London Review of Education
Vol. 8, No. 3, November 2010, 229–237
ISSN 1474-8460 print/ISSN 1474-8479 online
© 2010 Institute of Education, University of London
Burton Clark’s The Higher Education System: Academic Organization in
The Higher Education System: Academic Organization in Cross-National
Perspective, by Burton R. Clark, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California
Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, Open University, London and Milton Keynes, UK
Taylor and FrancisCLRE_A_515122.sgm10.1080/14748460.2010.515122London Review of Education1474-8460 (print)/1474-8479 (online)Original Article2010Taylor & Francis830000002010JohnBrennanj.email@example.com In The Higher Education System, Burton Clark provides a model for the organisational analysis
of higher education institutions and systems. Central to the model are the concepts of
knowledge, beliefs and authority. In particular, Clark examines how different interest groups
both inside and outside the university shape and subvert the management of change. Within
the university, Clark notes the tensions between the ‘enterprise’ and the ‘discipline’ and at
the system level between the state authority, the market and the academic oligarchy. In
considering the applicability of Clark’s model to an understanding of today’s higher education
systems and institutions, one can note a weakening of boundaries both within higher
education institutions and between them and other institutions of society. Arguably, there has
been a lessening of the organisational distinctiveness of universities and an invasion by the
language and ideas of the business world. The broadening of the social functions of modern
higher education systems may be one of the reasons why academic authority seems to be
subject to greater external challenge. Nevertheless, much of Clark’s analytic model remains
highly relevant to our understanding of higher education systems and institutions even if their
empirical manifestations have changed over the intervening years. Clark’s model shares much
in common with a more recent analysis of the changing relationship between higher education
and society conducted as part of a recent project of the European Science Foundation,
although changes in emphasis and in authority relationships are also revealed.
Keywords: universities; academic organisation; disciplines; university management;
In The Higher Education System, published in 1983, Burton Clark attempted to do four things
simultaneously. The first was to apply perspectives and techniques from organisational sociol-
ogy to the study of universities and the larger higher education systems of which they were a
part. Secondly, while applying more general techniques of sociological analysis, he was also
keen to acknowledge certain unique features of universities as social institutions. Thirdly, he
drew on his substantial knowledge of a range of different national higher education systems to
support and illustrate his analysis. And fourthly, he explicitly addressed normative issues
concerning governance and decision-making in universities. On that final point, it is Clark’s
explicitness that is its distinctive feature. So much writing and analysis about universities is
implicitly normative, reflecting and promoting values and interests of the author. But Clark was
explicit about it, reflecting the fact/value dichotomies that were central to sociological ways of
thinking at the time.
230 J. Brennan
Much has changed in the world and in universities since 1983. But then again, universities
have been around a lot longer than 30 years and, for many authors, it is their longevity and tradi-
tions which are their defining features. The point is made powerfully right at the opening of The
Higher Education System with a quotation from one of sociology’s French founding fathers, Emile
It is rare to find an institution which is at once so uniform and so diverse; it is recognisable in all the
guises which it takes, but in no one place is it identical with what it is in any other. This unity and
diversity constitute the final proof of the extent to which the university was the spontaneous prod-
uct of mediaeval life; for it is only living things which can in this way, while fully retaining their identity,
bend and adapt themselves to a whole variety of circumstances and environments. (Emile Durkheim,
The Evolution of Educational Thought, cited in Clark 1983, xiv)
One cannot but wonder whether, if writing a new edition of his book today, Clark would
have found Durkheim’s words quite so apposite to describe the forces driving university devel-
opments and organisation. Many of these were of course the focus of Clark’s later work on
Entrepreneurial Universities, exploring some of the consequences of ‘academic capitalism’ and
the ‘knowledge society’ in broadly approving ways (Clark 1998).
