Link to the University of Pittsburgh
Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Keyword: Excellence

Excellence is a prominent term in contemporary political discourse related to public services, especially in the context of education where the word has attracted widespread ridicule. Writing about how the notion of a university changed in response to the 1990s restructuring of UK Higher Education, for example, the author of the 1997 critique The University in Ruins, Bill Readings, claimed that excellence had become a ‘non-referential unit of value entirely internal to the system’ and an ‘empty notion’. This and similar observations suggest that despite appearing to offer a key measure of quality the terms excellence and excellent have become effectively meaningless, or at least have undergone a significant process of semantic change. Prominent use of these words in university mission statements, governmental initiatives and education journals points to an important site of semantic ‘weakening’ or ‘bleaching’, as well as illustrating consequences of the complex functioning of excellence as a keyword in discourse about education and other public services.

The OED offers the following definition for the core current sense of excellence:

1. The state or fact of excelling; the possession chiefly of good qualities in an eminent or unusual degree; surpassing merit, skill, virtue, worth etc.; dignity, eminence.

Etymologically, excellence, excellent and excel are closely related, all derived from similarly related French models; ultimately the cluster of words in both languages can be traced to Latin verb excellere, glossed in the OED as ‘to rise above others, be eminent’. In early use (attested from late 14c) all three forms reflect this meaning. But the OED evidence shows they have diverged over time. The definitions of both the transitive and intransitive senses of the verb excel show that the word implies comparison: something can only excel relative to something else, which must therefore be inferior in some way. Earliest senses of the corresponding noun and adjective excellence and excellent also imply comparison. But the OED entries show that, in the case of excellent, a significant semantic change has taken place: some kind of bleaching, through which an element of meaning has been lost. As a result, the most common sense of excellent has shifted from ‘better than others’ to simply ‘very good’ (OED sense 3); the term is still positive, but the implication of comparison has been lost.

The OEDdoes not record a corresponding bleached sense for excellence. However, the entry in NODE (The New Oxford Dictionary of English) suggests that one has emerged: excellence is defined as ‘the quality of being outstanding or extremely good’, with no clear distinction between the unbleached sense (suggested by ‘outstanding’) and a bleached sense (suggested by ‘extremely good’). In the context of educational discourse, uncertainty between these available meanings has acquired a complex function. The frequency with which excellence is used in university mission statements and related material makes an un-bleached meaning problematic: self-evidently, not all universities can be better than all others, or have realistic aims to become better than all the others. Despite this, in a sample of 21 UK university mission statements more than half (12) were found to describe themselves in terms of excellence. Typical examples are Birkbeck’s (University of London) aim to ‘maintain and develop excellence in research’, and the University of Strathclyde’s intention ‘to combine excellence with relevance’. Such usage suggests that excellence has come to be equated with a (high) standard of performance rather than performance which is relatively better than others; in other words, the term is being used as a nominalised form of bleached excellent rather than as the noun form excellence as presently defined in the OED. In such use, rather than the adjective excellent being used to modify a following noun (as in excellent teaching), it has become common to use the noun form with a following prepositional phrase: e.g. excellence in teaching. This pattern is regarded as stylistically more formal but is semantically less precise. ‘Excellent teaching’ is specific and implies an overall high standard; ‘excellence in teaching’ is vaguer. While ‘excellence in teaching’ suggests a relationship between a high standard and teaching, it does not specify precisely what that relationship is. In this context, tracking the frequency of use of excellence in educational discourse over the past three decades is revealing. Searches of educational journals included in the JSTOR collection for the periods 1976–1980 and 1996–2000, for example, show a substantial increase in the number of occurrences of the word; by contrast, frequency of excellent appears relatively stable.

Choice of preposition following excellence affects the word’s meaning and implications. Excellence occurs with in and of, e.g. in phrases such as excellence in teaching and the excellence of its research. Historically, excellence of is earlier, and appears to be the more usual construction until relatively recently. In contemporary usage, however, the newer construction excellence in appears to be becoming more frequent, while excellence of may be in decline, a change signalling complex interaction between the word’s syntax and semantics. Characteristically, excellence of is preceded by the, and carries an implicit comparative sense: if X is recognised for the excellence of its performance in a specified area, by implication it is doing better than some others even if those others are not explicitly identified. By contrast, if X is recognised as showing excellence in a specified area, there is noimpliedcomparison with others. It is possible that everyone could show excellence in the same area. In this respect excellence in is aligned to the bleached sense of excellent, in which the element of comparison is either greatly reduced or entirely absent.

The significance of what might otherwise seem a nuance is that the semantic difference underpins alternative policy models and aspirations. On one interpretation it is possible that everyone can achieve excellence in a given area (if the measure is set sufficiently abstractly), whereason the other interpretation performance in the area requires assessed achievement favouring only a subset. What makes excellence and related forms problematic in institutional and public policy discourse is that there is little or no acknowledgement, in government pronouncements or in the relevant literature, that the word is ambiguous. In the absence of recognition of such semantic complexity, it is inevitable that the comparative sense will be (consciously or unconsciously) exploited, but not directly conveyed, in pervasive use of excellence in preference to less ambiguous alternatives.