EDEV_503 Week 1_8

You raise a number of critical issues that underpin the difficulties in achieving consensus in the universities towards this week’s topic of agreeing a philosophy of HE and working towards learning organisations. I’d like to address two points you raise: who pays for undergraduate education and the ranking system.

One shortcoming in many of the readings this week was the recognition that specific university training for undergraduates in certain subjects is a relatively new phenomenon. The question of how such training is funded is similarly a new issue. This newness should not be overlooked as it represents a political, and therefore ideological, choice. We may assume that accountants, lawyers and others have a university degree but, Trow (2007), talking about pre-70s university curricula in the U.K., notes that “for the learned professions … access was gained more commonly through apprenticeship” (p. 248). Guilds controlled the apprentice system and were run by local businessmen who were often also politicians (Ogilvie, 2011). The guild system in Europe predates universities and gave rise to the universities themselves (Hastings, 1895). Ironically for our discussion, in their introduction to their book on guilds Epstein and Prak cite Adam Smith who complained that “craft guilds are ‘a conspiracy against the public’, and the government should ‘do nothing to facilitate such assemblies'” (2008, p. 1). Smith was the principal theorist whose ideas led to the liberal economy. His belief that the forces of the market could sustain an economy runs counter to many neo-liberals today who view the co-operation of the state as a necessity. The guilds, with their mutuality of local government and education had this ‘triple helix’ under control.

The broader point to be raised from this is to place modern views of control, power and notions of statehood into the a context where they can be usefully understood. The trends (in this week’s reading at least) is to present the ideology of neo-liberalism as a given, as the only alternative. When non-dialectical propositions are made ahistorically, objections to them can be seen easily.

My own undergraduate education was at the Guildhall School of Music in London. The very name belies its history as the being formed from the music guild in the City of London. Historically, musicians trained at guild-based apprenticeships would serve the municipality. The bi-directional nature of the initial sponsorship of the apprentice and the subsequent adoption by that erstwhile apprentice when he becomes a master of a future apprentice should not be overlooked. Also of interest is the relationship masters and apprentices have with the local community. In the U.K., many people still living were trained under the apprentice system. Academics cannot simply accept the notion of state control as automatic. Furthermore, the change in the U.K. that saw polytechnics (technical colleges) achieve recognition as universities is only a few decades ago.

The assumption of state sponsorship of undergraduate education carries with it a degree of acceptance of state control. Forgetting that this is an ideology is troublesome because any attempt to make universities learning organisations (after Senge, 1990) without acknowledging the history will be problematic due to the ease that those who disagree with the ideology have in providing counter examples.

Having the state should control HE is perhaps the best option. However, it is not the only option, and as HE professionals, it behooves us to fully understand the options and the issues involved in making such decisions.

Unfortunately, I don’t have space to discuss the serious problems of predicating educational quality on ranking systems.


Ogilvie, S. (2011). Institutions and European trade: merchants guilds, 1000–1800. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Epstein, S. R. & Prak, M. (2008). Introduction. in S. R. Epstein, & M. Prak (eds) Guilds, Innovation, and the European Economy, 1400–1800. (pp. 1-24).

Rashdall, Hastings (1895). The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages: Salerno. Bologna. Paris. Clarendon Press.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

Trow, M. (2007). Reflections on the transition from elite to mass to universal access: Forms and phases of higher education in modern societies since WW11. In J. J. F. Forest & P. G. Altbach (Eds.), International Handbook of Higher Education: Part 1 Global themes and contemporary challenges (pp. 243–280). Dordrecht: Springer.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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