Posted tagged ‘strategy’

The future of higher education: ‘directed diversity’?

September 3, 2011

In Ireland, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (Ireland’s higher education funding council), Tom Boland, has just made a very interesting speech in which he has set out his vision for the future of the system. It is worth setting out verbatim the key passage in his speech:

‘The first and most crucial reform envisaged is what I’d like to term the end of the era of laissez faire in higher education, and its replacement by what might be termed “directed diversity”. By laissez faire, I mean the strategic approach to higher education which has had at its centre light touch regulation – a term that has now become deeply unpopular and not just in financial circles. While light touch regulation has brought us much success in higher education, including soaring participation rates and a standard of higher education which is good by any benchmark, it has also given us unnecessary and inefficient duplication in programme provision; it has given us mission creep; inflexible staffing structures and practices and it has given us a fragmented system of institutions with no national, coherent strategic focus…

… We now need to transform Irish higher education from a set of institutions operating in isolation into a coherent, well co-ordinated system of higher education and research.’

A little later he added:

‘Through this process I believe we can build a higher education system which concentrates investment in multiple centres of excellence, right across the system; which brings coherence to these centres as a whole system; which encourages collaborations where these make sense from the viewpoint of a quality student learning experience; which greatly enhances accountability by greatly enhancing the quality and comparability of data on the performance of the system, and which ensures that we have diversity of institutions offering a wide range of provision combined with clear institutional focus on national goals. This is what I mean by the term “directed diversity”.’

The question addressed by Tom Boland, which is one that had also been examined by Ireland’s recent report on higher education strategy (the Hunt report), is whether the strategic development of the higher education system should flow from the decisions of autonomous universities or from a nationally coordinated plan, however that plan might be constructed. His conclusion that national coordination is necessary is not unique in global higher education.

All of this addresses the key issue of university autonomy, what it means and whether it is important; or indeed if it is important, how it should be exercised. These are the absolutely critical issues of higher education. They will determine its future nature and direction.


Is there such a thing as a ‘university’?

January 14, 2011

Professor Steve Hedley is Dean of the Faculty of Law in University College Cork, and a highly respected academic expert in private law. As I suspect many Irish readers of this blog will know, he is also the owner of the invaluable academic news resource, 9th Level Ireland. He has also written about management styles in universities, and in one article he suggests the following:

‘… Most departmental members have little interest in making the university run like a well-oiled machine, especially as that vision consigns them to the role of mere obedient cog. Viewed from the departmental level, both the perspectives and the loyalties are very different – which gives the university much of its character, and makes it so hard to govern. As a generality, the academics’ viewpoint and allegiance will be discipline-based rather than tied to the particular institution. Fidelity to the university as a whole may be weak, or indeed (if it conflicts with fidelity to discipline) hardly discernable at all. In principle, we might expect institutional loyalty to be stronger in Ireland than in (say) the U.K. or the U.S., given that job mobility is lower. In practice, this does not seem to be so: each academic’s detailed knowledge of the university is typically about their own department or related departments, their contact with the rest of the university being less frequent and typically purely social. Their loyalty is owed to the people they know and whose activities they understand, not to others, with whom they might occasionally compete for parking space but whom they otherwise ignore. And whatever rationality and purpose may inhere in central university processes is very probably not apparent from the point of view of typical department members. This limits the influence that central university management has, or can possibly have, on the individual departments, and hence on the university’s activities as a whole.’

The point made in the above passage is of great interest to anyone who has ever been involved in developing a university strategy. In fact, the first question that often precedes any actual strategic formulation in a university is whether an institution-wide strategy is even possible. I distinctly recall at one meeting of university presidents, when I suggested to the others that we should issue a joint statement on a matter of common concern to all of us (and, I felt, to the entire academic community), that one president argued that he could not sign any such statement, in the sense that he could not sign any joint statement, regardless of content. He could never speak on behalf of his institution, he said, because there was no such thing as a policy or position that it could adopt (as distinct from one of its constituent departments). The university did not have a sufficient corporate existence to be able to have a policy; or at least that is what most of its staff would believe.

