The modern university – corporate or academic?

A recurring theme of public debate about what one might call the ‘modernisation’ of higher education has been whether a new breed of university leaders has been trying to turn universities into corporate, business-like institutions, abandoning the academic tradition of collegiality and independent intellectual rigour. Alongside this the question has sometimes been asked whether there is a trend to ‘privatise’ higher education.

It could be said that there are two rather polarised (and maybe caricatured) strands of opinion on the role of universities. One suggests that a managerial and commercial ethos has entered the bloodstream and has in particular infected university heads, who all want to be like corporate CEOs and get equivalent salaries, and that these are destroying the traditional scholarly and collegiate ethos. The other (and opposite) strand is that the traditional university model has become unworkable because it is inefficient and unable to strike a relationship with external stakeholders, and in particular that university structures and decision-making are no longer fit for purpose and require major reform.

Neither of these seems to me to be useful, and I don’t think they represent a well thought out analysis – they are both really just knee jerk. What I would argue is that universities play a role within a society to which they must relate, and that a fast changing environment is unlikely to allow universities just to stay the same; but that the role they play cannot just be determined by the loudest shouts from inside and outside the system.

I believe that the traditional collegiate model, at least in the way it was practised in the past, may not be so easily sustainable today, because it is highly change-resistant. Organisationally universities had become about the most conservative and reactionary bodies in society, and not particularly because they defended intellectual freedom, but rather because they used it to defend unacceptable organisational cultures that included social elitism, aggressive behaviour bordering on bullying, neglect of community links, failure to promote the social, cultural and industrial benefits of intellectual property, and so forth.

On the other hand, the reformers have often been mesmerised by structural issues, focusing on internal reorganisation and new managerial methods, thereby undermining the capacity of people to produce innovation and intellectual (as distinct from structural) reform.

Maybe the appropriate model for a modern university has not yet been properly identified, but its key attributes should include streamlined decision-making with the capacity to have widespread buy-in; much more effective external networking with a variety of stakeholders; a much greater opening up of internal boundaries to promote interdisciplinarity; more professional commercialisation (involving those who are happy to participate); much greater embracing of diversity; visible involvement in local communities; and a move away from the traditional hierarchical approach to interpersonal relationships.

These goals are being obscured, however, by the emphasis on some Aunt Sally topics such as ‘privatisation’, which actually has fairly little objective meaning and is just being used to stir passions. Universities are public bodies in terms of their missions and their role, but they also need to be seen as autonomous in their decision-making; they cannot function effectively as bureaucratic public sector agencies.

On the other hand, debate is a good thing, and it is to be hoped that academic communities will engage in it vigourously over the period ahead.

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8 Comments on “The modern university – corporate or academic?”

  1. Ronnie Munck Says:

    This debate is, I think, overdue. At a recent conference in Galway on the future of the university we were again presented with just such a polarised picture: either ‘neo-liberalism’ rules supreme or we regain ‘traditional’ university values. It seems to me that if the world is changing at an ever more rapid pace and complexity, uncertainty and risk are ever more present, setting the context of the university, then a return to the past is just not possible. So the debate is how do we strive for a more inclusive, relevant and constantly improving university in the era of globalisation. Not by dreaming of a golden era that never was! Having said that there are good and bad ways of dealing with the contraints of the unregulated global market and we do have a quite considerable degree of choice. We need to regain that positive university tradition of critical thinking to plot a way forward which does not subordinate human learning to the market-place while taking advantage of what globlalisation does offer us in terms of fluidy, connectivity and a much broader canvas for our activities.

  2. Michael Scott Says:

    Might I suggest that an interesting blog is an opinionated blog. “The Modern University – corporate or academic” sounds like an interesting topic – and I am certainly very interested in your opinion. But your “one the one hand.. and then on the other hand” style doesn’t actually tell me much (if anything) as to what your opinion actually is. So what do you think yourself?


  3. Ferdinand was indeed expected at the conference in Galway, Ronnie, but unfortunately was unable to be there, so its good to hear that technology is being harnessed to maintain and continue the debate. Whilst there was some polarisation in some of the discussions, there were also some interestingly different perspectives and much of the critique has value.

