Cool the words and hot up the process

October 31, 1997

VICE chancellors learn to be quick on their feet. Often it is the only way to broker the many competing demands on time and resources. One key aspect in being able to "dance like a butterfly" is the ability to learn new rhetoric - to know which words have become "warm" and which chilled. These days, for example, it is perilous to harp on approvingly about "competition" and "enterprise", words that might have been appropriate in the Thatcher/Major years, but which are now more passe than flares on a lecturer in an Open University broadcast. Far better now to speak of collaboration, regulation and coordination.

An ability to deal with changing lexical fashions is not necessarily to be deplored. When universities are constantly attacked for declining standards, it perhaps does no harm for vice chancellors to display some form of enduring linguistic skill, however temporary, limited and non-transferable (and non-credit rateable).

Yet there is a danger. We come to believe that knowing the words is to understand the process. A good example is "learning outcomes". I am in favour of curricula having explicit learning outcomes. The least we can offer our students is some indication of what they might be able to do, as well as what they will know when they finish their studies. Yet, to constitute courses in terms of learning outcomes, especially generic skills, is no easy task. It takes considerable understanding, individual development and effort. Not every hard-pressed member of staff will feel they have the time or the ability to make such a commitment. The worst possible consequence would be for courses to be rewritten in the new rhetoric, but the processes stay largely untouched.

Anybody can devise a learning outcome, but how many can actually produce one? We had better find out before linguistic fashion provides the answer. Understanding processes is the key to educational development. Take the Dearing report. Despite his many clear recommendations, it would be surprising if Sir Ron intended his conclusions to be viewed talmudically - requiring biblical or textual exegesis. Rather, the higher education community has been in- vited to engage in constructive criticism. The report was not a learning outcome, but has provided the basis for several important ones.

Another instance when language may run away from us is when it involves international activity. Understandably, there is now concern about standards in overseas franchising operations. One or two well-publicised examples of inadequate institutional regulation are sustaining a belief that more regulation and inspection will be in everyone's interests, not least for the reputation of UK universities plc. No doubt. There is commercial advantage in seeking to ensure that the UK's quality standing is protected. I am sure that the central quality assurance agencies have plenty of enthusiastic prosecutors of the new way; and it must seem enticing, extending the reach to much warmer climates, all in the name of quality assurance and regulation.

But we had better not give up on enterprise and competition. Other countries certainly have not, in fact their international predatory ambitions significantly threaten our share of the world market. We must be careful not to regulate our own entrepreneurial efforts out of existence. There is a careful balance to be struck between initiative and a buccaneering spirit, and an external regulatory framework.

It would be nice to think that the new vocabulary might eventually accommodate a greater sense of synthesis. Perhaps this will involve the wider use of descriptive couplets, such as "collaborative enterprise". At least such language would retain a residue of the drivers that have secured such important and often dynamic change in our higher education system.

Roger King is vice chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside.

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