The distant predecessors of colleges and universities go back in the West to the Greek academies of the fourth and fifth centuries BCE. In these academies, young men from the governing classes studied rhetoric and philosophy (and “lesser” subjects) as training for public life (Marrou 1982). In the East, the roots of higher education go back to the training of future government bureaucrats at the feet of masters of Confucian philosophy, poetry, and calligraphy. In both East and West, a tight relationship existed between social class, literate culture, and preparation for public life.
Modern higher education institutions trace a more direct lineage from the medieval studium generale. In the first European universities of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries (notably, Salerno, Bologna, and Paris), students and masters came together to pore over the new knowledge discovered in ancient texts and developed by Arab scholars of Spain. These gatherings of students and teachers were a pro duct of the revival of scholarly inquiry in what has been called the twelfth century Renaissance. The term university does not, as many believe, refer to the universe of all fields of knowledge. Originally, it meant simply ”an aggregate of persons.”
The medieval universities have a recognizable similarity to modern higher education in that they were permanent institutions of learning with at least a rudimentary formal organization. Courses of study were formally organized, lectures and examinations were given at scheduled times, administrative officials pre sided, graduation ceremonies were held, and students lived in lodgings near the university buildings. The studium generale were recognized as such because they housed at least one of the ”higher faculties” in law, medicine, and theology in addition to faculties of the arts. Courses in the arts, typically with an emphasis on logic and philosophy, were common preparation for study in the three learned professions. Thus, from the beginning, a certain vocational emphasis is evident in the university; degrees awarded on the completion of professional studies certified accomplishments worthy of entry into professional life. However, the spirit of inquiry was equally important; these were places renowned for famous teachers, such as Abelard in Paris and Irnerius in Bologna (Rashdall 1936).
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the fortunes of colleges and universities waned. The causes for decline are numerous. They include the attractiveness of commercial over scholarly careers, the interference (in some places) of religious and political authorities, and the insularity of faculty who jealously guarded their guild privileges but resisted new currents of thought. During this period, colleges and universities became places interested in the transmission of ancient texts, rather than the further advance of knowledge. They were often criticized as little more than pleasant retreats for wealthy students. Professional training moved out of the universities: into Inns of Court, medical colleges, and seminaries. New elites interested in technical and scientific progress established entirely new institutions rather than allying with existing colleges and universities. Napoleon, for example, founded elite professional training institutions, the grandes ecoles, and the early investigators in the natural sciences created separate societies, such as the British Royal Society, to encourage research and discussion.
The revival of the university is the product of nineteenth century European reform movements led in the beginning by intellectually oriented aristocrats and eminent philosophers and theologians. The University of Berlin, founded in 1810, was the first reformed university and others shortly followed in its wake. The new university was founded on the ”Humboldtian principles” of the unity of teaching and research (meaning that both activities were performed by the professoriate) and the freedom to teach and to learn without fear of outside interference. The development of new academic structures such as the research seminar and the specialized lecture created an environment out of which pathbreaking researchers (e.g., Leopold Ranke in history and Justus von Liebig in chemistry) emerged (McClelland 1980). The German research universities had become by mid-century a model for reformers throughout Europe and from as far away as the US and Japan. The first research university in the US, Johns Hopkins University, was founded in 1876, explicitly on the model of the German research university.
Higher education’s emphasis on training for a wide range of applied fields has been equally important as a source of its current centrality. Here, the US, rather than Germany, has been the decisive innovator. In the US the passage of the Morrill Acts (1862 and 1890) provided land grants to states to establish public universities. These institutions were designed to provide both general education and practical training in agricultural and mechanical arts for all qualified applicants. They encouraged both the democratization of American higher education and a closer connection between universities and emerging markets for educated labor.
The American university’s role in society was further enhanced by its willingness to work collaboratively with government, professional associations, and (somewhat later) also with business and community organizations. The Wisconsin Idea encouraged close connection between university experts and government officials during the period before World War I. Universities also cooperated closely with professional associations to raise educational training standards. Connections between university and state were extended, particularly in the sciences, during World War II and the Cold War, when government grants for university based scientific research became a very large source of support.
These developments encouraged a new view of higher education. In the 1960s, Clark Kerr coined the term multiversity to describe institutions like his own University of California as service based enterprises specializing in train ing, research, and advice for all major sectors of society (Kerr 1963). Junior colleges, founded just after the turn of the century, were by the 1960s even more systematically tied than universities to local and regional markets for semi-professional and technical labor. In terms of growth, these two year colleges are the great success story of twentieth century higher education and their influence is now evident even in four year institutions. The utilitarian approach of American educators was resisted for some time in Europe and Asia, where access to
higher education was strictly limited to those students who passed rigorous examinations and where higher degrees had long served as important badges of social status linked to cultural refinement. However, by the last quarter of the twentieth century, the utilitarian approach to higher education had become the dominant model throughout the developed world.
