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The Future of University Management

Having spent almost 30 years working in universities and TAFE institutes in Australia in administrative and management positions, I am passionately interested in how the future of university management will take shape.  More importantly for me, it's about the emerging professional manager in universities. I've spent almost 28 of those 30 years working with the Association for Tertiary Education in both volunteer and paid roles because of this passion. The rise of the professional manager is a topic for another post, and it is time for us to think a bit more deeply about how universities need to managed into the future. We need to move beyond the dichotomy/divide of academics and administrators, and beyond the 'third space' identified by Celia Whitchurch in her PhD thesis.

To understand how universities will need to be managed into the future, and the skills and capabilities needed by people who end up in manager roles by choice or accident, we have to begin to understand what universities as an organisational form might be like in the future. Then, we can ask how that type of organisation would need to be managed, and what we need of people who manage them.

This is a different to starting with today and extrapolating out about how today's manager role might evolve and crossing our fingers and hoping that our best guess will match the reality in 10, 20 or 50 years time. We can do this, and we are doing it, but all these extrapolations are usually based on what we know about the past and present of universities, not about how they might develop and evolve over time.

By starting with a deep discussion about the future shape of universities, their work and their positioning in society, we can begin to develop our managers today to be able to cope with the university of the future. So, the key question would then become 'how do our current perspectives on management need to shift to cater for future management needs?'  How to begin to answer that question?

1. Start by developing a strong understanding of the drivers of change influencing the evolution of universities through ongoing environmental scanning. Beyond globalisation, standards, quality, funding and internationalisation, these drivers are around the changing shape and ownership of knowledge, the shifts we are already seeing in how we will work in the future, how the customisation and personalisation trend is shaping what students of the future will expect of their interaction with universities, and how technology will enable those interactions - both in terms of management and learning.

2. Challenge your assumptions about business as usual views of the future. It's really easy to assume that the future will be more of today if we don't understand how the external environment is shifting (see point 1). And a business as usual view takes less time and energy than working hard to build a deeper view of future universities.  Time and energy are both under tremendous pressure in universities today, so it's no surprise that we usually take the easy road here.

3. As well as planning workshops, hold a thinking workshop or two to explore the views of staff and stakeholders about the future of universities in general, and how your university might fit into this future. You might be surprised that a business as usual approach might just see you going out of business. Think about what you need to start doing today to prepare for that type of future, and to be ready to respond to whatever challenges you confirm along the way. Scenario planning will help you see the alternative and plausible futures available to you.

4. As part of point 3, explore some alternative models for how academics and managers might work together more effectively in the future.  Ask how we might move beyond the stereotyping and lack of understanding on both sides that now characterises much interaction. This is a topic for another post, but suffice to say that this relationship is critical to get right if universities are to be sustainable into the future.

The future of higher education and universities is uncertain, as is the future of university management. We can start to shape and influence both if we can lift our heads above the short-term imperatives that cause us to be really busy today.  We need to make time to think about future challenges, just as we now focus a lot of attention on today's challenges.

Universities and environmental scanning

After some 30 years in universities, I should not be surprised when I hear someone make the comment about universities not being in the real world. It's as though somehow, universities live in a bubble that is unaffected by the trends and drivers that affect other business and non-profit organisations. And, no one seems to challenge it - it's just one of those assumptions that everyone just accepts and says without thinking - because that's just the way it is. Isn't it? Universities in 2008 are complex organisations, with thousands of staff and customers, running multi-million dollar budgets, with considerable physical infrastructure, and continuing to respond to changing demands from their customers and from governments. They are educating students for jobs in the so-called 'real world' and the staff who work in them certainly don't think they work in a non-real world. Like all organisations, universities are balancing operational imperatives and strategic directions and manage budgets to achieve both operational and strategic objectives. They deal with the same people issues that business organisations do, and increasingly the job for life is a relic of the past. I am not sure what is 'unreal' about this? And how different is it from business organisations?

