Posted tagged ‘corporate’

The modern university – corporate or academic?

June 11, 2008

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.