PhD topic

University Futures

university-futures1.pngI started a web site in 2006 called University Futures and shifted it over to Google+ in the last couple of years. I also have a Facebook page for University Futures. It's a topic that obviously means something to me. I spent 28 years of my working life in universities and I liked working in them. And now it's the topic of my PhD. I obviously can't let it go! I have rewritten my PhD proposal to focus on multiple possible futures for the university as an organisation, as a social entity. Most of the future focused work I've looked at so far has the words "future of the university" in the title, but what they were really talking about was the future of learning, or the future of research, or the future of quality, or the future of a country's higher education sector.

There's not much that I can find so far that really looks at why we have such faith in the university as the most appropriate organisation to create, maintain and disseminate knowledge into the future, no matter what's going on in the external environment. And why when the title says 'future of the university' do we end up talking about what the university does and how it does it?

That thought took me to the idea of the university, that tacit, taken for granted narrative about what a university is and what it should be. It manifests itself in statements like this:

A modern society is unthinkable without a university (Pelikan, 1992, p. 13)

This does not mean that universities will become obsolete, after all they have shown considerable adaptability before (Coaldrake & Stedman, 2013, p. 13).

These statements remind me of the quotes I sometimes use in presentations which I call 'smart people saying really silly things because they didn't question their underpinning assumptions":

  • Lord Kelvin, President, Royal Society (1895): heavier than air flying machines are impossible,
  • Thomas Watson, Chairman, IBM (1943): I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers,
  • Decca Records Executive (1962): We don’t like your boys’ sound. Groups are out. Four-piece groups with guitars, particularly, are finished,
  • Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO (2007): There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.

obsolenceAny organisation can become obsolete if it does not maintain societal relevance. It can disappear. It happens all the time. So how is it that we seem to think that the university is somehow immune from this possible outcome?

People trained in using foresight always look for the assumptions underpinning statements like this, and that's where I went. What, I thought, was the unsurfaced assumption here? It's that we think there will always be university in the future, irrespective of any disconnect between the university and its environment. That is what seems to be at the core of the idea of the university, and can explain why some writers get quite vitriolic in their defence of the university as social entity.

What's more interesting is that we think the university will always exist in more or less the same form as it exists today. Even the scenarios for the future of the university and higher education that have been developed today see how the university does what it does as changing but what it does - teaching and research -  will remain largely unchanged. Weber (1999, p. 152) captures this well:

To assume that the university has a future is not simply to assert that it will continue in some form in the years to come: it implies that the university, as we know it, will remain essentially unchanged in the future.

Why do we think this? That led me back to the idea of the university. That idea hasn't been stable during its existence - it has been challenged and reframed and we are reminded that there is probably more than one idea anyway. But ... this core belief about what the university is and should be has remained powerful in its longevity.

The unchallenged assumption that there will always be a university like today not only generates resistance to change and to adapting the fundamental nature of a university to ensure its continuing relevance to its societies. It also generates an image of the future university that is a linear extrapolation of today, albeit possibly doing what it does in different ways, but with the same fundamental idea underpinning what the university is understood to be.

The probability of today’s university remaining unchanged into the future is low. The university’s past resilience isn't likely to be enough to assure its future in an increasingly global and connected world where the internet has democratised and opened knowledge creation, maintenance and transmission to the masses (Price & Kennie, 2012), where alternative educational organisational forms are emerging and gaining societal acceptance (Kamenetz, 2010; Swanson, 2015; Walker, 2014), where public funding is declining (Kelo, 2006) and where technology is changing in fundamental ways how work is undertaken and how we connect with each other in our work and lives. The university's ability to keep up with societal change, to maintain societal relevance, to be unassailable, is under challenge from outside its boundaries.

The reality now is that the university as an organisation has multiple possible futures, including one where it no longer exists. So I'm problematising the idea of the university in my research - the idea that allows us to think there will always be a university, no matter what happens. I'm aiming to explore possible university futures through to 2035 and challenge that seemingly unchallengeable assumption that there will always be a university.

I go into the research with my own hopes and assumptions about possible university futures. I want there to be a university in 2035. I want it to be a place where those wonderful, uplifting, brain-hurting conversations occur. Where lightbulbs go on in people's minds, where people change how they see the world, expanding their thinking beyond the conventional. And where they learn what they need to learn to contribute in meaningful ways to the society in which they will live and work. We need these places in the world.

Will the university give us that type of place in 2035? I don't know yet.

PS: let me know if you want any of the references and I can share them with you on Mendeley.

Yet another shift - but the last one!

