HE has gone through large-scale and rapid change over the past decade. From shifts in financing, through larger student cohorts, to cuts in research funding, and most fundamental of all, the move towards marketisation. One of the results of these changes has been the emergence of fluidity within the system; the certainties of past ‘generations’ have been lost with universities now focusing as much on branding, market share, and the constant process of seeking out new markets as they do on research and teaching. As these changes have taken hold, the way universities run have also been transformed. But here, I believe, we see how universities have fallen into the siren arms of ‘efficiency’ and ‘quantification’, a view of the world they have been nudged towards by government policy. Universities have, at the same time, utterly bypassed any notion of complexity in understanding and pursuing organisational change.
Reflecting on the nature of the average university, we see a large, often diverse, culture. Most universities have a large student body numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands spread across a wide number of disciplines, each of which may well have its own particular culture, view of the academic process, and which views both research and pedagogy in distinct ways. Indeed, from my experience within any single discipline there can often be a number of differently held views regarding these issues leading to intense discussion and disagreement. Some students are full time, some are part-time, some come to the campus to learn, others learn at distance. This diversity exists at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Beyond the immediate work of the disciplines exists a seemingly ever expanding bureaucracy. Marketing departments, IT services, international offices, estates, etc. In fact, as a recent THE article stated, more than two thirds of universities employ more administrators than academics. What this description suggests are organisations which are highly complex in nature. And yet complexity as a lens for understanding anything in HE is almost wholly absent. This is folly.
I suggested at the start of this post that the social, cultural and economic contexts in which universities now operate are increasingly unstable and complex. Just one, simple example of this is the surge of Kazaks coming to the UK to study about three or four years ago. On the basis of a rapidly rising oil price the Kazakhstani government wanted to raise the quality and quantity of educators in their country and believed that one way of achieving this was to send an increasing number of educators abroad for some form of educational experience. As oil prices have dropped through the floor over the past 12 months the number of academics and teachers involved in this activity appears to be dwindling. This is just one example of the multitude of shifting contexts which universities face at any point in time and which make strategic planning extremely difficult.
So how to respond given this constant shift in contexts and the complexity of universities as organisations? What can be done to help the organisations thrive? I’m reminded here of the counterintuitive instruction that if you skid your car on ice, you should steer into the skid. To turn away will actually make the situation much worse. It seems to me that as universities find themselves in ever more complex contexts many are trying to steer away from complexity in a vain attempt to feel like they have full control of the situation. I would argue that they need to steer into the complexity instead.
In an attempt to control complexity some universities have reacted by working on the principle that what is required is greater control and monitoring from ‘the centre’. Over the past decade we have seen more and more standardisation even down to the level of dictating the style of the learning aims of modules to suit a ‘corporate view’. University websites are increasingly set out in predetermined ways to ensure ‘corporate identity’, regardless of whether or not this hampers legitimate alternatives. In some cases even core administrative and curriculum resource activities are being moved out of academic departments and into ‘call-centre style’ systems where standard approaches exist, legitimised in the name of ‘efficiency’. In such a system, it is little wonder that academics are increasingly working as casual labour in a sector with a very high relative proportion of zero hour contracts. In this administration-driven approach, academics increasingly fulfil the role of shop floor workers endlessly following predetermined protocols and systems.
As centralised systems are set up there is sometimes use of an atrophied version of systems analysis used to create the efficiencies. Each time a problem occurs it is analysed and a slight adjustment is made to the system, the idea being that all problems can be ironed out with the emergence of a very efficient ‘experience’ for users. But this is a poor ‘algorithmic ghost’ approach to the complexity of real-life. I was recently in a fast-food outlet which was great to watch. As we entered it was obvious that the efficient system was working well. However, one small incident led to the need to react outside of the system’s predetermined parameters. This meant the staff were now in a benighted netherworld which according to their efficient system algorithm shouldn’t exist. There was utter chaos for about 10 minutes until the customers themselves found a positive solution. This is the problem with efficient systems. They cut out and dispense with any flexibility, intuition or idiosyncrasy as they are thought of as being inefficient. But in complex systems the constant drive towards simplicity, standardisation and consistency can only lead towards an attempt to forge a closed system – and the main characteristic of closed systems is that they ultimately fade and die!
So what might steering into the skid look like? Firstly, complexity is not an excuse for just doing whatever you want – it is not chaotic. The work of Davis and Samarra (2006) gives a good starting point. They argue that to gain a sustainable process of emergence, we need to do away with siloed, hierarchical structures where decisions are decided by one, or a small number of, individuals who then dictate to everyone else. Instead, there needs to be the possibility and encouraging of local neighbourhood interactions where ideas are shared, discussed and developed, sometimes differently in different contexts/disciplines. Linked to this is the need for duplication and diversity. For new ideas to emerge in the future there needs to be a richness in what happens now. If all approaches are standardised and made ‘efficient’ all that happens is that new, innovative practice is choked off unless a small group of assigned individuals allow it to happen. This is why the drawing of many administrative activities to central locations will never work – the diversity and complexity of needs can be met well locally (within departments) as the complexity can be handled well at this scale as the contexts within which activities are understood are often well known. Trying to get all needs to fit one organisation-wide system will always cause more problems than it solves.
Finally, any complex system needs to have clear boundaries, limits within which individuals work, but within these agreed boundaries there needs to be a great deal of freedom. This freedom allows the opportunity to innovate, to act professionally and feel a sense of agency and worth. Therefore, the ‘centre’ of universities should focus on working across the organisation to discuss and agree on these boundaries, and to enforce and review them periodically. But at the same time, they should support academics in making sure the freedoms they have can be used positively and productively in ways the academics see as appropriate for furthering their work.
HE in the UK will no doubt see further turbulence and complexity in the coming years. I would argue that those who meet this changing context most ably will be those who steer into the skid. To avoid complexity is folly.
Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.