The antidote to cranial rectal insertion in the academic world
This week will see the launch of the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU), a “diverse group … united by the conviction that the longstanding drift of higher education policy in this country… will soon do permanent and irreversible damage to a great university system”.
It is difficult to deny that the last two decades has seen considerable changes in the higher education system in the UK – huge increases in student numbers, growing financial pressures on traditional funding routes, and now higher than ever expectations to deliver results to a country that has placed an emphasis on the knowledge economy.
Personally, I thoroughly welcome the CDBU’s initiative to bring a “fresh reformulation” to what are the key academic values and to articulate our “common enterprise”. I also wish them a great deal of luck, as I have had some experience of trying to elicit a sense of common purpose at a very local level within a university, and found it enormously challenging. The good news is that there were some real advocates and supporters of trying to articulate our aims and values as academics. Unfortunately, to my surprise, I also found a great deal of apathy and even some active resistance. From my experience, it would appear that many UK academics are quite unfamiliar with the concept of “common enterprise” and even distrust the very idea. Indeed, given the CDBU’s mandate, there is a certain irony that most resistance I encountered came from two extremes – those who were evidently supporters of a competitive academic market model and those who were passionate detractors of the same.
Now, while I support the “values and aims” proposed by the CDBU (let’s face it, who wouldn’t!), I do have a number of concerns. The first is that they don’t seem to go far enough. The proposed aims and values are very academia-centric, offering very little motivation for the lay public to support them/us. I would like to have seen a stronger, and more specific, explanation of why these values are important – the final statement that these ideals are “necessary for the flourishing of any democratic society” is somewhat platitudinal. This may be a rallying cry for the academic community, but unfortunately they are not the ones needing convinced. And as it stands, it still conveys a sense of “please leave me alone and don’t change anything”.
The message they are trying to convey is also rather inconsistent. I still don’t quite understand how you can begin an argument by rejoicing in league table success and then complain that universities are adopting methods employed by the consistent leaders in those same league tables. And if the CDBU celebrates that UK universities “produce more academic papers, citations, and highly cited papers per unit of research expenditure than any other G8 country”, then don’t be surprised if UK academics are still audited for publications, citations and citations per research pound, lest we fail to meet the expectations of the CDBU! You can’t have it both ways.
My final concern is that the sentiments they express do not tackle the difficult questions. It is easy to state that teaching and research should not be “pursued at the expense of the other” but that doesn’t help me, as an individual academic, balance my time any more effectively, especially since the CDBU’s apparent criteria for university success favours research output. Neither does this help when it comes to setting promotion criteria or deciding on new appointments. Similarly, it doesn’t help provide an answer to the question the government has to deal with, namely, how do you distribute the pot of money for core university funding?
CDBU is a good initiative. I support their values. I wish them all possible success in their endeavour. But if they want to change the UK Higher Education landscape, then they still have plenty to do. They will need to provide the lay public (i.e. the taxpayers, the people we serve) with a clearer explanation of why independent scholarship within universities is of high value to society. They will need to offer a solution to the ranking of university quality (so that core funds can be distributed appropriately). And they will need to more effectively explain why introducing an element of competition into Higher Education is necessarily in conflict with their aims and values. I, for one, look forward to them achieving all that.
 The CDBU links to an article decrying the use of the Balanced Scorecard and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). The article explains how this approach was developed at Harvard Business School and MIT (NB: check their location in the league tables) but has been imposed upon UK universities over the last two decades by government bureaucracy. Now, given that “academic papers, citations, and highly cited papers per unit of research expenditure” are “KPIs”, I’m not sure if CDBU is claiming that KPIs are good or not. Certainly the Balanced Scorecard should not take the blame – it is simply a tool that can be used to great effect to help formulate strategy and balance the relative merits of different approaches. Indeed, a good Balanced Scorecard would support many of the CDBU’s aims – the balancing of teaching vs research, or the importance of “paying more attention to students”.
 Get a group of academics together in a room and ask them this question: “Who do you serve?” Stand back and watch the quizzical looks as they try to understand the question. From my experience, this is a question that most academics (including me, until recently) have never even thought to ask, let alone spend any time thinking about an answer.