Academics and 'Administrators' and the Future of the University

So ... this morning I read this short article in a daily newsletter I get about things happening in Australian higher education: The limits of crowdfunding. It was the last sentence that spurred me to write this post:

Which raises a question, will people crowdfund research if a share of their money goes to pay administrators?

I've written a lot about the relationship between academics and administrators and the role of managers in universities today, including whether or not there is really a 'divide' between the two groups. That relationship can't be understood without first considering the complexity of the environment in which the university has operated for the last 50 odd years - where the university of the past has been transformed into what is often called 'the neoliberal university'. The term 'administrators' is antiquated but some continue to use it in a disparaging way, to imply that  administrators are still a necessary 'evil'. Someone actually said that in 1974 - but it's 2018 now. While it can and is argued by many that managers are the purveyors and maintainers of this neoliberal university, and therefore necessarily 'evil' in their intent and actions, such a position is not grounded in the reality facing the university in the present.

The university is beset by a range of challenges that most within its walls deal with by resorting to deeply held beliefs and assumptions about what a university is and should be. The comment in the newsletter today about administrators reflects one such belief: that academics should be allowed to run the university the way they want, irrespective of what's going on in the external environment. But that university, that physical structure and its operations, where administrators were seen but not heard, is gone.

What I hope hasn't gone - and my PhD suggests it isn't - is the importance of understanding the university's origins, its traditions and its values and its evolution throughout history. The university is one of the longest surviving institutions and that past is - to my mind - ignored at our peril. The past, present and future are inextricably connected but that does not mean the past can or should dominate the present. In universities today, we have one group who use the past to resist the present and another group who sees the university as an organisation of the present. The former assumes a set of characteristics and values essential to the university that the latter group doesn't share. What we face today within and outside the university is not only a clash of ideas about its proper purpose but also about the best way to maintain its social relevance.

So what to do? First, we need to understand the complexity of the university internally and externally to generate a systemic view of the reality that these institutions are facing - this requires an outside in not inside out view, and it requires an integrated holistic view of exactly what sort of environment the university must 'fit' into. We need to focus more on expanding the conversation we all have about universities in our minds and our daily interactions with others about what universities are and what they do. We need more rather than fewer perspectives in that conversation if we are to identify the very best ways to ensure the university can continue to maintain its social relevance over time - because any organisation remains relevant only if it meets a social need.

If the university doesn't meet a social need in the present, and remains trapped in a contest of ideas that are no longer useful, its future is probably not assured. The challenge before those of us who care about the university and its future is not to dismiss perspectives as wrong or invalid, not to disparage others who don't believe that same things you do about the university's role in society, but rather to collectively think more deeply and more broadly about the complexity of the university and its context today. We need many ideas about the university and its future, and it really is time to drive the conversation beyond whether administrators should get paid or not.

The university's future could be anything - it's not set in stone and as foresight folks are prone to say: 'we create the future by our action and inaction today'. Inaction today is sniping about administrators - that takes us nowhere. Action is all about our willingness to challenge our individual and collective assumptions about a university's role in society, and to open up our thinking about the university and its possible futures, and what action we should take now to ensure its continuing social relevance in the future.

A Constraining Idea of the University

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I started to write a social media post about this but realised I couldn't fit in what I needed to say in that format, even with Twitter's 280 characters.

The Times Higher Education allows partner emails and a few days ago I got one about The University of Sydney's new campaign on 'unlearning'. Nice word, I use that a lot in the context of we need to unlearn our assumptions about the past to be able to engage with the future with an open mind.

So, I click on the links to see what it's all about. I found some interesting stuff (technical term) but then I read  this "We’ve reimagined the Undergraduate Experience – the way we teach and the way you’ll learn...". Finally my brain's red flag system kicked in, but it took me a few minutes to work it out (it's Sunday morning here).

I go back to the email and find this quote:

At the University of Sydney, we are doing just that - changing the way we teach and how our students learn to provide them with the skills, capabilities and resilience to thrive in a rapidly evolving world. 

It's the stance - 'we teach' and 'you learn' - that raised the red flag. The way it's been for centuries. The University of Sydney has made an admirable effort to change the way it does teaching to maintain social relevance and competitiveness, but it hasn't changed its idea of teaching. Over time, we have separated the two, so that what a university does can change radically, but the underpinning assumptions about what a university is remain strong. Perhaps challenged, adapted or reframed, but some of those assumptions are so deeply embedded we don't even recognise we hold them.

One of those is in this new University of Sydney campaign. We teach. You learn.

1024px-Laurentius_de_Voltolina_001 Source: Laurentius de Voltolina - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH

I heard this same assumption articulated at the OECD Higher Education Futures Conference a few years ago. A brief conversation about letting students into the curriculum development process was underway, including the idea that we should let students chose their own curriculum. A voice from the audience said something like: ... 'but how will students know what they need to know if we don't tell them.'

We teach, you learn.

It's a constraining idea, closing our minds to the multiple possible futures that the university has as a social institution. It holds an image of the future where the academic continues as expert and student as novice. Expert and novice may not be words used but the positioning is there. Not partners in learning, not collaborators, not in this together. The sage may no longer be on stage and instead in an immersive environment, but the 'we teach, you learn' stance remains.

To be fair, I didn't read every word written about this shift, and the University of Sydney's language is more inclusive is other places, for example:  Imagine what could be possible if we all learn to unlearn. But their focus is on where to learn and there's still a teacher and a learner. They have changed how they do education, not education itself.

It may only be language, but language matters. It's why my hackles rise when I hear the words 'prediction' or 'futurism'. When we explore the future - something that does not yet exist - precise language matters if we are to be able to let go of the past to let the future emerge.

