HESA’s One Thought to Start Your Day [11 June 2015]: Universities: It’s Not All About You

Universities: It’s Not All About You
June 11, 2015, Alex Usher
I just finished reading quite a good little book, Universities and Regional Development, edited by (among others) OISE’s Glen Jones. Analytically, it’s useful for a couple of reasons: first, it gets beyond universities as single-entity black boxes when it comes to engaging with external stakeholders; also, it does a good job of emphasizing history and path-dependence as under-analyzed variables in explaining change (or lack thereof) in higher education.

One thing that struck me, however, was the tone of some of these pieces. It’s possible that I’m imagining some of this, but I identified an undercurrent running throughout a few of the articles: having explained how particular university initiatives failed as a result of “historical particularities”, or by ignoring “institutions’ entrepreneurial architecture”, the argument just seemed to end. The implication here being that, to ensure smoother outcomes in the future, everybody needs to adjust to the particularities of higher education institutions.

The question most policy-makers would ask here is: “why”? Why should everyone else adapt to universities, rather than universities adapt to the needs of government and other stakeholders? It’s a question that too many people inside the higher education bubble can’t even grasp, let alone answer. The idea that other people’s agendas sometimes matter doesn’t get much of a hearing in higher ed.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, it has to do with a post the other day on the Ontario Council of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA)’s blog. Signed by “Graeme” (presumably Graeme Stewart, OCUFA’s comms manager), it asks why all the speakers at big higher ed conference panels (presumably excluding those at OCUFA’s own conferences) are all cut from the same cloth – namely, why are they “single-mindedly practical”, but inside-the-box, thinkers? Where are the radicals opposed to “technocratic, metrics-obsessed discourse”, he asks? Why aren’t they being heard from?

Fair question, but I think the answer is pretty simple. The critical higher education scholars have a lot of useful things to say (particularly around gender), but frankly they add almost nothing to the debate when it comes to issues of finance and accountability, which are what most conference panels are designed to discuss. Among the “alternative voices” in higher education, there is an astounding reluctance to acknowledge the fact that Canada spends more than pretty much any other country on higher education, a near-complete absence of serious discussion about the underlying reasons for cost-inflation in the sector (indeed, there instead seems to be a preference for wholly phantasmagoric discussions about fund accounting), and a general attitude that the only thing that matters when it comes to money is: MOAR! MOAR!! MOAR!!!

As for accountability, “sod off and leave us alone” covers way more of the discussion spectrum than it should. Measure outputs? Report on them? Heaven forfend such metrics-obsessed behaviour.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. American critical scholars such as Chris Newfield or Robert Samuels actually do talk about finances, and the latter at least is prepared to see huge cost reductions in universities through a shift in focus from research to teaching. You can agree or disagree with that solution, but at least it’s an acknowledgement that cost (as opposed to price) is a problem – something I have yet to see in Canada.

Too often, what we hear from the “critical scholars” crowd is: “how can we make life better/prevent life from getting worse for people working in higher education?” While there are lots of important topics in this area – the issue of sessionals comes to mind – it’s still a remarkably self-centred discussion. It’s not about what higher education can, or should, do for society and the economy, it’s what everybody else should do to make academia a happy place.

It’s fine for OCUFA to want to broaden the discussion on higher education. But it’s terminally self-serving to suggest that this goal is achieved simply by including more people who will emphasize universities’ particularist nature. Listening more attentively to what external stakeholders think of universities – good or ill – would surely be a more rewarding path.

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