How Status Competition Complicates Institutional Explanations Of Higher Educational Expansion: A Caribbean Case Study

Regina E. Werum, Lauren Rauscher

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter is part of a larger project that examines recent educational expansion efforts in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, a nation that provides a valuable case study of challenges shaping higher educational expansion efforts in developing countries. The initial goal of the project was to identify supply and demand issues in postsecondary training. Though we did not collect data with the intent to examine neo-institutional or status competition dynamics, this theme emerged inductively from a series of interviews conducted with individuals and focus groups, making it an ideal case study for this volume. Institutional Theory has emerged as a leading framework in comparative-international and -historical research. Researchers often rely on it to examine the growth of mass schooling and to explain seemingly increasing isomorphism regarding the social organization of schooling as well as its curricular content (Boli et al., 1985; Kamens, Meyer, & Benavot, 1996; Meyer, 1977; Meyer, Scott, Strang, & Creighton, 1994; Ramirez & Boli, 1987). Ideally, this framework is designed to examine macro-level, long-term and cross-national patterns. In its most abstract form, neo-institutionalism argues that educational expansion at all levels results from states' effort to engage in nation-building projects that stress the principles of citizenship, individualism, and human rights. While these efforts began in Europe and the U.S. during the 19th century, the ideological basis for educational expansion increasingly has become tied to a global culture and global norms in the 20th century. Several researchers have tested the main tenets of Neo-Institutionalist Theory as first developed by Meyer (1977). Most of these studies have focused on changes in enrollments and curricula at elementary and secondary levels, especially in industrialized countries. At the same time, critics have pointed out that the focus of the framework on abstract processes and isomorphic trends makes it difficult to subject the theory to empirical tests. To quote one of the reviewers for this chapter who, albeit sympathetic to the framework, nonetheless commented: "In the heights of abstraction of the Stanford brand of Institutional Theory, the air gets so thin that most other researchers find it difficult to breathe." In other words, the macro-level trends and outcomes identified by Institutional Theory do not occur automatically. To unravel the processes and mechanisms that shape educational expansion, it may indeed be helpful to shift levels of analysis. For instance, Arnove and Torres (2003) suggest doing this in a way that allows us to embed our research in case studies. Rather than "testing" neo-institutionalism, this case study illustrates the importance of local and temporal context, including short- to medium-term policy developments, on educational expansion. In the context of evaluating the potential comparative education research has for Institutional Theory, case studies like these are important for several reasons: First, Meyer himself stresses the need to focus on expansion as such, rather than on "the margins where social uncertainty and conflict appear" (McEneaney & Meyer 2000, p. 191). In other words, he suggests focusing on the smoothness of a process best observed dans la longue durée, rather than on the conditions shaping struggles over control of the expansion process. He considers those (presumably short-term) conflicts mere tempests in a teapot. But this bird's eye perspective can render invisible important dynamics that take place at a different level of analysis, or in a shorter time frame. As primary and secondary data presented here show, actors on the ground view conflicts over resources and legitimacy as central and pervasive. On a related note, scholars have begun to examine the degree to which expansion itself relates to social stratification outcomes, for instance by gender (Charles & Bradley, 2002; Bradley & Charles, 2004; Werum, 2002), by ethnic group (Shavit, 1989; Werum, 2001), and by social class (Blossfeld & Shavit, 1993). Drawing on both qualitative and quantitative data to document status competition dynamics in educational expansion (Ralph & Rubinson, 1980; Reese, 1986; Tyack, 1974), this existing body of research shapes the chapter at hand and complements existing case studies on other Caribbean nations with similar institutional and political legacies (e.g., see work by Arnove, 1994; Lobban, 2002; London, 1991, 1996, 1997; MacKenzie, 1990; Parris, 1985). Thus, we hope that this snapshot of higher educational expansion in a developing nation will help make tangible both the strengths and some of the limitations of neo-institutionalism. Second, most institutionalists continue to focus on the evolution of mass education in industrialized countries, paying scant attention to dynamics in developing nations. This is particularly puzzling considering that most governments are keenly aware that global economic competition means that, in the absence of natural resources, their labor force/human resources become the nation's main asset. Chabbott and Ramirez (2000) show how this has given rise to a strong focus on "human capital" development via educational policy. Moreover, many developing countries achieved political independence only within the last 40 years or so. Presumably, this should make the pursuit of postcolonial nation-building projects - including educational expansion - much more salient, and should inspire researchers interested in institutional dynamics to focus on such developing nations. In fact, Fuller and Rubinson (1992, p. 59) ask whether "an increasingly competitive world environment [will] lead to an even greater national preoccupation with ensuring that the next generation gains the educational edge?" The data suggest that case studies of developing countries can indeed shed light on factors that create variation in policy outcomes, i.e., factors that shape the effectiveness of national policies aimed at educational expansion. Using Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) as the reference point it appears that, at least in the Caribbean, public discourse regarding educational expansion is more fragmented than Institutional Theory might lead us to expect. Third, researchers have observed increasing commonalities across countries in the arts and science focus of secondary curricula, concomitant with a decline of secondary-level vocational education (Benavot, 1983; Werum, 2003; for exceptions see Shavit, 1989; Blossfeld & Shavit, 1993). Even studies in higher education have paid a lot of attention to commonalities in arts & science curricula. We find this perplexing too, given that growth in postsecondary enrollments has taken place disproportionately in nonelite institutions offering vocational and professional credentials, a trend not limited to the United States (Brint & Karabel, 1989, 1991; Dougherty, 1988a, 1988b; Lobban, 2002; McGill, 2002; Rieble-Aubourg, 1996). It is time to turn our attention to this stepchild in the sociology of education, by highlighting the interplay between national policy goals aimed at expanding higher education and the dynamics observed at a broad spectrum of institutions providing postsecondary technical/vocational education and training (TVET).11A note on the use of terminology: While the term "postsecondary training" connotes vocational training at all levels, from low-skill to professional, the term "tertiary training" is usually used in a more narrow sense, denoting only high-end programs (university-level courses). But for the purpose of this paper, we use the term "postsecondary" and "tertiary" interchangeably with respect to TVET programs. In essence, our inquiry is motivated by the assumption underlying Neo-Institutionalist Theory that educational expansion occurs unrelated to local power structures and interests (Meyer, 1977). Therefore, we focus on the following interrelated questions: First, how can the (neo-) institutional framework help explain patterns regarding access to postsecondary training in T&T, and policy efforts to expand such access? Conversely, to what degree can status competition theory improve our ability to explain current policy directions (see Collins, 1979; Cross, 1979; Matlhako, 2002; Rubinson & Hurst, 1997; Windolf & Haas, 1993)? Second, what role do nation-building arguments and the growing importance of world cultural norms play in public discourse regarding efforts to expand the TVET sector? This gets at the core of the neo-institutional assertion that educational expansion reflects "evolving models in world society" (McEneaney & Meyer, 2000, p. 194), in particular as it reflects government commitment to values of citizenship, individualism, and human rights (Ramirez & Meyer, 1980). To address these questions, we rely mostly on primary data obtained from individual and focus group interviews that involved 255 adults representing various interest groups in T&T: government, NGO and business leaders as well as institutional representatives (students, staff, faculty, administrators). These sources are supplemented with secondary data from a broad sample of higher educational institutions in the TVET sector, including information about institutional history and infrastructure (facilities, resources, staff/faculty).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Impact of Comparative Education Research on Institutional
EditorsDavid Baker, Alexander Wiseman
Number of pages42
StatePublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NameInternational Perspectives on Education and Society
ISSN (Print)1479-3679

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Sociology and Political Science

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