University Strategic Planning and the Foresight/Futures Approach: An Irish Case Study

Article excerpt

An intimate sharing of the environmental scanning, strategic foresight/futures thinking used at Dublin City University .

Uncertainties and Complexity

There are many forces shaping university futures today. We certainly cannot assume that the next five-year strategic period will be in any way similar to the last. Business as usual is simply not an option despite whatever conservative institutional impulses might wish to pull us in that direction. Managing higher education in an atmosphere of austerity will be the challenge for some time to come. As Shattock (2008) argues, in this scenario it is those institutions that are able to preserve institutional cohesion and to hold on to institutional values that will come out of the recession in better shape. We are now clearly moving into a post-public era of higher education funding. With operating uncertainties increasing both structurally and specifically, there may well be a greater differentiation of mission among universities. All these uncertainties create the need for clear strategic planning, vision, and foresight. As Abeles (2006, p. 31) comments, "academic institutions need to revisit Shelley's Ozymandias" the central theme of which is the inevitable decline of the empires people build, however mighty they seem. Regardless of their status as medallion or lower tier institutions, their future is not assured in any form, much less as visions of time past. The future is uncertain and we need, as far as possible, to "future proof" our strategies.

One broad global overview suggests four drivers shaping the future of the university: globalism, multiculturalism, the Internet, and politicization (lnayatullah and Gidley 2000). Globalism (or globalization) and politicization could be regarded as long-term trends. Knowledge is now global and the university market is likewise. As a result, globalism has become a structural imperative, related to such issues as the "commodification" of education and the student as "consumer" Politicization can, of course, take many different forms, but in general refers to the definitive decline of the notion that knowledge and education are neutral, commonly-accepted public goods. This may lead to difficulties as does, of course, the rise of multiculturalism, itself a more recent effect of globalization. Reality is socially constructed in ways that are both gendered and racialized. The rise of multiculturalism means that the ideal university may eventually take different forms as various minorities seek to influence the inherited Enlightenment notion of the university as a place for the disinterested pursuit of truth. And finally the Internet, a dramatic revolution in the making of connections, will continue to decisively affect the purpose of the university and the way it conducts research, teaching, and publishing. The "virtualization" of the university has barely begun, and futures-oriented thinking is clearly required to understand the effects and fully grasp the opportunities.

Today, what is perhaps most certain as a major determinant of university futures is, in fact, uncertainty. To cope with uncertainty, universities will need to become increasingly more flexible. In their influential treatise Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty, Nowotny, Scott, and Gibbons (2001) argue cogently that "universities may be unable to react rapidly and creatively to future demands if they are constrained within either a historically determined or bureaucratically imposed division of institutional labour" (p. 255).

Despite the inherently conservative nature of the university, it has, at times, reflected upon its current and future role. Since Newman's (1873) iconic The Idea of a University, there have been intense debates regarding the university's teaching and research roles. More recently, Kerr's (1963) The Uses of the University argues that the modern university is in fact more like a "multiversity" with no single animating principle, but rather with a multiplicity of missions that respond to its multiple stakeholders. …