It is indeed true that most academics believe they are part of a department or school or maybe Faculty, and part of a discipline. Their relationship with the university that employes them is often thought to be like that of an English barrister with her or his chambers: they provide accommodation and a degree of work planning, but not a corporate identity. Universities, the view might be, are communities of scholars, not corporations, and the scholars must, for the sake of their intellectual integrity, maintain a significant degree of autonomy from their institutions.

Before saying anything else, it is worth suggesting that this is not altogether an absurd position. One of the imperatives for academics through the ages has been to defend intellectual independence and to avoid being corralled into positions that are informed not by the search for truth but by the imperatives, compromises and whims of temporal power. Fidelity to the discipline provided some protection from undue influence.

Three things have made this position difficult to maintain. The first of these is that universities have moved far beyond teaching, and the demands (including the material and financial demands) of modern scholarship require a process of management. Institutions (rather than individuals) now usually compete for resources, connections and advantages, and they need to be able to plan their moves, like other organisations.

Secondly, knowledge itself has changed, and the demands that society makes on universities to solve problems in culture, society and industry require the engagement of interdisciplinary techniques and partnerships. In a university setting, disciplinary units have often felt their primary task was to defend their departments from the encroachment or financial profligacy of other departments. Now such barriers stand in the way of both teaching and research, and universities need to be able to organise themselves.

Thirdly, whether we like it or not, society (and that includes our funders) has become tired of the old academic order and has started to equate it with under-performance and inefficiency, and the taxpayer has punished universities financially in consequence; this is a trend that, if continued, has the capacity to destroy higher education altogether.

The trick – and who knows whether anyone has yet got this right – is to develop universities that respect intellectual integrity and freedom and can harness academic coordination and collaboration: knowledge organisations that are also efficient and effective. We can no longer afford to be institutions that have no institutional order. But equally we cannot just be organisations based on command structures. Overcoming this apparent conflict successfully is the holy grail of modern higher education, and a conditions for its success.

The un-managed university: could it survive and prosper?

May 25, 2010

During ten years spent working for a particular university earlier in my career (and there is no hint in the statement, as I have worked for 10 years for each of my academic employers), I amused myself by trying to find out where university-wide decisions were actually taken. Of course I knew the constitutional position, and was well aware of the committee or council or board that had the final say in any particular issue. But on the whole I was convinced that the issues were decided long before they got to these particular forums, and I wanted to find out who was deciding, and where, and when, and how they were able to navigate their decisions through the formal structures. I was never able to find the answer. Somehow all the obvious people and groups didn’t seem to be the originators. In the end I half came to the conclusion that decision-making in the university in question was really quite haphazard and subject to no identifiable pattern, and that as a result the development of future policies was highly unpredictable. Subsequent insights into the institution in question have tended to confirm my views.

Of course that doesn’t mean that the university didn’t take decisions. In fact, its leadership was astute and (I believe) benign, and they did what is done in most universities: plans and policies were allowed to ‘bubble up’ through informal discussions and were then negotiated through the formal elements of the system, with the champion for each proposal spending time recruiting and convincing supporters. In this way the university continued to do some new things, but it could not be said that these new things were part of any overall strategic design. They happened opportunistically and sporadically, and often they were not particularly compatible with each other.

It is often suggested that this somewhat anarchic and unpredictable, but often quite democratic system came under pressure as university presidents started to get ideas above their station and began to fancy themselves as corporate chief executives. In this view of the university as it is thought to have developed over the past decade or two, senior managers bought into corporate thinking and commercial principles. They started to sideline or ignore formal decision-making structures and just got on with implementing their policies without bothering much to secure anyone’s consent, and more particularly, without paying much attention to long-standing academic values. The consequence of this, as it is seen by some dissenters in particular, is that decisions are taken without proper support and without adequate analysis, and faculty and staff are kept in line by the imposition of a mindless bureaucracy that takes the edge off reasoned opposition. In Ireland this is, I think, the essence of the view that has been put forward by academics such as UCD’s Tom Garvin, as has been discussed in this blog.

