One of the several thousand books I have been trying to read (all at the same time) lately is a written-for-politicians discussion about the relationship between universities and economic growth. It is based on an assumption that government's financial input for education is about government economic goals and questions whether education is actually able to achieve the things government hopes it will. It sounds fair enough, but I started to wonder.
For every time government does anything with the universities, the same old tussle arises. Government articulates what it needs. It refers to taxpayer dollars and public benefit. Sometimes it is explicit about economic goals.
The universities do similarly, describing fundamental values of the university, hoping that government strategy will align to the goals of protecting and pursuing knowledge.
Both sides seem to be convinced that they will only succeed in fulfilling their task as government or university if the other’s strategy is aligned with theirs. This received wisdom is especially strong where the line is drawn between government goals, public money and university outcome.
But what if this belief in the necessity of strategic alignment is false?
For example, the new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Bill went through the Senate last week. This has been a source of great anxiety across higher education in Australia.
In particular, the universities were watching closely to see that their self-accrediting rights were protected (they weren’t). But since government accreditation is on the surface a perfectly reasonable mechanism for assuring minimum standards of quality, the strategic interests of universities and government contradicted.
“Self-accreditation is a central characteristic of true universities around the world”, said the Peter Coaldrake’s Universities Australia statement on an earlier draft of the TEQSA legislation.
Why would the government care about that?
Universities Australia said that the independence of universities “underpin distinctive public benefits for our society”. It was the benefits, not the truthfulness of knowledge that Coaldrake believed would persuade government.
Even though the TEQSA legislation is all about quality, Universities Australia believed it would not convince government so say that university autonomy is a prerequisite to quality. When it was revealed that the London School of Economics took cash in exchange for a doctorate and some pro-Gaddafi propaganda, this undermines the reliability of knowledge emerging from that institution. The university’s autonomy from financial and political (and once upon a time sectarian) influence is what creates quality. But the universities lose sight of this themselves in the effort to align their priorities to the type of public benefit government will understand.
It is not government’s job to prioritise knowledge. What government sees is a partly deregulated and expanding system, which already carries questions in some areas about its quality and integrity. Government is there to ensure the public gets what it pays for. The problem is, government continually asks the universities not only to understand this priority, but to make it their own.
It is not the universities’ job to prioritise government strategy or even public need. Indeed, if they do, it is at the expense of the autonomous conditions they need to actually assure the quality government requires.
Strategic alignment has led to several levels of crazy. Every time government hints at a new strategy, universities scramble to align themselves to it in the hope of a better position in the system. And whenever Canberra hears of troubles in the universities, politicians and public servants try to grapple with the nature of quality knowledge and how to best run institutions that have a very different purpose to theirs.
This situation would surely worsen with a government department with too much responsibility for university quality.
What if the goals of government and the universities don’t need to be aligned? What if government could worry about expenditure, value for money, the knowledge economy and universities could worry about knowledge? They could each concentrate on their own tasks, talking to each other where needed, but basically each doing their own job.
For if universities were in fact to take as their own government’s priorities or if government were to assume the priorities of the university, neither would perform the function they should. So each rightly resists. But when the next issue arises, they perform the same dance, all over again.
Instead, if they were to accept their different roles, Government might not need to spend so much energy watching the universities’ every little move in a misguided attempt to en sure they are fulfilling government strategy.
Universities could avoid having to keep cajoling and convincing government about the public benefit of fundamental attributes of university-ness, like autonomy.
There are some practical problems to be sure. Restructuring the relationship would take work.
Accountability would need to be re-thought. It is no longer plausible for government to simply take university quality on trust, so universities would need to demonstrate as great a commitment to quality as they are asking the government to show to institutional autonomy.
Universities need to account for the government money they spend: they need to spend what they receive prudently, wisely and with a view to producing excellent research and great teaching. They always have, in fact.
Most importantly, government and universities would need a relationship where they can both articulate their priorities on their own terms, but also listen to and fulfill the priorities of the other.
At the moment, while each does each other’s job, neither is doing it very well.