Education, Higher


Education, Higher, period of advanced study. The term “higher education” has two distinct meanings. First, it denotes a stage of education that succeeds secondary education or follows further or tertiary education. It is defined, therefore, in terms of academic level. Higher education consists of all courses beyond final school examinations (Advanced Levels, commonly called A Levels, in England and Wales; Higher Grades in Scotland; the baccalaureate in France; the Abitur in Germany) and intermediate technical qualifications (level 3 in terms of National Vocational Qualifications, NVQs, in Britain). Most of these courses are at undergraduate (Bachelor’s degree) and postgraduate level (Master’s and Doctoral degrees), but they also include higher technical and professional qualifications, such as the Higher National Diploma (HND) in Britain. More recently two-year Foundation Degrees, which include work experience and are offered in association with employers, have also been introduced in Britain. The demarcation between secondary and further education on the one hand and higher education on the other has become less clear as higher education institutions have begun to offer special access programmes at a lower academic level, which may be targeted at disadvantaged social groups, and more general courses for adults, and also to provide continuing education and opportunities for lifelong learning.

Second, higher education denotes the system of institutions that provide such courses and also engage in research. These are principally universities. However, many national systems also include other institutions. In England and Wales, polytechnics were established following a 1966 White Paper, although since 1992 they have been included in the university sector. In France, the Instituts Universitaires de Technologie were established at the same time. Although they are linked to the universities, they operate as independent institutions with a stronger vocational emphasis. In Germany there are Fachhochschulen and in the Netherlands HBO (higher professional) schools. A unified higher education system was created in Sweden in 1977, although important differences remain between the traditional universities and smaller university colleges. In Australia, a unified system was established in 1988 by amalgamating the former colleges of advanced education into existing universities or to form new universities. In New Zealand, a state-funded university system offers academic degree courses and research opportunities, while a polytechnic and institute of technology system focus on providing education and training in a wide range of industry- and occupation-based vocational courses.


The first universities were established in the High Middle Ages, from the 12th century onwards. Precise foundation dates remain debatable, but among the earliest were Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. These early universities were closely linked to the Church. Nearly all their graduates took holy orders, although at that time clerics undertook a wide range of activities in the public arena. Their curriculum was dominated by the study of ancient philosophy, often filtered through Islamic intermediaries and the Fathers of the Church. Although, as an organizational form, the university was a European phenomenon, analogous institutions existed in other cultures in the form of the religious schools of the Islamic world and the court schools of India, China, and Japan.

Many more universities were established in the early modern period. Royal patronage replaced the influence of the Church, particularly in the Protestant countries of northern Europe. The university curriculum was transformed by the new learning of the Renaissance. Although many graduates continued to enter the Church, universities became predominantly lay institutions during the 16th and 17th centuries. The 18th century was a period of comparative stagnation. The scientific revolution led to the establishment of other institutions, such as the Royal Society in England and the Academy of Sciences in Russia. The Age of Enlightenment also passed by the universities; its focus was in aristocratic salons and literary circles.

Most existing universities were established in two waves. The first occurred in the mid-19th century when the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of professional society, and the growth of the modern state came together to stimulate the demand for university graduates. Many of the civic universities of the North and Midlands of England were established at this time, often on the initiative of civic and business elites. During the same period, technical institutions were also established, sometimes in the form of mechanics’ institutes, which were later to become technological universities. In the United States the land-grant universities, which include the major state universities, were established following the American Civil War.

The second wave took place after 1945 when the creation of universal secondary school systems, the increasing sophistication of the post-war economy, and the development of democratic aspirations led to demands for the expansion of higher education. Student numbers in the existing universities increased several times over. New universities were established, often on greenfield sites. Other institutions, such as the colleges of advanced technology, were turned into universities. Many higher education systems are now on the brink of a third wave, the development of mass higher education in which demarcations between “higher” and “further”, initial and continuing education, are swept away as going on to college becomes the norm rather than the exception.


