I've been doing some work on trends in higher education lately, trying to integrate the overwhelming amount of information out there into some sort of coherent framework that I'm then able to use in my work.

As I work through this information, however, it's surprising how much of it is couched in negative terms. Things written by academic staff still have a tinge of bitterness and the victim mentality about them, and many global trends are gloom and doom. Not all, of course, but there is a sense that the current trends aren't suggesting higher education will have a good future. A lot of this is focused around the lack of funding for universities - here in Australia at least - but I'm not sure why Vice-Chancellors think that just because they say that the government should provide more money, that it will automatically happen.

That shift of government policy will have to come from a change to the mental model and the long term thinking capacity of those in power - which is a big ask at any time in our history. The starting point for such a mind shift though, might just be a clearer analysis of trends and emerging issues, undertaken in a context that is strategic, and that allows the short-term constraints and imperatives of today to be forgotten for a while. This sort of thinking space allows focusing on what Hardin Tibbs calls the star - the long term, future, enduring and guiding social purposes that allows clearer and more focused decision making today.

But, I digress. As I was working, I wondered when I would come across some trends that were overwhelmingly positive. I decided to see if I can list out the positive trends over time I can see in universities today. Here's my list.

  • An increasingly strong focus on students as the core of the learning process that is becoming real, rather than smacking of rhetoric.
  • The increasing focus on professionalism in universities, both in terms of what we call here in Australia 'general staff' - those staff who provide the support services and manage faculties and corporate units - and the emerging recognition that perhaps academic staff also need to pay more attention to their profession and how it plays out in their institutions. This suggests a decline in the traditional view that academics are first loyal to their discipline. There is a long way to go here - the concept of professional administrators and academics in universities in the sense of 'profession' as opposed to professional behaviour is in its infancy - if you consider the history of universities. But this topic is for another blog post.
  • The strong and enduring commitment of staff to education and to students - tested and challenged to be sure, but always at the core.
  • The ability of staff to respond to external change imperatives and change the way they work. While often not without some complaint, staff are generally able to re-think what they do to contextualise change and keep moving forward. But, the converse of this one is to over-contextualise for the higher education environment, and fall into the trap of believing that this change is only happening to them, and isn't the result of strong global trends that no organisation will escape.
  • The peculiar ability of universities to re-form and re-shape themselves - in my career, I went through 10 major restructures (about one every three years) over a 30 year time frame. So the complaints about the pace and rate of change need to be placed in historical context to understand that change of this sort is not new, and that we should be celebrating the ability of universities to keep operating in the face of such change. Of course, the trends tell us that universities are facing their biggest challenge in terms of their traditional role of knowledge generators and disseminators, but history would suggest that they will be able to rise to this challenge.
  • The increasingly overt global nature of universities. While academics have always been a global profession to some extent, in part because of their discipline loyalty, universities now are articulating their place in the global environment and identifying where they can 'add value' to communities and to the future. At the same time, universities are also articulating their local roles and contributions, as the globalisation trend is matched by a strengthening desire to build local communities.

Now, because people act, not institutions, the ways in which individual universities respond to trends and emerging issues will vary. So, again, we are drawn back to the need to ensure we have high quality staff in universities and all that goes along with ensuring that (working conditions, reward and recogintion, professional development etc). It comes down to ensuring we have staff who can think long term, and staff who can, and are supported to, remain focused on the long-term purpose to inform decision making while immersed in day-to-day busyness. It also means universities will have to keep working to simplify and streamline their structures, systems and processes to keep moving from the bureaucracies they once were to more responsive and transparent organisations.

One thing that this musing has reminded me of is the often cited description of universities as ivory towers and not the real world. My response to this now is to remind people that reality is a matter of perception, that it is socially constructed, and that their idea of reality may, in fact, be defined by their experience, rather than by fact or indeed, myth. I still think that working in universities is more challenging and more exciting than working in business because of its unwavering core purpose around learning and knowledge (the intangible) rather than profits and stakeholders (the tangible) - perhaps a superficial statement, but a personal preference.

What can you add to the list?