Making Universities Better | AUA Blog


Dr. Owen Jones
Vanguard Consulting Ltd


The Patience of a Saint?
In 1858 John Henry Newman published a series of lectures setting out his vision of how Universities should operate under the title “The Idea of a University”.  Today, the book provides a fascinating insight into the controversies and arguments that animated academic life over 150 years ago.  The problem that Newman was attempting to solve was how to devise an institution that reconciled secular scholarship and religious authority.  It is generally held that Newman’s efforts were unsuccessful.  Despite this failure, Newman went on to become a Cardinal and in 2019 the Pope announced that he was to be canonised.  Newman’s story might suggest that the patience of a Saint has always been an advantage for those responsible for making universities better places to work and study.  

What’s your problem?
The problems and challenges that Newman’s modern successors face are more likely to reflect the need to acquire students, create Universities that are good to work in and good to learn in, utilise resources effectively and efficiently and perform well in public league tables.  At a deeper level the turn away from collegial decision-making toward management control can also cause problems that deserve to be solved.  Modern management promises much, but the enormous workloads it generates can often overwhelm administrative and academic workers.  Managerialism can also replace  intrinsic with extrinsic motivation and reward, undermining the satisfaction and meaning that people derive from doing an important job well. 

Recognising the real problems to be solved is always vital and usually more difficult than most assume. Problems are often selected because they are visible to key decision makers, are easy to solve or suit the improvement methods that we are competent and confident in delivering.  A better approach is to make decisions based on data and knowledge, what prevents us creating value, what frustrates the good intentions of our people, what are our undiscussables, the things we would like to say about performance and practice and experience but feel unable to?



By What Method will you Take Action?
Having understood the true problem to be solved, the next step is to decide the method by which you will take action.  Senior leaders generally have a narrow repertoire of scripts they are confident in delivering.  These include demanding that people work harder, introducing new IT systems, or gaming the problem away.  Gaming is endemic in the Academia, whether it involves exploiting loop-holes in the TEF or REF, quietly cultivating grade inflation, or ensuring that more compliant and reliably complimentary students are disproportionately represented in satisfaction surveys.Gaming can be astonishingly and worryingly effective in the short to medium term, but using slight-of-hand to rip the integrity out of an institution can only cause irreparable damage over the long term.

Leaders with a more practical knowledge of business improvement often have a more useful set of scripts in their repertoire.  These often involve process improvement techniques borrowed from the Japanese automotive industry.  If your problem is an inefficient process, then process mapping may be a good solution.  But in complex organisations, problems and their solutions are often not amenable to resolution by techniques designed to solve the problems of manufacturing.  Many Lean University Programmes have hit the problem described by Russell Ackoff as, “Doing the wrong thing righter just makes you wronger”. It has also proved far easier to identify opportunities to streamline processes than to implement those opportunities in practice.

A more sensible and successful approach to creating better universities is to study what matters to students and the people who create value for them.  Understanding the demands that are placed on the University as a system, and from that determining the capability and capacity necessary to meet those demands enables institutions to take action to create that capability and capacity.  There are other important issues, for example how to help people give up their old way of working and replace it with a new and better way, and how to develop effective measures that tell you whether you are achieving purpose,  but they are subjects for another day.

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