Changing Principles and Goals of Universities: Questioning Trajectories


  • Robert Cowen University of London & Oxford University, United Kingdom



Economic and social crisis, The English university, Thatcher, Ideologies of educational effectiveness and educational efficiency, Changing universities


The argument of the article is that in a period of about thirty years the social purpose, the epistemic and pedagogic practices, and the political position of the English university have all changed; but that the patterns of assumption and practices about societies and universities which have begun to stabilise in England are not extraordinary and extreme. The implicit theme (‘implicit’, because there is no space to pursue the full comparative argument) is that we are now at some time-distance from 1980 and, even if England was in that period interpreted as an ‘extreme case’ its patterns can be seen currently as an early case of several ‘routine’ social processes that were about to happen in a range of societies and university systems. The article sketches the patterns of the political pressures which  have influenced why the English university system has changed in the ways it has. Some of these pressures are easily visible in changing discourses, notably the political proposition that ‘there is no alternative’ to seeing the global (and wealth) as defined by a shift from the dominance of industrial economies to the emerging dominance of knowledge economies. The effects on education were fairly obvious, not least in the external surveillance of the university by agencies which measure ‘quality’ of teaching and research. It is argued that the core of the change included a shift between two major ideologies: from notions of a large and welfare State to a small and evaluative State; and from an educational ideology which stressed equality for educational opportunity as a social good, to another ideology which stressed effective and efficient educational systems for economic purposes. The article concludes with some brief reflections on the seriousness, societal and pedagogic, of these changes which – if the gloomy thoughts are accurate – have implications for a range of societies and for the young of those societies.


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Author Biography

Robert Cowen, University of London & Oxford University, United Kingdom

Robert Cowen is an emeritus professor of education at the University of London / Institute of Education and an senior research fellow of the University of Oxford. He is currently serving as review editor for the journal Comparative Education and was formerly president of The Comparative Education Society in Europe (CESE). His main work at the moment is on re-theorising ‘academic comparative education’ as a field of study and research.