Institutional diversity is a chimera best put away

April 19, 2002

Roger King believes that support for innovation is key to making universities more competitive

Ministers have called on universities to find ways of enhancing the differences between institutions. But the evidence from the universities is that they do not much care for diversification. They seem remarkably similar in seeking more research funds and in being attractive to more undergraduates. The problem may lie in failing to recognise that the government's extension of the market to higher education militates against differentiation. Rather than sustaining diversity, market forces encourage institutional uniformity. Conversely, diversity seems to require forms of government planning and direction that are out of fashion.

Abolition of the binary policy and the introduction of market reforms were supposed to create a climate in which universities would come to recognise the hopelessness of trying to do everything and would focus on their particular niche. To do anything else would be to dilute strengths, encourage mediocrity and hazard survival.

Yet this has not happened. There is a tendency for increased institutional uniformity. Since polytechnics were turned into universities in the early 1990s, they have sought the research base and prestige of older universities. Older universities have sought more students and have extended their applied and commercial research activities. If diversity is occurring, it is to be found within institutions as they struggle to meet the challenges of teaching and research, access and science, elitism and mass. The sector's functions may be covered but not in ways that generate the benefits of institutional diversity.

One reason why may be emulation. Universities are reputation-maximisers, and academic drift may reflect what the American sociologist David Reisman called the "snakelike academic procession", in which institutions at the head are models for those that follow. The higher education "market" is formed from the self-interested actions and interactions of the universities. These efforts are undertaken to advance distinctive institutional interests. The nature of the outcomes - the market order - is largely unintended. But it forms a compelling structure that no vice-chancellor can ignore.

The assumption is that the main purpose of universities is to survive in a highly competitive, market-based environment where survival is not assured. Although this is an oversimplification, it helps us understand why institutional behaviour leads to uniformity and is at variance to the needs of the university system overall. The mechanism is self-help in a highly uncertain world. Although universities vary in status, capabilities and attraction, functionally they are very similar. The resultant structure generated by the actions of individual universities rewards those that adapt most closely to what is required to succeed. And that is research-based status and strong market appeal to the best-performing students.

In market systems, universities do not become more specialised and expert at their particular niche. Despite attempts to introduce more selective policies, such as concentrated funding following the research assessment exercise, despite the extensive rise in most universities of higher-quality research, universities cover their bets. They become more alike. They try to do it all.

The reason derives from an enhanced perception of market freedom that has followed competitive reforms. Survival requires convergence. Only in government-ordered hierarchical systems - now erased - can units become specialised and more differentiated. Structural principles may change and now-frozen university hierarchies free up. But competition is static rather than dynamic, and collaboration seems to be geared more to achieving cost reductions than to seeking genuine innovation. The answer instead may be to forget about diversity and to increase support for innovation. This is more likely to create dynamic change than trying to earmark institutions for particular functions or relying on the market to create diversity. Universities would become more competitive and creative, and relative rankings more fluid, if innovation, rather than mergers or functional diversity, were given greater support.

Incentives for groups of universities seeking step-change leaps in technology, organisation, delivery and so on would improve the system, result in more satisfied clients and keep everyone on their toes. The competitiveness of the system would, in turn, create a greater momentum for innovation and competitive advantage.

The pursuit of institutional diversity, despite its iconic standing in university systems worldwide, is a chimera that is best put away.

Roger King was vice-chancellor of the former Lincolnshire and Humberside University.

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