In 2001 there were almost 2.2 million full- and part-time students in higher education in the United Kingdom: 42 percent of 18-year-olds now go on to study at a university or college of higher education. Much of this growth has been recent. At the beginning of the 1990s, the age participation index was 17 per cent. Participation has therefore doubled in ten years. A further increase in participation is planned, to 50 percent of 18- to 30-year-olds by 2010, and between 2002 and 2004, the acceptance rate of admissions to universities had already increased by more than 14 percent. Although more students are still enrolled in higher education in some other European countries, drop-out rates remain lower in Britain. Four out of five students successfully complete their courses. As a result, Britain is now the largest producer of graduates in Europe. The growth in student enrolments since the mid-1980s has been a global phenomenon, linked by some commentators, in the short term, with economic recession and, in the medium and long term, with far-reaching changes in the labour market. Within the European Union as of April 2004, there were 12 million students and in the United States more than 15 million.

The number of universities in Britain nearly doubled following the abandonment of the binary division between traditional universities and other higher education institutions in 1992. In that year the existing 48 universities were joined by the 33 former polytechnics in England and Wales, 3 ex-Scottish central institutions, and 2 former colleges of higher education. One more university, the first in Britain to be based on a church-affiliated institution, has been established since 1992. More than 40 smaller colleges of higher education, and a small number of art, music, and other specialist colleges remain outside the university sector, although there are plans to relax the rules for achieving university status, opening the door to the creation of smaller and/or teaching-only universities. Many further education colleges, engaged predominantly in offering lower-level courses, also provide higher education. Higher education systems in most other developed countries are similarly diverse. In April 2004, it was estimated that in the 15 member states of the EU there were approximately 3,750 higher education institutions, including almost 700 universities. A slightly smaller number is to be found in the United States, although only 150 are classified as full research universities.


Most universities and colleges are publicly owned or funded. In most of Europe and in many individual states of the United States they are state institutions. However, either by convention or constitutional guarantee, leading universities in these countries enjoy considerable autonomy. Recent reforms in Sweden and the Netherlands have given universities greater operating freedom. Elsewhere, more emphasis has been placed on enabling higher education to respond more effectively to the market. In Britain, though all universities are incorporated bodies rather than state agencies, there is only one truly private university, the University of Buckingham. Even the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, although they have extensive private endowments, depend on the state for the bulk of their budgets. The total income of English universities and colleges of higher education was £13.5 billion in 2000-2001, of which £7.5 billion was provided by the State.

All British higher education institutions are now part of a single system, funded respectively by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Scottish Higher Education Council, and the Funding Council for Wales. These councils are responsible for their respective departments, the Department for Innovation, Universities, and Skills (formerly the Department for Education and Skills) in England, the Scottish Executive’s Department for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education, and the National Assembly of Wales. However, in a Cabinet reshuffle in June 2003, the prime minister replaced the Scottish and Welsh offices with the new Department of Constitutional Affairs, and then in 2007, this was superseded by the Ministry of Justice, although effectively these offices still function, with their officials based in the new department. Higher education in Northern Ireland is directly funded by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland. Until 1989 the traditional universities enjoyed greater autonomy with the University Grants Committee acting as a buffer between them and the government, and the former polytechnics were run by local education authorities, which were also responsible for primary, secondary, and further education. The present funding councils allocate core grants to higher education institutions, in separate streams for teaching and research. Teaching funding is allocated according to a standard formula based on the cost of offering courses in different subjects, while research funding is allocated selectively following the five-yearly Research Assessment Exercises, which rank the quality of research in university departments.

Between 1962 and 1998 tuition was free. Since 1998 students based in the United Kingdom (and other European Union countries) have had to play a flat-rate fee if they attend English or Welsh institutions. Separate arrangements apply in Scotland. Grants to cover living expenses have also been replaced by loans that graduates repay out of future earnings.

In January 2003 a White Paper was published outlining new plans for funding higher education in England. A year later the Labour government narrowly won the controversial vote in the Commons and in July the bill was passed by the House of Lords. Universities and colleges are free to charge variable fees up to an initial maximum of £3,000 a year from 2006 (those students taking a gap year in 2005 will not be liable to pay the full charges). But, in order to ensure that poorer students are not disadvantaged, institutions will have to reach access agreements with the proposed Office for Fair Access. Although higher, fees will no longer be paid up-front by students but repaid after graduation—and only when a specified income level of £15,000 has been reached. The White Paper also recommended the limited reintroduction of maintenance grants of up to £1,000 a year for poorer students.


