Learning from heterodox higher education institutions

Dr Catherine N. Butcher recently defended her PhD, titled Heterodox forms of university ownership, governance, financing and organisational structure, which is based on case-studies of four alternative higher education institutions in Europe, Asia, and the US to explore different educational experiences for students in terms of access and pedagogy. In this interview, Catherine describes what heterodox HEIs are, how they work, shares what she has found in her research and explains why it matters.

What made you study higher education and what would you call the orthodoxy of higher education institutions (HEIs)?

A pseudo-market model is becoming a trend in contemporary higher education. It plunges students into huge debts, particularly those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. Especially at a time when graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to find suitable employment, we have to call into question the utility of higher education.  

It wasn’t always like this. Universities in the post-World War II period became known for their commitment to serving the public good at least in the case of the UK and Australia, which is the focus of my research. Students received either free or very low-cost tuition. Governmental subsidies financed by the Treasury proved that for the state, higher education was a public good, in what I refer to as a “gift economy”. Of course, students from the wealthier echelon of society were more likely to receive tertiary education in the past. Increases in access throughout the 20th century were real. Still, across the globe, the under-privileged continue to be more disadvantaged, less likely to enter more prestigious institutions, and more likely to carry a heavier debt burden than their wealthier counterparts.

What happened was that universities have been repositioned as a “private good” and by and large, act like other market actors. They are becoming more corporate business-like and have adopted some of the practices of the private sector in what is becoming isomorphic. Students have now been recast as paying customers, so the universities compete for them, especially international students whose tuition fees and economic contribution to wealthier countries are more lucrative than home-based students. In light of this reality within the orthodox higher education system, I felt that the time was opportune to explore existing alternatives from among social economy enterprises (cooperatives, trusts, mutual, worker-owned) to determine what salient features of these could be brought into the mainstream to enhance students’ experiences.

What exactly are those heterodox HEIs?

The short answer is that the ideal heterodox colleges and universities offer a different, more inclusive, and more collaborative educational experience and are owned by its faculty, students, and administrative staff. One of the most common institutions that has been studied is the Mondragon University in the Basque of Spain.

The ideal type of a heterodox university challenges the private good logic in four ways: 1) it addresses social inequalities by putting the interest of students above economic gain; 2)  students’ debt is reduced by securing accessibility and affordability, 3) students and academics are viewed as partners who actively participate in the co-production of the teaching and learning process, and 4) students receive a holistic educational experience that prepares them to become leaders and for a life of service to others.

The organizational culture of the heterodox HEI is that students, academics and workers have beneficial ownership and they democratically participate in the governance and operations of the institution. Working and studying in a heterodox HEI is a transformative experience, and students of those programs graduate ready to launch out into the world with confidence.

The alternative character of those HEIs was clearly seen in my fieldwork: Their leaders were welcoming towards my research, and their support opened doors and helped me gain trust of students and faculty alike. Individuals at the institutions were accommodating and forthcoming. This kind of openness is not what you might normally get when you study mainstream universities who can be defensive and see research as a reputational danger. The case study institution representatives were proud that their way of doing things finally received scholarly recognition. In fact, in one of those institutions I received wide media coverage. There was not too much previous research done on heterodox HEIs when I set out for my PhD.

How do heterodox HEIs work in practice?

There is no one single formula for a heterodox HEI to work. One of these institutions for example, only accepts students from poor socio-economic households who would otherwise have difficulty in financing their education. It grants them free tuition, but also has a compulsory paid work programme on campus and within their community as part of the curriculum. Students can use the income to subsidize their additional expenses on campus. In two other institutions, students are beneficial owners of the institution, allowing them to participate in all aspects of governance and operations. Heterodox HEIs are truly alternative in those respects.

But are those universities sustainable?

My assessment is that they have the potential to be sustainable. Three institutions in my sample were established more than a century ago. The quality of education is very high and these institutions have produced graduates who have made significant contributions as change agents in society. But of course, the scale and innovative ways of financing must be considered for sustainability. I would say that the people-centred ethos helps to keep these models alive. There is a deep personal commitment of faculty members to students’ well-being in and outside the classroom. Based on my research this was a recurring theme as well; the students realized that they weren’t just a “number but an actual student”. There is also a strong spirit of collegiality among the various stakeholders (students, faculty and administrative staff) which leads to an element of trust in the words of students and faculty. Students and teachers also engage in activities that help to enhance students’ educational experiences and cultivate in them values, work ethics, and leadership skills; for example, working collaboratively on solutions to organizational problems through research, engagement in community outreach, and study-abroad programmes.

