The purpose of a university: slight return

(with apologies to Jimi Hendrix)

This post is not a shot at my own institution, but a record of a straw in the autumn wind which we are all feeling.

We had a survey of staff attitudes recently. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that staff in Mathematical Sciences were dissatisfied with management. The response of management was to set up a focus group. I was not at the meeting, but have just read the facilitator’s report.

The first part is a summary of attitudes expressed in the meeting. This is probably accurate: I recognise the concerns my colleagues would raise. The facilitator even pays tribute to the discussion as “articulate, impassioned, and driven by a genuine desire for excellence in the School”.

But then management attitudes surface. I will quote only one sentence. I said in an earlier post that the purpose of a university has changed from teaching and research to income generation and league table success. It is interesting to hear a very similar sentiment from the other side of the looking-glass:

There is an inevitable tension in a University between the interests of those who are viewing a pan-organisational agenda in the context of a range of political, economic and social pressures and those who are striving to achieve and maintain excellence within the domain of a specific discipline.

I do not need to analyse this; I will merely remark that at least he has expressed our views more elegantly than management’s.

I hope and trust that neither view will prevail. One way would lead to the disappearance of universities; the other, to their ceasing to be universities in anything but name. But, with respect, the situation is far from symmetric: while we blinked, “those who are viewing a pan-organisational agenda in the context of a range of political, economic and social pressures” took control, and their views are much more likely to prevail.

Am I alone in thinking that a necessary condition for a solution is for those who struggle with a range of political, economic and social pressures to realise that they do so to enable us to achieve and maintain excellence in all disciplines? (Actually, I am not. I happened to have dinner last night with someone who tried to run a British university according to this principle. He described the experiment as “a glorious failure”.)

Management don’t read what I write here, but if perchance they do … hello … I intend to continue to achieve and maintain excellence, with passion, and (I hope) articulately, for as long as I can.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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