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Excellere: Seeking what?

Elizabeth M. Grierson
School of Art & Design
Auckland University of Technology

This paper addresses the meaning and limits of excellence and the processes whereby such meanings might seek legitimation. It promulgates the relations between discourses of excellence and of education in the university setting. The paper engages a poststructuralist mode of questioning, referencing the work of Bill Readings (1996, 1997) and Jean-François Lyotard (1984). Questions are raised, such as: what is this excellence that we are seeking, from whence is it derived, and how is it framed? In a globalised knowledge economy it would appear that excellence has become a unifying métier through which knowledge is legitimated as an informational transaction. Building on research in Grierson (2000), the paper argues that any implicit meaning and value of excellence must be continually put to the test as the contexts and values of 'knowledge' undergo change in the transformations of higher education.

Establishing the ground

In his essay 'Theory after Theory' Bill Readings (1997) reviews the ground of institutional practices within the Western university and its lineage. He claims that any reflection upon academic study must include consideration of the institutions within which such study is undertaken (1997: 21). Following Jean-François Lyotard (1984), Readings purports that there is a crisis of legitimation of meaning in the realm of 'knowledge' and that such a crisis requires theorisation if the university is to be understood in the escalating processes of information exchange that characterise the technological age.

When Readings calls the university of today the 'University of Excellence' he is acknowledging the changing formulation of the Western university. What excellence might mean in today's university climate of teaching and learning is not altogether clear, although a performance of measurable standards and input-output accountabilities comes to mind. However an over-valuing of quantifiable determinations is easily problematised when questions of excellence are brought alongside the inscription of personal and community values such as justice, equity, diversity, difference, rights and responsibility, integrity and perseverance[1], which are usually associated with, or at least recognisable through cultural contexts and conditions.

Accepting that the significance of excellence demands scrutiny, the purpose of this paper is to raise the construct of excellence for critical attention, to consider the politics of the 'University of Excellence', and the relations between discourses of excellence and discourses of teaching and learning in higher education today. By posing Excellere: Seeking What?, the question of excellence and seeking is raised. Seeking suggests a search for meaning, marking the social footprints, making sense of oneself and the cultural terrain in which knowledge is made manifest. Certainly education has long been about the process of making meaning in cultural, moral, social and scientific contexts and knowledge-fields. It is generally accepted that education involves some form of seeking and in the pursuit there is a teacher, a learner, and a desire or demand to find out, problematise, or elevate a range of conditions, assumptions or beliefs. These might or might not be fundamental to a community or culture, or to the understood laws of nature, or to abstract principles of science, or the practicalities of technology. But how do we seek? That is the question.

A profound shift

Lyotard (1984) investigates such activity in terms of the logic of performativity which plays out a legitimating role in higher education. The defining terms of this Forum: Seeking Educational Excellence demand scrutiny in this context. For example, how is educate commonly accepted? How is excellence defined in the lexicon and in common understandings? And how is the impulse and trajectory of seeking maintained?

Performativity and technologisation mark the context of a globalised world through which a profound shift occurs in value and values of educational practices. In globalised modes of information transfer and knowledge dissemination, the old understandings of knowledge are displaced. As Lyotard predicted in The Postmodern Condition (1984), 'the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age' (1984: 3). Grierson and Mansfield (2003: 30) explain:

Lyotard's prophetic text shows the 'old ways' of knowledge as an end in itself have been replaced by new modes of knowledge as the principle force of production and that 'knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major - perhaps the major - stake in the worldwide competition for power' (Lyotard, 1984: 5). We may thus trace the way knowledge is now attached politically to the accumulation of value in national and global exchange, and then ask what this might mean for our present time.
With the pressures of economic globalisation and the excessive global movement of people, physical borders are deterritorialised and boundaries of 'the local' alter. In such a scenario, information circulation is technologised as marketisation and consumerism impinge in new ways upon our sites of education. Excellence, like a brand, a label, becomes another marketable commodity drawing attention to itself through stylistic designs and catchy slogans. The 'University of Excellence' rings with corporate currency whereby process (input) is packaged and disseminated as product (output), and presented as a super-brand equating with life-style, coca-cola or jeans, and joining the marketplace with a post-industrial display of marketable self-belief.[2]

Where does this leave the academic in terms of what can be said or what might be thought when the generalised model of market-led excellence is thus exercised in this new university model? Readings cites Borrero Cabal's UNESCO publication The University as an Institution Today (1993), which focuses on 'the administrator rather than the professor as the central figure of the University, and figures the University's tasks in terms of a generalized logic of "accountability" in which the University must pursue "excellence" in all aspects of its functioning' (Readings, 1996: 4). Posing specific questions about the academic's role folds the academic back into the centre of this paper's title: Excellere: Seeking what?

