Random emerging thoughts on the future of the university

Random emerging thoughts on the future of the university

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.

The research frame

The research frame

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.

A social PhD


I'm waiting for approval of my change of topic and conversion from a practice based PhD to a conceptual one. In the meantime, I am thinking about how to get some impact from the process, some findings that matter for people in work in universities. I am sure I can write a good theoretical PhD but that's no longer enough. I know few people read PhDs and from the beginning I have wanted to avoid excessive 'academic research speak' even though I know that's part of the PhD game. I know I can write and publish papers that will be ready by more people. What I want to leave behind from my PhD experience though is impact in the organisation that is the university.

When this thought emerges to the surface of my thinking my response is variously: silly, ambitious, just get the PhD and get on with your life, altruism isn't part of the PhD equation. Then I think about why I'm doing this PhD and why I've struggled since 1998 across four universities to finish it. What has kept me going?

My belief in the university and it social role.

The most important word here is social. The university has always had a social role although the visibility of that role has varied over the centuries. My view now is that this social role has assumed primary importance as a criticial uncertainty for the future university. The primacy of the idea of the university that has underpinning our understanding of universities - and been challenged and reframed over the years - needs to provide more than a fit with its external operating environment and shape the culture that underpins how a university works. It needs to start with people, it needs to shape a culture that means something to everyone. The idea of the university needs to move beyond an academic concept to become a social concept, one that engages everyone who works in a university.

Anyway. More about that in later posts.

Having moved beyond a practice based PhD, I no longer need to gather data from practitioners. That streamlines the PhD process which is a good thing when I have only finite time to do it. It also leaves a gap in the process for me that I can't ignore anymore. I can't ensure an impact at the end of the PhD on my own. I need to create that impact with people who work in universities. I have to find a way to bring people back into my PhD. I need to make it a social PhD.

Here's my plan:

  • regular updating of this blog on what I'm doing at least monthly,
  • using social media to share my emerging ideas and seek responses/views/critiques - I'll try and do this weekly,
  • publishing papers in open journals as far as I can, and
  • sharing my self-reflections.

This is a a validity process (member checks) for me and a way to address a limitation of the research. Foresight projects are people based. Foresight is a congitive capacity and good projects involve working with people and their views of the future. Those processes allow individual views of the future to be surfaced and shared. My research is a solo process and to my mind, one mind is not enough.

I bring my view of the future university to this research. I know there are any others and I acknowledge that. I must ensure I take them into account in my thinking. I will get diversity  of views from the literature and I want to also get that diversity from people in the field.

I'm using Cho and Trent (2006) as my guide here. One of their key points follows:

Cho and Trent (2006) identified two types of validity in qualitative research in education that are applicable in this research – transactional validity which is “grounded in active interaction between the inquiry and the research participants” (which incorporates the typical social constructionist validity measures (Crotty 1998) of credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability), and transformational validity that judges the research to be valid “only if it signals that validity achieves an eventual ideal” (Cho and Trent 2006, p. 320). They propose a holistic view of validity as a process in qualitative research, integrating the research purpose with validity criteria. For practice based research, that purpose is praxis/social with validity determined via inquiry with participants and validity criteria of member checks, critical reflexivity of self and redefinition of the status quo (Cho and Trent 2008, p. 236).

Please let me know what you think. Comment and share your views about what I should be looking at when considering the future of the university. Help me build that impact.

Running into a brick wall


It's an interesting experience when a data collection process that seems logical when you design it turns out to be a complete failure when it hits the real world. This happened to me when I set out to enlist people to share their views about university management for my research.

The first attempt garnering a handful and the second attempt only a few more, I did hit one of those brick walls. What do I do now? I pondered some, wrote to my supervisors and organised a meeting. And there, the value of great supervisors became very clear to me.

I had made a few mistakes. Focusing on the trees instead of the forest, making the first survey question so wide open it scared people away, or at least I'm assuming that's what it did, and falling prey to that cognitive bias that says if i think this is a good idea, everyone else will too. I've learned my lesson.

My thesis title until now was The Future of University Management with the focus clearly on management. I'd already shifted the focus away from the relationship between administrators and academics to focus on management, but I had designed my data collection around those two groups. It didn't work.

Now the title is The Future University: Will it Need to be Managed? An important difference for me because it opens up the research to move away from those who manage and those who are managed to focus on the future university and whether managers will even have a job. And if they do, what does the job look like in 2040?

This shift also opens up the possibility of using online scenario tools as a way of getting a wide range of responses, at least in the initial phases. We shall see.

The brick wall has a hole in it now: a revision to the ethics application, a modified data collection process and a reframing of the literature review are the next on the list.

Moving on from the perfect bathroom...


I've started my PhD, and this is how my brain feels right now. In some ways, it's good because it means I'm shifting something in how I'm operating, but it sure is a painful process. Let me explain. I had the first PhD workshop on 22/23 May and the first PhD tutorial on 7 June.  And I have to say I'm very happy...and excited. When I realised I had started my first PhD in 1998, I was just a tad dismayed because that was soooooo long ago. But I've never forgotten the promise I made to myself after I withdrew in 2001 - that I would finish my PhD. After my disastrous and ill-informed attempt to do the online doctorate at the University of Liverpool last year, I was apprehensive but had that gut feeling that the Swinburne program would be a good fit for me. It is. I feel like I've found my intellectual home for the next four years.

My topic integrates two passions - university management and the future. The backgrounds and skills of my two supervisors - Eddie Blass and Peter Haywood will give me the integration and support I need to make this happen. The folks in the cohort I'm with are really diverse and the conversation so far has been excellent - open, welcoming and challenging. And no rules defining what I can say when!

What has also been happening in my brain though, is a re-orientation or re-adaptation of some sort - that's the painful bit. The letting go to let come as Theory U would have it. The health issues I have had over the past year have had me re-thinking my lifestyle and focusing on things that matter, not the things that - in the long term - don't really matter. I've often said I don't want my tombstone to read 'she worked really hard', and equally, I don't want it to read something like 'she had really clean bathrooms' which I realised I'd been obsessing over (who me, a perfectionist?). It's defining this new normal path, where I find myself after coming to terms with the reality of health frailties. That's a work in progress, but I am seeing the value of the Buddhist principle of non-attachment!

It's a nice place to be in though. My instinct is telling me I'm heading in the right direction and for me, that's always a good sign. The PhD is almost signifying a starting point for me - it's a signal I've started moving on, leaving the health stuff, the ill-fitting online doctorate, and the perfect bathrooms behind.