What’s at stake?

The term ‘stakeholder’ is one of those words that appears to have suddenly emerged as a key concept of higher education policy. It is not a term, so far as I can remember, that was ever used when I embarked upon my academic career. Now it is ubiquitous in university documentation.

So what does it actually mean? The word ‘stakeholder’ was originally a legal concept referring to a person or body that held money or property pending a determination of who was the rightful owner. It was common for stakeholders to be used in gambling transactions, but in other settings as well. From this original use came the more modern meaning of stakeholder as someone or some body with an interest in the success or otherwise of a person, organisation or business. In the business world it is usually a reference to someone who, while not necessarily being a shareholder or owner, has a legitimate interest in a firm’s success or could be affected by its failure: employees, customers, suppliers, creditors. There is also the concept of a ‘secondary stakeholder’, who is not affected as directly by a firm’s fortunes, but who nevertheless has an interest: the general public, trade unions, community groups, and so forth.

So who are the ‘stakeholders’ of a university? The obvious primary group of stakeholders are students, and of course also staff. The concept may be seen as more complex when it is extended to government, industry (local or otherwise), schools, public agencies. As public policy to an ever greater extent expects universities to engage stakeholders in planning and in strategic communication, it is important to assess how far this community of interested parties could extend, and what entitlements they have. Some studies have suggested that there is a particular triumvirate of stakeholders whose interests should to some extent be accommodated: parents, communities and employers. This, it is suggested, should lead universities to adopt the business tool of ‘business stakeholder analysis’:

‘BSA is a useful tool for learning how to think more expansively about stakeholders, and then actively to incorporate these newly identified stakeholders into the corporate decision-making process without sacrificing institutional values.’

Universities, like other organisations, need to be aware of those bodies and networks that can have an impact on their success. Unlike firms, universities are often seen as public bodies, and this creates not just a sense amongst various groups that they have an interest in the institution, it sometimes generates a sense of entitlement in relation to them. Governments express this through the conditions they attach to the distribution of public money to universities and through the monitoring of performance. But it is felt more widely also: a man once came up to me on the campus (having recognised who I was) and proceeded to deliver a set of instructions as to what I, in his view, was obliged to do. He ended his statement with: ‘I have paid for all this, I am entitled to have my views taken into account.’

And indeed, in many way he was so entitled. Universities should not be resistant to the stakeholder concept; it reinforces a sense of the university as a significant element of the wider community, even if the institution does not have to dance to everyone’s tune. Autonomy should not, in my view, mean disengagement or disinterest. In some ways indeed we are stakeholders for the wider community: we hold the valuable property of knowledge in the interests of the society which, ultimately, owns it.

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5 Comments on “What’s at stake?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    Before I write anything I have to confess my long held antipathy for the term stakeholder, one of those antipathies felt at an instinctive level well before any rationalization.

    One could argue that the appearance of the term ‘stakeholder’ on the HE policy scene is by no means a ‘sudden’ occurrence, it has been around for at least fifteen years and, as such it is one of the best indicators (in a perspective where ‘indicators’ are everything!) of the increasing managerialism in higher education. The mistaken perception of its sudden appearance is due to the gradual pervasiveness of the phenomenon and is indicative of the scarce attention that we, as academics, have paid to the tool of our trade: language. Language constructs the worlds we live in, and we build our own prisons…

    The article from 2005 linked up to this post by an American Law professor with vested interests in the corporate world is a rather irritating read, exemplary of a type of narrative encapsulated in the following statement: “Educational administrators are increasingly recognizing what businesses have long understood: customer satisfaction matters”. In such a narrative business is always defined as ‘good business’ to be praised for its ‘enlightening’ qualities, who in HE would have otherwise guessed that customer satisfaction matters! Certainly not educators because, we are told, they “like their ivory tower” or probably are interested in a type of satisfaction which escapes the ‘customer’ oriented one.

    As a corrective to this article I would suggest today’s piece in the Chronicle “College Is Still for Creating Citizens” which discusses the findings of the latest study on what the broader U.S. public and business leaders think about the interface between higher education and business. http://chronicle.com/article/College-Is-Still-for-Creating/145759/

    And so I propose that from now on we replace the word ‘stakeholder’ with the several others (colleague, partner, contributor, participant) which better reflect the values of collegiality upon which academia stands, in doing this I might not be ‘thinking expansively’, as suggested in the article, only ‘inclusively’, but I might be forgiven for that…


    • Thanks for the comment, Anna. I have come across others who do not like the word ‘stakeholder’ but have never found anyone who can explain convincingly what is wrong with it. I have an open mind and would be willing to hear any such arguments. For me, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that there are different people and groups who have a stake in the education process – though of course not everything that some have associated with that recognition necessarily has to follow.

  2. catatsea Says:

    Broadly agree with you Anna though I think the key point (and problem) with stakeholder(s) is that the term ought to be orienting us to the idea of communities of interest but it tends to orient to individuals (and those with loudest voice most typically – as in the “man in the street” cited here)!

  3. fungalspore Says:

    This is a fascinating post, but I feel a much greater tension between education institutions and their “stakeholders”. A university is not like a supermarket, putting goods on sale that will appeal to the tastes of its consumers. Neither am I particularly happy that universities should look towards where the money comes from in determining their academic direction. Is that what an education is? Is that what research is? With freedom of speech people have an absolute right to state their opinions, but that is quite different to saying that universities should have a built-in obligation to look to these stake-holders, in my opinion. I’d prefer my philosophers to be independent.

  4. Kate Says:

    I don’t have a particular problem with stakeholder as a term; I pulled up short with the shareholder/banking language in your final paragraph. What seems to me to be coming apart, in really interesting ways, is the role of the university as a trust fund. “We hold the valuable property of knowledge in the interests of the society which owns it.”

    Well, not so much any more. And that makes things very interesting now.


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