Engaging with Lyotard (1984) in a consideration of the politics of university reform, Michael Peters (1998) clearly reinvests the role of the academic as critic and conscience of society. In his critique, Peters attempts to move outside a simplistic discussion of economic rationalism and the rationalisation of the education system via policy changes in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, to seek the terms of 'something deeper going on' which 'might be captured by the term postmodernity' (1998: 74). He defines postmodernity in terms of 'a set of wider changes that historically do not simply date from the late 1980s' (74), pointing out that since the late 1980s the OECD has been 'questioning "the very purposes and functions of higher education in post-industrial societies"', and that at the 1983 OECD-sponsored Intergovernmental Conference on Policies for Higher Education there was reference to 'the crisis of performance' and an 'internal crisis of purpose' (76-77). In accord with Peters, it is relevant here to reiterate Lyotard's predictions, which appear as relevant today as they were in the 1980s: 'Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange' (Lyotard, 1984: 4-5). The academic's role is thus to recognise and negotiate this complex terrain of performative exchange.

Questions of definition: Educate, excellence, seek

In this exchange the terms educate, excellence, and seeking call for definition and close analysis, to which this paper now turns.
Educate: [to] give intellectual, moral, and social instruction to (someone...), typically at a school or university; from Latin educere 'lead out'[3].
We have been 'leading out' for centuries, seeking and reflecting a way that might be termed 'progress' in terms of Western Enlightenment liberal thinking and acting in education. But where exactly has this 'leading out' got us? As Readings (1997: 21) points out, this present time is 'neither a "coming of age" (a story of emancipation) nor an entry into a golden age (a story of redemption)'. Then what is it? The application of this question to liberal education seems to be essential if we are to work towards any understanding of higher education today where there is a dominant paradigm of excellence with the invocation of a generalised call to seek it.
Excellence: the quality of being outstanding and extremely good; from Latin excellere 'surpass'.
The idea of privileging the act of surpassing is curious when that very 'surpassing', that excellence, is the norm (i.e. made normal) descriptor of universities today. Universities claim excellence in mission statements and strategic plans as the terminology is repeated over and over again and the idea of excellence no longer suggests a 'surpassing' but holds the position of a mystic signifier. The globalised use of excellence as a catch-all sign of contemporary practice in education is evidenced by a quick Google search of Excellence in education. Hundreds of Internet sites appear, including societies, associations, research centres, resources, awards, partnerships and publications. For example, to name a few: Federal Resources for Educational Excellence, Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education, Citizens for Excellence in Education, Journal of Equity & Excellence in Education, Partnerships for Excellence in Education, The Center for Excellence and Equity in Education, Center for Teaching Excellence, University Excellence Trust Fund, Excellence in Service to Students, and so on.

Curiously excellence has proliferated to the point where it has become today not only the norm-referenced standard of naming higher education institutions and practices, but it attracts a raft of new awards in its name. For example, an excellence search of my university website, Auckland University of Technology http://www.aut.ac.nz/ (November, 2003) revealed dozens of strategically named awards such as Excellence in Equity Award, Sports Excellence Scholarship, Excellence in Teaching and Research Award, Postgraduate Leadership and Excellence Scholarships, Academic Excellence Scholarships, Vice Chancellor's Excellence Award, National Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, and the list goes on. Award judgements are made and categories of endeavour are invested with value in the name of excellence.

The story of excellence is not a new one in Western systems of knowledge. Classical and Renaissance repertoire of Western art is replete with examples of the judgement of excellence manifested as Beauty in the form of a female nude. The Judgement of Paris is a familiar theme through paintings by artists like Cranach (1472-1553) and Rubens (1577-1640) with their depictions of the valuing of idealised beauty via hierarchically inscribed values of excellence whereby the female is judged, bought, sold and exchanged according to their corporeal components. So applying this historical sense to the mythology of excellence today, one soon sees that across centuries and cultures such rituals and pageantry are reinvented and reinvested with meaning. Through excellence, categories of value are set and social investments established.