It is, however, the analysis contained in the original book written in 1983 which is the focus
of the present paper. I want to consider the extent to which its analytic framework remains
serviceable in supporting our understanding of modern universities and higher education
systems. I will also compare it briefly with recent work carried out by the European Science
Foundation which also sought to locate the study of higher education systems within larger
social science perspectives. And, finally, I would like to consider how much of Clark’s normative
framework we would wish to subscribe to today.
A distinctive institution
Some key words in Clark’s 1983 analysis are ‘disorder’, ‘uniqueness’, ‘differentiation’ and ‘inter-
ests’ with especial emphasis on the latter: ‘He who says academic organisation says interest
groups’ (Clark 1983, 10). And these terms are used in ways which have both analytic and norma-
tive force. There is a clear functionalist element to Clark’s thinking here, with the implication
that ‘things need to be the way they are’.
Clark’s starting point for his analysis, and the basis for his claims about ‘distinctiveness’, lie
in the centrality of ‘knowledge materials’ and ‘knowledge groups’ to the organisational shape of
universities. Along with UK authors, Maurice Kogan and Tony Becher (Becher 1989; Becher and
Kogan 1980, 1992), Clark emphasised the centrality of the ‘basic unit’ of the subject-based
university department to the delivery of the core functions of the university. In his analysis, Clark
saw and welcomed the combination of weak boundaries between and strong autonomies within
these basic units.
Central to the analysis of how work was organised in universities was the co-existence of
the ‘discipline’ and the ‘enterprise’ as basic groupings bringing with them sources of values and
authority. Much of the distinctiveness of the university as an organisation lay in the importance
of disciplinary authority, summarised by Clark in three features: (i) the core membership unit in
academic systems is discipline-centred; (ii) each disciplinary unit within the enterprise has self-
evident and acclaimed primacy in a front-line task; (iii) the characteristics of core membership
groups affect everything else of importance in the organisation (Clark 1983, 33–4). Clark notes
at the time the differences that existed between the relative importance of discipline and enter-
prise authority in different national higher education systems. From a UK perspective, one can
surely note a major shift in power from discipline to enterprise within most universities over
the years since The Higher Education System was published, a shift partly caused by new managerial
London Review of Education 231
trends but also by developments in modes of knowledge organisation – more interdisciplinary
courses for students and more ‘mode 2’ applied and interdisciplinary research. Indeed, an inter-
esting trend to be observed in the UK and elsewhere is the organisational separation of research
and teaching and the consequent diminution of disciplinary authority in the process.
Clark moves between system-level and institutional-level analyses and makes abundant use
of typologies in the process. At the system level, he makes the distinction between horizontal
and vertical forms of differentiation. The former is discussed in terms of the organisation of insti-
tutions into distinct sectors, distinguishing between (i) single public system: single sector (citing
several Latin American and European Mediterranean countries as examples); (ii) single public
system: multiple sectors (the most common form, citing Thailand, Iran and Poland as examples
but finding the form pervasive more generally in communist societies, western democracies and
Third World countries alike); (iii) multiple public systems: multiple sectors (with Australia,
Canada, Great Britain, West Germany and Mexico all cited as examples); (iv) private and public
systems: multiple sectors (with Japan and the US along with Chile, Peru, Columbia and Brazil all
cited as examples). The reach of Clark’s comparative perspectives is illustrated by the above. In
his comments on the vertical differentiation of higher education systems in the early 1980s,
Clark cites France and Great Britain as rather extreme examples with North American systems
occupying the more middle ground and European countries such as Germany and Italy exhibiting
relatively little status ranking. Nearly 30 years on, with global rankings obsessing at least the
English-speaking university worlds, it is worth remembering that some national systems are still
marked by relatively little status differences among institutions.
Turning to the institutional level, Clark proceeds to set out his organisational analysis of
universities by reference to a series of questions, each of which is the subject of one of the book’s
chapters. The questions are: (i) How is work arranged? (ii) How are beliefs maintained? (iii) How
is authority distributed? (iv) How are systems integrated? (v) How does change take place?
