Posted tagged ‘control’

Re-establishing trust

July 2, 2009

The first Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin, is said to have remarked once, ‘Trust is good, control is better.’ Whether he really said this or not, it is a principle that underpinned the Soviet Union’s system of bureaucracy, and it is at least arguable that it contributed to the ultimate collapse of the USSR. It would be wrong, however, to imagine that other political systems have consistently approached public administration differently; there has always been a tendency to see tight government controls as a solution in almost any crisis. And we are currently careering through an unprecedented crisis in which the imposition of controls has become not just a government response but also a public demand: we want to persuade ourselves that a serious financial crisis, or an ethical crisis in top management, will never occur again if only we impose a regulatory straitjacket.

The higher education sector is currently on the receiving end of this approach, and indeed is experiencing this without having made any known contribution to the economic difficulties we are in. And yet the consensus in political circles appears to be that a light touch system of governance has failed and will need to be replaced by onerous controls and bureaucratic interventions. I don’t mean this comment to be confrontational, as I accept that universities have not always been good at demonstrating transparency, and though they have tended to respond well to national priorities as determined by government, this has not necessarily been communicated well to stakeholders. So we are now experiencing regular new mechanisms to restrict freedom of action by universities and subject even quite detailed operational decisions to direct bureaucratic restrictions.

In the end, my point is that the sector will both work more willingly and constructively to help secure national objectives, and will do so with a greater sense of innovation and reform, if the basis for the relationship between it and government were based on trust and confidence. We need to gain a better understanding of how this was compromised or lost, and how we can restore it. What is facing us right now is a whole-scale bureaucratisation of the system (which will probably turn out to be very costly in both money and effectiveness), and we need to seek dialogue to ensure that this is not what happens. Universities as administrative units of government will not secure global excellence, and are unlikely to be imaginative educators.

There is significant research to demonstrate that trust is an important ingredient of good governance. It is time to think again, for all of us.