grew, and measures of informing and guiding students were extended. In many countries, teachers were expected to be trained in techniques of teaching, and regular evaluation of teaching practices often was introduced. The trend towards systematization affected initial course programs most strongly. But the US concept of graduate school for those preparing for a doctoral degree was also taken up or modified in most other countries in the latter half of the twentieth century (Clark 1995).

Yet major curricular approaches remained varied across and within countries, notably according to seven dimensions. First, curriculae may be directed more strongly towards preparation for research and the creation of knowledge or towards the reproduction of knowledge available. Second, curriculae may be geared closely to occupational preparation or not related to job roles at all. Third, objectives of higher education curricula differ according to the degree of specialization. Fourth, fields of study may be designed according to disciplines or take on a multidisciplinary character. In some countries (fifth), a common core of knowledge might be offered for all students. Sixth, views differ as regards the responsibility of higher education for the personality development of students beyond the cognitive domain. Finally, curricula vary according to the extent they aim to contribute to cultural enrichment of society.

The variety of curricular approaches had their pendant in the roles of the teachers and the students. Students might be viewed as young learners for which the university serves ‘in loco parentis,’ as customers or as independent and self-responsible young members of the university community. Teachers might view themselves as scholars in the pursuit of knowledge, or as educators and counselors. Available research suggests that students have more similar views across countries on ‘good’ teaching and learning, and teachers on their role and function (Altbach 1997) than one would expect, taking into account the diversity of national systems of higher education.

4.3 Expectation Of Relevance And Utility Amid Uncertainty

In the 1980s and 1990s, the conditions both for teaching and learning, as well as for research in higher education, changed substantially. First, pressure grew on teaching, learning and research to be more utilitarian than in the past. Public and private funds were moved increasingly towards research and establishments outside higher education, thus reducing the share of research expenditures spent in higher education in many countries to less than 20 percent. Thus, modes of research spread aiming to cut across disciplines, in spite of the persistence of distinct cultures of the disciplines (Becher 1989), and became more context aware and problem oriented (Gibbons et al. 1995). Efforts to respond to the societal needs were often met by reinforcing a divide between basic and applied research or by a divide between academic and professional or vocational study programs, but these distinctions became blurred over time. While utilitarian pressures turn out to be imaginative for basic research in some cases, research aiming not to be applied often lay the foundation for practical use. Study programs not geared to certain professions are enriched by a confrontation with practical problem solving, both in classes and internships, while study aiming to be professionally useful is forced to become broader, owing to the uncertainties of future labor market conditions and work assignments—‘key qualifications’ is a widely used term underpinning this trend.

4.4 Internationalization And Globalization

Higher education could be viewed as very international in terms of cosmopolitan values, pride based on international reputation and global search for knowledge. However, the regulatory and funding context tends to be national, and curricula vary strikingly between countries. Kerr (1990) described a conflict between ‘the internationalization of learning and the nationalization of the purposes of higher education.’ International agencies, e.g. UNESCO, OECD or the World Bank often advocate concepts of convergence, but seem to be counterbalanced by a persistence of varied traditions and political options.

5. Steering, Governance, And Organization

5.1 The Deliberately Weak And ‘Fuzzy’ Organization

Universities are often called surprisingly persistent organizations and have survived for several centuries, though they seem to be weak or anarchic institutions in most countries. The links between the higher education institutions and the government or the society can be described as a peculiar mix of partial control and vague pressures, on the one hand, and safeguards of institutional ‘autonomy’ on the other hand. In the internal organization, accommodation prevailed in most countries between administrative supervision, a strong position of the professorate as a whole and the ‘academic freedom’ of the individual scholar.

The weakness was widely viewed as supportive for an ethos within the institution which allowed scholars to focus on the pursuit of knowledge without major concern about the social and organizational environment. The Humboldtian ideal was widely shared that a university protected from pressures of immediate utility was most likely to serve generation of knowledge and innovation eventually valuable for society.

