Too 'tribal': a sector divided against itself cannot stand

Paper argues that mission groups and corporate culture weaken the academy. Hannah Fearn writes

November 11, 2010

The emergence of mission groups and the marked rise of "competitive branding" in higher education has enabled the government to pursue a "divide and conquer strategy" in its dealings with the university sector, a professor of education has claimed.

Walter Humes, research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland, also argues in a paper to be published this month that the corporate culture created by aggressive branding has created a serious divide between university managers and academics.

His study, "Tribalism and Competitive Branding in (Scottish) Higher Education", will appear in Scottish Educational Review, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.

Professor Humes says that as the higher education sector grew in the 1990s, attempts to maintain "equality of esteem" between old and new universities led to the emergence of corporate branding and the creation of mission groups to differentiate institutions.

The process of dividing the sector into "tribes", such as the Russell Group, the 1994 Group and Million+, has eroded the traditional cohesiveness of higher education, he argues.

"The old tribal loyalties of subject disciplines may be less evident than they used to be ... they have been replaced by institutional tribes which, from a government perspective, are conveniently easy to separate and play off against each other," the paper says.

Professor Humes argues that it is "doubtful" that membership of mission groups is considered a valuable investment by ordinary academics.

"There appears to be a substantial gulf between the 'assumptive worlds' inhabited by university principals and vice-chancellors and the academic staff whom they are leading," he says.

"The pervasiveness of corporate culture is manifest in many ways: in endless restructurings and policy documents (often written in a bizarre corporate 'pidgin'); in a form of managed consensus which treats principled dissent as a thought-crime; and, most worryingly, in the replacement of truth by loyalty as the prime institutional value."

Universities' administrative staff may pay "lip service" to liberal concepts of education, but corporate strategy has gradually become the key driver of higher education policy, Professor Humes argues.

"This is not entirely surprising, since the 'reference groups' whose approval they seek speak the language of money, targets, research excellence, skills and international profile, rather than the language of students, courses, learning and disinterested pursuit of knowledge," he writes.

In the current climate of severe financial pressure and budget cuts, the divisions within higher education will intensify rather than diminish, he concludes.

The situation can be rectified, Professor Humes suggests, only with the involvement of frontline academics in the formation of higher education policy.

"The need for academics to contribute to wider public debate about the aims of higher education is seen as an important first step in achieving a more coherent role for the sector as a whole," he writes.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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