These are pretty central questions to our understanding of higher education and they are
also pretty open ones empirically. In seeking to answer them, Clark warns of the dangers of
adopting a ‘hometown’ view: ‘Cross-national comparison is particularly advantageous in uncov-
ering the unique features and unconscious assumptions that possess our vision when we study
a single country, generally our own’ (Clark 1983, 2).
The same sentiment could also be expressed about attempts to study our own universities.
The familiarities of our everyday university worlds can get in the way of wider empirically-
informed theorising about university systems (Brennan 2007).
In seeking answers to each of the five questions referred to above, Clark employs key
concepts of knowledge, belief and authority. Relationships to knowledge are at the heart of the
enterprises of the university’s basic units which, along with beliefs, are central to the shaping of
identities and relationships within the academic community. Adopting Tony Becher’s notion of
‘academic tribes’, we can view the worlds of universities in terms of memberships of distinctive
tribal cultures: ‘a culture… some shared accounts and common beliefs that help define for
participants who they are, what they are doing, why they are doing it, and whether they have
been blessed or cursed’ (Clark 1983, 72).
But it was in addressing questions of authority that Clark provided us with his most
popular conceptual tool, the famous triangle of co-ordination! In looking at questions of
authority, Clark’s focus moved beyond the inner world of the individual higher education
institution to consider the university’s place in the larger worlds outside its doors. The
‘triangle of co-ordination’ had at its corners three sources of authority deriving from the
state, the market and the academic oligarchy.
Figure 1. The triangle of co-ordination (Clark 1983, 143).
Looked at nearly 30 years on, both the positioning of individual countries and the overall
distribution of countries within the triangle have changed, though the size of the movement of
232 J. Brennan
individual countries within the walls of the triangle differ substantially. Arguably, Britain is one of
the bigger movers heading away from the academic oligarchy in a zigzag fashion towards the
corners of the state and the market. But that original positioning of countries in 1983 can serve
to remind us of the force of traditions and history in attempting to understand the forces of
power and authority in different jurisdictions today.
What, however, the triangle fails to do is to address the different ways in which power can
be distributed at the academic oligarchy corner of the triangle, the differences between the
managerial authority possessed by the institutional leaderships of universities based on the
Anglo-Saxon model against the more distributed faculty authority models in combination with
considerable professorial autonomy and authority of more Humboldtian models. The price of
the latter could be greater state authority and of the former greater market authority or influ-
ence. It is arguably in the balancing of these different internal distributions of authority that most
recent trends in university administration and governance lie.
Figure 1. The triangle of co-ordination (Clark 1983, 143).
London Review of Education 233
However, in the text of the book, Clark himself also distinguishes between different forms
and levels of authority within the university. Thus, academic authority may be discipline-rooted
with sub-types of personal rulership (professorial), collegial rulership (professorial), guild
authority and professional authority all to be found. Within more enterprise-based authority,
trustee authority (institutional) and bureaucratic authority (institutional) can be distinguished.
And at the system level, bureaucratic authority (governmental), political authority and system-
wide academic oligarchy can all be found. These elaborate typologies for understanding differ-
ences in the ways universities are organised at both system and institutional levels might be
applied with value to enhancing our understanding of present-day diversities within and across
higher education systems.
It is worth noting, however, that the two co-ordinating organisations of the academic
oligarchy in the UK pointed to by Clark in 1983 – the University Grants Committee and the
Council for National Academic Awards – have both long gone, the replacements of both draw-
ing their authority from a combination of the state and institutional managements. But it is also
worth pointing out that Clark also describes how easily formal lines of authority can be
subverted. He refers to the common practice within many central and eastern European coun-
tries of state authority being ‘infiltrated’ by senior professors from the local (capital city)
university. The present author fondly recalls a dinner in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, with
the then Deputy Minister for Higher Education in the Bulgarian Government along with her
two immediate predecessors, where the main topic of conversation was the difficulty of
combining the duties of Deputy Minister with one’s ongoing teaching and research commit-
ments at Sofia University!
