April 01, 2003
The 800-year-old university model

One of the creepiest meetings I have ever attended was a university management meeting concerning I can't for the life of me remember what, and nor for the life of me can I remember what I was doing there. What shook me was the appalling extent to which the ghastly prose of management-speak had taken over from the plainer and clearer English sort, such as I had always imagined Universities to favour. In the corner of politics that I inhabit, it is widely assumed that structuralism and post-modernism are now all the rage, and that it is that sort of decline that Universities are now suffering from. I suspect that managerialese may be a bigger problem.

In today's education.guardian.co.uk there's an article about the Open University, and about the changes unleashed upon it recently when they called in the management consultants.

The consultants were summoned because Geoff Peters, the pro-vice-chancellor in charge of strategy and planning, wanted to be sure that the OU's advertising and promotions were giving value for money. He chose a firm called Cognosis, run by former marketing executives from the drinks giant Diageo, partly because it had no experience of universities and could apply the perspective of the commercial world.

… Michael Laird, who led the Cognosis team, says Peters and his colleagues were "standing on a burning deck" and weren't really aware of the flames. …

The diagnosis from Cognosis was, essentially, that the OU was still behaving in the same old way while all around it was raging the higher education revolution of the 1990s. The OU was still taking a fortnight to respond to brochure inquiries and telling applicants for more popular courses to come back next year. In the outside world, burgeoning new universities were becoming more seductive and flexible and the government was pushing for half the population to go into higher education.

"The OU brand was still very much about lonely and dull distance learning," says Laird. "It was about hard work and worthiness and watching TV programmes at two in the morning which involved a bearded man in a kipper tie talking in a dull way about physics. And meanwhile there were new competitors - other universities doing distance learning and local part-time study.

I don't feel so uncomfortable about this article as you might suppose, given the first paragraph of this posting. I think that's because real management consultants aren't trying to destroy university education with barbarous verbiage; they are at least trying to help it along, with smart thinking. And anyway, the Open University is not anything like a regular university, and improving its "managerial logic" is no fundamental threat to its nature.

Even so, I was a bit startled by this:

The response to the Cognosis report has been a series of changes which Peters says has dramatically changed the culture of the OU. The supplier-driven, take-it-or-leave-it model which most universities have followed for 800 years is being replaced – to use the language of consultancy – by a focus on the customer in a competitive market.

To me the interesting thing is what all this says about traditional universities. They are dumping their 800 year old model, it would seem. I can hear the likes of Kenneth Minogue and Roger Scruton grinding their teeth.

I think what's happening here is that whereas our culture used to be one of a relatively small minority of educated people supervising a majority of toilers with the 3 Rs and little else by way of education, now we live in a world where, in a country like Britain, an actual majority has to learn how to think logically, and how to present and communicate logically coherent notions to others, and to the new workforce, which is computers and robots as well as the remaining few human robots. It is this reality that both the old universities and the new Open University are all responding to, as best they can. As with all big social changes there's grief and dirt as well as happiness and enlightenment, and much of grief is in the form of the pain to persons like Scruton and Minogue that comes from apparent grotesqueries like drink marketers telling university departments what is what.

And what's what is that if these New Workers are expected to do nothing but arse about in old-fashioned universities until they are nearly thirty, in addition to spending the best part of forty years being "retired" (that won't happen either, kids) we can kiss the British economy goodbye. I say, chuck most of the kids out of school as soon as the hormones kick in and they can't be doing with teachers and want to earn some money. And then, when the serious partying is calming down and they want to settle down again and make some career progress, entice them with TV ads for working smart as well as hard and doing something like an Open University degree or a distance learning programme run by some ex-normal university (which has now become mostly just another "open university").

While the universities slowly morph towards being internet-based factories for churning out New Workers able to give Powerpoint presentations, or to learn how to analyse a medical sample without disaster, where does that "supplier-driven take-it-or-leave-it" attitude go? What happens to institutions concerned more about the truth of the truth than about the number of student-customers they can sign up to study whatever the student-customer wants to study and damn the knowledge? What happens to that 800-year-old model?

The truth is that Truth was always, and will always remain, a minority enthusiasm. It won't expand vastly, but nor will it ever die. One of the sillier ideas behind "university" expansion has been that with it there should be a vast expansion in "scholarship", and in "research". This can't happen, and if you mean by research good research, it is not happening, not very much. Instead the uncompromising quest for truth and intellectual righteousness has for some decades now been quietly migrating towards industrial R&D departments and Think Tanks and to various other Post Grad Temples of Excellence, like the famed Centre for Advanced Studies at Princeton. The traditional universities are still deeply involved in all this, but they're now doing a lot else besides. And good luck to them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:28 PM
Category: Higher education