Friday 30 June 2017

The Paradox of Institutional Change in Universities: The Strategic Need for a Pincer-Movement

The last 10 years has seen most Universities in the UK undergo significant restructuring. These processes, which are still ongoing - most terribly at Manchester and the OU at the moment - are intended to deliver transformations to the institution's financial viability, their "market appeal", improvement of the student experience, and increasing competitiveness in research and teaching.

The results from the last 10 years of restructuring tells us quite clearly that NONE of this actually occurs. Departments may be closed, and salaries saved, but within a few years, the salary bill creeps up to exceed what it was before. Staff morale is damaged through the autocratic processes by which friends, colleagues and (most importantly) conversations are broken up. The atmosphere in institutions whilst restructuring occurs is dismal and this has an impact on students.

The recruitment of new (cheaper, younger) staff can also be highly problematic. Some of these will be adjuncts, paid very little, and struggling to survive, let alone teach their large (and highly profitable) Masters class of overseas students in the Information Systems department.  These people are clinging on to the academy in the hope that something better comes up. But things continue to get worse. Other new staff will be recruited on a kind of "metric" basis - those with the most papers wins! Never mind what they are like as people, how collegial they are, how well they care about their students. And often, they are appointed by a few senior colleagues, because the junior staff who keep the department going are all at risk of redundancy.

The spirit of despondency turns out to be highly contagious. The new staff - particularly the good ones - leave. The students complain - although they continue to attend in sufficient numbers to keep the thing on the road because almost everywhere else is the same.

Who benefits from restructuring? Usually, only the person who thought the thing up.  There is a real and deep question about institutional change which needs to be addressed.

Organisms change their structure when the structure of their environment changes. What is the environment of the University? With the student-as-customer rhetoric, are students cast in the role of the "environment" of universities? Universities seem to believe this, because they attempt to adapt to meet student expectations.

But many would argue that society at large is the environment of the university. What is the relation between the University and society? Well, it is one of circular causation. The university produces important aspects of society (its knowledge), and society produces the university through society's requirement to think about itself and produce new components like doctors, teachers and government ministers.  Of course, society includes learners... and teachers, administrators, tax payers, voters, Brexiteers, Remainers, banks, Corbynites and Theresa May.

History tells us that Universities do change over time. Like biological organisms, change comes about through adaptation to changes in the environment - to changes in society. Francis Bacon's 1605 "The Advancement of Learning" was a wake-up call to universities, just as the Reformation was a wake-up call to the Catholic church. Curiously though, the members of the 17th century "invisible college" beavering away at scientific experiments outside the university had all been through the academic establishment at some point. The early IT pioneers like Gates and Jobs, the military developers of the internet and the Whole Earth Catalogue existed on the periphery of the institution in a counter-cultural bubble. The same might be said of the off-piste developments in BitCoin in the early 2000s.

University change takes the form of organic absorption of the counter-culture. Jazz improvisation, for example, moves from seedy strip joints to the university classroom (with its professors of jazz) in the space of 90 years.  The only counter-cultural development which has resisted this seems to be the sex industry, and yet its adoption and development of technology has paved the way to the iPlayer and lecture capture!

What can we learn from this?

  • Institutional restructuring is institutional self-harm. 
  • If institutions change in response to changes in their environment, perhaps they should consider nurturing environmental changes which they might find challenging in the short-term, but to which their adaptation will be fruitful in the future. 
  • The obvious thing here is to develop feasible free personal certificated learning - but this is NOT a MOOC and it is not a marketing exercise. The institution doesn't need to make its presence felt, but to support social movements. 
  • Institutional change is likely to result from a pincer-movement: Constructive internal initiatives to help an institutional culture thrive are good, but they go hand-in-hand with initiatives to develop challenging things in the environment. 

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