Never before have universities faced such remarkable challenges to their fundamental values, said Professor Malcolm Grant, President and Provost of University College London, at the OECD higher education conference last month. During this time of austerity universities must continue to hold true to their values and take a long-term view, positioning themselves for 10 years' time "against the short-term turbulence of immediate change".
"There are huge opportunities in a time of austerity, and huge risks," argued Grant, a New Zealander and environmental lawyer who is also a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Economic and the Social Science Research Council.
He argued that finding a balance between the short-term and long-term interests of universities was an urgent and major challenge for the sector - what Professor Philip Altbach, Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US, referred to as "the battle for the soul of higher education" at Unesco's 2009 world conference.
Grant was speaking during the closing session of the Institutional Management in Higher Education general conference, held in Paris from 13-15 September and entitled Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less.
It was a time of "unprecedented uncertainty" for universities in the UK and elsewhere, he said. In the past decade higher education had been through growing student demand, an era of globalisation and increasing student mobility, enhanced inter-institutional and international competition and "pernicious" league tables that had driven competition in an often perverse manner using methodologies that bore no relationship to the reality of complex institutions.
League tables, Grant stressed, were militating against mission differentiation in institutions, by pretending they should all be the same. "University leaders must understand that we must be different, we must not produce a linear model. We must be clear that we can do things differently and focus on different things. For that is what society and our students need."
During the past decade higher education had experimented with new teaching and funding models, such as the UK's introduction of tuition fees in undergraduate education, which was regressive while purporting to be progressive and "brought new income to institutions but at the same time new rigidities and new inefficiencies", Grant said.
There had also been remarkable investment in scientific research, which reflected understanding on the part of governments about the importance of science, innovation and technology to the knowledge economy and countries' global competitiveness.
Finally, Grant said, in the past decade there had been growing tension between teaching and research as the fundamental missions of universities. Today for academics, the research drive was powerful but the teaching drive "relatively weak and fragile. One of the great challenges for the next decade will be to reverse that position, or at least to find a more stable equilibrium between the two."
Austerity loomed, Grant warned, but what did it actually mean?
In the UK it was not yet known where the funding axe would fall. For University College London, a top research institution, the level of public investment in research is three times the level of public investment in teaching. "So a reduction of 10% in research is three times as dangerous to us as a reduction of 10% in teaching.
"The early signs of the cost reduction process for the government suggests that there might yet be a radical shift away altogether from public support for teaching for students in arts-based and non-laboratory science based subjects. This is a risk that goes beyond anything that previously we have encountered in higher education in the UK," Grant explained.
The risks were also political. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced top-up student fees with only a five-vote majority in the House of Commons in 2004. Today, the UK had a coalition government with no overall majority, and bringing radical change to funding of higher education would be even trickier.
"University leaders are speaking out and must continue to speak out to ensure that the reduction of funding for higher education is not led purely for doctrinaire ideological reasons but is properly assesses against the other public goods that public funding supports," he said.
Among the short-term implications of the global economic and financial crisis in the UK, Grant explained, would be shrinking of the research base, and again, the burning question would be how to cope. For instance, should a university reduce the number of PhD students.
"Am I to take the short-term view or must I, as I believe, take the long-term view, the 10-year view, and to try to understand how each of our institutions should be positioning itself for 10 years time, against the short-term turbulence of immediate change which we hope will then regenerate over that period to some extent.
One short-term implication for universities was simplifying all systems. But institutions had been doing this and had invested heavily in IT systems, student support systems and reviews of their estate to try to reconcile modern business practice with traditional values. Most had been driving inefficiencies out of their structures, and the only way they could now do 'more with less' was by educating more students with fewer academics.
Each institution also had to assess its risk appetite and risk management capability. "How much risk are we willing to take in the short-term, of moving into a deficit budget in order to sustain those qualities and those values if we could see our way across the valley..."
"It is essential that we avoid an unstable and destabilising set of short-term knee-jerk reactions when our institutions have already existed for hundreds of years and we have the solemn duty and responsibility of stewardship at this time to ensure a transition which causes least disruption to the values and qualities which we wish to maintain," Grant argued.
He predicted departmental closures, especially in expensive disciplines, which tend to be in science, technology and medicine, as well as institutional mergers or bankruptcy. "This is called a shake-out in the sector and I understand it is good medicine for us all to have these periodic shake-outs," said Grant.
But the human costs and commitments to students were not being understood, and neither were the financial costs. "One institution defaulting on debt would send a shiver across the borrowing rates for all institutions. There is a knock-on effect. There is an inter-dependence between institutions financially which could be quite disastrous."
There would also be growth of private sector provision, Grant said, but only in relatively cheap disciplines and it would duplicate public sector provision.
The 10-year view
Such scenarios, Grant continued, prompted him to reflect on some of the fundamental values of institutions and why they should be protected and preserved.
One obvious value was institutional self-determination and autonomy during, in the UK, a period of frequent leadership change in government. "It's an impossible situation in which universities become the custodians of lasting values against a constantly changing political landscape."
Another value was the social responsibility of the modern university, which included meritocracy and encouraging in students values of social responsibility, global citizenship, entrepreneurship and community volunteering, among other things.
Another value was academic governance. "There has never been such a challenge to the governance structures of our universities than the one that is about to occur. I am a fervent believer in academic leadership. Universities should be led by academics," said Grant, and he forecast growing tensions between academic leaders and independent boards of trustees.
If universities were to prove their value to society, "doing more with less has to be by making a university operate with an impact that it is far greater than simply the sum of its parts".
Grant said universities had been negligent in paying lip service to inter-disciplinarity but failing to tackle some of the world's enormous challenges. "Universities are unique institutions. There is no other institution that commands such a wealth of talent across so broad a range of disciplines."
Universities, he continued, must also "challenge historical ways of working in which disciplines define the tribal relationships of faculty and of students, to a model in which questions, challenges and issues define the new relationships."
Finally, Grant said, one of the most important values was academic freedom. "I worry that this is a value little understood elsewhere. In an era of austerity, society needs institutions where people are free to speak out, where challenge is regarded as a fundamental value of the institution. Universities have to be bastions of free speech, tolerance, debate and challenge.
"There are threats to this at the moment. Political interference, a wish on the part of ministers to pick winners for prioritisation of investment. A quest for instant impact; we will invest in science if it can be shown to produce this impact within this time. And the risk of moving away from curiosity-led research."
A further threat was political and religious intolerance. Universities had to vigorously protect freedom of speech on campuses, against views that they were radicalising students.
A period of austerity also kicked up a challenge to academic tenure, a value that had been fundamental to institutions and was coming under increasing pressure. With universities needing to shed or redeploy staff, "it is going to be essential to ensure staff are not invited to depart from an institution on the grounds of their awkward questioning, their critical views. Frankly if we did that University College London we would lose just about all of them."
In concluding, Grant returned to the train analogy that drove through the conference.
"There is a train bearing down on us. We don't want to be left on the platform," he said. "But there are huge opportunities in the time of austerity and huge risks. Never before have we faced such remarkable challenges to the fundamental values of universities, to which we must continue to hold true."
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