The concept of “field” forms the centre of Pierre Bourdieu’s relational sociology and the notion of “autonomy” is its keystone. This article explores the usefulness of these underexamined concepts for studying policy in higher education. It begins by showing how Bourdieu’s ‘field’ approach enables higher education to be examined as a distinct and irreducible object of study. It then explores the value and limitations of this conceptualization through analyses of policy during two contrasting moments of transition in the same field. First, the insights offered by a field approach are illustrated by analysing the new student debate over the creation of new universities in early 1960s English higher education. This shows how the field’s relatively high autonomy shaped the focus and form of policy debates by refracting economic and political pressures into specifically educational issues. Second, considering contemporary changes in policy highlights how the erosion of the social compact underpinning higher education has increasingly fractured autonomy, necessitating the development of Bourdieu’s conceptualization. A distinction between positional and relational dimensions of autonomy is introduced to capture an increasing disjuncture between the origins of the actors running higher education and of the principles they are adopting, respectively. These concepts are utilized to illuminate the effects of current moves towards marketization and managerialism in higher education on principles, practices and identities within the field.
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