Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: *budgets

June 04

Institutional Strategies: Simulacra or Reinvention?

I recently had the chance to read a re-issue of Simon Marginson and Mark Considine’s, The Enterprise University: Power Governance and Reinvention in Australia.  It’s a heck of a good read; among those currently writing about higher education, Marginson’s probably got the best turn of phrase around.  Some of it – around managerialism and the role of research expenditure in cementing it – seems a bit dated now, in the sense that no one would any longer find it surprising.  And the section on governing boards is a bit Australia-centric.  But the chapter on institutional diversity is so brilliant that everyone in Higher Ed should read it.  (Ministers and deputy ministers should read it four or five times.)  It’s that good.

In this chapter, Marginson & Considine consider how diversity works in practice.  In Australia – much like in Canada – there is a hierarchy of institutional prestige, based mainly on the order in which they were created within their state/province.  We call it the G-5, they call it the “Sandstones”, but it’s basically the same thing.  Then there are the “Redbricks” (roughly, the rest of the U-15, plus maybe York, Simon Fraser, and Guelph), “Gumtrees” (no real direct equivalent as a class, but think Brock/Laurier), “Unitechs” (Ryerson, maybe) and “New Universities” (the new-ish universities in BC and Alberta).

When  the authors examined these institutions they found that, despite “vertical” diversification, there was no attempt to diversify horizontally – in fact, quite the opposite.  As soon as Australian universities gained the freedom to control their own program mix, they all moved pretty swiftly to offer a pretty similar and comprehensive mix of programming. At the same time, all institutions were trying to become more research-intensive, with varying degrees of success.

(Is this sounding familiar yet?  Good.)

Marginson & Considine note the forces of isomorphism at work: some of it comes from the fading power of the disciplines (considerably more advanced in Australia than North America), some of it comes from the incentives provided by funding formulae, and some of it stems from the model of prestige that serves to reinforce the existing power of the Sandstones.  Basically, there’s no percentage in trying to be anything other than mini-Sandstones – which is why most institutional strategy in Australia is just a “simulacra” of strategy.  It isn’t real, it’s just a hollow, low-risk attempt to copy what the big schools do (for an example of this in Canada, see Western).

That said – and this is the bit that I found fascinating – Marginson & Considine still found three ways in which Australian institutions managed to diversify and re-invent themselves, if only a little bit.  One was by being the “entrepreneurial university” and engaging in some private fund-raising activities (e.g. commercial consultancies, bespoke training for companies, etc.), the second was by going big on globalization and international students (by which they mean not just attracting students from abroad, but also providing training or setting up campuses overseas), and third was specializing in distance education.

What’s fascinating about that?  The fact that nearly all Canadian institutions have piled on the second one, leaving the first and third essentially untouched (yes, we have distance ed specialists like Athabasca, but they were set up as a specialist school – no one has tried to reposition themselves through greater distance ed efforts).  The fact of the matter is that no school has ever felt threatened enough to do anything other than copy the big boys – to offer anything other than a simulacra strategy.

I wonder if that will change anytime soon?