Institutions of higher education rarely shed their earlier identities completely; instead, they incorporate new emphases through reorganization and by adding new units and new role expectations. Much of the nomenclature, hierarchy, and ritual of the medieval university remains and is in full display at graduation ceremonies. Although many new fields have become incorporated into the curriculum, the liberal arts emphasis of the ancient academies remains central in the first two years of undergraduate study (the lower division), at least in countries influenced by the American model. The nineteenth century emphasis on specialization is evident in the second two years of undergraduate study (the upper division) and in the graduate and professional programs. The nineteenth century emphasis on research remains an absorbing occupation of faculty and graduate students. The twentieth century emphases on ancillary training, service, and entertainment activities are typically buffered from the core of teaching and learning (as in the case of university extension, agricultural experiment stations, university based hospitals, and intercollegiate sports teams).
Modern institutions of higher education are far from collegia in their authority structure, but they also do not fit an ideal type corporate model of centralized, top down control. Instead, decision making structures are based on divided spheres of power and ongoing consultation between two authority structures: one based in knowledge and the other in the allocation of resources. The dual hierarchy of professors and administrators is a structural feature of academic organization with particularly important consequences.
The authority structure of knowledge is constituted by the departments and, within the departments, by the professorial ranks. Advancement in the professorial hierarchy is based in principle on the quality of a faculty member’s professional accomplishment (typically involving assessments of research, teaching, and service). Differences in rank are associated with higher levels of professional deference and income. This hierarchy moves from the temporary ranks of lecturer and instructor to the regular ranks of assistant, associate, and full professor. Highly visible full professors may be appointed to named chairs that provide both additional symbolic recognition and a separate budget for research and travel.
The top level of the administrative hierarchy is composed of a president or chancellor, who is responsible for fundraising and interaction with important resource providers as well as overall supervision; a provost or executive vice chancellor, who is responsible for internal academic matters; and the deans of the colleges and schools. Top administrators are usually drawn from members of the faculty, though an increasing number of lower tier institutions now hire professional managers at the presidential level. Top administrators make the ultimate decisions about budget allocations, hiring and promotion, and planning for the future. However, the professorate, through its representa tives in an academic senate, typically retain a decisive say in all decisions involving curricular organization and instruction. They also retain the predominant say in hiring and promotion decisions, expecting only very rare overrule by administrators.
Universities depend for prestige and resources on the accomplishments of their faculty and, as a general rule, the less distinguished the faculty the more powerful the administration. Professors in non-elite institutions have consequently sometimes chosen to organize in collective bargaining units to control administrative discretion through contractual means. The institution of tenure greatly enhances the influence of faculty. After a 6-year probationary period, assistant professors come up for a decision on promotion to tenure and accompanying advancement in rank. Promotion to tenure, a conventional rather than a legal status, guarantees lifetime employment for those who continue to meet their classes and act within broad bounds of moral acceptability. Together, dual authority and tenure guarantee opposition to any administrative efforts to abandon existing programs or to reduce the work conditions and privileges of the faculty.
Sources and Consequences of Growth
Theorists of postindustrial society have suggested that the growth of the knowledge sector in the economy is behind this expansion of higher education (Bell 1973). Estimates vary on the rate of growth of the knowledge sector, depending on the definition used. Industries employing high proportions of professionals are growing faster, by and large, than other industries, but some estimates show the rate of growth slowing over time. No estimate has shown that knowledge industries contribute a dominant share of the national product in the advanced societies, or even the majority of the most dynamic export industries.
While the growth of the knowledge sector may be an important factor in the expansion of graduate and professional education, its importance at the undergraduate level is doubtful. At least three other sources of growth must be given proper emphasis. One is the interest of states in expanding educational opportunities for their citizens. Another is the interest of students, given these opportunities, to differentiate themselves in the labor market. As secondary school completion approaches universality and higher education attendance becomes more feasible, more students have a motive to differentiate themselves by pursuing higher degrees. Finally, and perhaps most important, is the increasing role played by educational credentials as a means of access to desirable jobs in the economy. Credentials are not simply (or in many cases primarily) a guarantee of technical skills. They also signal that their holders are likely to have cultural and personality characteristics sought by employers. These characteristics include middle class manners, a competitive outlook, literacy and communication skills, and persistence. Colleges both reward and socialize these qualities.
Since the 1960s the trend in the industrialized world has been in the direction of the American model, with an increasing proportion of students entering higher education, but with stratification among institutions and major sub jects also increasing. Two quite separate market situations tend to develop: one for largely well to do students who can afford an expensive 4-year residential experience and another for largely moderate to lower income students who desire convenience and flexibility as they juggle school, family, and work. In most countries of Europe, for example, access to higher education is now possible from all secondary school tracks (including vocational tracks) and once rigorous secondary school leaving examinations have been relaxed to allow a larger flow of students into higher education. In addition, 3 year degrees have also become normative in many European countries. For these reasons, higher proportions of the age cohort now attend colleges and universities in countries like Australia and Korea than in the US. Over the last quarter century, the age of mass higher education has arrived throughout the developed world.
- Bell, D. (1973) The Coming of Post Industrial Society: An Essay in Social Forecasting. Basic Books, New York.
- Kerr, C. (1963) The Uses of the University. Harper & Row, New York.
- McClelland, C. (1980) State, Society, and University in Germany, 1700-1914. Cambridge University
- Press, Cambridge.
- Marrou, H. (1982 ) A History of Education in Antiquity. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
- Rashdall, H. (1936 ) The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, 1. Ed. F. M. Powicke & A. B. Emden. Oxford University Press, Oxford.