• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Burton Clark Revisited

Is an aggressive state sometimes necessary?

February 9, 2015

In his most recent book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (2014), Francis Fukuyama argues that a well-ordered society requires a strong state, the rule of law and democratic accountability; he insists that states that democratize before acquiring the capacity to rule effectively are likely to fail. It is effectively a lens through which we might revisit Burton Clark’s influential model of the relationship between the academy, government and the market, and makes a case for a stronger state role.

Is a more aggressive state sometimes necessary?

China is often cited as exemplifying strong government—despite the political drawbacks—to “impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward” (in Thomas Friedman’s words). Indeed, a strong Chinese state has been able to promote and implement higher education enrollment growth, new governance structures, and a plan to build world-class universities simultaneously in the past two decades. With the force of the state driving change, Chinese higher education enrollment grew at an annual rate of 17% between 1998 and 2010. During the peak years of expansion, China’s fiscal appropriations for higher education increased annually at 17.4% between 1998 and 2006.

Now in the post-expansion era, in order to address inequities resulting from the expansion and differentiation processes, the Chinese state has made it explicit that the government sector (including the local governments) must take responsibility for advancing education equity, while other societal sectors need to put forth effort as well. As a result, the year 2012 witnessed 10,000 spots being saved in the country’s top-notch universities exclusively for applicants from the poor rural areas, and this figure increased to 50,000 in 2014.

Now, for the sake of improving efficiency and relevance, the Chinese government is planning to convert around 600 local universities into a new type of institution—universities of applied sciences—aiming to create a binary higher education system from the current unitary one where all institutions are governed and measured according to one single set of criteria. These policy initiatives (in particular when taking into account their scale and effectiveness) can hardly be imagined in any other political system.

It remains to be seen whether a strong state can be effective elsewhere. In the US for example, the newly unveiled America’s College Promise proposal promises greater access and social mobility through a government initiative to make two years of community college tuition free. This reflects the assumption that the state needs to assume an aggressive role to address equity in higher education.

In a softer gesture, Australia’s government established a new Higher Education Endowment Fund (HEEF) with an initial investment of $5 billion from the 2006-2007 surplus. The HEEF is structured so that it can receive philanthropic donations from the private sector and, on request, manage individual institutional endowments. The HEEF income is distributed annually to individual universities for capital investment and research facilities. After 2009, the HEEF was merged into Australia’s Education Investment Fund (EIF). The HEEF/EIF essentially creates a state endowment program. As such, it enjoys advantages of state credibility and market flexibility. In a sense, the Australian move sets a new direction for the state in university operation in a democratic context.

A strong state is more capable of playing “gatekeeper”

As an academic entity, the university is often in a weak position to mediate the demands of the market and larger society. Research independence turned the university into a powerful knowledge centre yet the growing commercialization of higher education could result in the loss of the key social contributions the university can make. Globalization, neo-liberalism, academic capitalism and market forces are influencing higher education everywhere, and the commercialization of knowledge has gradually become “the norm” to the detriment of future research.

Liberal democracy appears to be facing the challenges of too many conflicting interests and pressures. Likewise, universities may lose some autonomy in the face of extensive external demands. For its part, the state needs to play “gatekeeper” arbitrating market, social and academic interests. The Chinese experience shows that the state can act as a powerful and effective agent for extraordinary change in higher education. Here the central question is to what extent the state will protect the interests of the academy. The answer to this question relies a great deal on whether state interests lean more towards the traditional academic estate or the market.

In concert or at odds?

Clark’s famous triangle was a reflection of his dissatisfaction with existing methods of examining how different vectors influence higher education systems. His triangle, however, does not allow for multiple forces to act in unison, such as the academic estate with the market, which is often the case nowadays. The model assumes these interests to be mutually exclusive, which some argue as the “zero-sum flaw” of the model. In fact, rather than being mutually exclusive, the state, the market and academic estate increasingly operate as interdependent instruments and actors of governance. The state could certainly choose to join with the market and drive higher education further towards market priorities. Or, the state could become an enabling agent to propel the university to make a different contribution to society.

Democratic politics appears to be losing some of their regulatory authority over an increasingly capital-driven market. Put another way, liberal democracy is now less and less capable of controlling the voracity of capital. It has, in fact, become dependent on and even “controlled” by capital, in an era where the apparatus of politics turns out to be quite costly. The university is not immune to such changes, and has become “caught in a cross-fire of expectations” (as Clark warned himself). Arguably a strong state is less likely to be compromised by market forces and more capable of advancing its own vigorous higher education agenda. Thus, a strong state may well be the key to balance, reconcile and ensure the four basic values in higher education, i.e., social justice, competence, liberty and loyalty, which Clark claimed later in his 2008 book, On Higher Education: Selected Writings, 1956-2006. In this sense, Fukuyama’s formulation could serve as a supplementary model to Clark’s original triangle. Nevertheless, the application of Fukuyama’s model to a comparative context raises the difficulty of measuring “democratization” and “the capacity to rule effectively” as well as the efficiency of higher education reforms.




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