You’re in charge of revamping a university’s research…
Such simulations have only recently been used in the context of higher education, said Jon File, development director at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies, University of Twente in the Netherlands.
He has developed a university management simulation for the Research, Higher Education, Development and Innovation – RHEDI – programme. The specially devised simulation was first used at the RHEDI Executive Leadership training seminar held in Malaysia from 17-21 November.
“Simulations are intended to give people a shared experience to reflect on so that they can learn from each other,” said File, who has previously held smaller-scale higher education simulations in Eastern Europe and Southern Africa.
It also helps participants to experience the system from different perspectives, he told University World News, particularly at a time when the way governments are funding research and innovation is changing towards more targeted funding.
“An enormous amount of learning comes out in discussion,” says File. “We are trying to give participants an idea of the complexity of managing a research environment.”
The RHEDI simulation is based on the invented country Imaginalia, which has three universities and 20 colleges. One of the universities – dubbed Central Valley University or CVU – faces major research funding reform imposed by Imaginalia’s ‘Ministry of Education’.
Instead of a simple system of government subsidies for each publication in a peer reviewed journal, which the university handed down to faculties, the ‘government’ has set up a system of competitive research funding in 10 major specified fields – a realistic simulation as this kind of reform is currently being introduced in a number countries around the world, often at the behest of major research funders.
However, in real life universities are at vastly different stages of adapting to such a multidisciplinary, thematic and often-competitive research system, and others still follow the previous model but are having to collaborate with universities that have moved towards competitive funding, and need to understand it.
In the simulation the ‘government’ has halved the amount of money for publications. Instead it will provide the university a lump sum, untied to individual publications.
The money saved, and an equal amount of new money, will go towards priority research areas – some of them in areas where CVU has little expertise, and others where a rival, larger university nearby has some track record.
“CVU has to deal with a major change. The first priority is to decide which four of the 10 priority programmes it is going to compete for, given that the university down the road is much bigger, and stronger at research,” says File.
“You can have a simulation that puts the two universities in competition with each other. Or you can have a simulation of what is going on in one university adapting to change, where you’ve got different needs and expectations at the level of the four faculties, who might be in competition with each other for students and resources.”
The participants take on a number of government and university roles – including vice-chancellor, deputy vice-chancellor, faculty deans and deputy deans, professors and lecturers, and financial and human resources personnel.
They have a number of issues to consider.
“How are we going to fund research internally? What do we do with people who are good researchers but who are not in the 10 priority areas? How do we grow good new researchers who will be able to compete for these funds in the future? Can we go on with a model that assumes that every academic does teaching and research?” says File.
All of these could have major consequences for the university, its reputation, and the way it attracts students. The university’s leadership may also need to consider building partnerships to become more competitive.
“After three intensive hours of interaction, analysis, negotiation and decision making, CVU had developed a plausible strategy to address the new research and funding opportunities,” said File, although the university has not got as far as allocating resources.
One challenge is the individual research interests of professors. “Universities may want to go for particular programmes but in reality professors may have their own idea about what they want to do and forcing them into a particular area can, in some countries and some fields, be almost impossible,” he notes.
“The question then arises, what do you do for researchers in non-priority areas? Do you then use your limited resources to fund them yourself because you can’t get funding from elsewhere?”
In addition, the research process may not be particularly transparent. “If you are not successful in securing a grant it may not be clear why you were not successful,” File says.
“And, as we know, predicting what is going to be important in the next decade is not an easy job. Ebola is an excellent example of that,” says File, referring to the recent huge surge in research funding for what was previously a neglected tropical disease.
In another realistic scenario, the ‘Education Ministry’ has reduced the number of students the university can have and CVU has been running at a 3% deficit for a long time. The university’s leaders have to find a way to change the way they are doing things to break even.
“That’s quite complex,” says File. It involves decisions about research, the quality of research, teaching, quality of teaching and students, undergraduates, masters students, how much consulting and contract work the university carried out with industry or governments, and all that has to be backed up by financial spreadsheets that give them [the participants] an idea of the financial consequences,” says File.
“The overwhelming response from participants is that they learn more from simulations than from just reading,” he says. “Different national ways of dealing with power come out.
“Computer simulations don’t give anything near the results we are aiming for in terms of leadership. It has to be groups and peer learning and shared experience, not looking at a screen, no matter how good the stuff on the screen may be.”
This is particularly true of multinational groups from different cultures and backgrounds. The RHEDI group was large – 40 participants from nine countries.
It was also very diverse compared to previous higher education simulations in Europe or Southern Africa. They included participants from middle-income countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, as well as poorer countries.
Their home higher education systems differed vastly, from a more centralised system in Vietnam to others where institutions enjoy considerable autonomy.
Unlike commercial businesses, “universities are not tight organisational structures".
"For example, I don’t think science faculties would notice if the entire humanities department disappeared,” notes File, whereas commercial companies’ management structure involves tightly linked divisions such as sales, marketing and production. “If you took one of them out, the thing would collapse.”
Knowing how to steer a university around change is becoming more important, with a move towards more targeted research funding in many countries.
Money is “either for the very best or only for an area deemed to be particularly important. And both of those two mean that it is difficult for researchers to follow their own lines if the funding isn’t available.
“What we see emerging from the simulation is an attempt to understand the new research funding environment and what the dynamics of that are, where the university stands in relation to its competitors, and where are the overlaps between its research strengths and the priorities identified at an international level,” File says.