How will our soul be saved?

September 29, 2000

The commercial creed splits universities between believers and sceptics. John Pratt reports on the debate

A speaker at an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development conference in Paris recently described Burton Clark's seminal book on entrepreneurial universities as higher education's equivalent of Harry Potter.

Sharp differences of view about the entrepreneurial university and the role of the state in higher education emerged at the conference, attended by 320 delegates from 160 member institutions of the Institutional Management in Higher Education programme in 42 countries.

Two years ago, in Creating Entrepreneurial Universities, Mr Clark described an alarming scenario of "institutional insufficiency" in which the demands made of universities - for growth, access, efficiency and the explosion of knowledge - exceed their capacity to respond. Although national governments can make system-level changes, such as deregulating the sector or granting autonomy, Mr Clark argued that only by responses at the institutional level can universities transform themselves to cope with the demands. He described the features of five European universities, including Warwick and Strathclyde, that were recognised as having achieved this transformation.

The controversy at the OECD conference began with the opening speech by Thomas Ostros, the Swedish minister of education, who argued for the role of the state in higher education. The "best friend" of the universities, he said, is "the government and parliament". It is they who set the strategic purposes of the system and of the institutions; only they, Mr Ostros said, were ready to give large resources to higher education without demand for short-term gains.

Others were more accepting of Mr Clark's thesis. There was a strong sense at times that entrepreneurialism was a kind of religious belief. Case studies of innovative entrepreneurial projects, institutions, management styles and structures from countries as disparate as Australia, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe were presented. The need for university autonomy, the virtues of strong central management and the use of IT to reach new consumers in the global market were all emphasised.

Yet most of the cases revealed more mundane concerns, not least the stimulus of diminishing public funds as a prompt for entrepreneurial responses. Mr Clark, in a paper reviewing developments since his study, highlighted the importance of generating independent income.

The sense of religious discussion was enhanced by the terms used by some sceptics. Lucy Smith, vice-president of the Association of European Universities, spoke of "the soul of the university" in her response to Mr Clark.

Several others picked up the theme of "saving" the university or its soul. Most of these views were expressed by Europeans, reflecting the different cultural and political contexts of higher education. A study of Austria's new Fachhochschulen sector highlighted the importance of the "state as initiator".

Several speakers, significantly including those from Mr Clark's models of entrepreneurial universities, cautioned against what Michael Shattock, visiting professor at London University's Institute of Education, called "rampant" entrepreneurialism.

Brian Follett, vice-chancellor of Warwick University, emphasised the importance of understanding that entrepreneurialism is a means to an end - of better teaching and research. Sir John Arbuthnot, vice-chancellor of Strathclyde, wondered about the limits to entrepreneurialism. John Davies, professor of higher education management at Anglia Polytechnic University, spoke of the "seamy side" of entrepreneurialism, the dangers it posed to quality and the need for ethical considerations and consumer protection.

Mauritz van Rooijen, of the universities of both Leiden and Westminster, asked whether some of the examples of entrepreneurial and revenue-raising activities were really a success. He warned of becoming the "McDonald's of higher education".

There were warnings, too, from North America. Frank Newman from Brown University reported research showing that there are key aspects of higher education that profit-making organisations will not undertake, notably socialising students for their responsibilities in society, contributing to social mobility and maintaining disinterested scholarship and unfettered debate. He echoed some of Mr Ostros's remarks by noting that what happens in higher education depends not only on institutions but also on governments.

Henry Wasser, from City University New York, questioned the assumption that the university has become a corporate enterprise rather than a cultural institution. He saw Mr Clark and his disciples as over-optimistic and uncritical: must universities act more like private businesses?

If there was common ground among participants, it was on the importance of cooperation, even in a competitive environment. As Professor Davies said:

"You can't be entrepreneurial on your own." Institutions need to develop strategic cooperation with all kinds of institutions in the global market. They need, too, as Mr Clark also noted, to reinvent collegiality, autonomy and academic achievement.

In a summary of the discussions, Professor Davies said the conference had not addressed the theme of its title, "Beyond the Entrepreneurial University". There is clearly still much to do to save the soul of the university.

John Pratt is professor of institutional studies at the University of East London. Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Organisational Pathways of Transformation by Burton Clark is published by Elsevier.

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