The Universities in Historical Context: Howard Hotson

November 29, 2011

Do current higher education policies rest on a mistake? In a fascinating session in the CEMS ‘Universities in Historical Context ’ series (24 November), Howard Hotson described how techniques he had devised for understanding early modern intellectual history unexpectedly proved useful in analysing the contemporary university crisis.

In recent years, Hotson has been attempting to use statistical data to map out the ‘intellectual geography’ of seventeenth-century Europe, and to show how the relatively open market in higher education caused by the fragmentation of political authority in the Holy Roman Empire turned the Rhineland region into the pedagogical laboratory of Protestant Europe.  This graph of matriculation data, for instance, suggests that the Thirty Years War saw a dramatic transfer of academic leadership from the German Reformed universities to the Dutch Republic.

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When the UK government started predicting that marketizing the English university system would drive up standards and drive down prices, Hotson decided to use these techniques to put these predictions to an empirical test. His point of departure was the enormously influential Times Higher Education World University Rankings, since the apparently ‘absolute’ domination of the these Rankings by private American universities underpins claims that privatizing and marketizing the UK university system will deliver better value for money. And yet, as his analysis in last May’s LRB showed, correcting for the relative size of population, GDP and higher education spending showed that this assumption was without empirical foundation: the almost totally public university system in the UK offers much better value for money than the mixed university system in the US.  Astonished by the international resonance of this simple argument, he subsequently applied his analysis to the other leading university systems as well, generating further graphs like this:

Analysis of the second influential league table, the Academic Ranking of World Universities or ‘Shanghai index’, likewise undermines the assumption that British universities are failing to maintain their position internationally.

It is gratifying to see the ease with which skills in early modern studies can be transferred to critiquing contemporary policy; but it is equally disturbing to discover that journalists, politicians, and university administrators, although highly versed in economic and management orthodoxy, apparently lack the ability to subject their own assumptions to straightforward analysis of this kind. The discussion following the paper ranged from the possible parallels between Ramist dichotomies and Power Point presentations to some urgently contemporary questions: do the humanities betray their own principles in succumbing to the wholly quantitative discourse of current higher education policy? or do they lose their case by failing to engage in more depth with quantitative analysis?

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