Cultures and Change in Higher Education: Theories and Practices (Universities into the 21st Century)

Author(s) Trowler P
Publisher Palgrave Macmillan
Published 2008
Pages 224
Price £19.99
ISBN 9781403948533
Reviewed by Professor Robert Matthew
University of Stirling
Review published 23 January 2009

In Scotland at the present time with emphasis very much on Quality Enhancement one particular area of interest is the notion of ‘quality cultures’. Thus the opportunity to review a book on Cultures and Change in Higher Education was one not to miss.

This is not an ‘academic’ book on the subject of culture and change; it is very much a book written for a non-specialist audience. As Paul Trowler states at the outset ‘my aim is to talk to professionals who happen to be specialists in other fields and disciplines and so who need clear, and interesting, messages about their practical interests in enhancing teaching and learning in universities’. In my opinion he certainly succeeds in that regard. This is an easy read, a highly interesting book.

The book begins by looking at some of the theoretical models that seek to describe culture in Higher Education, this is described in what is for me a highly superficial approach, and indeed selective in what is presented, for example no mention is made of the work of Stensaker (2005). Quickly the author moves on to focus on socio-cultural theory as the means for understanding cultures in Higher Education. There is an attempt to justify this focus, as opposed to a psychological approach. The need for this shift is evidenced by using the way in which the research on approaches to learning has been misinterpreted in a great deal of practice. This is true, but did not convince me that a different approach was needed. Be that as it may, the explanation of socio-cultural theory is excellent, helped enormously by the author’s use of vignettes to illustrate various points in his argument.

The book then goes on to look at Learning and Teaching Regimes. The rational for this focus is that we need to look at work groups within departments rather than at the organisational level if we are to understand how culture impacts on the work of the university i.e. teaching and learning. There is a really interesting section on why the focus is on regimes rather than practice and then what exactly do we mean by regimes. This deconstruction of regimes is a highly readable chapter, full of vignettes illustrating what the author means in practice. This chapter should be compulsory reading for all those carrying responsibility for the management of learning and teaching in a university.

The focus then shifts back to the organisation – to examine the impact that the institutional context has on learning and teaching. This chapter covers issues such as learning organisations, learning architectures and enhancement cultures. In the later area the chapter is disappointing, it mentions the CETLs, but makes no mention whatsoever of the Scottish approach to Enhancement. This is somewhat surprising given the success that the approach has had.

There is then a chapter on Enhancing Learning and Teaching. I must confess to being disappointed after reading this, there was not really any new insights to the area. The final section of the chapter, ‘what should we expect when we try to enhance teaching and learning?’ covers the area from a theoretical perspective, however there was little mention of the student experience – surely an important factor in looking at enhancement – after all they should experience a difference if enhancement has taken place!

The last chapter ‘researching for change’ is a rather brief look at the issues behind research in this area. It is not a description of the techniques that can be used for researching in this area. It is an all too brief overview of the special issues that face those working in this field. As such it is an excellent starting point, however it could have offered a little more in the way of direction to other sources of advice on how to carry out research in this field.

At the end of the book I was in a quandary, yes I enjoyed it, but in a number of places it left me wanting and to my mind issues left unresolved. On reflection I have to say to all involved as educational developers, or in quality enhancement or those who are simply interested in trying to understand teaching and learning in universities that it is well worth reading.

Stensaker, B (2005) Quality as fashion: exploring the translation of a management idea into higher education. Paper presented to the seminar “Dynamics and effects of quality assurance in higher education – various perspectives of quality and performance at various levels” Douro, October 2005.