We’re about to embark on the development of our new institutional Strategic Plan. A five-year programme of ambition, targets and commitments, underpinned by a core ethos and value system. Well, that’s the theory. In practice, even by virtue of the label ‘strategic plan’ itself, we know we’re dealing with a standard corporate artefact constructed in a formulaic way, written in a particular style and structure that is designed, how shall I put it, ‘not to disturb the horses’. Conforming to the requirements of those who govern and fund us, it creates the illusion of autonomy in an environment of severe financial and policy constraint. We start not with a blank sheet of paper, but with an off-the-shelf template, half of which is already filled out. Alongside, we have a dictionary of standard terms and stock phrases that we are expected to liberally sprinkle across the document. And somehow we have to describe the journey we’re embarking on over a five year period, despite huge uncertainties over funding, staffing restrictions and sectoral restructuring.
For many of us there is great appeal in a different genre, that of the ‘manifesto’. A rallying cry for change, built on a common set of beliefs and outlining an altogether different type of strategy that focuses on changing who has control over the steering and marching step by step to a new dispensation, towards a more progressive future. But of course, its at this point we need to remind ourselves that there is in fact far greater diversity of opinion amongst our colleagues and our fellow travellers than we’d like. Finding consensus amongst an inherently dissensual collection of sometimes rival groups and of ensuring that not just the loudest voice (in a community of loud voices!) is heard, is where the real challenge lies. And when we speak of that mythical ‘academic community’ do we include those who drift by our shores to replenish their supplies, their stock, before heading off again? The itinerant nature of building an academic profile, where reputation is sought within disciplinary and not institutional communities and where loyalty to locale is seen as a ‘lack of ambition’ rather than commitment to the common good.
And what anyway, is the intellectual justification (since we are talking about educational institutions) for engaging in debate and discussion without first ensuring all parties are fully informed? Can appreciate the wider context, identify the power-brokers, the forces of change, spot international trends, recognise where lie the traps for the naive? If a manifesto is seen as a reflection of a plea for a more democratic polity, then so also must informed deliberation be its motor.