Outside the academy, a wholly different picture of the university has been taking hold of influential opinion. Under this perspective, universities are chaotic places where individuals can refuse to carry out their work with impunity, where urgent national needs are willfully ignored, where under-performing academics neglect students, and where the work-shy hide behind the banner of ‘academic freedom’ at the first sign of trouble. And those who hold this view are now beginning to say, ‘hang on, we’ll solve this problem for you, we’ll establish an academy that works to explicit national priorities and that is monitored and controlled from the centre’ (whatever that may be). And that’s where we may now be heading.

If we want to take the view that this is an undesirable direction for us, we need to understand certain things. First, we simply cannot run a university system that now admits a large percentage of the population as if we were running small elite institutions. The elite students of former times generally had very un-specific expectations of their education. For them it was all part of assuming the knowledge and the style of privilege, not about undergoing specific vocational training. Today’s students generally have a much more tactical and career-oriented approach to what they are doing in college, and they expect to see that reflected in how they are taught and treated. Universities have in fact adapted quite well to that in the portfolio of programmes they offer, but not always in the style and methods of their pedagogy. There is still a kind of inherited nostalgia for a past golden age, without perhaps having a proper appreciation that the golden age in question involved what we must now consider a socially unacceptable framework for education.

Secondly, universities now need to make a coherent and aggressively defended case for themselves. They need to be able to demonstrate to those who may give or withhold funds that they have strategic aims that are worth supporting; and to do that they need to have agreed strategic aims in the first place, and they need to be able to show that these are being implemented systematically. The idea of an essentially un-managed university in which something may happen, or it may not, in relation to whatever the issue happens to be is no longer sustainable. The claim by faculty to senior managers that ‘what I do is none of your business’ is neither workable nor likely to protect the sustainability of the institution.

Thirdly, we cannot turn up our noses at money. If we want to do anything, and in particular if we want to do it well, we need resources. If we are failing to get those resources, then complaining that the government, or other backers, are behaving recklessly by not funding us is fine but is not an actual substitute for the money. We need to think intelligently about how we can maximise our income in ways that don’t compromise our integrity. And securing adequate revenues requires a coherent and well implemented plan.

On the other hand, universities are knowledge organisations staffed by fiercely intelligent and imaginative individuals, who are certainly not going to be anyone’s cannon fodder. Management can only work successfully if it has secured widespread consent, which in turn requires transparency, shared decision-making and respect for staff. It requires a very modern kind of leadership. And it is here that the success or failure of a university will increasingly be decided.

Universities today are under attack, and they need to be strong. The chaotic university cannot succeed in that setting. But neither can a bureaucratised dictatorship. Getting this balance right is the most important task for today’s higher education.

Is strategy just a waste of time?

June 17, 2009

In the early autumn Dublin City University will unveil its new strategic plan. This strategy will, we hope, chart the way through some very challenging and uncertain times. This will be DCU’s fourth strategic plan, and the third of my presidency. It will provide some direction for us, and allow us to show a common purpose. It will also satisfy several formal requirements that affect us, including section 34(1) of the Universities Act 1997 (which provides that the President must prepare a strategic plan for consideration by the Governing Authority), and the rules of certain funding programmes (such as the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions).

But the significance of strategic planning is not always accepted by everyone. When I was in the University of Hull in the late 1990s I was a member of the working group that drafted the plan which was to be adopted by the university. I recall attending a meeting of senior officers at which we presented our draft. When the chair of our group had completed his presentation there was a pause to allow some discussion. After a few moments one of the senior officers sighed and said, ‘Well OK, if you must, but as far as I am concerned there is far too much strategy around here. It’s all such a waste of time.’ There were some sharp intakes of breath, but then others chipped in with their more strategy-oriented responses and, a little while later, the strategic plan (or ‘corporate plan’ as it was actually styled) was published.

But the scepticism of this senior university officer was not totally unprecedented. In fact, shortly before that one of the godfathers of strategic planning, Henry Mintzberg, had written a book (The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning) in which he had called the whole thing into question. His criticism was based on a number of points, but amongst them was his view that strategic plans tried (and failed) to predict discontinuities, politicised the organisation, destroyed commitment, and created a spurious formality for something that should be much more spontaneous.

