Policy changes


Chapter 12 of

Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education


by Brian Martin

Go to Tied Knowledge contents page

One way to make changes in the academic system is by changing policies. This includes policies on curriculum, on student entry, on staff appointments, on methods of funding and on credentials. The basic approach here is to work through formal channels, such as academic committees, governing bodies or state educational authorities.

Those individuals and groups in the most powerful positions - from deans to vice-chancellors to heads of state education departments, and their associated retinue - have the greatest possibilities to promote policy changes. My main focus though is on less powerful groups, such as students, junior academics, non-academic staff and groups outside academia entirely. How can they use formal channels? What are the likely strengths and limitations of this method?

The formal channels approach can be divided into two parts: gaining representation on policy-making bodies, and applying pressure to elite policy-makers. After outlining these two methods, I comment on the relation of the formal channels approach to the structures of power that shape the academic system.

Gaining positions of formal power

Inside academia there are many formal bodies which make decisions, from departmental committees to the university governing bodies. Looking at this formal decision-making apparatus, it might seem that the most obvious way to have an impact on decisions would be to gain membership on the various bodies. I say that it might seem the most obvious way because, although there are reasonable prospects for gaining such membership, there also are severe limitations to this approach.

One proposed avenue for change is for radicals to gain promotions up the career ladder in academia. When they rise to some suitable position, they are then able to influence decisions through membership of various committees, or by lobbying in relation to particular initiatives. This avenue has been called 'the long march through institutions'. It is based on the assumption that power is exercised through bureaucratic channels, and that holding formal elite positions is central to implementing favoured policies.

This strategy is flawed on several counts. A major difficulty is that the process of gaining promotion is in many cases deradicalising. To get ahead by the orthodox criteria requires of most people great dedication to work, in order to have research published in prestigious journals and do a share of routine academic administration. For students who plan to proceed on this path, efforts to obtain good grades and favourable recommendations are important. The path is a very long one, and not everyone can succeed - even those who have no radical ideas.

A second difficulty is that academic performance in some abstract sense is not sufficient for advancement. The local hierarchies and disciplinary cliques may exclude top performers. Therefore the easiest way to climb the ladder is often by being an acceptable personality, building alliances and trading favours. In all of this, being 'radical' in any fundamental way is a definite disadvantage. Those who criticise academic elites openly or question the system of credentials are much less likely to be promoted to positions of influence.

Those who play the game in order to get ahead often submerge their radicalism as a tactical measure. They realise that anyone who speaks out frequently with nonstandard views is likely to be labelled a critic and ignored on all later issues. To protect their reputations as 'sensible' and 'responsible' scholars, many academics keep a low profile. The result is adaptation to the system and failure to take any critical action. In the long march through institutions, most of the radicals become institutionalised far sooner than the institutions become radicalised.

In spite of the obstacles, some radicals do rise to high positions. But then what? The possibilities for initiating significant change from formal positions of power are overrated. Even heads of universities and ministers of education have on occasion voiced feelings of powerlessness. Few academic systems behave like ideal bureaucracies, responsive to the articulation of altered policies at the top.

Another difficulty is that the formal positions of power can be used effectively only by certain types of people and for certain sorts of changes. A president of a university typically performs a difficult balancing act between pressures from former graduates, influential community groups, the governing body, the university administrative elite and the academic staff. Even making minor manoeuvres within this configuration of power may be difficult. To propose major changes in direction almost certainly will stimulate massive opposition and weaken the prospects for small-scale changes. Who gets into particular positions makes a big difference. Radicals, especially conspicuous ones, are often isolated and circumvented and generally prevented from exercising the influence that a more orthodox person might wield.

Even more importantly, formal positions are not very effective bases for implementing radical policies. Gaining hierarchical power to undermine the hierarchy, or becoming a successful specialist researcher in order to criticise the use of specialist expertise, contains contradictory elements. This is not to mention the contradiction of a male academic rising up the hierarchy in order to promote equal opportunity for women, or a student aiming to become a doctor in order to challenge the medical monopoly on health services.

The contradictions arise from the restriction of initiative to formal channels. To challenge educational policies effectively from within usually requires some connection with outside forces, such as the student movement or the feminist movement.

A second way to gain formal positions of power is for interest groups to obtain representation on decision-making bodies. An example is the permitted membership on governing bodies of a small number of undergraduate students, postgraduate students and non-academic staff. Similar representation can be sought and sometimes obtained in other parts of the policy-making apparatus.

If such representation has become established, then those in the positions can attempt to push for policy changes. The difficulties are great. Usually the subordinate groups have only token representation. The representatives are politely listened to, but are unable to initiate significant change. One person I talked to had examined the role of students on a university governing body and found that on not a single important issue had the student representatives been able to have an impact on the decision made.

The reasons for this are largely the same as why individual radicals who climb up in the system have such limited power. The representatives of powerless groups are conspicuous and are not treated seriously. Many of the representatives submerge or water down any radical notions they might entertain in order to gain credibility and to play typical power group politics. In any case, the committees they sit on have limited scope to initiate significant change within the wider configuration of power.

