A significant proportion of the literature on higher education for some time has focused on the way that global trends in university policy play out regionally, nationally, or locally. Particular attention has been paid to the increasing presence of inter-university (and inter-country) competition and private funding for universities, and the impact this has on the ways that universities are governed. These trends, associated with the notion of a ‘knowledge economy’, are seen as somewhat anathema to higher education and its historical values, or ethos. Within this, there is a great deal of discussion about the way that students are framed or affected by these policies, such as tuition fees fostering more of a customer-like relationship between them and the university, and more passive approaches to learning. There is little research, though, that investigates students’ own perspectives of this topic. The article published in the European Journal of Higher Education makes an exploratory foray into this area by investigating how a small group of students in Germany and England understood higher education’s ethos. The question here is whether they associate universities with ‘older’ or ‘newer’ models, i.e. whether they might consider the new one as somehow inappropriate.
This work draws on a form of neo-institutionalism, a theoretical approach that sees organisations as operating within, and aligning themselves to, social fields characterised by taken-for granted practices and worldviews. One of the foundational ideas in this approach is that these fields are underpinned by ‘institutional myths’, a fictitious mental ideal that serves as a collective, normative guide to how people and organisations think and behave. This paper suggests – as others have done – that the ideas associated with Wilhelm von Humboldt form an institutional myth, that is, that universities are geared towards social progress through the principles of scientific training, non-utilitarian science, and higher education’s independence from political and commercial pressures. These principles run counter to the notion of higher education as a servant primarily of the economy, for example, and much of the critical commentary of policy and governance in the sector can be connected with this tension.
It should be noted that there are alternative candidates for institutional myths. Other formulations include John Henry Newman’s ‘Idea of the University’, a Confucian understanding of higher education, and there are others such as Islamic ones. Von Humboldt was chosen in part because of his strong associations with German higher education. The comparison between Germany and England was made on the basis that the former has been more (but not entirely) insulated from the changes associated with the knowledge economy than the latter. It might then be expected that students in both countries have different conceptualisations of what universities are ‘all about’.
In practice, both groups of students had very similar ideas around of the principles that underpinned universities, namely:
- Independence and non-profit orientations in research;
- Systematic thought;
- Personal independence;
- Public knowledge;
- A Broad disciplinary base;
- Equality and meritocracy;
- Social tolerance;
Some of these values can be connected with ‘Humboldtian’ visions of the university, while others, such as equality/meritocracy and social tolerance, are post-war additions. We can see, though, that the students largely associated universities with an ethos that at least pre-dates the knowledge economy. That students saw universities as founded on – and fostering – personal independence connected with a strong sense of being the key agents in their own development, i.e. not passive customers.
There were, though, differences between the groups. In addition to the values above, the English students were more accepting of tuition fees as a personal investment, and the notion that universities should generate profit to allow for organisational self-sufficiency and development. As is well-documented in the literature, levying fees is potentially counter to equality and meritocracy, and a commercial orientation runs counter to independence in research as it skews attention and funding towards economic outcomes. Few of the English students noticed these contradictions, and the suggestion here is that they had simultaneously internalised some of the ‘newer’ and ‘older’ principles. This is, though, exploratory work and the sample here is too small to draw broader conclusions, and as such, further research would be required in order to do so.