Time is the essence

Malcolm Gillies argues that to succeed, universities must be of the moment

February 23, 2012

Have you noticed how time features more overtly in social analysis these days? Perhaps it is the common perception that we live in end-of-era times, for everywhere writers are attempting to provide sequential snapshots of our past to distinguish it from our rapidly transforming present. And a few go further to speculate about the future, too.

Nothing is simpler than the history of continental hegemony, which started to gain popularity around a decade ago. From a now-distant past of concentrated European power, this scenario moves to a recent past of the US, the present-into-near-future of Asia (“the Asian century”) and the more distant future connected with the “population baskets” of Africa or Latin America. The economic centre of the world will move east, then south, then west, it seems.

Supriyo Chaudhuri, in Sunday Posts of 9 February 2012 (www.sundayposts.blogspot.com), depicts the history of higher education thus: “From teaching students to be clerics, to teaching students to be citizens and public administrators, and now to teaching them to be consumers.” This consumerism does not worry him because “higher education has always served the needs of the time”, and our consumerist age does not give an exemption to education.

In his little-exposed Sir John Cass’s Foundation Lecture for 2009 entitled “The Democratic Intellect”, education secretary Michael Gove saw the history of the world as a simple three-stage process, with the gear changes nicely lubricated by technology. First there was society based on “clan, family and local loyalties”. Then, with technology and increasingly rapid communications came the bureaucratic age. Its heyday was the 1870s to 1970s, and it was characterised by a centralised welfare state.

Then IT changed all that, Gove argues, launching his third post-bureaucratic age of the “empowered individual”. But Gove does not stop there. Peering into the future, he predicts that those institutions or countries that rapidly transform into decentralised, interdependent networks will be the winners.

Enter Sir Leszek Borysiewicz of the University of Cambridge. In his annual address of 1 October 2011, he outlined four “new imperatives” for 2012, all united by the recognition of something lost amid the individualism of our age. In short, community. For the vice-chancellor, the very basis of collegiate Cambridge lies in its contribution to society, its communities of researchers and research students, and its external supporters (alumni, friends, donors).

Far from the concern of 2011 with the individual undergraduate “at the heart of the system” (Borysiewicz has a swipe at the focus of widening participation on “individual applicants from individual families”), he called on Cambridge to “reclaim” research’s share of attention in 2012. It needs to focus on what “makes Cambridge such an attractive place”: its communities of scholars.

There is an almost Confucian appreciation here of the excesses of individualism. But why would we stop the resurrection of the value of community at our individual university gates? We might recognise that the jealous guarding of university autonomy is often a manifestation of (excessive?) institutional individualism, although we tend to dress it up as a necessary precondition of institutional identity.

Might not Cambridge also seek to embrace that broader community of scholars across the land and the globe? This seems to be where Borysiewicz is heading with his final category of “external supporters”. He calls for his university to “pay attention to our friends”, but makes it clear that these friends need to be turned into funds through the alchemies of philanthropy.

University UK’s Future for Higher Education: Analysing Trends, released on 26 January, attempts to tread the difficult line between collaborative competition and competitive collaboration. It concludes that we are moving from a national industry to a global system, in which quality and standards but also cooperation and autonomy will be the key ingredients of success.

Back then, to Gove, and the subtitle of his 2009 polemic: “What do we need to succeed in the 21st century?”. He recognises that the post-bureaucratic age relies on innovative, often open-source, collaborations. These, in his analysis, have been brought about by “individuals working outside traditional bureaucratic boundaries”.

He goes further about this new intellectual capital: “And all these collaborations emphasise that access to, and mastery of, knowledge will increasingly confer the sort of advantage that family connections and inherited position used to secure.” So, what we need to succeed in the 21st century is “the combination of investment in knowledge and distributed decision-making and institutions, rather than centralised bureaucratic control, which accelerates our progress into the future”.

Gove, at least in 2009, did not see the country’s education system (undifferentiated) as embracing this future. Rather, it was busy with “moving backwards”, becoming more bureaucratic and downgrading “the place of rigorous knowledge”.

And back to Chaudhuri’s blog, where the critique is even sharper. He sees a “terminal cataclysm” for British universities, and accuses vice-chancellors of clinging to “their disappearing world of cosy protectionism”. “Led mostly by vice-chancellors and executive teams from a different era, the universities have so far shown only limited capacity to participate [in], let alone influence, the public debate: their reactions were marked by bureaucratic fiddling rather than courage to define the terms of the debate.”

There is a common accusation here: that we are not of our time.

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