The evidence would suggest that a vast quantity of resource attention and investment is going into the inscription of excellence as a generalised standard of performance in the university sector. Where have we ever iterated the non-excellence? If excellence is the accepted standard then it must be asked what actually is being surpassed? For example, if excellence denotes a 'state of surpassing' then how does it sit with a 'state of equality', which denotes a 'state of being equal' in rights and opportunity - or the 'state of the written code'? Does the one deemed to be excellent have in fact a greater 'slice of the pie' than the one who is not judged excellent, or the ones who did not enter the competition at all, those who did not play the game but reinvested their energy by getting on with the job at hand, even unaware of excellence? If one recognises and accepts totally a condition of excellence how do we, at the same time, also ensure the noble enterprise of equity? What I am asking is this, if the education system was once enured to a meaning of excellence as surpassing, if not emboldened by it, does it at the same time understand fully from whence the drive for excellence is now coming? What historical, social, organising prerequisite has at this time forced its emergence, found such a niche, in fact taken such a hold?

Taking this line of thought further, with an ubiquitous excellence holding sway in the name of 'moving forward', equated with an imagined endpoint of a better world, it seems vital to consider and problematise the term seeking in this Forum.

Seek: Latin sagire 'perceive by scent'.
One thinks of a Bassett or Beagle at the Hunt, a victor charged with adrenalin, a prey cowering in the bushes. The dog is the means, the prey the end. By the quantity of input efficiency, the reward of output immediacy may be identified; a propositional logic is in evidence, measurable, accountable and efficient. This profile can act as a metaphoric summary of higher education today, a form of seeking, a Hunt, with a quick-to-market result. But the paradox remains. By its very definition, seek contains the concept of the unknown. Excellence predetermines too heavily the outcome.

Moving from this short analysis of the key signifiers, education, excellence, and seeking, I suggest the next step is to consider the sites of teaching and learning in the emergence and genealogy of the university itself.

The western university

University: a high-level educational institution in which students study for degrees and academic research is done. Latin universitas 'the whole'; Late Latin, 'society, guild'.
By this definition, degrees and academic research are the visible forms or outputs, which define and measure a university as a recognisable entity in the production and dissemination of knowledge. An historical sense may be brought to this definition as we undertake a meaning-making dialogue, which could even 'lead out' (Latin educere) to a political understanding of our sites of teaching and learning. Nietzsche (1989: 25) mourned the loss of the 'historical spirit' when he claimed, 'the hallowed custom with philosophers, the thinking of all of them is by nature unhistorical; there is no doubt about that'. Following a post-Kantian, Nietzschean dialogue, we might seek sense by undertaking a genealogy of the Western university to illuminate how its central focus has changed over the centuries to today. By this means, we may understand the present terrain of excellence better, as we trace a unifying habit in the establishment and production of the university.

Bill Readings (1996) tracks the shifts from the Kantian notion of the University of Reason, to the Humboldtian University of Culture, to the University of Excellence today, which he claims, 'serves nothing other than itself, another corporation in a world of transnationally exchanged capital' (1996: 43). Bringing an historical spirit to his thesis, Readings argues that the Western University thus described is 'in ruins', such is the decline and changing nature of the principles and purposes of the university. He asks, 'How are we to imagine the university, once its guiding idea of culture has ceased to have an essential function?' (1996: 119). This question would appear to be crucial. Readings is suggesting that the globalised notion of the 'University of Excellence' is sweeping 'culture' out into the yard, as excellence defines the terms of reference, perversely transcends an imminent culture. When 'culture no longer matters as an idea for the institution ... "excellence" has become the unifying principle of the contemporary university. Everyone is for excellence. Who could be against it?' asks Readings (1997: 22). His analysis shows that, devoid of 'culture', excellence has become an empty and non-referential notion referring to 'nothing other than the optimal input/output ratio in matters of information' (1996: 39), and perfectly reflecting the end result. Might this not be an anti-social act? All that is required in such a system is for activity to take place.


