Sunday, 11 November 2012

Metaphors, Mechanisms and Keeping Universities Afloat

In the current crisis of Higher Education in the UK, where almost 60,000 students who were expected to attend university this year have decided not to go, many Universities are experiencing severe financial hardship as a direct result of the drop in their numbers. It's not just 'new' universities like UCLAN (who might have been expected to suffer having set their fee at the full £9000) and who are running short of about 1200 students this year (= £10m), but more established institutions like Leeds (down 1000), Sheffield (down 600), Salford (down 1200) and York (down 600).

This can only spell redundancies.

Vice-chancellors up and down the country will be explaining their rationale for burdening individuals with their own financial and psychological crises with the use of metaphors like "the ship has hit an iceberg", "we're taking on water", "need to get rid of some ballast!" (actually nobody I know has said that one, although that's what is usually meant). I guess ships can be big (like Universities) and they can sink - which makes this work. But there are many dangers in getting carried away.

Metaphors imply mechanisms. They describe particular mechanisms which are universalised: the ship metaphor works in a ship simply because its a description of the reality (in a ship, it's not a metaphor!). It may describe something of trying the 'save the university', but it runs thin pretty quickly. And when it comes to 'ballast': human beings, however useless they may appear, are not ballast.

Mechanisms are themselves metaphors. But the concept of mechanism per se has a different property from a metaphor. Where a metaphor describes particulars which are universalised, mechanism is a universal which can become particularised. In the latter case, the particularising of universals can either have explanatory benefit, or it can become procrustean and idealistic. One leads to emancipation, the other to slavery. The question is "how universal is mechanism?"

This is an ontological question. In the cybernetics community, mechanism is everything: mechanisms are used to provide totalising descriptions of the world. I think this is a mistake.

The problem with mechanism is that it is imagined by human beings, who may imagine themselves to be mechanistic (as a totalisation, we would expect this). Yet we cannot be certain that the perfection of our imagined mechanisms isn't the product of the imperfection of our own mechanisms as human beings. Indeed, our brokenness as machines is manifest, particularly in our current predicament. Might it be our very brokenness that leads to our conceiving of perfection in our idealised machines?

The political world, the world where Vice-chancellors of universities really operate, reveals the manifest brokenness of individuals (even of vice-chancellors!), and the deficiencies of metaphors and mechanisms. Broken individuals need each other. The transpersonal reality of cognition, intelligence, care, politics and morale reveals itself in collective anger, collapses in confidence and a frightenting listing (back to ships again) of the things that everyone loves.

What does this tell us? What might it tell Vice-Chancellors?

The transpersonal, the political and the ethical trumps the mechanistic and the monetaristic. 

We will still have to lose staff. But the moral compass and not the spreadsheet is the tool that is most needed  now.


Anonymous said...

But do we really have to lose staff? I put it to you that we do not.

Mark Johnson said...

You may be right. But the salary bill is scary. Personally, I would have thought some form of wage-capping on senior salaries (SL and above) would be sensible and less institutionally disruptive.