Higher Education Strategy Associates

Differentiating University Missions (Part Five)

Our conference, Stepford Universities? Differentiation of Mission in the New Higher Education Landscape, wrapped up yesterday, and there were a lot of very interesting ideas floating around. To end the week, I’ll just touch on a couple of them.

Clearly, part of the problem we have in discussing a touchy issue like this is one of vocabulary. As panelist Ellen Hazelkorn of the Dublin Institute of Technology says, we haven’t got the language to talk about this issue in a nuanced way. So, “differentiation” – which is really a process rather than an end goal – has actually come to mean a lot of different things to different people, which confuses the debate.

Council of Ontario Universities President Bonnie Patterson made the point that perhaps the real issue isn’t that institutions need to have different missions in terms of research, teaching and service – maybe what they really need are different profiles to make sure that there are some gains to specialization. I happen to think that’s a great idea anyway: as dollars become scarce and institutions need to sharpen their messages about who they are and what they stand for to governments and potential students (especially international ones) alike.

But maybe the most intriguing discussion came at the very end, when we talked about the forces within academia that push for homogenization – in particular, the demand to perform ever more research. One participant in the final panel (where we handed the reins over to conference participants themselves) made the point that university presidents themselves – appointed by boards who are deliberately kept away from the minutiae of academic life, and who have a natural desire to “make a mark” – have, as a class of individuals, had a lot to do with the rush to research.

It’s a very valid point, but I think there’s something deeper going on, too. For all the protestations that “lots of faculty don’t like the rush to research” and would prefer a more teaching-focussed approach, there’s been remarkably little push-back from faculty themselves over the years. My suspicion is that until a real movement within faculty groups emerges to counter this, very little other than draconian government intervention is going to get institutions to snap out of the collective Stepford trance towards greater research-intensiveness.

And, to prove this point, the University of Calgary came out with a new strategic plan yesterday. Their big strategic goal is… wait for it… to become more research-intensive! Plus ça change…

Thanks to all who attended the conference and have a great weekend!

— Alex Usher

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One Response to Differentiating University Missions (Part Five)

  1. Luis Crivaro says:

    I´m pleased to submit some ideas related to Differentiating University Missions, because in my country there are several points that should drive to differentiation, but all of them fail in this issue.
    Argentina keeps yet an unfair and undesirable discrimination between public and private institutions. The Government has no influence upon the budgets nor the missions of the private universities, at the contrary of the public ones. Private universities has a complete freedom to draw their policies, but they prefer to copy the contest system of the public ones rather than to take the tenure mode.
    The preferences of the professoriate is not important because the academic participation is low, either in the appointment or in the design of the strategic planning, and this does not contribute to the “belonging sense” nor the develop of the academic profession.
    Neither the prestige is taken into account, because more and more privates universities are qualified over the others, and this include the most recognized institution at local level, which was got off itself from the national accreditation scheme. The Educational Equity is greater in the privates, who have lower time and upper graduation ratio. The differentiation also improves competitivity.
    But the isomorphic trend still remains, and I think that the proud to belong and the opportunity to do something are one of the most important points to be considered, in parallel to study the relation between teach and research. So, one of the goals is strenghen the academic profession.
    Kind regards to all

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