Bad cooks and helpful recipes

The Postmodern University? Contested Visions of Higher Education in Society - Creating Entrepreneurial Universities
August 21, 1998

The world's knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate, seemingly without end; the world's economy is becoming tightly integrated and firms, as they "globalise", are basing themselves on the exploitation of that knowledge base; society is consequently demanding of its members more and better education and training - no wonder universities, which are still the major producers of that knowledge and the main higher educators and trainers, are in crisis. As C. M. Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quoted by Burton Clark, puts it, "the modern research university, public and private, has become overextended, underfocused, overstressed, underfunded". What is to be done? These books represent two very different ways of trying to answer that question.

The Postmodern University? is the outcome of a colloquium designed "to conceptualise and better understand" the changes that are occurring in all universities as mass higher education becomes the norm and traditional British models of the university (elitist, residential, cloistered) give way to American/Continental European models, more open and connected to the wider society. The colloquium is presented as a debate between those contributors who broadly welcome this change and the consequent plurality and differentiation of what they term "the postmodern university" (Zygmunt Bauman and Peter Scott) and those who doubt whether anything of real substance has changed and cling to a more traditional view (Krishan Kumar and Paul Filmer). This is then followed by a series of essays on various aspects of, largely British, academic life in the 1990s: Russell Jacoby discusses the nature of the modern intellectual, William Melody calls for universities to become more involved with and relevant to debates on public policy, and Phillip Brown and Richard Scase, in what I thought much the best of these pieces, discuss the relationship between universities and employers. The whole is topped and tailed with essays by the editors, Anthony Smith and Frank Webster.

I found the book, on the whole, depressing and unilluminating. The editors call for "a sustained intellectual reflection" on the changes that are happening in higher education, but what they have produced resembles a despairing call for a better yesterday. Too often they hark back to a simpler, more structured world where there was indeed an "Idea of a University" in Newman's terms that the state could support, finance and regulate, albeit at a distance, and within which everyone, students, staff and politicians would know their place. Of course they know that such a world has gone for ever (did it ever really exist?) and with higher education becoming both central to national and international economic competitiveness and a major part of every state's budget, it cannot be recreated. But the conclusion they draw "henceforth to resign ourselves to the descriptions of the university as a 'conglomeration' with 'multifarious missions' and 'numerous disparate elements' I in which there can no longer be any call for an 'Idea' of the university" seems overly pessimistic. This pessimism stems largely from the implicit belief, shared by most of the contributors, that the state must remain the dominant source of funds for universities, coupled with a resigned acceptance of the fact that no state is going to fund a mass system of higher education at the same unit of resource as an elite one. But surely this is to neglect the obvious fact that there are numerous other sources of funds: students and their parents and/or employers, philanthropic donors, customers for the numerous services that the university can provide and so on. The reluctance of some British academics to seek such support is curious when they admit the parsimony and heavy-handed interference from the state. Why do so many share the apprehension expressed by Smith and Webster "about the expansion of subject areas such as tourism and retail management, the new Tesco chair in business administration and frequently moan that this is the road to ruin for higher education" ?

Burton Clark's answer to this question would be simple and blunt: they work in badly managed institutions. He has set out to discover what characterises successful, and thus by definition successfully managed, institutions in five different university systems in England (Warwick), the Netherlands (Twente), Scotland (Strathclyde), Sweden (Chalmers) and Finland (Joesuu). The result is a book that should be presented to every vice-chancellor and president of the local branch of the Association of University Teachers as long-vacation reading.

He accepts all the local differences and idiosyncrasies of the different countries and their systems. He points out, for example, that the British government "had become an undependable university patron and often a hostile one" by the 1980s and that Warwick University "profited immensely from its tough-minded recognition" of that central fact. I prefer "tough-minded recognition" to "intellectual reflection" in such circumstances, and certainly Warwick's response, which was "to work hard to place the institution in an independent posture - to stand on its own feet by earning its way" has stood it and other universities that have followed that path in good stead. For the other universities that Clark studied the stimulus to seek to change was not always a recognition that the central government had become an unreliable or uncongenial patron. Sometimes it was a realisation that the existing university system was defined by the existing members in such a manner that, as new or newish institutions, they could never expect to be seen to succeed and sometimes (as in the Finnish case) they were positively encouraged to experiment by a government that wanted to see innovations in university management tried out pour encourager les autres.

But whatever the stimulus, Clark discovered a common pattern in the responses. His description of the necessary managerial and other changes needed for successful adaptation to the new pressures is much the same as the one that I would have drawn up from my own experience at Salford in the 1980s and I think it is tremendously encouraging to see that there is such a degree of convergence despite such differences of detail. Clark's recipe for a flourishing university is simple: First, strengthen or establish a core managerial team that has the confidence of the key governing bodies of the university and is able to reconcile the new managerial values that it must introduce with traditional academic ones. Oh, the hours and hours of debate in senate and council that is implied by that!

Second, expand what Clark calls the "developmental periphery", all those additional groups, associations, joint ventures, etc, that universities develop when they seek to reach out across old university boundaries and link up with the wider society. Academic disciplines and the faculties that embody them must be retained - they define a modern university - but they need to be supplemented by new units with separate management structures that embody non-disciplinary definitions of societal problems to which the university can contribute solutions. The diversity of such "developmental peripheries" described by Clark is amazing and very encouraging for the future.

Third, diversify the institutional funding base. Virtually everywhere support from government, as a share in the total budget, is declining. This should be seen as an opportunity, as was seen as long ago as the 1960s by two percipient American observers, H. D. Babbidge and R. Rosensweig, who noted that "a workable 20th-century definition of institutional autonomy (is) the absence of dependence upon a single or narrow base of support". If this was workable for the 20th century it is going to be a certainty for the 21st.

Fourth, stimulate the academic heartland. The heartland is where the traditional academic values are most firmly rooted and a university will only retain its separate institutional identity if this heartland flourishes. Different universities will place different emphases on different values, of course, and the stimulation must inevitably be selective but if change is not seen by the institution to be benefiting its core purposes then not only will it fail but it ought to fail.

Finally, accept that the key task of the core managerial team is to instil into the institutional culture the notion that change and adaptation is a continuing and never-ending process.

It is not an easy recipe to follow and the cooking might be tricky but it describes what has and will be done by those universities that will flourish in the next decades. For me this is a pretty good idea of what universities will be about, but then I am not a postmodernist - or am I?

John Ashworth, chairman of the British Library, was formerly director, London School of Economics, and vice-chancellor, University of Salford.

The Postmodern University? Contested Visions of Higher Education in Society

Editor - Anthony Smith and Frank Webster
ISBN - 0 335 19959 3 and 19958 5
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £45.00 and £16.99
Pages - 125

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