Look sharp, the ground is shifting

In a revolutionary era the sector must abandon its traditional reticence to explore a taboo research subject: itself

January 31, 2013

“Come gather round people/Wherever you roam/And admit that the waters/Around you have grown/And accept it that soon/You’ll be drenched to the bone…For the times they are a-changin’.”

Bob Dylan’s protest song was written at a defining moment in the civil rights movement. Released in early 1964, a few months before the Civil Rights Act was passed, some said that the pace of political change had rendered it redundant almost before it hit the record stores. But half a century later, at a time of new social, economic and technological turmoil, the lyrics seem far from out of date.

In our cover story this week, we identify five trends that are reshaping the landscape in which universities operate, from changes in the funding pools in which they fish to broader shifts in the global ecosystem.

Much of this change revolves around the ubiquitous buzzword “globalisation”, as the mobility of students (and their tuition fees), staff and research reduces the influence of the nation state. There are worries about what some see as an overbearing focus on this trend: writing in Times Higher Education earlier this month, Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, argued that an unquestioning attitude had taken hold of the internationalisation debate.

“A current danger is that, through endlessly rehearsed but unargued assertion, the sector will find itself endorsing uncritically that which it should critique,” he said.

The argument that higher education fails to scrutinise and rigorously research its own affairs is, of course, not new. Writing in 1963, Sir Eric Ashby, former master of Clare College, Cambridge, said: “All over the country, these groups of scholars, who would not make a decision about the shape of a leaf or the derivation of a word…without painstakingly assembling the evidence, make decisions about admission policy, size of universities, staff-student ratios, content of courses and similar issues based on dubious assumptions, scrappy data and mere hunch.”

Fifty years later, a similar point is made by Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London and director of its International Centre for University Policy Research, which was established last week. She noted how for a “vast worldwide sector” the academy did “amazingly little empirical research” on itself.

The need for such research is particularly strong in light of the staggering pace and scale of many of the changes outlined in our feature.

Writing in this week’s THE, Wolf considers the implications for higher education of any change in the UK’s status within the European Union after David Cameron’s (heavily caveated) pledge to hold an in/out referendum.

It is heartening that such issues will be examined by King’s, particularly given the loss in recent years of alternatives such as The Open University’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, and it is to be hoped that others will follow.

As Dylan says: “Come writers and critics/Who prophesise with your pen/And keep your eyes wide/The chance won’t come again…For the times they are a-changin’.”

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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