Strength through university unity

December 5, 1997

It has been put to me that a mathematician spends more time setting an examination but less time marking one than does a cultural historian. A university is made up of a variety of people from different disciplines. In this it faces a natural challenge to its identity and sense of unity. Each discipline involves its staff and students in their perception of issues, which can be fundamentally different from the perception of the same issues by others from different disciplines. This problem is critical to the management of an institution.

On the fundamental level of the modularity debate, a mathematician might rightly insist on the linearity of his or her subject, and thereby a stronger need for the clarity of progression routes, than might someone from cultural studies who is interested in the juxtapositioning of issues in a way reminiscent of abstract art. That which may seem logically simple to an academic from one subject raises all kinds of problems for an academic from another. When this is translated into the governance of an institution, significant challenges can emerge. The ancient university with its authority enshrined in its court and senate has difficulty in reconciling the views of one set of perceptions against another. The danger is towards prevarication. In a modern university with its board of governors recruited from business and industry, decisions can be made quickly but it is done from the natural perspective of the businessman or woman who has little time for academic debate. Organisations such as the World Bank or the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development will find frustration with the former aspect of governance and sympathy with the latter. Yet the latter could be distorting an essential characteristic of the educational process as much as the former might be losing itself in the irrelevance of a debate that neglects the pragmatics demanded by modern society.

The relative failure of organisations such as the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals to keep control of the higher education agenda over the past 20 years might be a result of their inability to face issues relating to the question of university identity in the late 20th century. Each university grapples with its own problem of identity. Whether for Thames Valley or for Oxford, this is a mammoth task. Both these institutions have recently experienced tensions over decisions being made too quickly or too slowly. Yet all universities must find a common platform that permits them to shape the way ahead for higher education. If they do not, the government, swayed by its own perceptions, will impose its ideological solutions in the face of impotent university cries. David Watson, director of Brighton University, has pointed to the difference between the power the University Grants Committee had over the Wilson Labour government in comparison to the relative ineffectuality of the Higher Education Funding Council in determining current policy. Today's might be the correct way round but it might, through a government's political persuasion, reduce the educational value, purpose and future of the university itself.

We are in danger of sacrificing both the strengths of the Oxbridge tradition and the pragmatic realism of the modern and postmodern university. While respecting the democratic functions and authority of government, universities need to find a common voice that has the authority of the academic, educational and intellectual processes formed, not only from the variety of subjects that make the single institution, but the variety of universities that comprise the system. It may be necessary to deconstruct perceived notions of the spectrum of university identity in order to find its true social and educational function for the 21st century. From my context and perspective I would say so, wouldn't I? However, that should not negate my argument.

Michael Scott is pro vice chancellor of De Montfort University but writes in a personal capacity.

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