The point is perhaps central to Clark’s and other analyses of academic organisations: the
pervasiveness of compliance and subversion in academics’ dealings with authority. Interesting
questions posed by Clark’s analytic model concern whether today’s greater ‘managerialism’ and
controls exercised within the academy successfully overthrow centuries of subversive tradition.
Clark’s preferences are clear:
We need… administrative doctrines and broader ideologies that tell officials they are doing alright
when the system as a whole looks a mess, nearly everyone in the system feels powerless, and no
one can clearly identify who is doing what to whom. (Clark 1983, 273)
Key issues facing academia in 1983
Moving on from Clark’s analytic models to the substantive issues facing higher education at the
time of his writing, six questions are posed: (i) What determines access? (ii) How can general
education be supported? (iii) Can higher education be further ‘democratised’? (iv) Can the inte-
gration of teaching and research be maintained in mass higher education? (v) In a time of
expanding state power, what is happening to institutional autonomy? (vi) Is ‘graduate unemploy-
With the benefits of hindsight, one can note how issues come and go. But the above list still
strikes many chords and overlaps considerably with contemporary debates, both within the UK
Clark’s list of issues is complemented by a list of key values: of social justice, competence,
liberty and loyalty. These are values possessed in different combinations and to different degrees
by academic workers, governments and other stakeholders. Clark saw the tensions between
them, observing wryly that ‘any sensible administrator asked to confront directly and to recon-
cile these four orientations would undoubtedly seek other employment’ (Clark 1983, 231).
Clark saw ambiguity, disorder and conflict as endemic and directly arising out of the tensions
between these values. Looking at the list today, one wonders about the continuing salience of
234 J. Brennan
values of liberty and loyalty and their possible replacement by words such as competitiveness
As indicated earlier, as well as presenting an analytical framework and a set of substantive
issues to be addressed, Clark was not reticent in presenting his own ideas of ‘what should be
His overarching preferences were set out under four headings: the division of power; the
support of variety; the legitimation of disorder; and the uniqueness of higher education. On the
latter, he comments that ‘it does not make much sense to evaluate business firms according to
how much they act like universities… Neither does it make any sense to do the reverse’ (Clark
In the English-speaking world at least, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that many key
actors, both inside and outside higher education, do in fact expect universities to behave like
businesses. As business terminologies, values and consultants increasingly invade the corridors
of universities, one wonders how far the older claims for higher education’s uniqueness and
exceptionalism remain relevant and valid.
As well as these overarching value preferences, Clark also sets out a series of ‘ideas’ for
higher education to adopt. While it is not clear how far these ideas derive from the application
of Clark’s analytic model or from his own values and preferences, many of them are still highly
relevant to contemporary debates about how we should organise our universities and higher
education systems. Here are just six of Clark’s key ideas from 1983:
●Conflict among basic values in higher education is accommodated better by diverse than
by simple structures. (254)
●In the service of competence, the most crucial form of diversification in modern advanced
systems is vertical status differentiation among institutions. (255) (In part justified by Clark
on the grounds that ‘status inequality makes for hope’ (256).)
●In the service of liberty, the most essential form of diversification is the creation and main-
tenance of different sectors and subsectors. (257)
●Justice in higher education is most effectively implemented if it is institutionally disaggre-
gated instead of applied blanket fashion across a system. (259)
●State control of higher education works better by long-run rewards than by short-run
●Value ambivalence in higher education is mirrored in structural ambivalence. (261)
It is possible to see in this list some of the features of US higher education then and now and
of the interests of the elite institutions of the system to which Clark belonged. For all that, they
are interesting and far-sighted points concerning important choices that have to be made about
the shape and form of higher education systems and the steering mechanisms which guide them.
