Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Essay - Frijters on the need for university reform

Last Tuesday I mentioned Paul Frijters' post The university coalface gets 28 cents in the dollar. He has continued his discussion on university reform in University reform, part I: what are the options? and then University reforms, part II: the barriers, with more to come. The series is worth following.

I have written a fair bit on this topic myself. To my mind, the key need is simplification. Current measurement standards based approaches don't work, nor does the corporatist model. It's all just so 1980s! Most people know this, yet the standard answer (pun intentional) is more of the same.

At present, we have an approach that says that we will do this to achieve this outcome. We will then report on that outcome. It sounds so sensible!

No one asks an alternative question. What will happen if we don't do this or stop doing this?  In most cases the answer is diddly squat.

It would also be helpful if people had an understanding of systems based approaches. In simple terms, a system is a set of connected modules that interact. The more complex systems become, the greater the scope for systemic failure. In administrative terms, higher education has become an ever more complex system, one that just doesn't work very well.

In the military world, the three Cs are important - command, control and communication. In the messy world of the battle field, you simply cannot control what is happening. You cannot micro-manage. People have to make decisions on the spot. Yet you still need a system that will maintain coordination, lines of command, allow the total army to move. So there is a constant conflict between individual or unit responsibility and central needs.

The more tightly you try to control things, the less scope there is for individual autonomy. Yet change, success, depends upon individual action. That's true on the battle field. It's just as true in other areas.

A central principle of good government or management is that responsibility should be pushed to the lowest possible level. Australia's present system of higher education breaches that principle. It has become command and control focused to the point that there is no individual autonomy. More and more time has to be spent navigating the system, less and less time is available for real delivery.

We are all influenced by our personal experiences. At a purely personal level, the sometimes venom in my attacks comes from my experiences and those of people I know.

Leaving aside grand visions, it has become harder and harder to actually do things, to achieve the small. And yet, final results for the whole system actually depend on the small.  


Evan said...

Complete agreement from me.

I'm wondering if you have found a way to get an idea of the 'lowest useful point' for the devolution of authority. I think questions of scale get interesting - for instance making consumers sovereign I doubt works with uni's. Though perhaps you disagree.

My guess is we also need a discussion of what uni's are for. Is it really just to provide job tickets as industry (and a good deal of government) seem to believe. As you say we seem stuck in 80's economic fundamentalism (at least with higher ed).

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Evan

On the first, the lowest point depends on the circumstances.There isn't a universal rule.

Consumer sovereignty also depends on circumstances. As a general rule I support it. But the labour market is imperfect. Beyond that, there are questions as to what society we want.

I agree on your last point.

Legal Eagle said...

I wish you were managing my university, Jim. At the moment there is so much bureaucracy which impedes flexibility, but doesn't achieve terribly much (other than to give metrics which satisfy the bean-counters).

Jim Belshaw said...

Why thank you, Maam! There will be another post on this tonight.