Comparative Higher Education: Knowledge, the University, and Development by Philip Altbach:
A Book Review
This paper serves as a review on “Comparative Higher Education: Knowledge, the University, and Development” by Dr. Philip Altbach. Focusing on inequalities and on the center-periphery concept, the chapters of the book examined the complex relationship between universities in the industrialized world and the Third World.
As an assessment, the book is an excellent academic material for the comparative study of higher education and a good read for those who want to have a background of the history of higher education.
I. The Book
The title of the book is “Comparative Higher Education: Knowledge, the University, and Development”. It was published in 1997 and reprinted in 2006. The commercial edition was published by Ablex Publishers. The Asian edition was published by the Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong. The Japanese-language translation was published by the Tamagawa University Press, Tokyo, Japan. The Chinese-language translation was published by the People’s Education Press, Beijing, China.
The author of the book is Philip G. Altbach, a university professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. He served as editor of the Review of Higher Education, Comparative Education Review, and as an editor of Educational Policy. Dr. Altbach is also the chairperson of the International Advisory Council of the Graduate School of Education at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and is a Guest Professor at the Institute of Higher Education at Peking University.
(a) The structure
1. The book has a very insightful and summative introduction. The concepts, ideas, insights and histories were clearly introduced, thus, facilitating the reading of the chapters.
2. The book has four (4) main parts. The first part has four (4) chapters, the second part also has four (4), the third part has three (3), the final part has two (2). All in all, the book has thirteen (13) chapters.
3. As reading of the book progresses, it will be noticed that each chapter tackles different issues but also has some important details and core ideas mentioned in the previous and following chapters. Thus, reading the chapters in any order would therefore be okay and would not cause any problem with regard to the comprehension of the text. Reading one chapter of the book will prepare the mind of the reader to read any other chapter (not necessarily the next that comes after it) because each one reiterates the central idea of the entire book as well as allows the reader to catch a glimpse of relevant history. For instance, Altbach’s argument that the West tries to retain its central position (and keep the Third World in the peripheries) is clearly restated and briefly discussed in almost all of the chapters. It would therefore be interesting to conclude that two readers reading a chapter different from the other would both end up gaining knowledge on the idea about “centers and peripheries”.
(b) The general content
As described in its preface, the book “considers the contemporary university in an international framework in an effort to analyze four central themes (Altbach, 2006: viii).” The book is organized around four main areas:
1. The first four chapters focused on the exploration of the past, present, and future of higher education. They focus on the post-WWII expansion of higher education and the impact of the Western higher education on Asian higher education. The center-periphery concept (Galtung, 1972; Shils, 1975) – which will manifest several times in the following chapters of the book – is introduced here.
2. The second broad theme deals with the core actors in higher education, namely the teachers and the students. There is an in-depth consideration of the politics of students and faculty, as well as a chapter on professorial attitudes.
3. The third one deals with the relationships among academic systems worldwide, the dimensions of the student and faculty mobility phenomenon (i.e. exchange programs), and the “ebbs and flows” of scientific power worldwide.
4. The final section is a reflection on newly industrializing countries (referred to as NICs) as they emerge as significant academic powers.
The book revolves around the following interplays:
1.) Interplay between the West and the East
2.) Interplay between the industrialized nations and the Third World
3.) Interplay between the centers and the peripheries
The book unveils and examines the complex relationship between universities in the industrialized world and those in the Third World. Altbach states that it is the book’s subsidiary goal to illustrate the usefulness of a comparative research in the analysis of higher education (2006: viii). In the context of an increasingly differentiated and at the same time interrelated world knowledge system, the complex relationships among academic systems and among people – many of which are based on inequality – serve as the underlying theme of the book.
(c) The special concepts and points
It is very important for the reader to understand this concept in order to grasp the author’s train of thought with regard to the inequality of universities, student mobility, faculty mobility, expansion of knowledge, etc. Altbach explains that the institutional and intellectual ‘centers’ give direction, provide models, produce research, and in general function as the pinnacles of the system (2006:30). Universities that are considered to be “at the center” are generally located in industrialized countries. On the other hand, the universities that are ‘peripheral’ are likely to be in the Third World. ‘Peripheral’ universities copy development from the ‘centers’ and produce little that is original (Altbach, 2006:30). Throughout the book, it is a conclusion that the ‘centers’ want to keep the ‘peripherals’ as peripheral and that it will be very hard for a peripheral university to move from the ‘periphery’ to the ‘center’. The book cited some examples of the failed attempts by peripheral universities (Kuwait and Nairobi) at moving from the ‘periphery’ to the ‘center’.