Many liberal-minded administrators realise that representation of students and non academic staff on official committees provides only a limited challenge to business as usual. It is for this reason that representation sometimes is offered to students, especially when more radical demands are being made.

Equal employment

One of the most significant challenges to academic power structures in recent years has been by women who are demanding equal employment opportunity, nonsexist subject matter and changes in career structures to offset the disadvantages faced by women. Here I look at this challenge from the point of view of feminists working to promote the interests of women and to introduce principles of feminism into academia. How effective have approaches based on formal channels been?

One approach has been for feminists to pursue personal advancement through degrees, appointments and promotions, and to use formal positions to promote the feminist cause. This path has been fraught with difficulties. There have been some successes but many disappointments. On the positive side, from the feminist point of view, some women have had successful academic careers and remained committed to feminist causes. They are towers of strength inside the system and provide valuable role models. To weigh against the successes are numerous problems.

* Many women who are promoted up the system submerge their feminism in the process, adapting to peer pressures and to bureaucratic exigencies.

* Overt and covert discrimination continues as a major obstacle. The individually successful women are used to argue that this discrimination does not exist or can be overcome.

* The built-in obstacles persist, such as narrow-track careers, gender-based careers and lack of child care.

* Individual academic women have seldom been able to introduce a feminist orientation into the mainstream disciplines, but have had to adapt to orthodox frameworks or enter teaching and research areas which are treated as marginal.

* Very few women who are seen as radical in any way are allowed by male academic elites to enter the top decision-making ranks.

* Just as women are pushing for assessment of their performance on the supposedly impartial criterion of merit, in some places there is a new 'appreciation' of non-academic performance: entrepreneurial men with industrial, government or media experience are being appointed and promoted, skipping the formal academic channels, ahead of women who had trusted in the rhetoric of 'working through the system'.

Overall, working through the system means playing the game by male rules. The major gains that can be made are in areas where anti-female bias clearly contravenes liberal academic principles, such as blatant discrimination in appointments or promotions, which also threatens men who perform well by the system's specifications. Bringing about other changes, such as challenging the dominance of the narrow-track career, is much more difficult to achieve through formal channels. To a great extent, the formal channels are constructed on the very power arrangements which perpetuate male dominance.: full-time professional narrow-track careers, gender-based occupations and male-oriented disciplines. The men - and some women too - who thrive within these power arrangements have extensive resources to maintain the basic structures.

In one academic battle I was told about, some members of a political science department pushed to fill a post with someone who could teach and do research in the area of women and politics. The conservatives in the department fought against this, but lost. But the conservatives in their defeat were able to influence precisely who was appointed. They preferred a woman applicant who had done work on women and voting on a fairly technical level. Those applicants who had very impressive records but who had dealt more centrally with the political aspects of male power lost out.

In the face of a powerful feminist movement, the formal channels give male academics the best opportunity for diverting the challenge into 'safe' forms. A few women - mostly the more orthodox ones - are invited into the corridors of academic power (or at least into academic corridors). More far-reaching feminist goals are left off the agenda.

Pressuring elites

When working to change policies, gaining positions of formal power is one way to proceed. Another is to pressure elites. The difference is simply that instead of becoming elites, the strategy is to influence the existing body of elites. This is perhaps the most common way used to achieve change inside academia. There are some standard ways of doing this.

The least conspicuous and most effective way of influencing elites is through inside connections: personal contacts, informal lobbying, building alliances and making tradeoffs. Inside operations of this sort are routine for individuals and groups in positions of moderate or great power. Powerless groups such as students seldom have much opportunity to use inside connections, nor have they many resources to bargain with at this level.

Formal lobbying is more open and usually much less effective. When student delegations visit the head of department to make requests, their arguments are likely to make little difference. Successful lobbying depends on being able to muster a reward or a threat. Students are not able to offer large amounts of money, job, or status to academics.

The major power which students can bring to bear is organised action. Meetings, petitions and rallies in which sizable numbers of students participate are likely to be treated seriously, especially if there is a potential for escalation of action. If student grievances are not satisfied, the result may even be student strikes and occupations.

Student protest threatens to bring outside groups into the struggle. Governments may encourage or help academic administrations to smash the student protest, especially if the protest is focussed against government policies. On the other hand, the students may build alliances with some staff and also with outside groups such as workers. In these cases student protest becomes part of a wider power struggle. Administrations are likely to find their autonomy reduced, since governments and other groups will demand more accountability.

What does all this have to do with formal channels? Quite a lot actually. Formal channels allow grievances to be handled without the mobilisation of opposition.

Student activists for many decades have pushed for reforms of various types, such as more student input into course content. Formal channels are seen as the legitimate way to proceed - even if they are fundamentally biased against students. To mount a challenge to current policies, students require the mobilisation of large numbers of people, usually the students themselves. This sometimes happens when clear grievances exist - such as the absence of black studies or women's studies - and when formal channels are clearly inadequate.

