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(cc) Laurence OP

(cc) Laurence OP

Governance. Obscure, arcane structures peppered with titles fully worthy of the faux-medievalism of many universities – that’s the view of many working in academia towards this issue. But, governance is precisely where the ideological battles around the role and future of higher education are being played out. Changes in the balance of representations from internal to external interests, from public service to business and ‘entrepreneurs’, from elected to appointed, from autonomous to ‘steered’, from values to products.

Management. Increasingly built on business models, the shift from President/Principa/Vice-Chancellor to CEO; after all aren’t universities multi-million Euro operations, don’t they need the discipline and efficiency of the private sector, or at the very least a form of ‘public accountability’ that isn’t reliant on academic values, personal integrity or something as unreliable as a sense of public service? So we’re told.

So what form then should a university take in terms of its ownership, organisation? Who should shape its values, plan its activities and steer its course? In the heightening debate about student as consumer, brought about in the UK by New Labour’s (non-manifesto) introduction of tuition fees and their inevitable ratcheting up (the fees, not Labour), more attention is being paid to alternative forms of organisation that fundamentally challenge the so-called ‘neo-liberal university’. It’s early days yet, and we’ve seen a number of counter-intuitive propositions, most notably in that category, A.C. Grayling’s establishment of an elite, fee-paying, private institution. Though quite how that saves the humanities and strikes a blow against the system isn’t clear except through the most tortuous of logic if we are to take on trust that this was/is his long-term intention rather than simply to set up a luxury grind school for the University of London International Programme.

The Social Science Centre in Lincoln, rightly, is receiving increased attention thanks in part to the evident commitment of its founders and their willingness to share ideas.

And last week, at the Institute of Education, in London, a seminar opened discussion on the possibilities afforded by co-operative models of organisation for higher education. I couldn’t make it there myself, but Joss Winn took some notes. There are considerable attractions in such models, but still thorny issues as regards ownership, responsibility and roles (after all, co-operatives are private and not public organisations). Are students and staff all equal members; how is the wider public voice expressed or heard; where are legitimate sources of funding; how can the range of activities expected of a university be fully supported, etc? Are there mixed constructions combining the spirit of co-operation but built on public ownership? What are the fundamental values around which scholarship can gather and be re-energised?

The key thing, though, is to start asking these types of question not merely as a form of resistance to new (business-oriented) models of governance and management being imposed across the system but in order to construct a far more powerful, ambitious and resilient model of a university that embodies the values we cherish and which we know are essential to bulding a better society, a richer culture and a more sustainable future.

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