This paper has examined some of the ways institutional practices are politically produced, represented and legitimated, thereby opening for examination assumptions of neutrality and independence. It has exposed questions about the notion and paradoxes of excellence in the university today. Through this process the discussion has seized the opportunity 'to scrutinise the process of production of the university itself, its disciplines and its knowledge' (Diprose and Ferrell 1991: xi).

Here I join with Readings in a moment of hope for the future of the university, but within hope there is also concern. The return to liberal rhetoric of seeking as a form of surpassing, is reinvesting the liberal Enlightenment narratives of progress in the name of utopian ideals of a better world. But if that 'better world' is globally invested with market formulations of value through excellence as the consensually agreed and commonly understood naming and branding of today's university, then where lie the spaces in higher learning to undertake the crucial seeking of critical intervention and cultural interrogation?

If the teaching and learning transactions are now constituted through the dominant mode of input-output efficiencies acknowledged through an endless proliferation of excellence in named societies, centres, programmes and awards then what is the place and purpose of higher teaching and learning? Finally we may ask, how does this non-critical loyalty to excellence gain valour? As new modes of knowledge gain global foothold valorisation like loyalty presents a suspect quality - until problematised. In context of issues posed in this paper, we must continue to raise the questions how and why, as the systemic ideologies of the global knowledge economy are advanced and the rubric of excellence is constituted, interposed, concretised and monitored into policy and practice.


Auckland University of Technology (2003). http://www.aut.ac.nz/ [Accessed 7 November, 2003].

Diprose, R. & Ferrell, R. (Eds.) (1991). Cartographies: Poststructuralism and the Mapping of Bodies and Spaces. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Glassick, C. (2000). Campus Life In Search of Community. Unpublished paper presented at Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand, 25 July.

Grierson, E.M. (2000). The Politics of Knowledge: A Poststructuralist Approach to Visual Arts Education in Tertiary Sites. Unpublished thesis for the Doctor of Philosophy, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.

Grierson, E.M. (2003). Framing the Arts in Education: What is Really at Stake. In E.M. Grierson & J.E. Mansfield (Eds), The Arts In Education: Critical Perspectives from Aotearoa New Zealand (pp. 93-118). Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmore Press.

Grierson, E.M. & Mansfield, J.E. (2003). Contextualising the Curriculum. In E.M. Grierson & J.E. Mansfield (Eds.), The Arts in Education: Critical Perspectives from Aotearoa New Zealand (pp. 27-46). Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmore Press.

Klein, N. (2001). No Logo. London: Flamingo.

Lyotard, J-F. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge [B. Bennington & B. Massumi, Trans.]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. [French 1979].

Nietzsche, F. (1989). On the Genealogy of Morals [Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, Trans.]; Ecce Homo [Walter Kaufmann, Trans.]. New York: Vintage Books.

Pearsall, J. (Ed.) (1998). The New Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Peters, M. (1998). Cybernetics, cyberspace, and the politics of university reform. In Michael Peters & Peter Roberts (Eds.), Virtual Technologies and Tertiary Education (pp. 74-92). Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmore Press.

Readings, B. (1996). The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Readings, B. (1997). Theory after theory: Institutional questions. In E.A. Kaplan & G. Levine (Eds.), The Politics of Research (pp. 21-33). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.


  1. In a paper at Auckland University of Technology, 2000, Dr Charles Glassick proffered three underlying principles of 'community' as 'integrity, perseverance, courage'. Asking where the responsibility lies for university community learning, Glassick offered six principles for a university: purposefulness, freedom of expression leading to civility, a just community, disciplined community, celebrative community, and caring community. Dr Glassick was Senior Associate of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Visiting Scholar 2000 of Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia.

  2. For further discussion of branding refer Naomi Klein, No Logo (2001).

  3. Definitions are from The New Oxford Dictionary of English, edited by Pearsall, 1998.

Author: Dr Elizabeth M. Grierson, Associate Professor, Head of Research & Staff Development
School of Art & Design, Auckland University of Technology
Private Bag 92006, Auckland 1020, New Zealand
Tel: +64 9 917 9999 Fax +64 9 917 9916 Email: elizabeth.grierson@aut.ac.nz

Please cite as: Grierson, E. M. (2004). Excellere: Seeking what? In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/grierson.html

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Created 12 June 2004. Last revision: 12 June 2004.