Key issues facing academia in 2010
Starting from a similar proposition to that adopted by Burton Clark in 1983, that is higher educa-
tion should be examined within a wider context of social science research, the European Science
Foundation (ESF) recently supported a ‘Forward Look’ activity to look at higher education and
to derive a future research agenda for it. As part of the Forward look, a series of working papers
were commissioned on different higher education themes and were discussed and subsequently
revised at a series of cross-national workshops during 2007/8 at different European venues. The
themes were: (i) higher education and the needs of the knowledge society; (ii) higher education
and the achievement (or prevention) of equity and social justice; (iii) higher education and its
communities: interconnections and interdependencies; (iv) steering and governance of higher
London Review of Education 235
education; (v) differentiation and diversity of institutional forms and professional roles. If we
compare the themes with the main lines of enquiry of The Higher Education System, we can note
rather greater concerns with externalities – especially in themes (i) to (iii) – with the overlaps
more concentrated on themes (iv) and (v) dealing respectively with steering mechanisms and
The final report of the ESF project (Brennan et al. 2008) provides a synthesis of the project’s
findings under the headings of (i) changing socio-political contexts; (ii) mechanisms of interaction
between society and higher education; (iii) the implications for higher education; (iv) the impact
of higher education on society; (v) methodological issues. Drawing on all of the Forward Look
work, the report proposes a research agenda made up of the following questions:
(i) What are the relationships and interconnections between contemporary social and
economic changes and transformations and the changes and transformations occurring
within higher education institutions and the role of academics?
(ii) How are the changes in the balance of power between higher education’s different
constituencies and interests impacting upon the nature of higher education’s social
functions and the manner in which these are discharged?
(iii) Are a growing multifunctionality of higher education and a blurring of its boundaries
with other social institutions necessary in order for higher education to have an impor-
tance within a ‘knowledge society’?
(iv) How do changes in the organisation of higher education institutions relate to changes
in intellectual programmes, agendas and advances?
(v) Do different forms of differentiation and inter-institutional diversity result in different
relationships between higher education and the larger social and economic worlds of
which it is a part?
(vi) To what extent and in what ways do national, regional and local contexts continue to
play a decisive role in determining the characteristics of modern higher education
systems? What is the role played by various public authorities? How much variation is
there in the extent to which universities are internationally connected or integrated
and with what consequences?
(vii) How might new forms of comparative research, involving both quantitative and
qualitative approaches, be employed in order to achieve a better understanding of the
interactions between higher education and society and the different forms these inter-
actions take in different parts of Europe and more widely?
The Forward Look led to the development of a new international programme of compara-
tive research on ‘Higher Education and Society’ (EUROHESC) with four multinational projects
funded to explore some of the above questions.1 The purposes of the ESF’s and Clark’s agendas
contain both differences and overlaps. One important difference, of course, is that whereas the
ESF was mainly just posing questions in the Forward Look, Clark was simultaneously also seeking
to supply answers. But it is also possible to see ways in which key elements of Clark’s analytic
framework could be used to explore some of the questions posed by the ESF report. In partic-
ular, Clark’s framing of the different forms of authority to be found across different higher
education systems is suggestive of different forms of engagement between universities and the
larger social worlds that are indicated in the ESF agenda. And within these different forms of
authority and engagement may lie different capabilities of higher education to change and
respond to different external circumstances and expectations.
In his own analysis of change, Clark points to the difficulties, if not impossibilities, of achieving
it within institutions characterised by differing mixes of order and disorder, control and subver-
sion. In a recent UK study undertaken by the present author on the regional impacts of
236 J. Brennan
universities,2 several external stakeholders noted how ‘vice-chancellors could not deliver their
universities’. In the same study, a number of vice-chancellors did not deny the charge. Change,
where it happens, may be more likely to occur at the level of the basic unit. Clark notes that:
Units can independently prosper or burn out, survive or die – with the latter usually coming about
by slow attenuation over a long period of time, turning a once vibrant organism into a mere shell of
its former self. (Clark 1983, 187)
Survival or death may be particularly apt notions to apply to UK higher education at the
present time. Clark’s analysis of change processes in terms of order and disorder and in terms
of integration and differentiation remains useful today. But also his emphasis upon the resis-
tances to change embedded in structures and cultures within individual higher education
systems will be either reassuring or frightening, according to the reader’s interests and values.
