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December 15, 2011

The hierarchies of university life are evidence of institutional dysfunction, according to Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University. "When I was a student in the mid-1970s, I was elected class representative and had the pleasure of attending staff meetings in my department," he says of his days at Trinity College Dublin.

In a post on A University Blog, he notes that "what struck me most immediately when I attended my first staff meeting was the extraordinary level of deference and formality". These seemingly outdated hierarchical modes of respect have not been consigned to the past, Professor von Prondzynski says.

"Recently I attended a meeting in another university and was astounded to find these traditions still in good health: except that now there were signs of a cynical undertone that accompanied the deference," he writes.

Professor von Prondzynski adds that in his various roles as head of institutions, including his current post, he dissuades colleagues from addressing him as "principal".

"If we are to be a real university community we should not maintain such symbols of hierarchy," he writes. "In any case, formalities and rituals may also be signs of a dysfunctional organisation, in which outward deference masks inner hostility, and in which tradition hides interpersonal strife and aggression."

His conclusion is damning. "Universities need to recover their collegiality," Professor von Prondzynski writes. "Or perhaps more accurately, they need to discover it, because I am not convinced it was ever really there in the first place. Not really."

"Collegiality" of a somewhat different type is the topic of a post from Debbie McVitty, senior research and policy officer (higher education) for the National Union of Students. On the WonkHE blog, she discusses students being branded as "consumers" and "customers".

"Are students becoming more like customers?" she asks. "To answer the question we would need to have a clear and distinct idea of what we mean by 'consumer', for starters.

"Buried in the concept of the 'consumer' of higher education are implicit ideas about passivity, greed, unreasonable demands and lack of intellectual rigour ('the customer is always right')."

For Dr McVitty, defining students in this way is irritating at best.

"I personally loathe the idea of the student-consumer," she writes, "if only because it substitutes economic power - which is no power at all, because someone else determines the product - for self-determination, or the power to negotiate the act of learning.

"Anecdotally you do hear students...trying to calculate what they are paying for, or challenging grades, or making unjustified complaints. But this is anecdote - a few unpleasantly vocal individuals do not a mass identity crisis make (unless we encourage it by hand-wringing).

"And wanting a job on graduation is not mutually exclusive from wanting an education."

She concludes: "Students come to university to be challenged to see beyond the narrow confines of their own context. We are higher education, and surely we can do better. Blow their minds. We have the technology."

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