Significant differences persist between national higher education systems. One is whether traditional universities have remained a distinct sector within higher education—characterized by student recruitment from elite social groups, graduate entry into leading professions, and by academic and theoretical rather than applied and practical courses—or whether unified systems have been established. Most European and North American systems conform to the former binary model. In Germany and the Netherlands universities continue to be distinguished from Fachhochschulen and HBO schools respectively, while in US states, such as California, three-tier systems have been established headed by research universities. In France, it is the grandes écoles, such as the École Polytechnique, rather than the universities, that form the pinnacle of higher education.

A second key difference is whether most scientific research is done in universities and other higher education institutions or in specialized research establishments. In Britain and most other Commonwealth countries and some other European countries, such as Sweden, and in the United States, universities are leading research institutions. However, in France research is also undertaken by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), although CNRS units are often based on university campuses. In Germany, a significant amount of research is still undertaken in independent Max Planck institutes. In much of central and Eastern Europe universities have regained their stake in research that during the Communist era had been lost to specialized institutes of the academies of sciences.

However, these differences are tending to diminish as all higher education systems and institutions confront the global pressures of post-industrial society, and adopt similar organizational strategies. Binary systems, their structures predetermined by the state, are being replaced by unified systems in which market-led differentiation plays a bigger part in determining the fortunes of individual institutions. Funds for research are being targeted and the views of industrial and other “users” given greater weight, even when research continues to be carried out in universities. At the same time, specialized research laboratories are being integrated into the wider higher education system.

Other differences, of institutional ethos and academic cultures, are also important. Three broad strands have been identified within the modern university tradition. The first emphasizes the development of scientific knowledge, and so research and graduate study, and has been most eloquently realized in the Humboldtian traditions of the German university. The second emphasizes professional formation. It is best represented by the French grandes écoles. The third emphasizes a liberal and critical education. It is represented by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in Britain, and in the United States by the University of Chicago, with its “Great Books” tradition, and other elite universities and liberal arts colleges.

These differences, too, are tending to diminish. As most nations develop mass higher education systems, these must incorporate features of all three, the scientific, professional, and liberal-critical strands within the university tradition. Many students who now enter higher education lack the traditional academic culture that characterized entrants to a more educationally, and socially, selective system. The growing number of higher education graduates means they no longer only enter the leading professions and follow elite careers. New subjects have entered the higher education curriculum, some in response to scientific advances, but many to provide more vocationally relevant outcomes. A new emphasis has been placed on responsiveness, to students and employers.

Many higher education courses are now modular in structure. In such programmes, instead of following a three- or four-year degree course with restricted options, students can choose from a range of separate modules. They are awarded points, or credits, for successful completion of these modules. Degrees, and other qualifications are denominated in credits. Students are free not only to accumulate these credits but to transfer them from one course, or institution, to another. Most British universities have either introduced or plan to introduce, modular course patterns, although their impact on student choice has so far been limited. In Sweden and several other European countries, similar points schemes have been introduced. Most American higher education courses have always been organized in terms of electives, or optional courses. The development of modular courses has often been accompanied by a switch from the traditional academic year of three terms to one of two semesters. The success of the British Open University in distance learning has led to the widespread adoption of new teaching technologies, which in turn have reinforced the move towards student-centred learning and assessment.

The most significant developments of recent years have been the growth of new kinds of a university and the increasing popularity of so-called borderless education. These new institutions include corporate universities created by the merger of company training and research departments in response to the challenges of the new knowledge economy, and for-profit universities, the best example of which is the University of Phoenix-based in the United States. Major research universities have also established global alliances such as “Universitas 21”. New partnerships between global multimedia and communications corporations and major universities have also been developed. Many higher education institutions have also exploited the potential of new information and communication technologies to develop new approaches to distance education, especially in business and management and computing. These new forms of globalization are beginning to replace more conventional types of academic exchange among the world’s universities.

As a result of all these changes, the purposes of higher education have been transformed. Universities are no longer exclusively engaged in the refinement, preservation, and transmission of authorized knowledge, organized within disciplines, and the initiation of young people, generally from privileged social backgrounds, into a settled intellectual culture. Traditional disciplines have been undermined by epistemological doubts and reductionist imperatives, and skills and knowledge redefined in terms of their social and vocational relevance. “Ownership” of the process of learning within higher education is now shared with students, many of whom are no longer young or privileged.

Contributed By:
Peter Scott