From the point of view of academic power elites, formal channels also are seen as the legitimate way to proceed. If student protest is sufficiently strong and threatening, one typical response is to open up the formal channels a bit, for example by allowing student representatives on official committees. This is a compromise solution. Letting students have any role at all is opposed by many academics who wish to restrict decision-making to themselves. But opening up the formal channels limits the challenge of mass student action. Furthermore, those students who are more active are likely to become representatives, and many of them then adapt to the power game.

This is precisely what happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s in a number of countries around the world in the wake of mass student protest. Rather than altering academic power arrangements in any fundamental way, the changes introduced in response to student unrest have tended to formalise and bureaucratise the decision-making process. Students have more formal power on committees and governing bodies, but this is via representatives who remain very much in a minority. At the same time, the decision-making process has become more formal, and this means that bureaucrats have more power. Far from opening up higher education to be more participatory, mass student protest has had closer to the opposite effect.

The strategy of many leading student radicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s was to organise mass pressure and action to confront hidebound administrations and force them into making concessions. The strategy often worked. But the concessions did not work out as planned. Rather than providing the basis for further student mobilisation, the concessions provided an outlet for immediate student grievances. Within a few years, student protest ebbed.

The potential and limitations of pushing for policy changes is illustrated by events at the Australian National University (ANU) in 1974. Student activists had been campaigning for some time to improve conditions for students and to increase student participation in decision-making. Academic elites at ANU had resolutely refused to make any serious concessions to the student demands when voiced through the usual channels. The resulting deadlock was broken after about 400 students occupied the main administration building. The principal decision-making body of the academic staff accepted the major student demands as desirable objectives. The sudden acquiescence of the staff shows the power of mass action. But what about the student demands? Did they have any major impact on political arrangements at ANU? Consider four of the student demands.

1. Students and staff should participate equally in the determination of course content. This sounds nice, but has not happened. Students are now represented on most ANU committees, but are very much in a minority or without real power. Staff maintain power to determine course content. This is illustrated by the refusal of the Economics Faculty to offer courses in political economy is spite of continual student requests.

2. There should be a wider choice of course content. This is not a fundamental challenge to the power of staff, although to some degree it allows students, as consumers, to shop around somewhat more.

3. Overcrowding in classes should be reduced by repetition of lecturers and tutorials. Once again, there is no real challenge to staff power here. Indeed, it is in the interests of all staff to increase the allocation of educational resources to reduce crowding.

4. A women's studies course should be established. This was done. The course has been very important in awakening many students to the conditions of women in society. The Women's Studies Program has been a precarious affair, with very few staff and with periodic threats to its survival. Organised student and staff action, including rallies, have been instrumental to the maintenance of the program.

To sum up, the ANU student occupation in 1974 provided some real advances for students, though these were far short of what was hoped for. The most obvious success was the establishment of the Women's Studies Program. Significantly, this was a clearly specified goal, in contrast for example with a hypothetical demand to "introduce feminist perspectives into traditional disciplines". The student demand in this case was successful partly because it was compatible with the division of knowledge and of academic power along disciplinary and departmental lines. The Women's Studies Program has remained vulnerable because it is small and is not a traditional discipline. This has necessitated continual student and staff support, which has been effective because it is a definite and 'defendable' entity, and because the feminist movement has not faded away.

The other advance brought about by student action was student representation on university committees. Once introduced, student representation has continued, showing the importance of changing formal structures. The power of student representatives is limited, and students have seldom had more than an advisory role in practice. On the positive side for the students, membership of committees allows student activists to find out how the system works and what issues are being dealt with, and this information is useful in student campaigns and also to outside groups which liaise with the students. Some policies which before could have been introduced entirely behind closed doors now must contend with the possibility of publicity and organised opposition.

On the other hand, student representation has not fundamentally changed the academic power system. It has only slightly altered the balance of power between staff and students, in a way which makes mass student action less likely in the future. From this viewpoint, student representation is an adaptation to student unrest which accommodates student grievances in a way that is relatively compatible with business as usual. Certainly there has been no substantial change in the way that curricula are developed.

Policies and structures

The approach to academic change by trying to alter policies either by gaining representation or by influencing elites is severely limited. If the process is kept within the institution, the impact of the change on the social structures of the state, capitalism, the professions and the credential system can be marginal at best. Policy struggles can have some impact on internal hierarchy, disciplinary power and male domination. Policy struggles go on all the time: some groups push against the interests of other, all of them moving within the current configuration of power. The usual form of these struggles is favourable to the most influential groups, notably the academic power elites, the disciplinary empires and men.

Sometimes less powerful groups can use the system to promote their interests. The difficulty is that in the absence of strong interest groups, logical argument won't get anyone very far toward changing policies; often this requires direct action, outside the 'formal channels'. Even in these cases, mass demands and responses usually are adapted to adjustments in current arrangements, as in the case of promotion of women up the usual hierarchies.

All this is not an argument against pushing for policy changes. The problem is that a strategy for powerless groups based entirely on working through inside channels has limited prospects. As I argue in the following chapters, the existence of outside groups and movements opens up prospects for significant policy pushes that can challenge entrenched arrangements.


Joan Abramson, Old boys new women: the politics of sex discrimination (New York: Praeger, 1979). Case studies showing the failure of US antidiscrimination legislation to deal with male domination in government and academia.