What is different is the culture, but that's the case with business organisations as well. Universities also aren't focused on profit, although there is universal recognition now that they must run 'like' businesses, and they do. There is still an element of the good old days that surfaces occasionally, but the people who manage universities are realists and pragmatists, not isolationist.

Yes, some of the processes in universities could do with a shakeup, and some of the staff could have lessons in internal customer service, and they could blow up some of the silo boundaries that have emerged over time - but I'm not sure that this is that different to business organisations?

I stayed in university management for 30 years because I liked the open culture. There was an acceptance of difference and of being a little eccentric (although this is declining today), and because I was working with very smart people (well most of the time). The work I did ran the gamut of boring to challenging, but it was work about people, and work about education and its relationship to society, not only about profit and stakeholders. Every time I thought about moving to the 'real world', I was told that no one would understand my skills (writing, budgeting, strategic planning, staff management, survey management, quality management, KPIs and performance reporting....) because universities were so different. Huh? Universities are in a different industry, but does make them impossible to understand in terms of the skills and knowledge required to run them?

Like many taken for granted phrases and comments, "universities aren't in the real world" uses a reference point that is no longer valid. In medieval times, which is where the comment probably originated, it was very true. But, it's not true today - things have changed, but that message doesn't seem to have filtered out to the 'real world'!

In a previous post, I wrote about the need to re-think our reference point, our idea of the university, if we were to be able to understand the role of the university into the future. The fact that I keep hearing 'universities aren't in the real world' suggests that we are clinging to our outdated reference point.

This means the old reference point has not been challenged publicly or loudly enough - and that on the scale of things people have to deal with today, re-writing an assumption about universities is not hight on the list. It might also mean that we haven't found a Vice-Chancellor or President who has the credibility and kudos in the business world to be able to make people listen and realise the foolishness of their ways.

The lesson though is simple: before you open your mouth next time to repeat a phrase like "universities aren't in the real world", stop and think. Is this something you believe, or is it something that you have mindlessly accepted without considering whether it's true or not? This is one of the fundamental principles of futures thinking -challenging our assumptions on a continuing basis, to never assume the world will stay the same, and to never assume that the rules we use to interpret that world will be relevant and useful forever.

Yes, universities are different to business organisations, as are non-profits, as are professional associations, as are community organisations, as are non-governmental groups. But, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think there is a phrase like "well, community organisations aren't in the real world"?

Universities and Disintermediation

I've just returned from the Australian Universities Quality Forum where we had some exceptional keynote addresses. One that stands out in my mind is that of Bob Zemsky, Chair of the Learning Alliance in the USA. A great keynote and we got to hear some of back room activities of the Spellings Commission, of which Bob was a member - that was both entertaining and instructive about how things actually work on the ground. He talked about the risk facing higher education of institutions themselves becoming unnecessary - the trend of disintermediation and the declining role of the 'middle-man'. It struck me that once again, we are assuming that the institution of the university has to take a physical form, and that students need to come to the physical place. This is in direct contrast to the trend we are also seeing today for just-in-time, just-for-me education, and in the place where I wanAt it thank you. If this trend continues and develops to mainstream status, then the function of unviersities as physicial entities is indeed under threat.

That does not mean, however, that the role of the unviersity is under threat. It just means that universities need to work out how to re-organise themselves to deal with disintermediation. If students want to go direct to the 'knowledge bank' and design their own learning program, how can universities assist that process? What services can they provide, and how can they support students to make the best choices for them in their particular contexts? How can they deliver learning in more personalised ways so that students still feel a connection with the university? Can universities move from being a place to a facilitator of learning?

None of this is particuarly new, and these trends have been evident for some time. Many universities are grappling with these challenges right now. But, it seems that we still cling to an outdated and no longer useful reference point of what a 'university' is. The need for universities to be physical, because learning is social, and the only way you can have social learning is in a collective space called the university? Heaven forbid that social learning might occur equally well virtually or in smaller, dispersed community nodes.