5.2 Traditional Modes Of Governance And Administration

Analyses of higher education governance often intend to describe both the relationships between higher education and society and the modes of governance within the institutions, thus underscoring that the internal mechanisms of power, cooperation, and communication are linked to the ways how higher education is steered from outside. Notably, US scholars have described traditional higher education systems according to four models:

(a) the collegial model—emphasizing nonhierarchical cooperative decision making, and a significant degree of self-determination by academic staff;

(b) the bureaucratic model—emphasizing legal rational authority and formal hierarchies;

(c) the professional model—emphasizing the authority of experts and the importance of horizontally differentiated units linked to loose confederations;

(d) the political model—conceptualizing governance in terms of political conflict among interest groups with competing views and values’ (Harman 1992, p. 1282).

Often, three actual modes of academic governance and administration are pointed out (see Ben-David 1977, Clark 1983). Both in the French and in the German traditions, governments, though largely respecting or protecting academic freedom, pursued certain visible ways of bureaucratic control of higher education institutions. The university leadership was kept deliberately weak whereby the faculties in France and the chairs in Germany were the stronghold of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. In the British tradition, funds were allocated to the higher education institutions with little strings, the strongest power of the institution rested in academic collegiality, and the university leadership, though stronger than in continental Europe, exerted moderate control. The US model was characterized by a weak position of visible macrosocial forces, whereby the market seemed to play a stronger role than government and the trustees of the individual institutions of higher education, and by a strong power of the president and the deans along limited decision-making power of the academics.

Clark (1983) defined the patterns of control and coordination according to a triangle of market, state authority and academic oligarchy. He allocated US higher education as relatively close to the market, Germany to state authority, and Italy to academic oligarchy.

5.3 In Search Of New Modes Of Governance And Administration

Since the 1970, the climate around and within institutions of higher education has changed substantially. Obviously, institutions of higher education have lost much of their special character. They are expected to be more similar to other institutions, and the functions they perform are less exclusive. Higher education experienced:

(a) a loss of trust in the academic profession and in academic freedom. Counterbalances by other forces, scrutiny of job performance and of academic quality as well as direct incentives for social relevance and utility are viewed now as appropriate;

(b) a loss of confidence in governments’ potentials of steering higher education successfully through detailed regulations and control of administrative processes; and

(c) a growing demand for efficiency in terms of serving extended duties of teaching and research with stagnating resources and for visible effectiveness.

Four major changes of governance and administration of higher education occurred. First, in the wake of the student protests in the late 1960s, various continental countries introduced models of participation whereby students, junior academic staff, and administrative staff got a substantial say, as was the case previously in various Latin American countries. This reform approach, however, lost momentum rapidly because the process of decision making seemed to become controversial and time consuming and because the actors benefiting often were disappointed as regards the limited real influence the formal decision-making process actually allotted to them.

Second, various governments in Europe moved from a ‘control’ approach, and in the UK from an ‘institutional autonomy’ approach, towards a ‘supervision’ approach (Neave and van Vught 1991). Mechanisms employed were, among others, political target setting, steering through indicator-based funding, contracts between the state and higher education institutions, and the establishment of evaluation systems allowing to identify the ‘output’ of higher education (Westerheijden et al. 1994).

Third, managerial actors (university leadership, deans) were strengthened and managerial mechanisms were established or extended. The internal processes of decision making and administration were expected to get close to industrial entrepreneurship, while respecting the specifics of a professional organization serving unpredictable innovation of knowledge.

Fourth, the setting of key actors increasingly grew complex. In addition to the state, the market and the professorate (Clark 1983), the management of the higher education institutions, and other internal actors (students, junior academic staff, and administrative staff ) came into play as well as other ‘stakeholders’ (i.e., all other forces who could have a legitimate interest to be involved in higher education as a ‘visible hand’).


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