I suspect there are more than a few members of the academic community who might share that view. But for all that, a focus on strategy has also helped to transform some institutions by allowing (or forcing) them to make choices about how to prioritise the scarce resources of money, time and people. Strategic planning has – when done imaginatively  and effectively – helped higher education institutions make quantum leaps beyond where they could have gone with incremental steps.

But it is also true that many universities have responded to formal requirements to adopt strategic plans (which apply in Ireland and other countries) by issuing long documents that never  really make it into the collective consciousness of the institution and that, often, contain excessively long action lists that don’t really amount to a strategy. Others adopt well-meaning documents that don’t have the consent of the community to which they apply because they were developed in a top-down manner.

So it is probably true that strategic documents are not always useful and sometimes do just amount to a distraction. The challenge is to ensure, both in the content of the plan and the method of its implementation, that this is not the case. My own approach has been to make the process inclusive, keep the document short, fix the focus on selected priorities driven by a shared vision, and ensure that the outcome is memorable.

So what about the strategic review?

March 18, 2009

One if the curiosities of the recently announced ‘strategic review’ is that much of its agenda is likely to be dealt with long before the group appointed gets to report. The issues of tuition fees, rationalization, research priorities and commercialisation all look set to be settled before the summer. It may be necessary to ask: is this review still worth the time, effort and cost?

On the other hand we do need to worry whether there will be a coherent strategy at the end of it all. Time will tell.

The recession, morale and confidence

March 9, 2009

One of the by-products of a recession is falling morale and confidence, and this has further consequences that can accelerate the recessionary trend. So we have been told that in the UK the gloomy economic news stories had an adverse effect on consumers and stopped them from spending, even where they had the money. The same pattern is emerging in Ireland. Therefore the effect is that falling retail sales reduce profits in that sector and in the industries that supply it, and that in turn creates problems in those sectors, with growing unemployment a result. This is then aggravated further by the process that is taking money out of people’s pockets through pay cuts and tax increases (however necessary that is). It’s a vicious spiral that aggravates the downturn. It could be said that if there is a patriotic duty right now, it is to go out and do some shopping. You are saving jobs, and indeed possibly your own job, when you do so.

The same is true in the university sector. With every day’s new gloomy news about funding cuts and declining prospects, of deficits and emergency measures, confidence is further eroded, and with that there is a risk of lethargy and listlessness which will further damage our prospects. We cannot immediately change either government policy or the current economic trends, but we can stop ourselves being mesmerised by all this. Hard times are not always bad times to innovate, and DCU initially grew in a climate that was not much more favourable than what we are now experiencing. The new DCU strategic plan, which will be launched over the next month or two, will point a way forward beyond the current difficulties and will, I hope, give the university community some sense of purpose.

We do however also need a sense of national purpose and vision. I still hope that this will be set out clearly and confidently before long. We need it.

Launching the strategic review

March 6, 2009

On March 4 the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, launched the review that is to produce a new national strategy for higher education in Ireland, when he addressed the first meeting of the steering committee that is to oversee the review. His address on the whole was restricted to general remarks about the value and nature of higher education, but the following extract is worth quoting verbatim:

We have to keep in mind at all times that our higher education system operates in a global context, and that the standards we pursue are not regional or national, but global. We need to maintain a strong focus on system wide performance in Irish higher education. None of our institutions can hope to rival the financial muscle of a Harvard. That is an unrealistic and inappropriate target. But what is important is that our system, with diverse institutional missions and roles, offers education and performs research that meets the very best international standards. To achieve that we need to look very critically at the respective roles and relationships of institutions to ensure that the sector is appropriately configured to perform its manifold roles to new standards of excellence. I have previously stated that I want the higher education strategy to address the need for re-organisation and re-configuration of roles within the system.

What this tells us – or appears to tell us – is that the Minister is particularly concerned with the structures of higher education, rather than, say, the content of its programmes or the quality of its outputs; although of course it could be argued that structures are an important facilitator of these desirable objectives. My concern however is that the strategic review may become focused on structure and process within the system, rather than on pedagogical, research or innovation aspects.

