Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Why universities are failing: 1. Social purpose

Stefan Collini in his book 'What are unversities for?' observes that 'asking what something is for all too often turns out to be asking for trouble' (p.ix).  On the other hand those adept at systems thinking appreciate that questions of purpose are central to generating systemic understanding in all human action.  I would claim that it is the failure to attend to questions of purpose that cultivates the disillusionment experienced so frequently in contemporary organisations and in our responses to the adequacies, or not, of historical institutional arrangements.

This is the first of a series of postings in which  I will explore some of the failings of the contemporary university as I and others have come to understand them.  In particular I will explore some of the emergent properties of modern universities as a particular organisational form, and as sites of enactment of particular, often perverse, institutional arrangements.   As in this paragraph I will distinguish between institutions (norms, rules of the game, which we humans invent like policies and codified practices such as 'key performance indicators' or KPIs) and organisations (configurations of institutions, structures and practices which may, or may not, be related to a discernable organisational purpose).

What experiences do I have to make these claims?  I have never been a VC or PVC for example. On the other hand I have worked in, and contributed to, the social purpose of a University for over 40 years (if one counts undergraduate and postgraduate years).  My own academic trajectory has been influenced by powerful early experiences of ‘development failure’ (in Indonesia, Tanzania, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines) as well as systemic organisational failure (e.g. the inappropriate strategies of  a government department where I was first employed).  These experiences led me to realise that ‘failure’ was usually a product of the thinking and worldview of the ‘would be developers’ and the historicity of particular organisational policies and practices built on assumptions or circumstances that were no longer valid or distorted by the exesses of 'command and control' management practices.  My research has subsequently spanned the biophysical and the social (including organisations/institutions) and has evolved as my own understandings have changed. 

A distinctive feature of my career in Higher Education has been my experience of, and contributions to, four contrasting University settings and forms:
  • the first was a five year experience in co-developing a radical, student-centred curriculum based on experiential learning, systems thinking and effective communication and in which the academic role was the facilitation of student learning; 
  • the second was eight years in a traditional, research intensive university in Australia
  • the third was my ongoing experience (22 years now) of one of the largest and most significant Open and distance teaching universities – the Open University (UK);
  • the fourth was nine years within (partially) globalising, metric-led, research intensive Australian Universities
My motivation for developing these reflective pieces arises from a number of powerful experiences during 2015 in addition to a longstanding concern about the trajectory of HE in general and the University in particular. One of these experiences was in Beijing last September during a lunch with a group of very bright students and staff from one of China's leading universities.  Much to my amazement the focus of the conversation was  'gaming' the modern 'academic system': the difficulties of writing in English, journal impact factors, citation metrics and the like and how best to improve performance.  I was asked for my advice, as if I was one who had mastered this practice!   My reply instead was to ask them how, through their work, they felt they would be able to address some of the many issues that confronted contemporary China, not to mention the world, given global climate change and the like. Unfortunately I did not find their responses very convincing.

In systems terms the metrics that concerned my young Chinese aquaintances are measures of performance.  But what is the system for which these metrics are measures?  This question goes largely unexplored and unanswered in the contemporary university.

In his 2012 book Collini, building on Keynes' question 'what is economics for?' responds to his own title question 'What are universities for? by arguing that:

'..any discussion of the place of universities in contemporary society will inevitably be driven to articulate, in however rudimentary terms, some sense of human purposes beyond that of accumulating wealth. Or so one might think.  Yet it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the greater part of public discourse about universities at present reduces to the following dispiriting proposition: universities need to justify getting more money and the way to do this is to show that they help to make more money.'

In his THES review, Fred Inglis argues that:

'[Collini] has plenty of allies, for sure: the Campaign for the Public University and its recent manifesto; Jonathan Bate's 2011 edited collection (The Public Value of the Humanities) compiled in vindication of the discipline recently brought to bankruptcy by the Browne Review; along with vehement criticism by and in the pages of Times Higher Education, naturally, as well as in the pages of the London Review of Books, where much of it was written by Collini himself (in this connection, among many instances, do not miss Gary Rolfe and his address to the International Networking for Education in Healthcare Conference last year).'

However, my aspiration with these posts is not to fall into the trap articulated in a cutting review of Collini's book by Peter Conrad:

"What universities are emphatically not for is to subsidise the self-pity of those they employ."

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