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The future university does not yet exist but we have its beginnings here in the present. It is what we think and do today that is shaping it. Part of this is the language we use. If we continue to think that 'we teach and you learn' is right, acceptable and normal enough to keep framing learning initiatives in the present, then we close down possible futures for the university. We hit assumptions walls that make those possible futures impossible to imagine into existence.

Brick Wall

Breaking through assumptions walls is essential. New images are needed, new metaphors about what the the future university is, not only what it does, that allows us to stop reusing what worked in the past and let the future university emerge, whatever that might be. 'Unlearning' is indeed a newish image (the term has been around for a while), so maybe 'unlearning together' would work for example? That would start to shift the 'we teach and you learn' assumption as least in language, and it's a way of opening up some minds just a little to the more enabling ideas of the future university that will surface if we let them.

Random emerging thoughts on the future of the university

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I'm doing my PhD on the future of the university as a social institution. I've spent the past little while lining everything up, connecting all the dots in terms of theoretical framework, methods etc. The stuff that holds the PhD together. Somewhere in my brain has been a series of random thoughts about the story I'll be telling. It's yet to fully emerge of course, but there are signals of it here with me today. This post relates one of these thoughts.

Universities as a social institution are fragile - not in the tangible sense. Their buildings aren't going to fall down anytime soon, and unless governments have a radical change of mind about their value they will be with us for a while yet. But the intangible side of universities - the idea of the university - that is embedded in the people who work in them is fragile and always has been.

Universities emerge from the interactions of people as they come together to make universities real. All the things universities DO happen because the people who work in them have a belief about what there ARE - and they keep working in them even when the tangible side of the university the structure) doesn't make sense anymore. The idea about what universities are - the beliefs about its enduring role and purpose - still remains strong. Somehow it still makes sense even when the world in which that idea emerged no longer exists.

In my work, I hear stories of policies that make no sense, of being treated like non-humans, of being tired of rhetoric about purpose and identity that is rarely followed up with action. The idea is disconnected from the action and behaviour. I was reminded of this in the last couple of days when I ran a Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) exercise with two groups of university professional staff and academics. Two universities in different cities but essentially the same stories.

I ask the people in the room to tell me how they saw their university at the moment. There was a tension in the room when the process started to throw up negative images because some people like working in their university. Yet one person had come back from holidays to be told she had lost her job and would need to leave within the month. Another told a story about a plagiarism policy that assumed all students who did not cite their references correctly were cheaters, using a one-size-fits-all approach to policy. Someone else commented on the new vision that had been imposed from on high, where what was being said was not being reflected on the ground where cost cutting was the norm. And another told a story about being required to demonstrate how a new kiln she had purchased for her arts course could generate continuing income. As now an outsider, the university I grew up in and worked in for so many years seems to be a very strange place indeed.

The Myth/Metaphor level of CLA is always instructive for me. Here's a few examples of what emerged over the past couple of days:

  • people are not important - we are cannon fodder,
  • working here is like the highway to hell, and
  • we don't practice what we preach.

This couple of days is a small sample, but it's the same story I've been hearing for the last five years or so. People love the university but they dislike how its system and structures generate a culture where people are devalued in preference to compliance and accountability. That, of course, is a huge generalisation but it surfaces an important point. If the tangible side - the structure - is disconnected from the people who work in it and their beliefs about what a university is, the future of the university as a social institution may well be fragile.

The research frame

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I've spent the past few weeks connecting all the dots in terms of research design. Words like paradigm, ontology, epistemology that I've read about for years took on a new meaning when I had to identify exactly what my stance was. First, of course, was quantitative or qualitative. One thing I have always known since I started my undergraduate degree was that a quantitative, realist stance wasn't for me. I don't get numbers, statistics or all those formulas. While I understand the value and necessity of data I also know it's only part of the equation when it comes to problem-solving and sense-making. And, while working in universities, I saw too many flawed forecasts because of an implicit faith in the truth of the data in the misguided search for certainty.

Through my foresight work though, I have seen the power of people coming together to discuss, challenge worldviews, and reframe difficult and challenging issues. I have seen what happens when beliefs about the future that were grounded in the past are shattered by the reality of what 'the future' means once it's opened up beyond today's cognitive constraints. It's people who create the future, not data. It's not either/or but for me, I know that people matter more. And that means a qualitative approach in my research.

Now I have put a name to all this. Interpretive inquiry, poststructuralism as paradigm, foresight ontology, social constructionist epistemology. Relativism and meaning in context, no absolutes, and valuing diversity. What it's also thrown up for me is the need to understand the power of worldviews as individuals, organisations and societies.  And you can't measure worldviews because they are personal or tacit, culturally constructed, so I'm in the right space.

Here is the research frame as it stands now.

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As with all things qualitative, this will undoubtedly shift as the research continues to take shape.

Thanks for dropping by ...

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Thanks for dropping by Maree's Doctorate, a journal about my learning and research experience in my PhD at Swinburne University of Technology. This blog is my reflective journal, as well as a repository for presentations and other artifacts that I produce along the way.

It's sort of weirdly indulgent to share one's PhD journal, and I'm doing it because I think I'm going to need all the help I can get!  Plus, I happen to think the openness trend is a good thing for education, and I have to practice what I preach, don't I?

My topic is on the future of the university as a social institution.  My working title is Contested Ideas of the University: Enabling and Constraining Possible Futures with 2040 marking the boundary of my future.

Find out more about how I've arrived at this place in my time, or just dive in an explore the site. Let me know if you have any questions, or need to tell me something - comments/feedback are very welcome.

And, you can find out more about what I do in my day job as a strategic foresight practitioner on my about.me page or at Thinking Futures.