A 2011 debate for the universities

From time to time I have suggested in this blog that we need a clear vision of what we want universities to be, and to what extent we want them to connect with wider national goals and aspirations. Generally what I have in mind when I make such comments is the need for society – including political decision-makers and opinion formers, industry, voluntary organisations and the public at large – to focus on a purpose for higher education that can then provide a sound basis for a sustainable future.

But if we are honest, it is not just in that wider society that we are still missing signs of a clear vision, but within the academy also. Universities, as represented by their leaders, generally present themselves as engines of the knowledge society and the innovation-driven economy; but this vision is not necessarily bought into by all academics. Some indeed are emphatically hostile to it. It is  not of course necessary for all universities to work to just one strategic model, nor do all academics have to be ‘on message’ in relation to it. But some sense of common purpose could help the sector in its dealings with its funders, regulators and potential supporters.

While the following may be an over-simplification, on the whole I would take the view that there are two internal views of what modern universities are supposed to be: (a) educational institutions that promote independent scholarship and learning at arm’s length from political, commercial and economic interests; or (b) networked knowledge academies that provide high value skills and discovery in support of economic and social objectives.

The view from outside the sector, on the whole, backs perspective (b), and governments and their agencies have increasingly built whole national strategies around them – including the raising of participation rates in higher education, and the integration of academic research strategies with industrial investment and innovation policies.  There are voices that question the efficacy of these policies – often these are economists – but there is a reasonable amount of evidence that targeted higher education supports national development strategies. On the other hand, some inside the sector wonder whether intellectual independence is lost in the process, and some of these seem to be willing to contemplate a return to a more independent but modest university operating on a shoestring and focusing mainly on teaching.

The reason why all this matters is not because we need a uniform point of view in the sector, but because all of this critically affects resources and funding. As higher education has become much more expensive than it used to be, governments (and others) are asking far more searching questions about what the growing investment is actually delivering, and are looking for more tangible performance indicators to measure whether the money is yielding results.

The task for university leaders of persuading governments that more resources are needed is sometimes openly undermined by academics who question the value of university programmes and the usefulness of funded research; but of course if these critics were right, then their arguments should be heard.  What annoyed me as an Irish university president, however, was when some academic commentators presented ‘evidence’ to politicians about under-performance in universities using ‘facts’ that simply weren’t correct (or very selectively presented), and indeed were in defiance of all the recorded evidence. Perhaps in 2011 we need to have a better quality of internal information-sharing and discussion that might, if not create a consensus view on strategy, at least produce a common position that supports the development of the sector and a strong negotiating position with government and stakeholders. We must value independence of thought and integrity, but we must also look and act professional. There is a lot at stake.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university

3 Comments on “A 2011 debate for the universities”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    ‘…to focus on a purpose for higher education that can then provide a sound basis for a sustainable future.’I would say that the trend is more towards a multi-purpose model for higher education which include the two internal views mentioned in your post and, crucially, a mix of these. I agree that we do need a sense of ‘common pupose’ within the sector, however there are some sound reasons why this is proving difficult to achieve: academia has experienced for over a decade now a ‘divide et impera’ strategy driven by competition for (research) funding and its own raison d’être, competition might be a useful tool to achieve higher standards, still it is unlikely to bring about solidarity & a commonality of purpose. It has to be said also that only a handful of university leaders have been foresighted enough to query the developing trends with regards to academia’s place within the societal fabric over the past few years , most have been willing accomplices not recognizing that, as you say in conclusion to your post, there was a lot at stake. I hope there is still time to be the masters of our own destiny, but the cynical in me doubts it..

  2. Fred Logue Says:

    If universities are to be either (a) independent and arms length then they need to find their own sources of funding or (b) if they are to be engines of the knowledge economy then there needs to be some form of cost benefit analysis to see if it would not be better value to import the knowledge via licensing and immigration. We are a small open economy after all.

    In my view I prefer (a) but without the arms length relationship with the country and society. Universities need to be asking some very hard questions of society and where it is going and they need to be challenging significant elements of the status quo on the basis of scholarship and vision. For example IrishEconomy.ie has began done this and is respected for it in my view. Where are the equivalents in social science, history or indeed in science and engineering.

    Of course the fear is that the universities funding compromises this type of role and dissent will be punished ruthlessly. The universities may be somewhat constrained in how they are established. But the alternative path of passively relying on direction from society (via politicians) is doomed. The university leadership needs to tell its story to the population and trust that they will be allowed to play their part in reconstructing our society. There is a significant leadership vacuum that needs to be filled and if the universities hunker down and continue to follow the same old strategies their public support will dwindle quickly enough.

    It will be a true test of the next batch of university management to lead the Irish universities to make a true and valuable contribution to our society which goes way beyond education and research. If certain elements in academia do not like it or feel their independence is challenged then they can always be invited to pursue their lofty ideals elsewhere.


  3. Al Says:

    I’d be wary or turning Uni management into some kind of Ms (or Mr) World competition where if they get the job they will work for world peace, etc.

    But I wonder if Management have been cautious enough in conserving their potential over the coming winter..

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