srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Max Weber and the rationalisation of education

By Geoff Hinchliffe

In order to understand our own times, it can be beneficial to go back in time, in order to take advantage of a fresh perspective from afar. One thinker who was uncannily prescient about some of our current concerns in higher education was Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber has always been held in high esteem, of course, by sociologists. But I think what he has to say about the effects of bureaucratisation are of interest to anyone working in higher education at the moment.

Weber thought that the methods and techniques of bureaucracy were all-pervasive in a modern industrial society. These techniques were by no means confined to the state: bureaucracy colonised all forms of commercial and institutional behaviour – including education. And these techniques were also accompanied by a certain habit of mind which Weber called rationalisation.  In his book, the Protestant Ethic, Weber famously invokes the ‘iron cage’ which modern man had constructed for himself, signifying the development of procedures and behaviours necessary for a modern economic order whilst “the rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems to be irretrievably fading” (Weber, p. 181-2).

This ‘iron cage’ – the cage of rationalisation – includes : Continue reading

BruceMacfarlane


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Academic practice, identity and careers

By Bruce Macfarlane

The word ‘traditional’ is possibly the most over-used term in the higher education discourse. In common with nearly all institutions that have endured for any substantial length of time, such as the Church of England or the Conservative Party, the University has been adroit at re-inventing itself. The latest re-imagining is that ‘traditional’ universities are research-led institutions. This myth has comparatively recent roots linked to the growth of an audit culture, expansion and stratification on an international basis, and academic performativity at an individual level. These trends have collectively re-shaped the nature of academic practice and identity over the last 50 years.

An insight into how priorities have changed among academics during the recent past is provided by Halsey and Trow’s seminal study, published in 1971, of a then still small and elite British higher education sector drawing on data gathered in the mid-1960s (at a time when the SRHE was being formed). They found that British academics were overwhelmingly oriented towards teaching rather than research. A mere 10 per cent were even ‘interested’ in research while just 4 per cent regarded research as their primary responsibility (Halsey & Trow, 1971). The study concludes Continue reading