higher ed

The strange self-sabotage of HE

A fairly constant trend I’ve seen, but one that seems to be increasing in regularity and levels of farce, is the ability of higher education institutions to undertake forms of self-sabotage. This occurs in a number of increasingly inventive ways, but is always defined by the same characteristic of creating its own obstacles for outcomes it wants to realise. Universities increasingly come to resemble Fight Club’s narrator beating themselves up in a car park and then wondering how they got all these bruises.

One way this is realised is through an over-obedience to policies. I mentioned previously the lack of resistance from senior management, but it’s also seen through just how thoroughly and eagerly HEIs embrace every minutiae of a new policy or regulation. We can’t help ourselves – we’re academics, we do this stuff thoroughly. At the EDEN conference, Rikke Toft Nørgård commented in the questions after her keynote that when a policy was implemented in education in Denmark, it ended up stifling innovation and the policy makers said something like “we didn’t mean it as hard as you implemented it”. We always go too hard to the point of restricting ourselves, more than is actually necessary – as Rikke says “I am allowed to do much more than I think I am”.

A second means by which it is realised in through the increasing (emotional, physical, work) distance administrative people employed by HEIs have from the teams they work with. It is a common complaint of academics that administrators get in the way of all their wacky plans. I’ve never bought in to this narrative, and many of my most fruitful working relationships have been with administrators. However, as HEIs grow in complexity they have taken to outsourcing and centralising a lot of these functions. This results in less collegial relations, where you are all focused on the same outcome. When support staff are remote from the teams they support then their primary aim is not to increase research revenue, or get someone employed on a project quickly, or to promote a new module – it is primarily to make sure their unit doesn’t get in trouble, not to find solutions. It’s a bit like that idea with Freakonomics and estate agents, where you might think everyone is working towards the same goal, but different motivations are in play. For many staff who are employed and not integrated into the culture of the HEI or school, it’s better to say no, even if that prevents loss of income, than to say yes and potentially open themselves or their department up to risk. I’ve lost projects, staff members and taken on extra work because ‘no’ was the easier option for someone else to say.

The third way is to constantly call for innovation and then provide so many barriers to its realisation that it is effectively a health risk to engage in it. A lot of the time (and far more than we like to admit) those restrictions are a good thing to prevent future difficulties. But it’s also the case that one policy or strategy will be promoting one course of action, while a distinct one will be working to counter it, and the staff trying to implement will be caught in the pincers of some Guy N Smith type creation. I saw this recently with microcredentials, but you can see it in many different forms, for example trying to change assessment, online teaching, implementation of any technology in a module, OER, etc. These are not just random ideas that some academic has and then throws their toys out the pram because they can’t have funding for their yacht based pedagogy, they’re outcomes the institution often wants to realise itself. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe – exciting modules halted by a last minute random objection from a recalcitrant Dean … I watched C-MOOCs become click and watch vocational training. All those ideas will be lost in time, like proposals to committees ….

I should also stress that I’ve worked with amazing people who have helped find the crucial wriggle room and belief to get odd projects going and make ideas a reality. Some of this post is probably just whingeing but the old adage that culture eats strategy for breakfast is relevant here, but that culture can also arise from the policy and the reality people encounter on a daily basis. It feels that culture is increasingly one that works against the desired outcome for higher ed. We need wriggle room KPIs.


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