I wrote this after attending a university management conference where it struck me that we haven’t yet got our heads around what is going on in universities today. It's a long post, so bear with me.
At this conference, retiring registrars describe how many more students and staff universities have now, and call for the abolition of the term administrator and administrator because they are old fashioned and do not reflect what the professional manager is all about. Yet, he manages to get into his speech about three uses of the term non-academic, which focuses on what professional managers are not, rather than who they are and what they can contribute to universities (this is a sore point for those of us who work as university managers). He talks about how the tone of universities has changed, but doesn’t touch on the changing nature of the student population and how that might have affected how universities operate today, or how they might need to operate into the future.And, he suggests that one day a registrar will be Vice-Chancellor and why not?
But, I say, why? Why should a non-academic take on the senior academic role in the university – how can this be possible if you are, by definition, not one of them? You can’t manage a university unless you understand its nature and essence, and while a British registrar may have this knowledge, there are many senior administrators in universities who don’t understand what it is that makes a university different to a business organisation. I would hate for one of them to become a Vice-Chancellor.There was the professor who talked about the anti-intellectual trend in universities characterised by nasty administrators producing templates to annoy academics who should just be trusted to get on with their job. And those student surveys to find out what students think about the quality of their teaching are just evil instruments which should be disposed of immediately. Students should not be asked about their experience, just made to feel uncomfortable so that they learned how to think. And heaven help us if parents get on campus! He didn’t ask why parents want to come on campus and challenge the marks their children receive, just that it was horrible and should stop now. He didn’t talk about the government imperatives driving the need to have student feedback system to maintain the funding that pays his salary. He was articulate and entertaining, but a whinger.
There was no talk of partnership this year – well, none that I heard. At this same conference a year ago, there was a lot of talk about how academics and administrators – sorry, professional managers – needed to work together. If only they could do that, things would be okay. I’ve always thought that talk of a partnership is nonsense, because both groups right now simply don’t understand or want to acknowledge what value it is that each brings to the university today. Both accept and subscribe to the stereotypical view that promotes a ‘divide’ between academics and administrators, and we are all guilty of this to some degree of another. It is time this stereotype was challenged and pulled apart, so that we can move beyond it.What strikes me most that is that speakers seem to be using the wrong reference point to underpin their arguments. They describe and get angry about symptoms of change in higher education, and ignore the cause of those changes. It is not as though universities are ivory towers anymore, not subject to the imperatives of external change. Yet, listening to presentations here, it is as though somehow the changes being manifested in our universities suddenly just happen, and that if we only stopped trying to be a business, universities would return to the great place they once were. Then we wouldn’t need professional managers, and academics would make all the decisions again.
The changes we see today are a result of the nature of the university as an organisation shifting its shape and form once again in order to survive. Whether we like it or not, there is a new reference point emerging for what a university is, and what it is that a university does. If we - either consciously or unconsciously -continue to hang on to the notion of a university as an elite institution, even in an era of mass education, then we will never be able to come to terms with, and accept what is going on in those institutions today, so that we can begin to think about creating a great future.Instead of spending energy decrying the symptoms of change, it would surely be better if those of us who work in universities combined our energies to help shape what universities of the future might become? If we sit here and complain, someone else out there will determine what universities are – and leave us behind.
The forces of external change are indeed shaping universities now, and we have a window of opportunity to begin to take control of that shaping for the future.We need to understand the nature of external forces at work, and then we need to work out what it is that is at the core of ‘a university’, and make sure that is taken into the future. We need to understand how the university needs to change to deal with the new type of learner who will be enrolling in the future. If we want our students to be challenged and learn how to think, then we have to understand how to engage with them. Trying to hang on to lectures as the core of undergraduate learning will probably be the biggest folly into the future – you only have to look at how young people today interact and communicate, and the technology they use, to know that they won’t want to sit in a lecture, still and attentive, for an hour or so at a time - and that is clear today.
Yet, if we continue to use the old reference point, we won’t see the opportunities and we won’t see the imperative for change, and we won’t work out what cost effective alternatives there might be to lectures, for example. We will continue to complain about anti-intellectual trends and the evil template, and the world out there will move on and relegate the grand notion of a university to the dustbin for us.We owe it to those who will work in universities in the future to start putting in place structures, processes and relationships which will allow this institution to survive for another thousand years. We owe it to ourselves to get over our pre-occupation with how things should be and focus on how to re-build universities that will allow them to be sustainable into the future. That’s what matters.
So, those of us working in universities today need to get our heads out of the symptoms and start looking at the bigger picture, and work out how to respond to that. The symptoms distract us, and keep us in the detail, and keep us complaining. It is time to rise above all that, and to accept the challenge that it is our responsibility to create the university of the future, and not just let it happen to us.