Learn industry's lessons but keep your principles

November 30, 2007

Asked what they do at a party, any academic in the world will say "I'm a psychologist" or "I'm a historian", not "I am a senior university lecturer". So this week's report (page 2) urging university staff to be a little more focused on their institutions and less on their subject identities implies a big rethink of mindsets across the sector.

It is rational for academics to identify with their subjects. They get promoted and recognised for their contributions to the field they work in, not to their institution. And because academics have some of the most mobile careers of any professional group, they can be effective contributors to a university without spending their whole career there.

But academics do work for universities, and their employers are entitled to ask them to think about the bigger picture beyond their department or group.

However, it would be wrong for a university to think that this involves making universities and the people in them more businesslike. Businesses come in many varieties, and they make demands on their employees in many different ways. A university is probably closer in style to a professional services company such as an architectural or law practice than to an old- economy manufacturing business. These organisations are intelligent about how they motivate and reward people. They are careful not to put loyalty to the firm above professional development and excellence in the demands they make on their staff.

In any case, universities are not businesses, although they have to act in a businesslike way. They are non-profit organisations whose ethos has more in common with Oxfam or Greenpeace than with BP or Microsoft. Companies exist to make a profit, but for a university money is a tool that allows bigger objectives to be accomplished.

The way in which higher education has taken on issues such as quality shows that it is poor at learning the lessons industry has to offer. But it would be foolish to deny that there are things academics have to gain from thinking on a bigger scale about the universities that employ them. If managements want more corporate spirit, they could start with some potential winners and see what develops. In any institution, for example, teaching is better in some departments than in others. What about a cross- campus set-up for spreading some best practice? Engineers or linguists may assume they have little to learn from one another about what makes a good course, but there is a wealth of research to contradict this view. And students who are paying to be at university will expect a certain level of service from the department they attend. There could be many fruitful exchanges on enhancing the student experience that cannot take place today because academics who work in adjacent buildings have no reason to meet.

But if universities want their staff to be more corporate-minded, they will need to reorganise the reward system to encourage new ways of thinking. This would be a large and potentially divisive step. It would threaten the academic autonomy and independence that have given the UK, the US and a few other countries the universities that every other nation wishes it had.

And there are some aspects of university life that, however awkward managers may find them, simply have to be maintained as part of higher education's distinctive mission. One is to say things that are unpopular, and that includes truths that are uncomfortable to the university as well as to the outside world. A university whose staff do not do this from time to time has lost sight of its role, which is something that neither a place of learning nor a profit-making company can survive for long.

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