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.