University Challenged




July 3, 2012 by 

I’m on my way to Exeter to speak at a conference for Student Union sabbaticals and officers. The subject is vague but I’m assuming semi-structured musing on higher education from someone outside the system will be expected. Little did my victims know when they booked me that I would be up to my ears in social power concepts, which I feel almost compelled to apply to universities. To make matters worse, in these challenging times my starting point tends to be less what society owes HE but what HE owes society.

Looked at through the prism of hierarchical authority, solidarity/shared values and individualism (the three primary sources of social power), the pre-Robbins elite university system had the following characteristics:

Hierarchical authority – based on strong sense of tradition and deference

Solidarity/shared values – based on the ethos of the Academy. As Martin Trow puts it ‘…a consensus among educated persons about what knowledge was of most worth and what qualities of mind and character should be possessed by the educated person’

Individualism – bounded (in terms of sanctions and rewards) and heroic (expectation that students would emerge as putative leaders)

The move after the mid sixties from (to use John Brennan’s categories)  ’elite’ to ‘mass’ higher education and following that to near ‘universal’ (for the middle classes) access had profound implications.

Universities moved from a closed elite system overseen in a protective and paternalistic way by ministers and civil servants themselves drawn from the elite to a mainstream public service. The dilemmas which then emerge in relation to quality, access, quality, funding and accountability turn the governing of higher education (both nationally and within the institution) into a ‘wicked issue’. The wickedness is further exacerbated by growing global competition and domestic austerity.

The new uneasy state of higher education has the following characteristics:

Hierarchical authority: declining legitimacy, bureaucratic, managerialist

Solidarity: weak and tending to oppositionalism, reflecting loss of confidence and clarity in relation to the public value of HE

Individualism: Prevalent but in the narrow frames of market competition and student consumerism (also subject to systematic gaming)

The question is whether from this uneasy state might be wrought a new more progressive manifestation of social power. The ‘kind of university the 21st century needs’ could be hypothesised as follows:

Hierarchical authority  – ‘post bureaucratic and ‘normative’ i.e. based on creating a strong and inclusive conversation across the university about role, mission and distinctive character. Rather than acting as a transmission belt for governmental and commercial pressures mediating those pressures in pursuit of a shared vision. (As Keith Grint advocates; questions not answers, reflection not reaction, relationships not structures)

Solidarity – rekindled through the development of a new public value model for universities emphasising the unique contribution they can make as integrated institutions cultivating ‘new enlightenment’ values(both within and without the institution).

Individualism – ‘entrepreneurial’ (universities as experimental places not just places which conduct experiments), and ‘humanist’ (exemplifying a post materialist ideal of individual development and fulfilment (e.g. resolving the incompatibility of ‘deferential’ learner and ‘sovereign’ consumer through the development of the ideal of student as citizen).

If I have the energy I’ll post later on how it goes.

19.51 It went OK.I was a bit bumptious and combative and my conceptual framework creaked a few times, but the audience seemed engaged and were generous. Not sure about the guy whose ‘question’ – paraphrased – was ‘I’ve got a friend at the RSA and he says you are a right wing slave to Cameron Conservativism’ !

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