Think your way out

September 4, 1998

Higher education feels threatened on many fronts but by far the greatest danger is complacency, argues Kate Jenkins. Complaints of government interference must not sidetrack institutions from their true task: developing radical new ideas

Most institutions feel they are under threat. But then so do most people. The THES reported in June on "stakeholder indicators", and again in July it reported on the mess over fees. Reports and demands, guidelines and instructions keep showering on to desks across the country, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so.

We all know about "change" and "managing change". The whirlwind pace at which external pressures pile into higher education is dizzying. The main culprit is the funnel effect - powerful central government organisations with many divisions, all with bright ideas, and not much overall sense of priority. They all send lots of guidance, instruction, exhortation, much of it good, to the same place. That desk can only take so much.

It is all too easy to be overwhelmed, and many institutions are. But an institution of higher education should be in a position to be underwhelmed by reports, exhortations and audits. That comforting, detached observer status - traditionally a great strength, especially of the sleepier, or more complacent, universities - is in fact a weakness, and it is a weakness that has got much of higher education into the mess it finds itself in in the first place.

It is not difficult to list the obvious threats so many institutions feel they face - to academic integrity, to the future of competent research or to the continued existence of an academic culture. The pressures - to increase productivity, to meet rising demand, to improve systems left dreamily untouched even by the 1980s - are relentless. Many institutions are getting better at managing the pressures even as they rail at the heavy price in time and resources.

University life is changing as students, social life and cost shift the traditional patterns. Access will be a constant issue, and financial changes will push demand and supply - the colours in the kaleidoscope - into different forms and relationships.

But are these really threats or just the normal cut and thrust of life in the 1990s? Well, look at a central academic issue - subjects can be updated, but as an information source how can a lecturer compete or add value to the Internet sources?

It is no good just expostulating - we have to define that value and develop it: is a booklist or a rather weary lecture good enough any longer? Are first degrees about developing minds or a finishing course for coltish 18-year-olds? And is that what the 18-year-old - who is increasingly 19 or 20 - any longer wants?

The demands of the funding bodies to improve the processes and systems by which most institutions are governed have dragged many institutions into the 20th-century management mould, but they have within them a serious threat - and not an unfamiliar one. Many institutions under the old dispensation had bureaucracies to make the Soviet Union shudder. The new requirements, if simply or thoughtlessly imposed on top of the old, could produce a nightmare of committees planning and reporting.

Unless handled with intelligence and skill, the new requirements can simply compound the problem - they already have in some situations. It is those institutions that have most to gain from improved processes and faster reactions that will recognise, as many have done, that they need the best and least wasteful processes to be able to combine competent management with the necessary elements of collegiate responsibility. But where the mantra of collegiate responsibility is a means of preventing changes, the threats are very clear.

Bureaucracy will run riot unless kept under sensible control. There should be the minimum necessary to run a competent organisation and no more. There is no virtue in committees and papers unless they serve a useful and defined goal. The opportunity cost is too high.

And learning is changing. Yes, more people want higher education, but do they want what is on offer? At present there are very few deviations from the classic three-year, three-term degree with a range of assessment methods, and little part-time apart from the Open University.

An undergraduate system that has developed from getting the harvest in to meet the perceived needs of 18 to 21-year-olds with an income from family or the state may be suitable for some, but increasingly it will not suit many. Those who deliberately delayed further study or were excluded by the system at an earlier age do need more from the system than a traditional undergraduate course.

Their contribution should be more substantial, their experience is wider and their available time far less. We have very few products designed for this market, and it is in many ways the limited range of products available that limits access.

The institutions that adapt and develop for the needs of other than the normal groups of students can, and in some cases already do, benefit enormously. To concentrate on adolescents is short-sighted. To impose outdated degrees on more experienced people is asking for rejection, or where the monopoly in the market is complete, dissatisfied and resentful compliance.

From now on, education away from home will be for the well-off or the provident. Universities will have to recognise generally that they need to be open to other kinds of students, to tailor their courses and to extend the times when they work.

Access does not just mean more 18-year-olds from undervalued schools but more people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who need different routes to satisfactory degrees.

Universities will also need these "mature" (a bizarre term) students to deal with the next threat - finance. Most 18-year-olds have little money. The older, or mature, market is a much more valuable one to move into. It will be the open-eyed and flexible institution that will get there first - and for this market reputation, relevance and flexibility will be some of the crucial keys to success.

But these new directions are obvious. Many institutions have been tackling them successfully for years. The range and variety of what is being done in some places is clear evidence of this. Many potential undergraduates weigh very carefully the efficient underground information that circulates about which institutions treat their students well and which do not, and how to trade off facilities, reputation and quality against course content and degree value.

There are more insidious threats from the way in which institutions behave. The first is the risk of confusion. Every institution needs to be clear about what it is there to do and why. This does not mean a plethora of mission statements and visions, but rather a simple and generally recognised view of the purpose and strengths of an institution and what it is trying to do. Some are very good at this - particularly those that have successfully faced genuine competition.

Confusion aside, a more real threat is complacency. Nothing is standing still. Even if what you do is outstanding, you will still need pressure to improve. I was startled to hear one senior academic defend a notoriously static system on the grounds that it was the only way to produce "another Gladstone". So far it had not been conspicuously successful. As far as I know there has been only one for some time.

The academic world should be breaking new boundaries. One of the purposes of protecting academic freedom and open discussion is thinking in a way that is new and challenging. This should be as true of the transmission of information and the development of students as it is of pure research.

The institutions should be harrying the government into being more radical, showering them with new ideas, competing with each other to improve and develop and thinking hard and rigorously about the years ahead.

Responding to government reports and statements is a mug's game - a good way of turning oneself into a political victim. Academic excellence is about making a difference, not nervously propitiating the paymasters.

Increasingly students and potential students should be making the choices, and they will look at outcomes rather than processes. Professional academics need to get the processes right, and give students a chance to choose. Limply waiting for whatever next emerges from the government will help no one and is most likely to damage the great traditions of academic excellence and freedom.

The potential is enormous. A noisy academic community committed to development, arguing its ideas vigorously with all comers, is what is needed. New academic ideas, new ways of learning and teaching and challenging people to expand their knowledge and understanding are the way to deal with feeling under threat.

Allowing the government to set the higher education agenda is one of the biggest threats to academic life - it should be dealt with by being more challenging, more radical and better at the job rather than by being defensive and appearing reactionary.

The external threats are constant irritants that need to be managed sensibly. The internal threat is more damaging. If higher education behaves as if it has lost the initiative to the government, it will deserve to do just that.

There is, after all, no reason why anybody, not even the government, should pay for less than the best - nor should it be allowed to accept it on behalf of the community. Standards-setting or taxes masquerading as fees should not be allowed to obscure the obligation to challenge, to develop and to change in the pursuit of real excellence.

* Kate Jenkins is a governor of the London School of Economics and an independent consultant.

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