Economics can be useful. By this I dont mean the quasi’mathematical faffing about that some , including practitioners, think of as economics. Nor do I mean forecasting, something economists are both poor at and addicted to doing. I mean the way of thinking, the juxtaposing of scarce resources versus unlimited desires. In higher education this last while we see how useful it might be.
Education is a complex matter while reducing it to simple soundbites is easy. Ignorance, in the pure sense of not knowing, abounds when it comes to higher education. Alas, ignorance creates memes that are powerful.
Bureaucracy is like Kudzu – it s invasive, persistent, useful in small doses but when unchecked it is destructive and self-perpetuating even when it engulfs that which was supporting it. Take the LEAD programme designed for Irish universities. LEAD stands for Living Equality and Diversity, and it’s an online programme designed for all staff in Irish universities. The press release describes it thusly
The LEAD programme is a self-paced modular learning tool that features an intuitive navigation system with core content split into five modules of learning. Module topics cover ‘Understanding diversity’, ‘What’s it got to do with you?’, ‘From compliance to commitment’, ‘Recruitment and Selection’ and ‘Dignity and Respect’. Each section contains video and multimedia stories and scenarios including interviews with university staff and students, interactive games and quizzes, and online instant assessments to offer staff valuable feedback on their learning. By using this interactive and multimedia resource, staff will have the opportunity to consider and reflect on the part they play in building an inclusive culture across the university sector.
It takes between one (TCD) and two( UCC) hours, we are told, to go through this. All the aims, to promote diversity and to dignity, to ensure that people are treated as people, not as exemplars of ethnic or other groups, that’s a fantastic set to aim for. Its one that I would love to see becoming the norm in society, more so as a member of a multi-ethnic family. TCD are making participation in this compulsory for all staff on interview panels. The various equality offices in the universities have wordings that suggest that all staff are in its ambit. Ok. So, what’s the problem?
First, the thing is inconsistent. It is inherently itself not respectful of diversity. All staff, regardless, are treated the same. There are a diversity of views on diversity. Some are more obnoxious than others, but they do exist. Do we serve well those populations towards whom the diversity initiative is aimed by ensuring that everyone else is the homogenous in their views and aims and interactions? It also would seem rather odd for all staff, regardless of past expertise or experience, to have to do this. When we treat everyone as a problem that’s a problem.
Second, there is a presumption of a problem that must be solved by a bureaucratic imposition. This is the norm now in the university sector. All problems of running complex organizations can be solved by enough large-scale top down interventions designed for all at all times. The result is a bland homogenization and the growth of a kudzu of bureaucracy. In the UK the classic example of this is the requirement for everyone, regardless of teaching quality ex facto, to be sheepdipped into a variety of third level pedagogic training courses. TCD, and I suspect we are not alone in this, has a ‘one size fits nobody’ undergraduate course evaluation form, so bland and generic as to be meaningless in content and usefulness. The latter two represent blanket solutions to particular problems – some lecturers cant. Rather than focused interventions where a demonstrated problem exists a generic solution requiring a bureaucratic cadre is imposed on all.
Third, its costly. There are 13,812 employees in Irish universities as of 2012. 4,229 are academics. The OECD calculates that on average in 2010 the total annual per student spend across all categories of expenditure was just over $16,000. Assuming a 50h working week (which is what the data suggest) then we have an hourly cost of $6.66. Pushing this across the sector and allowing 1-5h to complete the programme we find a cost of just under $140,000. Small enough in the context of the total spend but is it justifiable? Was it even costed? Far too often these initiatives are put in place without regard to the cost.
Fourth, in TCD at least, the rule is that if one has not undertaken the LEAD program then one cannot sit on interview panels. This is doubly problematic. First, the incentive is NOT to take this programme. Not taking it means less work. We often find this with bureaucratic micromanagement. It creates the bureaucratic equivalent of what Frederick the Great noted on war: he who bureaucratically organized to micromanage everything manages nothing. Second, and I am sure that this is the case in every university, HR representatives sit on all interview panels in TCD and are involved in the advertising and shortlisting. Of candidates. They are there explicitly to ensure that HR law and best practice, including one assumes issues around diversity and respect, are adhered to . Thus in the recruitment issue at least there is no clear need for this. Its part of a growing creeping mistrust of colleagues. Academics cannot be trusted to do their work without bureaucratic oversight and micromanagement. How things are arranged are more and more direct oversight or standardization of processes. In organizational structure terms this leads to one of two outcomes. If direct supervision prevails we get centralized organizations. If process outcomes dominate we get a machine bureaucracy where technocrats dominate. Looking at Irish universities we see this trend. As academic, technical and research staff are the operating core we need to seize back control, which leads to vertical and horizontal decentralization and a professional organization that trusts us. We know, for decades, from the work of Oiuchi that when tasks are ill-defined (“teach” , “research” … what could be fuzzier than that) and outcomes hard to measure that horizontal, flat organizations deliver better outcomes all round. t
LEAD has great aims. The flaws above don’t invalidate them. They merely serve to show how far things have slipped in Irish universities, where staff are not trusted and bureaucratic processes run rampant.
Irish universities have a plethora of missions. Many of these are laudable – the reduction of inequality, acting as a reservoir of skills for the modern economy, acting as engines of that selfsame modern economy, a sponge to soak up youth who might otherwise be unemployed… That they are laudable is not the point- they are distant from what has for centuries been seen as the core of universities. That core goes by various terms. In the European tradition it is called Humboltidian, in the Anglo-Saxon Newman. Both are essentially the same, and were the formalization of the centuries old approach as well as being the template of modern ones. The basic tenets of these are the same : a liberal education in its broadest sense, a focus on the person more than on the skills, universities containing the broad range of human knowledge, and a general sense of anti-utilitarianism. These are ideals which I would like to see actualised.
Here is a really interesting post on medieval cosmology : Cosmology: Unearthing a 13th-century metaverse | The Economist. which shows that really, the two sides of modern universities cant work in Iisolation.
In essence the project which is reported took the work of a 13C philosopher and applied modern mathematical concepts. What they found was rather startling. The medieval model gave rise to a metaverse, universes existing parallel to each other.
How is all this related to the STEM debate? To succeed, the Ordered Universe Project needed a team spanning both science and the humanities: physics, Latin studies, philosophy, cosmology, philology, medieval studies, paleography, history of science, psychophysics and linguistics. The humanities scholars uncovered insights into Grosseteste’s work that scientists alone might have missed; the scientists helped identify mathematical, physical and geometrical thinking in De Luce that their peers in the humanities might have overlooked. Professor McLeish says that without its interdisciplinary approach—an apparent novelty that has made funding a challenge—the project would not have been possible: “If you’d let the scientists loose on their own, we’d have come up with nonsense.
Makes you think when we see the cuts in relative funding for AHSS versus STEM ; what else are we missing?
“The lesson of the Dubai bubble is that business schools need to get back to being students and critics of the corporate world, not participants in it”
This is a really interesting piece. Its behind a paywall but in essence it says the following. Over the last few decades business schools, and universities in general have inverted. What were bottom up organizations became top down, hierarchical, bureaucratic organizations. Corporate thinking and aping of corporate speak and thought led what should be skeptical and conservative organizations to the same follies as corporates.
Given that Irish universities are infected with this disease, and are actively pursuing bubbles in chinese students and innovation academies, its well worth standing back and thinking hard. Its also worth considering if we should heed the wisdom of organizational studies around how to structure knowledge organizations, as we are going about it the exactly wrong way. Will anyone call stop?