    For those who were unable to attend the main keynotes were recorded and can be accessed on Ireland’s other high quality HE blog(!) http://ollscoil.blogspot.com Positive signs of change are the fact that ‘civic engagement’ itself is really beginning to make headway in university missions (as is the case in both DCU and NUIG) and that’s something that might not have been predicted 10 years ago, say. I think there’s also an increasing need to realise that many of the pressures university staff feel under mirror those in wider society and perhaps that in itself can lead to a more engaged, more serious approach to exploring the issues of the day such as quality of life, the environment as well as the economic dimension. If universities are able to claim a role, as Dearing put it, as the ‘critic and conscience of society’ wouldn’t that be a noble aspiration? Of course, such is in danger of being seen as arrogant if it isnt backed up in practice.

  4. Ronnie Munck Says:

    Iain I was trying to get debate going and not really doing justice to the debate at all. You are absolutely right I think to point to the importance of critical debate to help us make the university fit-for-purpose in the era of globalisation. I felt torn between the critical approaches and the ‘realistic’ approach of, say Michael Shattock who was severely criticised for his analysis of the university in the ‘era of austerity’ he now sees coming upon us. Of course the temptation would be to cut back on the civic engagement type programmes you have pioneered unless we mainstream (yes lost of people don’t like that word) them as part of the ‘core business’ (even worse!) of the contemporary university as part of society.

  5. universitydiary Says:

    Many thanks for the comments. Mike, I thought I was already quite opinionated… But I shall return to the theme again.

  6. Paul Cahill Says:

    Before this blog gets a bit too cosy, I thought I might enter the fray by suggesting the following to advance the debate beyond a chat amongst pals.

    I would recommend the following bedtime reading to help those who feel they are ‘quite opinionated’

    How Academic Corporatism can lead to Dictatorship
    NATURE, Vol 452, 13 March 2008

    Michael Crow’s Book Review of Daniel Greenberg’s Science for Sale (Nature 449, 405; 2007) calls for a response because it reflects a worsening philosophical divide in US academia between those who regard universities as analogous to corporations and think they should be run that way (mostly career administrators) and those who see universities as primarily intellectual enterprises governed by academic core values (mostly line faculty). Asserting that the university is an idea — not an ideal or an ideology — Crow, who is president of Arizona State University, plays down or ignores most of the dangerous consequences of campus capitalism.

    Faculty members would generally hold that universities represent ideals as well as ideas. These are manifest in a value system that is among the first casualties of academic corporatism. Derived from political corporatism, academic corporatism is an administrative strategy that is antithetical to the spirit that academics hold dear — including openness, transparency, collegiality, meritocracy, rule-governed procedures, balanced curriculum, a level playing field for probationary faculty and participation by faculty in governance. Like its political counterpart, academic corporatism often results in dictatorships, with ideas originating only from the top and nothing going the other way. Academic assemblies, unions and senates are eviscerated, neutralized or eliminated altogether.

    Faculty members are disenfranchised. There is a chilling effect on free speech and the notion of an open marketplace for ideas. This can wreak havoc with a university’s curriculum, jeopardize its intellectual and educational missions and compromise its future.

    As former Harvard president Derek Bok said: “The end to which this process could lead is not a pleasant prospect to behold.”

  7. universitydiary Says:

    Picking up Paul Cahill’s points, I doubt very much that any serious university administrator regards universities as “analogous to corporations”. On the other hand, there isn’t really any such thing generically as a “corporation” in the sense used here – business organizations are extremely diverse, and many modern companies are highly collegial and non-hierarchical, inclusive and meritocratic. Whether the traditional university meets all these goals could be debated…

  8. Greg Says:

    I find it it interesting that many of the arguments about the modern university leave out the key stakeholders in all of this, namely the students. I went to college in the eighties when it appeared to me that academics were totally unaccountable. Many did no research and were abysmal educators. Whatever the pros and cons of today’s university environment for staff, I would suggest that it’s a hell of a lot better for students.


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