I'm doing my PhD on the future of the university as a social institution. I've spent the past little while lining everything up, connecting all the dots in terms of theoretical framework, methods etc. The stuff that holds the PhD together. Somewhere in my brain has been a series of random thoughts about the story I'll be telling. It's yet to fully emerge of course, but there are signals of it here with me today. This post relates one of these thoughts.

Universities as a social institution are fragile - not in the tangible sense. Their buildings aren't going to fall down anytime soon, and unless governments have a radical change of mind about their value they will be with us for a while yet. But the intangible side of universities - the idea of the university - that is embedded in the people who work in them is fragile and always has been.

Universities emerge from the interactions of people as they come together to make universities real. All the things universities DO happen because the people who work in them have a belief about what there ARE - and they keep working in them even when the tangible side of the university the structure) doesn't make sense anymore. The idea about what universities are - the beliefs about its enduring role and purpose - still remains strong. Somehow it still makes sense even when the world in which that idea emerged no longer exists.

In my work, I hear stories of policies that make no sense, of being treated like non-humans, of being tired of rhetoric about purpose and identity that is rarely followed up with action. The idea is disconnected from the action and behaviour. I was reminded of this in the last couple of days when I ran a Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) exercise with two groups of university professional staff and academics. Two universities in different cities but essentially the same stories.

I ask the people in the room to tell me how they saw their university at the moment. There was a tension in the room when the process started to throw up negative images because some people like working in their university. Yet one person had come back from holidays to be told she had lost her job and would need to leave within the month. Another told a story about a plagiarism policy that assumed all students who did not cite their references correctly were cheaters, using a one-size-fits-all approach to policy. Someone else commented on the new vision that had been imposed from on high, where what was being said was not being reflected on the ground where cost cutting was the norm. And another told a story about being required to demonstrate how a new kiln she had purchased for her arts course could generate continuing income. As now an outsider, the university I grew up in and worked in for so many years seems to be a very strange place indeed.

The Myth/Metaphor level of CLA is always instructive for me. Here's a few examples of what emerged over the past couple of days:

  • people are not important - we are cannon fodder,
  • working here is like the highway to hell, and
  • we don't practice what we preach.

This couple of days is a small sample, but it's the same story I've been hearing for the last five years or so. People love the university but they dislike how its system and structures generate a culture where people are devalued in preference to compliance and accountability. That, of course, is a huge generalisation but it surfaces an important point. If the tangible side - the structure - is disconnected from the people who work in it and their beliefs about what a university is, the future of the university as a social institution may well be fragile.