Looks like I’m on a bit of a roll with the “good enough” approach – soon to halt I’m sure. The following is the next section of the Place component of the Ps Framework section for chapter 2 of the thesis.

This section takes the previously identified societal changes and attempts to illustrate their effect on the higher education sector. Again, the basic aim is not to be exhaustive but to provide an indication that the sector is undergoing lots of change and that the outcomes are unpredictable.


The previous section (2.1.1 – Society) briefly described the societal factors that impact upon both higher education and other parts of society. This section seeks to expand upon the implications those broader societal factors have for the higher education sector. It suggests that the three features of globalisation outlined in the previous section – a minimalist state, entrepreneurialization and managerialization, and the knowledge society – are likely to result in significant and uncertain change in higher education and consequently drive on-going change in the nature and practice of e-learning within higher education. However, drawing on Vaira’s (2004) idea of mutual implication, it is suggested that the outcomes of those changes is somewhat uncertain and is likely to emerge from an on-going reflexive process. It argues that the capability to respond and engage in this process of change is perhaps the most important quality required of higher education.

Significant change

Table 2.3 provides one representation of the connections between the societal changes described in the previous section and on-going changes within higher education. Following the table is a discussion of the perspectives associated with these changes within the higher education sector. A connection between the changes in Table 2.3 and the discussion is illustrated through italics. As shown in Table 2.3 there is not a direct one-to-one mapping between societal change and changes in the higher education sector, nor are all of the changes in higher education consistent. For example, there is significant tension between accountability and innovation (Findlow 2008).

Table 2.3 – Connections between societal change and change within the higher education sector
Societal change Sector changes
Minimalist state Increased competition
Increased relationships
Reduced risk
Entrepreneurialisation and managerialisation Responsive
Increased relationships
Limits on improving learning and teaching
Students are customers
Knowledge society Changes in learning and teaching
Expansion of disciplines
Changing nature of work

From around the late 1980s there was a significant shift from the pure view of the university towards the instrumental (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000). That is, it became important that universities be seen to make a direct contribution to society that in turn drove the need for accountability, innovation, massification and a number of the other changes outlined in Table 2.3. For example, the need to illustrate contribution contributed to competition and increased the importance of research rankings and university league tables. The growing importance of rankings has pushed universities into the same mould and order (Marginson 2007) in order to enable comparisons between competing universities. This drive to standardisation is also being driven by international political agreements that seek to harmonise higher education systems between nations (Vaira 2004), to make them interoperable and part of a global market. An aspect of internationalisation. At the same time, diversity – in terms of the variety of institutions within a national higher education system – is still seen as an important requirement within government policies (Huisman, Meek et al. 2007). The value of diversity is based on the assumption of increased student choice and consequently levels of participation (Birnbaum 1983) that enables massification.

The sector is becoming increasingly competitive with traditional universities being challenged by, or in some cases forming alliances with, non-traditional organizations (Cunningham, Ryan et al. 2000). Increasingly, universities are networking and collaborating, creating alliances between universities, for a variety of reasons including: commercial, increased lobbying power, and dealing with benchmarking and accreditation issues (Gallagher 2000). Higher education is developing an increasing number of alliances with local, regional, national and international partners (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008).

The ability to efficiently and effectively accommodate the demands of these alliances is becoming a prime criterion for universities to be considered as innovative and responsive (Brenan 2008). The institutions that are responsive, in terms of being able to adapt to changes in the environment while keeping the costs under control, will be successful (Huynh, Umesh et al. 2003). Universities must remain flexible enough to be responsive to emerging social demands, technological change and economic realignments (Scott 2006). Alliances such as industry-university partnerships or commercialization are mechanisms that exploit knowledge capacity or maximize financial rewards so as to promote further innovation (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008).

With the knowledge society, the nature of higher education institutions as producers of innovation and new knowledge makes them crucially important to the competitive capacities of nation states (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). Changes in higher education funding and management, and a requirement for universities to be innovative, have led to innovation being applied to ideas for change that consistent with institutional and, in places, national priorities (Findlow 2008). Innovation has become programmatised. This is part of a trend towards accountable governance where university are expected to act responsibly, deliver value for money and also work on the corporate social responsibility (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008). Audit – seen as a response to fear or reduction of risk – and audit-managerially governed innovation schemes require pre-determination of expected outcomes and costs, which is diametrically opposed to views of innovation as change via problematisation and risk (Findlow 2008). University accountability mechanisms have to develop new and complex forms in order to demonstrate quality, efficiency and effectiveness to national governments and an increasingly wider range of stakeholders (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008).

Moves to increased accountability, through the growth of external and internal regulation and monitoring – the rise of the “audit culture” – has become associated with academic deprofessionalisation, to changes in the nature of work (Newton 2003). In part, this means less freedom and autonomy for academics, and increases in structure, monitoring and management (Kolsaker 2008). The knowledge society and resulting expansion in knowledge creates is starting an expansion of academic disciplines and fields of research, which in turn create a demand for new professorships and chairs within universities (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008).

A part of the expansion in knowledge are the growing demands for: professional education as an element of lifelong learning; flexible delivery of learning at a time and place that suits learners; and increasing demands for training that is tailored to the needs of individual companies (Cunningham, Ryan et al. 2000). This demand brings into question existing assumptions of university learning and teaching. For example, the separation of formal (university) and informal (other) learning, that learning occurs within a single institution, the requirement on the institution to provide and support all technologies, and the nature of the distinction between teacher and student (Jones 2008). These trends and questions are a part of and a response to massification.