My own view of strategy has always been that structure and process follow content, not the other way round. We do not, as yet at least, have a national consensus on the substantive objectives of higher education, and we need to concentrate on that in the first instance, before tackling structural and related issues (which I agree we shall need to address). The questions which I would suggest the review should tackle first include: (a) the relationship between higher education and national economic, social and cultural objectives; (b) the extent to which higher education should develop in a discipline-based or inter-disciplinary way; (c) subject areas in which Irish universities can provide global leadership; (d) the ways in which universities can stimulate economic recovery and sustainable growth. Through addressing these issues, or others like them, a strategic review can then pave the way for an informed debate on structure and institutional rationalisation.

Our mission is – well, what?

January 18, 2009

During the recent strategic planning exercise in Dublin City University, I did a presentation in which I set out a number of mission statements from a variety of universities. Some of the universities were old – ancient, indeed – some were new, some were teaching-intensive, some research intensive, some were in major cities, some served sparsely population regions. I produced the mission statements, and in a separate order, the names of the universities; I then asked those present to see whether they could correctly link the universities to their missions. And of course they couldn’t – these statements were entirely interchangeable. They all said they wanted their institution to be as good as you could imagine in teaching, research, community engagement and innovation; or some such stuff. Some were able to say this quite snappily, some needed several paragraphs and long words.

What does this suggest? It could suggest, as one person suggested at my presentation, that nobody should bother with such stuff anyway; mission statements are put together without much imagination, and probably as an after-thought to strategic planning, rather than as a foundation for it. Or it could suggest that, despite all claims to the contrary, in the end all universities have a very similar mission, and the differentiating factor is not what they do, but how good they are at doing it. That would be bad news for DCU, as we have built up our profile based on the assertion that we are different. But if you ask DCU people what that difference consists of, the answer often is that we innovate and introduce things before others do – that we lead the way in pursuing change. That is of course good, but it doesn’t make us different; it means we do the same things, just earlier.

In the case of DCU, there are in fact some clear differences, and our strategic plan will develop that thinking a little more in an explicit way. But all this does raise the question whether the assertion that a university sector should contain some diversity is actually well founded. Is it really true that, let’s say in the UK, Cambridge University is different from the University of Lincoln in any way that cannot be explained by age, resources and influence? In other words, in the ideal world of each, would they be doing something radically different from each other?

Universities often repeat the mantra of diversity, but do we really know what that should require of us? And if we did discover a real basis for differentiation, would all of those seeking a different mission enjoy the respect of those who stick with a more traditional agenda? These are important questions which, I believe, university strategic planners do not properly examine, and to which I suspect they do not have an answer. It is a topic to which I shall return in due course, perhaps when we have published our plan.

Strategy in a cold climate

November 6, 2008

In an earlier post on this blog, I had pointed out that my university, DCU, was embarking upon a strategic planning exercise. Since then we have proceeded with the exercise, and have now come close to where we will be able to produce a draft strategy document. As has been the case with DCU’s previous strategic plans, the new plan will be short, and will be built around a small number of key strategic objectives, accompanied by the performance indicators that will tell us later whether we have succeeded in implementing our aims.

Without at this point wishing to reveal any of the content of our proposed plan, I can however explain some of the issues we have considered in the discussions to date. First, it is important to us as a university to be distinctive. Most university plans I have seen have been, if not identical, then certainly inter-changeable. They all tend to say that the university will be world class (or excellent) in teaching, in research, and in outreach. They find slightly different ways (and lengths) of saying this, but I can tell you now that the last sentence is an adequate executive summary of 90 per cent of all university strategic plans worldwide.

And of course, that is what universities do and aim to succeed in. But a strategic plan is not about summarising the standard mission of the institution: strategy is about making choices, and in particular hard choices. It is not strategically interesting to list all those things that we do and to assure the reader that we mean to do them really well. What is interesting, however, is to say what we will do that is different, either from what others do, or indeed from what we have been doing until now. And equally, it is interesting to indicate what, in the light of the priorities we are setting, we may decide not to do, or do as much, in the future.