Institutions do adapt, but they tend to do so in idiosyncratic and unpredictable ways. Again quot-
ing Durkheim, Clark writes:
It is the peculiar internal constitutions of universities that allow them, in Durkheim’s phrase, to ‘bend
and adapt themselves to a whole variety of circumstances and environments’ thus producing
diversity… and, at the same time, to maintain an appearance of similarity. (Clark 1983, 187)
The ‘appearance of similarity’ and the reality of difference are among the many key underly-
ing assumptions of Clark’s writings.
The higher education system in the twenty-first century
In the intervening decades since Clark gave us The Higher Education System, we have witnessed
in many countries of the world a continued expansion of higher education, increased differenti-
ation – both horizontal and vertical – new forms of relationship between higher education and
the state, growing marketisation and consumerism, the effects of globalisation, of the arrival of
‘new public management’ and a range of different claims for the ‘knowledge society’ and higher
education’s place within it. Clark’s analysis is an excellent reminder of where our higher
education institutions are coming from. But how good is it as a pointer to the future, how to
understand it and how to shape it.
Clark’s central concepts of knowledge, belief and authority remain essential tools in our
attempts to both comprehend and shape the work of universities and other higher education
institutions. They are particularly valuable when used to examine the very real differences which
exist between both different kinds of universities and different kinds of higher education system.
And the recognition that there are very real differences – notwithstanding globalisation effects
– between different systems and institutional traditions is something which Clark’s continuous
use of international comparisons usefully alerts us to.
However, there are differences between now and then, at least in terms of emphasis if not
in more fundamental ways. One of these lies in the permeation of boundaries, both within higher
education institutions and between them and other social institutions. The boundaries of those
once so powerful ‘basic units’ of higher education organisation are today generally much weaker
than when Clark was writing. As noted earlier, internally the ‘enterprise’ has acquired greater
force together with the power and desire to re-write knowledge maps and to pull down knowl-
edge walls, albeit while resurrecting new ones in different locations. And externally, new chan-
nels and mechanisms to achieve greater responsiveness and accountability are to be found
everywhere, even if resistances remain and outcomes cannot be assured. In achieving many of
their functions, today’s universities must enter into alliances and partnerships with all sorts of
organisations. They may still strive for their autonomy and independence, but their ability to
achieve them is rather less, the more so for some types of institutions than others.
London Review of Education 237
Arguably, higher education’s growing importance in modern societies means that its direc-
tion and development can no longer be left to the insiders, to the academic tribes and their
interests. Consumerism directs more power to the university’s students. Managerialism directs
more power to the enterprise and its managers, and beyond them to the representatives of the
state and other external stakeholders. And the knowledge society points to the need for more
collaborations and partnerships with other organisations, collaborations and partnership where
the university is no longer the senior or major partner.
The need to add new elements and new emphases to Clark’s analysis of nearly 30 years ago
does nothing to lessen the enormous value and usefulness of the original. To those who use
them, to those who work in them, to those who pay for them, and especially to those who
attempt to steer and govern them, Burton Clark’s analysis of academic organisation remains an
essential tool of both enlightenment and survival.
1. ‘Higher Education and Social Change’ is a EUROCORES programme of the European Science
2. ‘Higher Education and Regional Transformation: Social and Cultural Perspectives’, a research project
funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Notes on contributor
John Brennan is Professor of Higher Education Research at the Open University where he is also Director
of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information. He is the author of several books and many
articles on higher education’s changing relationships with society and has directed many national and inter-
national projects which have explored these themes.
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