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Knowledge Economy, Development and the Future of Higher Education

reviewed by John H. Schuh - July 15, 2008

coverTitle: Knowledge Economy, Development and the Future of Higher Education
Author(s): Michael S. Peters
Publisher: Sense Publishers, Rotterdam
ISBN: 9087900708, Pages: 284, Year: 2007
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Knowledge economy, development and the future of higher education is not for the reader seeking a breezy treatment of the future of higher education. This volume, written by Professor Michael A. Peters of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, provides a rigorous intellectual exercise for the reader through a collection of essays that robustly frames the past, present and future of higher education with many references to significant philosophers and intellectuals. My view is that if the reader does not have a working knowledge of the contributions of Karl Marx, Freidrich Hayek, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Martin Heidegger, and Cardinal Newman to intellectual history, this volume will present significant challenges since much of what Peters provides is his analysis of various topics framed by these intellectuals. It is one of a series of books that “…maps the emergent field of educational futures” (p. ii) published by Sense Publishers; Professor Peters also serves as co-editor of the series.  

Knowledge Economy presents 15 essays, many of which have been published previously, related to what the author indicates is his “special interest in the question of higher education and its continuing relevance and significance in an age of knowledge capitalism” (p. xiii).  Accordingly, the volume “…is comprised of five sections each with three essays. The sections are designed to advance an understanding of universities in relation to the goals of development within a knowledge economy” (p. 13). In the end, while Professor Peters calls for “free science” he provides a nuanced treatment of the concept. He asserts,

 …”free science” does not simply refer to intellectual property rights but indirectly refers to the tangled history of the concept which entails the rights of speech and petition (especially in governing bodies), the right to relate and publish, freedom of public meetings, freedom of correspondence, of teaching, and of publishing… (p. 241)  

Professor Peters was educated in New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s. From there his academic career has taken him to positions at Auckland and Glasgow before joining the faculty at Illinois. I point out Professor Peters’ experiences outside the US because they appear to have informed his orientation to postsecondary education and, in my interpretation, its relationship with the state. Chapter 13 suggests that accountability is an unwelcome burden for higher education (although his argument is far more nuanced than this summary) and that college professors should enjoy a level of independence similar to other professionals. He laments,

 …the end goals of freedom, choice, consumer sovereignty, competition and individual initiative, as well as those of compliance and obedience, must be constructions of the state acting now in its positive role through the development of the techniques of auditing, accounting, and management. (p. 200)  

While it would be wonderful for a faculty member (me, included) to work in an accountability-free environment, the fact is that very few professionals, including physicians, lawyers, engineers and dentists, work in an environment where they are not accountable to their stakeholders. And, it would be liberating if faculty essentially could follow wherever their intellectual curiosity would take them, but state and commonwealth governments appropriated just over $55 billion to help support public degree granting institutions in 2004-2005, on average $6,303 per student (Snyder, Dillow & Hoffman, 2008), and it does not seem to be unreasonable for institutions to be accountable at some level to these funding sources. The argument, I suppose, is just how accountable should universities, and their faculty members, be to their funding agencies and in what form.

An obvious alternative, at least in the United States, to working under the yoke of the state is for faculty members to accept appointments at private institutions of higher education. Private institutions (not for profit and for profit) enroll approximately 25% of all students in the United States (Snyder, Dillow & Hoffman, 2008, Table 220) and they provide a viable alternative to public institutions. Presumably they provide more freedom for faculty members than state assisted institutions, although they, too, have stakeholders and organizations to which they are accountable including their accrediting agencies, graduates, benefactors and so on.  

Many institutions of higher education in the United States are baccalaureate degree-granting colleges without any commitments to graduate education and with a limited focus on research supported by the acquisition of external funds that would sustain advanced inquiry and doctoral students. Professor Peters does not address the contributions of the baccalaureate degree-granting college in this volume, and I view that as an omission. In the US these institutions provide marvelous educational experiences for undergraduates, and my judgment is that an analysis of contemporary higher education needs to explore the future of baccalaureate colleges.  Similarly, community colleges are not discussed in this volume and at least in the United States these institutions provide educational experiences for a substantial number of students (more than a third of all students in 2005) (Snyder, Dillow & Hoffman, 2008, Table 220).

While I might disagree with Professor Peters on his treatment of issues related to accountability, I think his chapter on research quality and bibliometrics is excellent. His taxonomy of the limitations associated with citation analysis is enlightening. Professor Peters also identifies the increasing reliance on tuition fees as a revenue source for institutions of higher education, a phenomenon that has touched both Europe and North America and is unlikely to abate in the foreseeable future.  

The volume suffers, in a minor way, from some technical errors that I found to be distracting.  Among these is a reference to “…a 60-70 hour working day, 6-7 days a week” (p. 63), and the assertion of the author that he is at “…the University of Urbana-Champaign, U.S.A.…”  No doubt what he really means is a 60-70 hour workweek and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In other cases I think the author should have provided citations to support his assertions. He claims, for example, “For example, just as individual departments and academics are being told of the necessity for acquiring external research grants, so they are also being told they must teach summer school” (pp. 199-200). Maybe this is the case at some institutions, but I have never experienced a directive to teach summer school. A citation or attribution would have been helpful to provide this reader with an understanding of the source of the conclusion, even if such had been the product of the author’s personal experience. Citations designed to support the author’s assertions of facts or data would have added richness to the volume, in my opinion.     

On balance, this volume is well argued and thought provoking. Clearly, Professor Peters has a great command of intellectual history, and for those who share his passion for philosophy, this book belongs on their reading list.  


Snyder, T.D., Dillow, S.A. & Hoffman, C.M. (2008). Digest of education statistics 2007. Baton Rouge, LA: Claitor's Law Books and Publishing.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 15, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15311, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 8:04:01 PM

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About the Author
  • John Schuh
    Iowa State University
    E-mail Author
    JOHN H. SCHUH is distinguished professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State University. He is interested in the experiences of college students, higher educational finance, and the history of higher education in the United States.
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