Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Necessity, Choice and the Future of Universities

by Tim May*

Conflicting strategies that internalise ambiguities are being perpetuated in universities. Academics receive communications from central management concerning the importance of engagement and knowledge transfer activities, whilst also being urged to target a narrow list of journals in ever more rapid timeframes in order to meet the next round of evaluation exercises.

Communications become disjointed. Tensions dominate in the translation of strategic direction through faculty and institutional structures to individual academics; all ably assisted by universities collecting enormous amounts of information that has no bearing upon the capacity for creating intelligence.

Wholehearted embrace of the current crisis as an opportunity is a familiar route. Along with a new modus operandi come disparaging backward glances at those who do not understand the apparent self-evidence of the new realities, as if history had no bearing upon the present. Within the context of the university as a whole, the effect is to further uncertainty concerning its social, economic and cultural purpose.

The potential to identify the distinctiveness of the university as an institution then diminishes and along with that goes its long-term viability. Paradoxically, in these seats of learning, there is little active engagement that challenges pre-conceptions and limited hierarchies of knowledge are perpetuated. Given the important role of universities in society as a challenge to short-termism, learning is the casualty.

The contemporary climate surrounding universities, defined by the idea of the free market and its penetration into knowledge-based institutions, has led to a significant shift in values. These have been exemplified in corporate re-branding, institutional restructuring and strategic orientation, as well as attribution of high value to particular forms of knowledge.

These shifts have re-cast what has been traditionally recognized as the university. However, just as there is no single history of the university, there is no single present. A variety of strategic responses exist that refract and mediate external values and lead to particular effects for the work that is performed within them.

University managers construct views of the position of their institutions and then mobilize differential resources to secure their reproduction. That, in turn, leads to an embrace of particular conceptions of what is required for ‘moving forward’. The apparent choice that comes with occupying such positions then evaporates in the face of necessity.

In wholesale translation of current conditions, we see higher education institutions subject to centralisation. The result is to sever, even more, the connection between purpose and process through a growing pre-occupation with organisational control for its own sake.

These external necessities are increasingly judged in terms of ‘business performance’ through extended regulatory systems, performance indicators and so forth, but not by reference to a public service ethic or set of well articulated and defensible professional values. Overall, institutions then move away from accountability based on common understandings of purpose, to narrow indicators of process-based performance.

The consequence is a separation between the production and dissemination of knowledge in its context through a whole series of attempts to determine the ‘how’ of practice through modes of surveillance that include workload balancing models. The overall result is that the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of knowledge is subsumed within the narrow confines of the measurability of ‘what’: external income generation, citation indexes, staff-student ratios; league tables and types of publication.

With full-scale translation we see universities increasingly modelling themselves in the images of businesses and operating as significant economic actors in their own right. Estates are then managed with profit and optimisation in mind, rather than the provision of places to furnish and support the institution’s cognitive requirements. New buildings are celebrated through allusion to ‘iconic’ status, but the reasons for their existence and the distinctive nature of the practices that will take place within them becomes of secondary consideration.

The external generation of finance is a tool to supplement reduction in the balance sheet, replacing any notion of civic responsibility, whilst economic output is translated into intellectual property and commodified through new organisational units that are designed to undertake activities called ‘knowledge transfer’ and ‘engagement’.

Practices are created which represent only highly selected facets of what an institution actually does on a daily basis. In terms of divisions of labour from the core functions of teaching, research and third mission activities, the efforts of making connections become an afterthought displaced within the organisation as a whole.

An analysis of different forms of values in these processes would require a degree of institutional reflexivity that is rare. Why? Because that would require a confidence among university managers in their capacity to engage in debate that is actually aimed at meaningful change based on recognition of constituent groups. Managerial prerogatives would then be open to contestation. Instead, we typically see ‘external’ individuals, usually consultants, brought in to advise on appropriate models for success, even though the knowledge they produce is actually based on learning from individuals within the organisation itself.

In the absence of a developed understanding - requiring recognition that the direct relation between position and control is a fantasy - the link between positioning and representation of the institution lies in a relationship between recognition, reward and promotion criteria as judged by those who do not have direct acquaintance with practice and its consequences.

Strategic managers – everyone is now ‘strategic’ - seek to represent universities in terms of economic relevance, but their internal dictates miss their mark without a clear understanding of occupational cultures, why they exists and how they operate. Yet to embark upon a sustained examination of this type means recognising that the object of control might just be the subject of institutional distinction.

Demands for flexibility then sit alongside those of standardization. Engagement between disciplines and between disciplines and institutions and the outside world is directly informed by structural and bureaucratic lines of accountability and management. Vertical (managerial control) and horizontal deadlock (professional cultures) emerge that limits the capacity for innovations to emerge out or across institutions, whilst preserving their sense of purpose and confidence in an otherwise fluid world.

Whilst there is no doubt that universities are facing profound changes, alternatives do exist to the narrowness of current thinking. The weight of effort is towards silencing these as if they were ‘idealistic’. The fear and anxiety that saturates these institutions is not well served by this myopia. An enlarged body of civic interests need to be involved in their futures and these are voices which have historically been excluded. Without this in place, we will return to a narrow elitism based on nothing more than a retreat to the past.

*) Tim May is Professor and Director at Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures (SURF), University of Salford, Manchester.

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