Wechsel von Zustnden, BesetzungenIt is true that when you start a PhD, you start with a topic in mind. A topic that you think is important, critical, urgent and one that will not change. When I started my PhD in 1998 or thereabouts, I was convinced the relationship between university managers and academics was the topic for me. I withdrew from that PhD for reasons that are best not discussed in a public blog while promising myself I would finish a PhD. I kept that promise when I returned to Swinburne in 2012. The intervening 14 years saw me with the same topic but a very different person. I had foresight wired into my brain for a start. I no longer worked in universities but in my own business. I was a foresight practitioner not a university manager. Yet my belief in that original topic remained strong and unwavering. And here I am in 2015 having moved through three iterations of that topic to arrive at what has to be my final one: The Future University: what it is and what it does.

What happened along the way? At the end of my first year, I had an epiphany that it wasn't the relationship that mattered, it was university management as a whole - the future of university management. That kept me going for two more years. I went through confirmation, ethics approval and starting data collection - no more changes I said. Then, to my confusion and disappointment, not enough people wanted to participate in my research. Well, to be honest, I'd probably made my data collection process too complicated, but this lack of response sent me back to the topic.

After a meeting with my supervisors, I shifted again from the topic of management to the university itself and would the future university need to be managed? All good. I tried recruiting participants again with a revised data collection process. Two more people signed up. Ah, I began to think - there is something wrong here. Maybe use social media to recruit? Maybe not. What to do? A tinge of desperation set in.

Thanks again to my supervisors and their faith in me - or perhaps the topic - we spent two meetings working this through. Importantly because they know me and my skills and ways of operating, we arrived at The Future University: what it is and what is does. My first reaction at going this broad in scope was immense sorrow that I'd left my deeply held belief in my original topic behind - cutting the apron strings finally was hard. It was in the new topic somewhere but it wasn't immediately visible and certainly not at the core of what I'd be looking at now. My second reaction was fear - such a BIG topic. And disappointment - it seemed like I didn't know what I was doing really changing my topic all the time. My third reaction was acceptance and a degree of excitement. This would work, and because it is now taking a more theoretical focus, no ethics approval needed which is a relief.

beauty pink waveUltimately, I get it that these shifts and curves are part of the flow of the PhD process, part of my development in deepening my thinking and gaining clarity around what it was that I wanted to contribute to this conversation about the future university. Where I've arrived suits me too, it suits how I use foresight in my work. A global perspective first and the detail second.

First - the university and whether it has a future, the university and whether it will fit in the possible future societies which are out there, the form of which are still uncertain and infinitely complex from today's vantage point. A focus on why it's not a good idea to take today's idea of the university and the perspectives that underpin it into the future without first challenging that idea for relevance and usefulness.

Second - if the university as a social entity has a future, what might it look like? What is its future purpose? Developing scenarios will help here to get an idea about possible futures for the university and then to think about what would it be that a future university might be doing. Will the university need to be managed? I had to get that in there somewhere didn't it? What will it do? How will it be led? What will university work look like? What culture will underpin how it does what it does?

The assumptions in the literature that I've read so far are that (i) there will be a future university, and (ii) that teaching, learning and research will be at the heart of what that university does. These are comforting assumptions but largely untested and unquestioned in any great depth. A huge number of questions start to emerge if you don't accept those assumptions, opening up the conversation to think the unthinkable: does the university we have today have a future?

This is the murky space into which I am now heading. Wish me luck!

And so it begins again...

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Almost a year ago I  wrote that I'd passed my confirmation process. All looked good. But things are not always as they seem. I spent the rest of 2013 faffing about (as I call it now) trying to nail down my research to doable proportions. I had confirmation panel to deal with as well as feedback from a Faculty panel (one has to present every year to prove things are moving). I was a bit annoyed about having to do the Faculty presentation so close to the confirmation hearing that I didn't really care. Even though I presented well and got useful feedback, I still wasn't settled, still didn't really know what I was doing.

Between the confirmation and the Faculty presentation, my research plan had changed, moving it away from the somehow contested nature of worldviews and university management.

Then early in 2014, I realised that some domestic things that were bubbling way had to be dealt with using my full attention. I took leave of absence until the end of June to deal with them and didn't look at my PhD once. It was the old story of life getting in the way of achieving a goal.

So now I've returned with renewed commitment and back to my original topic of Fit for Purpose University Management in 2035 but without the worldview focus. Seems to make everyone more comfortable! The topic now: University Management: Past, Present and Future. It's time to get moving and get this sorted.