Colonialism, neocolonialism and education
In the book, colonialism is regarded as a powerful influence in the world of higher education. It discusses the effects of colonialism and neocolonialism on education in NICs and in the Third World. It further discusses that even for nations that were never formally under colonial domination (i.e. Thailand and China), western influence on their educational system is evident. Neocolonialism is currently one of the strong forces that keeps (and will keep) peripheral universities in the periphery and hinder them from moving from the ‘periphery’ to the ‘center’.
(a) The book as an academic material
1.) The book clearly stated how having such international perspectives on issues in higher education be necessary in the comparative study of higher education.
2.) A good read for students who want to have a background of the history of higher education. The chapters of the book discuss the history of higher education in several Western countries and Third World countries.
3.) Further reading is facilitated because the book is clearly annotated and indexed and has a useful bibliography.
4.) The book’s language is very clear, accessible and straightforward. Confusion, misconception and misunderstanding are almost impossible. Important terminologies and concepts are clearly defined. On top of the clear definitions, examples are given.
The creation of a modern university
In chapter 12 (Higher Education, Democracy, and Development: Implications for NICs), he argued that ‘it is not very difficult to create a modern university and ensure that it provides postsecondary education at the highest international levels to students (p. 258).’ He stated further that all that is required is “money, good academic leadership, a long-term commitment to the institution, and the ability to select high-quality students.”
In this case, I fail to readily adhere to Altbach’s perception of “creation”. Putting this in the context of newly industrialized countries (where it actually is), the road toward the fulfillment of these requirements might be a path full of roses. However, simply having these requirements does not translate to a creation of a modern university. Having all the necessary ingredients does not make a dish – it requires cooking. Gathering the “ingredients” would not be very difficult for NICs but the process of “cooking the dish” might be a different story. The notion that it is not very difficult for NICs to create a modern university is reasonable. However, Altbach ran short of justifying the relationship between the ‘requirements’ and ‘creation’, as well as the relationships among the ‘requirements’ themselves. Having the “ingredients” is just a pre-requisite in “cooking the dish”.
To summarize my point, I would like to put forth the idea that the creation of a modern university goes through two phases: meeting the requirements (“having the necessary ingredients”) and the process of establishing (“cooking the dish”).
After a thorough reading and assessment of the book, this paper concludes that “Comparative Higher Education: Knowledge, the University, and Development” by Dr. Philip Altbach is characterized with interpretive and predictive arguments, is a temporal and spatial comparative examination of higher education, and therefore, an informative and stimulating book.
(a) Interpretive and predictive
Philip Altbach characterized the book with arguments, insights and perspectives that are interpretive and predictive. Interpretive in the sense that, in every chapter, there is a considerable acknowledgement and analysis of history relevant to issues, developments and tendencies in higher education. Predictive in the sense that Altbach provides insights and perspectives with regard to the directions that the developments in higher education are likely headed for.
(b) Temporal and spatial
The book examined higher education both in temporal (reference to time) and spatial (reference to location) contexts. The book unveils the interplay of the past, present and future developments, issues and innovations with regard to universities and nations. The book also examined these developments, issues and innovations in their geographical and pseudo-geographical contexts. It is geographical in the sense that developments, issues and innovations at international, regional, national and local levels. It is also important to note that Altbach used geographical references such as “East and West” as well as “industrialized countries, NICs, and the Third World” in order to make the context more relevant to the study.
(c) Informative and stimulating
The book is an excellent academic material for the comparative study of higher education and a good read for those who want to have a background of the history of higher education.
Altbach, P. G. (2006). Comparative higher education: Knowledge, the university and development.
Boston, MA: Boston College Centre for International Higher Education.
Altbach, P. G. (1977). Servitude of the mind? Education, dependence, and neocolonialism. Teachers College Record, 79(2), 187-204.
Galtung, J. (1972). A Stuctural Theory of Imperialism. African Affairs, 1, 93-138.
Shils, E. (1975). Center and Periphery: Essays on Macrosociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
“Philip G. Altbach”. Boston College CIHE. Retrieved 2012-11-22, http://www.bc.edu/research/cihe/about/pga.html