Universities and Possible Futures

Universities and Possible Futures

I wrote this post some years ago but never published it. I'm not quite sure why. It was a tale of attending two conferences in 2010 and I've now added in my experience of three more conferences to compare and contrast thinking about the future for the university. And some thoughts of my own about how to shift these conferences to a more futures facing stance.

Writing and writing and writing

Writing and writing and writing

Here I am, in the middle of Chapter 3 of my PhD thesis, excited to be writing and challenged by just how hard this is. I write a lot for my work, and I’ve written a lot during my career and study. I’ve always prided myself on my ability to synthesise, to make sense of disparate concepts and to write about them in ways that will make sense to others. The last thing I thought would challenge me in this PhD was the writing.

A constraining idea of the university

A constraining idea of the university

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.

Thanks for dropping by ...


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 page or at Thinking Futures.

University Management

Picture1My PhD is no longer on university managers, but I still keep reading about what can only be described as the amorphous blob that is university management. When I was a university manager, I always felt this was an unfair term to use when complaining about a new policy or a change in approach or (if you worked in a university with a particularly nasty culture) when the university management was blamed for the demise of the medieval university as it was understood and loved by some academics.

University management is a task undertaken by a group of people who collectively could be termed university managers. By launching a critique at university management, I always felt the academic (usually the 'launchor') was by association, blaming every manager in that university. I always wondered why the academic in question thought I was 'out to get them', that I didn't have the interests of the university at heart, and that I didn't share their values about the university and its social role. I did share those values and I still do.

It's why I'm doing my PhD when there is no good reason for me to do it. So whenever I read university management,  I still feel a moment of pain somewhere deep inside me - really. I always said in my head; 'criticise the person or committee you really think is making the decision you hate so much, but don't lump me into your criticism. In fact, how dare you assume I don't understand where you are coming from?' That's hard though and becomes personal. University management isn't personal, it's just an amorphous blob to be poked and shoved every so often.

I do understand though why this term is now used in such an unquestioned way. Reality is layered. University management is part of the Litany (as used in the Causal Layered Analysis sense) that now surrounds universities, what they do and how they do it. It's a way to vent, underpinned by deeply held assumptions and values. It's why I grimace every time I read it, and it's why academics and others continue to critique university management.

I had a conversation once with someone much younger than me who is a university manager. She worked for a Faculty Dean and told me about a conversation she and the Dean had with a Head of School about the budget. She said - very seriously - the Head of School argued with the Dean and she didn't understand why. The budget was a business decision and had nothing to do with the Head of School. I had only met her that day and actually couldn't find the words to reply. I realised then that my idea of a university was disappearing and I began - sort of - to understand the depth of passion and vitriol which often accompany critiques of university management.

Old Way, New Way

I understood but can't accept it. The world out there is changing. Universities aren't immune to that change. The critique of university management is an internal critique, it allows people to blame everyone and no one in particular. And it doesn't take into account change happening in the external world, except to blame university managers for paying attention to that change and doing their very best to implement in a way that meets the demands of the competing systems they deal with - academics and governments. The result is never good enough, never perfect enough for anyone. It is the best attempt to deal with reality as it is at any given time.

Everyone's view and everyone's idea of a university seems valid to them and is - I still hold on to the core of my idea of a university even while this PhD batters it around. Valid but maybe not helpful given what's happening in the external environment. Those deeply held but unquestioned assumptions about what the university is can enable and constrain responses to change.

If only ... we could stop using university management and recognise that people who are implementing government policy, who are trying to do the best they can to keep the university relevant as a social entity, are now seeing the world through different filters. Managers adopting a business stance and academics critiquing actions of an amorphous blob won't do anyone any good. It won't change anything.

Word cloud for World view

What might change the trajectory universities are on won't be academics writing more vitriolic critique. It won't be managers assuming that the university is a business - it isn't (that's my worldview writing that). It's an academic work environment that needs to be helped and supported into the 21st century - collaboratively.  What might help is if we spend some time recognising that we don't all share the same worldview. We start from different perspectives when we try and make sense what is going on with universities today. Governments, business, students, academics, managers - they all see the university in different ways.

It's time to stop using university management. It's time to start understanding that your worldview, my worldview, however deeply held and valued may not (sob) be the best thing for the university today if it is to have a meaningful future. What will help is if you realise the university is made up of people drawing on these different worldviews to do the best they can to respond to external change. What will help is if we can reframe this conversation that has been going on for about 40 years or so. That conversation hasn't helped much so far has it? How it can be reconstructed to acknowledge that it's not university management that is the problem. It's us, how we view the university in different ways, what we believe it to be, and what we believe it should do and how it should do it that needs to be surfaced and discussed.

Yes, the challenges facing universities today go beyond university management. There is bigger force at work. But until those who value the university as a social entity stop and reflect together, nothing much will change. And the university will lose.

I don't want the university to lose. I want it to survive for many years to come. But my view as an individual doesn't matter. Collectively though, people who care about the university as a social entity can make a difference. That's my hope. That's why I'm doing this PhD. And that is why I would like you to please stop using the term university management.