How many heterodox HEIs are there?

I am only aware of six. Many of them evolved from a desire to improve the socio-economic condition of the surrounding community through education. Therefore, they are largely locally oriented, but with success stories in their ability to transform the lives of students, workers, and the community at large. Student numbers range from 25-4300.

Do you think there will be more heterodox universities in the future?

As many people across the globe are disgruntled with the hegemonic orthodox model and advocating for alternatives, we’re now witnessing the formation of some informal models, typically run on a voluntary basis and low budget. I am hopeful that one day they will be accepted as viable alternatives working alongside the orthodox universities to provide options for students, academics and administrative staff who would work collaboratively for the benefit of students and enhancement of their educational experiences. And before you ask, we should avoid ranking heterodox universities. Rankings foster competition among universities for the best students, best academics and for scarce resources, and create some of the problems that heterodox universities want to address: social exclusion, lack of diversity, overcrowded classrooms and more fundamentally, and selling “dreams” to students.

I work for an orthodox university. What can I do to raise awareness of heterodox HEIs?

Government economic policies bring about most of the changes in higher education, and academics are employees who are caught up within the dysfunctional system. The transactional relationship between students and universities doesn’t help because, as consumers, students have expectations of their own.

The reality is that higher education in itself is heterogenous and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the question posed but rather a variety of adaptations to the distinct parts of the overall ecosystem of higher education and the variety of successful and unsuccessful alternative initiatives that calls for further research.  My own case-studies are just some examples of teasing out the larger diversity of options available.

I would say that academics like you who work for an orthodox university can continue to advocate for changes while emphasising the role of universities as an accessible public good and contribute to the restoration of a form of participative democracy. I would also advise that academics who find themselves in your position may seek to network with other proponents of change like me who are located in different parts of the world – for example persons like Professors Susan Wright, Rebecca Boden, Davydd Greenwood, Chris Newfield, Cris Shore, Mike Neary and Oguz Baburoglu – also Drs Joss Winn, Jon Altuna Iraola, Sarah Amsler, and Fern Thompsett, all of who can be located on ResearchGate. As committed professionals I would advise that in the interim, academics can provide students with an exceptional educational experience in terms of teaching and learning. When students graduate, they will then be able to reap the benefits of their financial investment and become change agents in society. 

Interviewee’s bio

Catherine N. Butcher has worked extensively in management and governance in the Caribbean for more than 15 years. She also worked in higher education, as well as with cooperative enterprises, credit unions and mutuals for seven years, where she gained a strong interest in social justice issues and inclusivity. Her research which examines heterodox forms of higher education institutions embedded within the social economy, is indicative of her conviction for alternatives to the hegemonic contemporary higher education institutions. Read the full thesis here. Contact email: normabutcher74(a)gmail.com.

Interviewer: Daniel Kontowski

References and further reading

Butcher, C. (2017). Resources for hope: Ideas for alternatives from heterodox higher education institutions. Learning and Teaching: The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences, 10(1), 66-86.

DiMaggio, P. J., & Powell, W. W. (2000). The iron cage revisited institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. In Economics meets sociology in strategic management (pp. 143-166). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Guilbault, M. (2016). Students as customers in higher education: reframing the debate. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 26(2), 132-142.

Knowles, J. (2000). Access for few? Student funding and its impact on aspirations to enter higher education. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 2(1), 23.

Marginson, S. (2011). Higher education and public good. Higher Education Quarterly, 65(4), 411-433

McGettigan, A. (2013). The great university gamble: Money, markets and the future of higher education. London: Pluto Press.

Newfield, C. (2008). Unmaking the public university: The 40 year assault on the middle class. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Wright, S. and Greenwood, D. J. (2017). Universities run for, by and with the faculty, students and staff: Alternatives to the neoliberal destruction of higher education. Learning and Teaching: The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences, 10(1), 42-65.

Daniel Kontowski studies liberal arts education in contemporary Europe as a PhD student at the University of Winchester (UK). He is a co-founder of the European Liberal Arts Initiative (ELAI). You can follow Daniel on Twitter.

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