This may be particularly important at a time when external resources may be scarce, as is the case right now. The economic downturn has, as we have noted here, driven government to cut the resources allocated to higher education, but the same conditions also make to less likely that generous resources from other sources will be easily available. This means that we cannot draft a strategic document that does not take account of the external environment and relate to it.

The current challenging setting for the universities will, we hope, not last for ever; but it is likely to be the dominant backdrop for the lifetime any plan adopted over the coming months. But that also makes it possible that where it is fully taken into account, its effect may be to produce paralysis. But challenging times are also times in which innovation is both easier and more logical – and so a good strategic plan should be focused, distinctive, aware of the external environment, and highly innovative. These are the tests for a successful planning document.

University strategies

August 7, 2008

Ten years ago, when I was a Faculty Dean there, the University of Hull adopted what it called a ‘Corporate Plan’. This was not the university’s first strategic plan strictly speaking. Like all universities in the UK, it was obliged by funding council rules to produce regular strategic documents, but in reality these documents were not strategic plans: they were drafted by someone working in the university’s administration and nodded through by one or two committees; their rather lengthy content essentially set out what the university was doing and what it was already committed to doing under a variety of headings. Nobody in the wider university community was really aware of these successive plans, and certainly no strategic or resourcing discussions were informed by them.

Ten years ago, there was a slight change of procedure in Hull: a working group was established to consider whatever draft plan might emerge, and I was made a member as the representative of the Faculty Deans. A draft plan duly emerged and we had a meeting to discuss it. The draft was very long, and was divided into several sections, each dealing with the key elements of university business: teaching, research, physical infrastructure, and so forth. The discussion, as I recall, was not animated and mainly focused on fairly minor adjustments to the text. When I was invited to comment, I suggested that the whole approach was wrong: strategy was not about trying to describe existing plans and commitments, it was about creating a vision and setting out a framework for prioritisation and action. A plan should use language that was accessible to a wider audience but that would also energise and motivate the university community, and it should be much shorter. The result of these discussions was that, on this occasion, the University of Hull adopted a plan that was quite different from the previous norm.

What I was able to learn from this process influenced my approach to planning in Dublin City University after I became President in 2000. My major hope was that we would have strategic documents that would avoid too much detail and would look to the future in terms that would allow the university to prioritise its decisions on resource allocation, and also tell a story to external partners and stakeholders that would persuade them to back us. While this was still a learning experience – and in particular it was a while before we had a fully effective implementation programme – I believe that the last two DCU strategic plans have had a major impact on how planning is seen in the Irish university sector.

The problem with university strategies is that they have to address the balance between the need for an overall organisational purpose and direction on the one hand, and the need to respect academic autonomy on the other. This is a very difficult balance to get right, but unless it is got right the whole planning concept cannot work. But in all sorts of vital contexts, including the need to be successful in bids for competitive funding, the ability to demonstrate that the university as a whole has a coherent strategic direction and that it will be able to reflect that in prioritising the allocation of its resources (including the ability to withdraw resources where appropriate) is a condition for success.

At one of the very first meetings of Irish university Presidents that I ever attended I suggested that we should all issue a joint statement on an issue then (and now) of vital interest to the university sector. One of the other Presidents declared that he would not be able to declare, on behalf of his university, what its policy was on this issue (or actually on any issue), because there would be no consensus in his university that it should have any overall university-wide policy on anything. Strategy was a matter solely for the departments. We have come some way since then, and I doubt that any of the Presidents would say that now. But there is still a not yet fully developed shared understanding of what a strategy should look like in a university or across the sector.

DCU will be adopting a new strategic plan towards the end of 2008 to follow the last strategy, Leadership through Foresight. The new strategic plan is likely to be short, to contain a small number of key objectives with metrics that will guide implementation, and will address both university and national needs and trends. One of my hopes is that we will receive help from the wider public in the planning process, and I shall certainly be interested in a wide range of views and suggestions as this unfolds. My email address is