Fundamental constraints

April 30, 2009

In your feature on university governance ("Where power lies", 16 April), David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, quotes from our paper, Keeping Our Universities Special, as an example of "outside-in" criticism. Our main point, however, is that the internal bureaucracy, committee structures and institutionalised conservatism that characterise most universities act as constraints on change and adaptability. Our paper argues that the world of higher education is changing in fundamental ways that demand equally fundamental responses if universities are to retain their place in the world of learning.

This means universities must institutionalise a culture of responsiveness to external demands without compromising "the freedom to inquire, to debate and to speak truth to power". The issue here is not about the clash of cultures between academic self-determination and market managerialism - it is about universities' relationship with the wider environment, where conditions for success and sustainability are increasingly set outside the academy by government, business, students and society seeking "something for something" for their money and patronage.

It is sometimes said that the extraordinary endurance of the university sector has been a result of its talent for transforming itself gradually from within while remaining true to its core values. The question is whether this talent needs to be harnessed in new ways to meet the unprecedented challenges of a very different world.

Mike Boxall, PA Consulting.

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