Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Confidence and Consent

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Confidence and Consent

Article excerpt

Transparency and accountability underpin plans to reform Scottish governance, explains Ferdinand von Prondzynski.

There is an interesting, if disturbing, paradox within higher education in the developed world. Many key performance indicators suggest that universities are getting fitter, more efficient, faster in decision- making; better at recruiting the disadvantaged; less gender biased; more business-like; and better at providing discoveries for society's benefit. And a walk through any university campus will show you that buildings are better and facilities more up to date than was once the case.

So why, then, are media stories about higher education so often negative? Why do people complain about management style, remuneration of senior staff, the erosion of student-to-staff ratios, the inadequate educational attainment of students, and the inappropriateness of commercial practices?

At the heart of this contradiction is growing uncertainty as to what higher education is actually about. There is no consensus on whether universities are there to provide vocational training to secure employment for graduates and the necessary skills for society, or to offer an education largely uninfluenced by business and employment. There is no sense of how far institutional diversity (in general terms taken as an article of faith) can be pushed without straining the boundaries of respectable pedagogy and scholarship. There is no consensus about how universities should be managed and led, or how they should be equipped to deal with the burdens of bureaucracy that the state imposes in the name of quality and accountability.

None of this is helped by reforms in some countries that might be described as wacky at best.

For anyone tasked with suggesting reforms, this paradox presents serious dilemmas. If our institutions lead the world, why risk that success by changing how they are run? On the other hand, if so many people who work in or with universities, or who study in them, feel such disaffection, why risk those feelings turning into something more toxic? If education is an adventure of discovery, why leave intact a system that has so many cynical or disillusioned members?

This, in broad terms, was the task facing the panel set up by the Scottish government to review higher education governance. …

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