Working Paper 81
Sagas of contemporary higher education: foreground and hinterland
Published May 2022

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This lecture is based on Burton Clark’s concept of ‘organisational saga’ in higher education. From that base it builds a wider concept of ‘saga’ to explain the evolution of systems rather than simply the development of institutions. It distinguishes between the structural and organisational characteristics of sagas – which I call the ‘foreground’ – and their affective and ideological components – in my word, the ‘hinterland’.

The dominant saga of most contemporary system emphasises the tight relationship between the university and political economy. Hence the emphasis on skills, employability and impact as well as social engagement and widening participation – ‘clever’ universities to produce ‘clever countries’, in the ambition of a former Australian Prime Minister. This is the consistent foreground of contemporary higher education’s saga. But the hinterland has shifted from social reformism, the environment in which the project of mass higher education was first conceived, to neoliberal ideas about the centrality of markets and modernisation (corporatisation?), the environment in which many mass systems subsequently developed.

This saga, both consistent foreground and shifting hinterland, not only frames our understanding of higher education but drives national policies and institutional strategies (and shapes the lives and ambitions of many teachers and researchers). In this lecture I ask a simple but fundamental question – are we fated to continue to think and operate within the framework of this dominant saga, or is it possible to conceive of an alternative saga? Is it possible to imagine a looser connection between higher education and political economy (welfare state or market state) and a new engagement with democracy and human rights? The global neoliberal order has received repeated shocks since the 2008 banking crisis – the experience of global pandemic; the revived agency of the (nation) State, whether in public health or waging war; the emergence of populist movements of the right and social movements of the left. In hope as much as prediction I tentatively suggest some of the possible components of such an alternative saga – putting the ‘education’ back in higher education and developing plural accounts of accountability and engagement.

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