 

Ah...doing a PhD is fun

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I started my PhD in March, reorganised this website to remove all vestiges of my ill-fated attempt at a professional doctorate last year, and planned to write regularly. This blog is my reflective journal after all. It's now December. I have sat in front of my computer many times, and couldn't write. I had things to reflect on, but I couldn't write anything. Literally. Stared at the screen for 5 minutes and gave up. Several times. I'd given three presentations on my topic since May, but reflecting back on them, I probably wasn't convinced then either.

Until today. I had a meeting with my supervisors in November. I had written a summary of sorts about where I was because I figured I had better produce something after 2 months, but even that that wasn't quite right, but I didn't know why. I walked away both engerised and worried. I had been given lots of ideas and leads, but what to do with them -how to fit them into my research plan? I tried a mindmap. Nope. I tried writing an outline. Nope. Something was wrong with the way I was approaching my PhD but I didn't know what. I flicked back thought my PhD notebook and found this question:

How to let go of my persona as a university manager and accept practitioner status?

At the time I wrote this - shortly after the supervision meeting - it was more like a random thought. Now, however, I realised this was the issue. I was hanging on so tightly to my persona as university manager and my deeply held conviction that what really mattered was the relationship between academics and administrators in the management context, that I'd missed the point of a practice based PhD and really, the point that I was trying to make. I was seeing the trees but not the forest. I then wrote:

I came to the PhD because I had a point to prove. I lived the life of a university manager for almost 30 years and I know there is an issue here worthy of exploring because I have seen and felt the dysfunction a bad academic-administrator relationship causes in practice. Why care if I am no longer a university manager? Because universities were my work environment for almost 30 years, I grew up in them in many ways, and I care deeply about the future of the university and its current and potential role in society.

My practice now though is as a strategic foresight practitioner. It is the future of university management that is my forest, not the trees created by the interface between academics and administrators. The latter is an important element of the former, but it isn't the story that needs to be told. My contribution is around how universities will be managed in the future, and who will manage them. 

I needed to let go of my past as a manager to be able to position my PhD in my current practice as a foresight practitioner. Suddenly, all the things we talked about at the November supervision meeting fell into place.  I still want the research to focus on the people doing the managing today but it now will not be the primary focus. Somewhat of a breakthrough I think! :)

I had another supervision meeting yesterday where I conveyed this thinking, and I have a new title: Who manages future universities? Onwards!

2012 Research Topic

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My first PhD topic was the relationship between academics and administrators - in the context of being neighbouring professions in universities.  I came to to this interest primarily because of my practice as a university manager where I could see that a whole lot of energy is wasted focusing on the relationship instead of on how to get work done more effectively, in ways that demonstrate understanding of how work gets done in academic environments. Universities have a management structure that won't serve them well for many years to come, but there is little effort being spent on how to re-design those structures for the future.

I've written a bit about the relationship and shifting how it is viewed has become a bit of an obsession over the years. In my PhD application, I wrote that:

"If I am being honest, I want part of my legacy to be that I contributed to a re-thinking of professional staff roles that sees them deeply integrated in the DNA of the university and how it is managed, instead of often being regarded as an 'alien species' here to do harm to a very special organisational form they don't understand."

Those words appeared on paper as I was writing my application, and they capture very clearly my intent. Whether they capture enough to drive a PhD research question remains to be seen!

Given that I now am committed to using foresight in what I do, my research question for this PhD had to include the future. So, the broad topic is The Future of University Management. After the work we did in Workshop 1, I've begun the process of honing it. This is where I am at:

I am interested in collaboratively designing future university management models that integrate academic and administrator beliefs about how work gets done in universities.

A ways to go yet but it highlights the key points for me:

  • collaborative design - I won't work in the future university, so the design of possible management structures has to emerge from the minds of the people who do work in universities,
  • future university management models - the current model is well past its use-by-date, and new options are needed to ensure that management reflects and supports the shape and needs of the emerging future university,
  • academics and administrators - well, they do the work in universities, so their views are at the nub of this research,
  • beliefs - I'm interested in what's in the minds and hearts of academics and administrators about how they believe work should be done in universities, not about how they do their work today, and
  • university - it was my professional home for 28 years, I care about it as an organisational type, and I want it to morph into future sustainable and agile forms that allow it to maintain its key knowledge role in society.

In an integral sense, this question looks like this so far:

Integral research question
Integral research question

And here's what the topic looks like it its first, raw iteration.

photo (3)
photo (3)

I'm pretty sure I'm nowhere near where I need to be yet, and I don't think I've articulated what the orange circle in the integral diagram is really all about, but it's starting to make some sense in my brain. I'm sure that will change!