Ideology and Academic Development

By Torgny Roxå


Usually when I talk ideology I think together with Paul Trowler, who did a large study in a UK university during the 90s. The book is called Academics Responding to Change (Trowler, 1998), and throughout his many interviews he identified what he calls four ideologies about higher education, Traditionalism, Enterprise, Progressivism, and Social reconstructivism. As an introduction he formulate the following: “Ideology is understood here as a framework of values and beliefs about social arrangements and the distribution and ordering resources which provides a guide and a justification for behaviour. Educational ideology, specifically, refers to those aspects of ideology which relate to the nature and purposes of education.” (p. 65) In a simplified way it is fair to say that ideology is the answer to the question: Why do we have academia? From this follows, how should we allocate resources, what is quality, how should we balance education and research, who should have prominence while influencing decisions for students, teachers, managers? And so on.

Trowler talks mainly about educational ideology, but whichever educational ideology inspires us it is linked to wider societal ideologies and in the end to a world-view (Schmidt, 2008) on people generally, on hierarchies, on distribution of resources, on the consensus/conflict view on progress, and on power (Dean, 2009, 2010). It is easy to go wild among these things since the mind itself is the only limit. Ideology therefore can appear as an art in itself, something that only attracts an interest for the theorists. But this should not be true. Ideology is always present and offers an excellent frame while dealing with societal issues.

I will now give a brief account of the four ideologies that Trowler formulates. I will not do them justice, to do that I need more time. But perhaps they will anyway function as an appetiser for you on this topic.

A) Traditionalism

Here the disciplines are at the core. Within the disciplines much of the research happens and it is also here that methods and techniques are developed making it possible to explore the world even more. Students are needed to fill up the ranks of researchers and possible to widen the understanding in society of how important the specific discipline is. The objective of teaching is to learn to master the canon, the methods, and the techniques signifying the specific discipline. The preferred teaching style is master/apprentice, but first years it might be only presenting the canon, those students who pick this up might be just those that later are invited to become legitimate peripheral participants of the discipline and later full members and trusted to develop the discipline further. The senior researchers, those being the best in their respective field should have power over what and how things should be taught.

B) Enterprise

Here the external society is at the core. In the society there are a multitude of professions that need trained personnel. Therefore, content and teaching should be geared towards what should be done after graduation. Teaching methods can be master/apprentice, but here the professionals should act as masters. As for content the professionals again should decide since they know what is being used and what is important right now and in the close future. The loyalty here is placed on the future workplaces. The teachers are trainers.

C) Progressivism

Here the student is at the core as their freedom of choice and personal development take priority over disciplinary content, and this should apply to all students. Widening participation then becomes natural for holders of this ideology, so is the tendency to involve students in decisions about what to do and how to do it. If the two former ideologies aims for filling the ranks of researchers and professionals, this ideology aims to contribute to a society populated by agentic individuals, good citizens almost in an Aristotelian way.

D) Social reconstructivism

Here critical thinking is at the core, since the aim is to critique aspects of society or the world so that is can be made better. What is better is not necessarily given by this ideology even though it historically has had a leftish colour to it. The Frankfurt School 1 is often used as a way to illustrate this ideology, even though the leftish is not given. One can presume that some of today’s nationalists may find this ideology attractive too. The point is a combination of critical thinking with an ambition to recreate society.mIt should be apparent, I hope, that A-D are described as ideal-types, that is, it is unlikely that any single individual would engage 100% for one of them. Instead it is fruitful to think about them as midpoints on the sides of a square or a playing field. On this playing field those who favour one or theother of these ideologies build alliances and push for the direction they believe in. Therefore, either the current situation can be analysed or the historical trend can be identified. In my part of the world it is clear (to me) that C and D currently are weak. A has always been strong and is still strong. B is the winner and has gained a lot of ground. In the grand politics, like in the Bologna treaty, higher education should be useful, that is, contribute to common good (which is measured in monetary terms under the banner of global knowledge-competition). A is important since research (and now we are talking medicine, science, and technology) contribute in this competition.

If I enter the game in the middle of the field, how would I act? This is a complicated question, but for me as an academic developer it is a basic one. Whatever I do I will ally myself with one or two sides. I can choose to work for widening participation and thereby work for the C-team. On the other hand, I like critical thinking; I have a huge respect for the methods and techniques developed in the disciplines. I also find it natural for students to strive for a good employment, since most of them do leave academia after graduation. I think society can be much better than what it is today. I also think that Neoliberalism (a wider ideology) favours a monetary value-system and it favours those whoalready have resources at their disposal. It is an ideology based on a world-view that those who have should have more (sorry, it is my own interpretation). I see how this wider ideology ally itself with professionalism and buy out certain researcher through providing resources for their favourite practice: research.

Academic Development

I think it is crucial for ADs to think about these things. If we focus solely on teaching and learning, we leave issues like power or allocation of resources to others. We serve those who decide. Whatever learning is decided to happen we step in and support this learning. I don’t think this is a good think. If we focus on “students as partners”, we might end up (it is a risk) helping researchers to attract those few students who are interesting for the particular discipline (traditionalist view). If we aim for widening participation (we can be good) we run the risk of alienating ourselves from the managers that run for other ideologies. This might of course be a price to pay, but it will affect the opportunities to influence the direction of the institution.

The paragraph above has the purpose of messing things up because my thesis is that the entire group coming to ICED has not talked these things through. Many of us have not even started to think about ideology. Many of us are preoccupied with issues of how to secure a position, how to run a good workshop, how to justify our own existence. Showing that we contribute to the common good of our institutions. Further more, ICED participants or ADs in general do not constitute a community of practice (Wenger, 1999) until we have talked these things through. It is likely that Ads at ICED are fragmented partly because they believe in different things, but also because that are anchored in different contexts. What Katarina and I tried to do (Roxå & Mårtenson, 2017) was to lift our heads a little bit in an attempt to see how we use the power that is given to us, and what we do with it. By doing this we hoped to come closer to an ideological view that allowed us to start formulating what we believe in.



Dean, M. (2009). Three Conceptions of the Relationship between Power and Liberty. In S. Clegg & M. Haugaard (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Power. London: SAGE.

Dean, M. (2010). Governmentality. Power and rule in the modern society. (2nd edition). London: Sage.

Roxå, T., & Mårtenson, K. (2017). Agency and structure in academic development practices: are we liberating academic teachers or are we part of a machinery suppressing them? International Journal for Academic Development, 22(2), 95 - 105.

Schmidt, V. (2008). Discursive Institutionalism: The Explanatory Power of Ideas and Discourse. Annual Review of Political Science, 11, 303 - 326.

Trowler, P. (1998). Academics Responding to Change. New Higher Education Frameworks and Academic Cultures.: The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.