From where I sit: Two extremes, equally flawed

July 1, 2010

Japan is a collective-oriented society, as are China and India, albeit all in different ways. The US is an individualist society, as is the UK and much of the rest of Europe, although most other European countries have more collectivist tendencies than Britain.

Having moved from the UK to Japan, I expected to find a more collegiate and cooperative attitude in the universities here than at home. However, that does not seem to be the case.

While the UK in the past 40 years has undergone a shift away from the university as a self-governing collective of individual scholars and moved (too far, in the opinion of many) towards a top-down, managed, corporate structure, in Japan universities are still heavily controlled by powerful professors.

So much so, in fact, that it is possible to have two departments in the same university running effectively identical and yet completely separate courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and whose separation and independence are jealously guarded.

When undergraduates ask what is the difference between these departments and their courses, the only accurate reply is that they have different deans: academics who may not be the founders of these departments, but who are their heirs in direct academic descent.

Neither the top-down central-planning model so favoured by many UK universities nor an overly atomised collection of senior colleagues fighting for their own independence from any form of rational resource-sharing seem useful models for attaining the overall social goals of the academy.

Bureaucracies that attempt to run things simply for their own aggrandisement; professors who demand complete autonomy in teaching, research, finance and departmental structure; the sociopath in the vice-chancellor's office who measures success by the total financial turnover of the university or its annual surplus (since profit is a non-starter as a measure of manhood in a university): all these things undermine the goals of the academy, namely the production and dissemination of knowledge for the good of society.

Overspecialisation and rigid disciplinary boundaries (particularly fake ones) stultify creativity, but so too does a lack of critical mass that makes it impossible to find colleagues with enough common interests to bounce ideas off.

Senior staff have a lifetime of experience in education, research and knowledge transfer, while junior staff have fresh ideas unfettered by decades of amassed conceptions. Senior administrators can see the big picture, but rarely understand the details within a department. Academics dealing with students, funding bodies and their colleagues in other institutions understand their own subjects and positions, but rarely see the big picture.

Balance is needed between central planning and local autonomy, and between the needs of the institution as a whole and its constituent parts. Governance structures must allow innovation but maintain order.

These are platitudes, perhaps, but such balances seem far out of kilter in too many universities at present, with few institutional mechanisms for bringing them back from the brink. In the absence of such institutional mechanisms, individuals must take the lead in promoting this crucial balance.

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