Kurt Lewin gave us these two inspirational sentiments:
- “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”
- “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.” (Van Vliet, 2013)
As theory underpins all social science research (Gray, 2004; Moses & Knutsen, 2012), the role of theory in helping researchers understand policy cannot be overstated (Greenbank, 2003). By the end of last week, the common denominator among the various issues posted by cohort members was the recognition of the state’s, more specifically the respective Ministry of Education’s (MOE), involvement in the management of higher education. Undergirding this influence is the notions of authority and power. Without these, any declaration or proclamation from MOEs would fall upon deaf ears. But how does power operate? Prior to studying the mechanisms of MOE—HEI interaction, the theory of power needs to be understood. To appreciate the impact MOE’s have more fully, I present three articles that address two fundamental components of how MOEs influence policy in HEIs: the nature of power and how external forces become acceptable to internal HEIs.
Raven’s (1992) description of six bases of power illuminates key mechanisms in the structure of power, which in turn can be utilised by HEI researchers in the development of theory of MOE—HEI interaction. Such an approach is useful in comprehending why researchers like Brown (2013), for example, can claim that collaborative methodologies fare better than top-down management-driven ones.
In this article, Raven describes the origin and development of the model of the bases of power as a social psychological instrument that elucidates the relationships between types of powers and attitudes and motivations involved in power. Six bases are distinguished: coercive, reward, information, legitimate, expert and referent. A particularly useful component of the model is the mechanism by which an external change agent, or influencing agent, initiates change—an ‘induced force’—and how that mandate is internalised through mutual participation to become socially independent of the influencing agent and be embodied in the change enactor as an “own” internally-driven force.
This theory helps describe, explain and predict the level of conformity, or not, of HEIs towards MOE-directed change. Table 1 shows an adaption of Raven’s six bases in MOE—HEI terms and a brief explanation of the meanings of the bases.
Table 1. Power bases, MOE actions and implications for HEIs
|Coercive||Power to hurt||Do this or …||Lose funding|
|Reward||Power to aid||Do this and …||Receive more funding|
|Information||Authority to suggest||Here’s an idea …||Policy development|
|Legitimate||Legal or systematically endorsed authority||In my position …||Policy making|
|Expert||Expert knowledge base||I know best.||Benchmarking|
|Referent||Solidarity building||We’re in this together||Loss/ gain of prestige and reputation|
Conclusion There is much omitted from this short review of Raven and the discussion on power. And my interpretation of what actions MOEs may perform and how they are received by HEIs is tentative at best and open to much criticism and reinterpretation. However, power is an important invisible hand in policy theory.
McQuarrie, Kondra & Lamertz (2013)
McQuarrie, Kondra and Lamertz (2013) take up two of Raven’s power bases, coercion and legitimacy and present a distinction between regulatory coercion and social coercion, suggesting a limited legal power for legitimacy in the Canadian context while arguing that social coercion is perhaps the main instrument MOEs utilise to enforce state-level HEI policy. This article is offered as a model for analysis.
Dall’Alba & Barnacle (2007)
Regardless of the state of policy and of HEIs ‘owning’ of erstwhile externally induced change, an understanding of how HEIs accommodate policy is essential. Struturation theory (Giddens, 1984) shows how the structures that develop in organisations are a result of how external forces are reinterpreted within the bounds of the organisation (Bess & Dee, 2012). The meaning of a text of policy is contingent upon its context and only when these are known can policy consequences be predicted (Bell & Stevenson, 2006). Within our discussion in week 2, I have the sense that the vocational aspect of education are accepted without critical engagement with the implications, so I present Dall’Alba and Barnacle’s (2007) theoretical discussion on the importance of ontology in deciding educational outcomes.
Briefly, much emphasis is placed on epistemology when describing educational outcomes: how students know, what skills they are expected to possess upon graduation and so on. Absent is the both the focus on the type of person being created and the recognition that decontextualized skill based learning misses the point of situational knowledge, that is, skills only have meaning when they are used in context. Dall’Alba and Barnacle draw up Heidegger extensively to show that the ontology of being is a critical aspect of the idea and meaning of HE, and without a realignment to ontology, educational policy that focusses only on epistemology remains problematic.
Dall’Alba, G., & Barnacle, R. (2007). An ontological turn for higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 32(6), 679–691. http://doi.org/10.1080/03075070701685130
McQuarrie, F. A. E., Kondra, A. Z., & Lamertz, K. (2013). Government, coercive power and the perceived legitimacy of Canadian post-secondary institutions. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 43(2), 149–165.
Raven, B. H. (1992). The bases of power: Origins and recent developments. A presentation in honor of John R. P. French on the occasion of his receiving the Kurt Lewin award. Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, 2–33.
Bell, L., & Stevenson, H. (2006). Education Policy: Education Policy Process, Themes and Impact. London and New York: Routledge.
Bess, J. L., & Dee, J. R. (2012). Understanding college and university organisation: Theories for effective policy and practice: Volume II – dynamics of the system. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.
Brown, S. (2013). Large-scale innovation and change in UK higher education. Research in Learning Technology, 21(1063519), 1–13. http://doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v21i0.22316
Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gray, D. (2004). Doing research in the real world. London: Sage Publications.
Greenbank, P. (2003). The role of values in educational research: the case for reflexivity. British Educational Research Journal, 29(6), 791–801. http://doi.org/10.1080/0141192032000137303
Moses, J. W., & Knutsen, T. L. (2012). Ways of knowing: Competing methodologies in social and political research (2nd ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Perry, B. (2006). Science, Society and the University: A Paradox of Values. Social Epistemology, 20(3-4), 201–219. http://doi.org/10.1080/02691720600879798
Van Viliet, V. (2013). Kurt Lewin. Toolshero.com. Retrieved from http://www.toolshero.com/toolsheroes/kurt-lewin/