In the period from 1900 to 2000, attendance at university rose from a small fraction of one percent of the age cohort to roughly 20 percent, a rate of expansion considerably faster than that of primary and secondary schooling (Schofer and Meyer 2005). This massification, the demand for relevant education and a move towards life long learning all, in different ways, call for changes in learning and teaching (Elton 1999). The pressure to teach more students, more efficiently and to provide them with specific skills required of the knowledge society may have adverse consequences for research (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000). The student-centered learning approach – assuming a self-managed, flexible, independent learner – and its rhetoric go hand in hand with the market-driven, enterprise model of the university (Lewis, Marginson et al. 2005).

The combination of factors such as massification and the growth of the knowledge economy are increasing the potential substantial financial rewards from the commodification of knowledge and the commercialisation of academic work (Gallagher 2000). Shifts in society have resulted in a view where students are customers, teachers are “service providers”, and where the resulting student/teacher relationship is based on a passivity and dependence that is antithetical to learning (White 2006). Knight and Trowler (2000) identify several aspects arising out of moves towards managerialisation that limit attempts to improve learning and teaching including: intensification of work, hard managerialism, loss of collegiality, and aging, malaise and marginality.

The combination of ICTs and the commodification of knowledge lead to the idea of learning objects as an attempt to strip away context from content for financial reasons to the deteriment of quality, in-depth learning and reusability (Williams 2004; Gunn, Woodgate et al. 2005). ICTs are also restructuring the institutional fabric of universities through an influence on the work of academics and the changing nature of support functions performed by university administrative staff (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). The combination of the post-bureaucratic organisation and the networking capabilities of ICTs has changed the very nature of work itself (Lewis, Marginson et al. 2005; Scott 2006). For example, the growth of easy, cheap and fast communication has enabled specialized researchers to effectively communicate within their subfield regardless of institution or county (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000). Opportunities for rethinking pedagogical practice and reforming teaching and learning have also arisen out of the restructuring of universities and the spread of networked technology (Lewis, Marginson et al. 2005).

What are the outcomes?

Table 2.3 and the discussion in the previous section outline a large and diverse set of changes within the higher education sector that are currently visible within the associated literature. It is largely acknowledged that globalization is having deep impacts upon higher education worldwide (Vaira 2004). However, there remain questions as to whether the knowledge society and its requirements strengthen or weaken the position of universities as knowledge institutions (Brenan 2008). What will the outcomes of these changes be? Will the outcome be, as suggested by Peter Drucker (Lenzer and Johnson 1997), that “universities won’t survive”?

Martin and Etzkowitz (2000) outline two views on the future of the university – the declinist thesis – where the future of the university is under threat – and optimistic thesis – where the university will become more powerful. Similarly, Vaira (2004) identifies two dichotomous streams of thought around globalisation:

  1. convergence; and
    Founded on a linear, top-down and occasionally deterministic explanation of causality this thesis places an emphasis on the progressive and inevitable homogenisation of the cultural, political and economic components of societies.
  2. Divergence.
    A bottom-up, non-linear, non-deterministic approach that gives prominence to processes of manipulation, localisation, resistance and interpretation that leads to a heterogeneity in the effects and outcomes of globalisation at the local level.

Vaira (2004) identifies a third stream of thought that sees globalisation as mutually implicative illustrated by diverse attempts to reconcile the two previous and opposed versions through the blending of global tendencies and local responses. Consequently universities are neither strictly homogeneous and isomorphic at a global level, nor highly differentiated and polymorphic at the local institutional level, but rather can be conceived as local variants of the same institutional archetype (Vaira 2004).

So, while globalisation has opened up competitive horizons that have influenced the policy goals of nation states, national and institutional traditions continue to have, to a greater or lesser extent, some influence (Brenan 2008). Universities continue to belong to different and contradictory societal systems and consequently must apply a diversity of effective means to regulation and control in order to cope with future challenges (Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt 2005). There is no one single, global set of societal factors that apply. For example, Cunnigham et al (2000) identify a range of systemic differences between the Australian and the United States education systems that are summarized in Table 2.4.

Table 2.4 – Range of differences between US and Australian post-secondary education sectors (adapted from Cunningham, Ryan et al. 2000)
United States Australia
Significantly larger in terms of demographic scale, economic size and diversity. More regulated in terms of use of the ‘university’ label and a more singular and coordinated quality assurance and accreditation systems.
Widespread employer-sponsored tuition subsidies. Greater experience with distance education and part-time higher education students.
Community college system that is more automonmous and general education oriented. Vocational education and training system is more industry oriented and has a greater competency basis.

Reactions to the use of ICTs, and in particular in education, provide another example of the rise of dichotomous perspectives rather than dialectic approaches. The public discourses around the educational use of ICTs has tended towards two dichotomous positions – either for or against – that provide little assistance in understanding the use of ICTs (De Vaney 1998). Education is a complex set of interrelationships, it is not a neutral backdrop instead it may help or hinder the task of embedding an innovation (Underwood and Dillon 2004). One of the 18 lessons identified by Collis and Moonen (2001) from 20 years experience with e-learning in universities is to acknowledge that change is iterative and unpredictable.

The observation that universities are one of a very few institutions that have maintained their existence since the 1500s (Kerr 1994) is often attributed to the ability of universities to be resistant to change (Green and Hayward 1997). There is an alternate view that the university is a very adaptable organism that has a proven ability to evolve in a changing environment and has been so successful that there are few instances of the ‘death’ of a university (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000). Indeed, universities are a social artefact that can fill any purpose society sets for them without disastrous consequences (Kogan 2000).


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