We're all poorer if profit, not learning, is bottom line
Administrators who view our universities through the prism of a business plan ignore the central role that education plays at their peril, writes Mike Larkin
When is a university not a university? When it is a business perhaps? The recent episodes of Queen's: A University Challenged on BBC Northern Ireland were illuminating. They shed some light onto the vast extent of an operation that is typical of a modern university.
But shocking to many was the incessant stressing of Queen's as a "business". That the programme-makers dwelt on this reflects an emphasis deliberately concocted by the university's management.
This uncovering of Queen's as a business reveals an inherent dilemma and tension affecting many universities. The programme's episodes serve us well by opening up the debate about what a university is, what it is for and its mission in our advanced society.
For if, indeed, it is a "business", it is a strange one. Strange for a business to be regulated by Royal Charter and Statutes, whereby employees are protected by academic freedom defined by Unesco in Paris in 1997.
As a business it is strange that Queen's is also registered as a charity (Northern Ireland Charity Commission number 101788). This status was renewed as recently as July 2015 for the "advancement of education" for the benefit of "the general public".
This is no idle promise and the objects of the university, as set out in its Charter and Statutes, are "the advancement and dissemination of learning and knowledge by teaching and research, and through the practice and inculcation of professional and other skills appropriate to the provision of higher education, and by the example and influence of its corporate life".
Indeed, since being founded in 1845, Queen's has a proud history of providing education to all walks of life. The two Northern Ireland universities have the best record in the UK in accepting and supporting students from lower-income families. This may not seem to be a strategy that is good business "moving forward".
So, what is to be done? It seems that the management has focused its view narrowly on a business model. "If it is not run like a business, it will soon be out of business," is an easy-to-throw-away phrase that is laced with profound implications.
The students begin to believe that they are customers and demand value for money. They compare their burden to that of a generation before them, who paid no fees. They wield the power of this very radical and recent development.
The trust students have in academics setting the standards tips too much toward the student setting the standards.
The partnership with academics starts to break down. Meanwhile, with little or no contact with students, the management keeps an eye on the bottom line.
The academics stuck in the middle need to acquire urgently a clear vision, as their education was no doubt free of fees and in a different environment. But what type of business has customers that are also the product?
It is not a fixed product, but one that is educated and encouraged to innovate, change and evolve in a developing society that they themselves will construct in time. One where they will also become the future investors in the "business of education", as their parents did before.
Add to this a mix of increasing fees, Government cuts and the general fog of uncertainty and this may lead us to neglect the very purpose of a university. In the end, only the academics can steer the university through this period of change and it will take strong leadership that is fuelled by clear and unambiguous philosophical argument.
The fundamental questions about the nature of a university must be resolved in order to set a steady course. These cannot be defined so quickly, or easily, by describing it simply as a "business", but by a partnership and consensus around the role of teaching and research in an educational institution not entirely driven by student "customer" demands.
That is far too simplistic a view that is lacking in thought. So simplistic that it risks choking the vital partnership between students and academics that must be encouraged to thrive.
The idea of a university is nothing new and those advocating radical change might note this. Plato noted in 380BC in a powerful defence of philosophical education that has stood the test of time: "Thus, through a rigorous philosophical education, the city unshackles individuals and leads them out of the cave of ignorance and into the light of knowledge so that they are eventually able to go back into the cave and teach others."
A more recognisable definition of the modern university comes from John Henry (Cardinal) Newman.
In The Idea of A University in 1854 it became "... the high protecting power of all knowledge and science, of fact and principle, of inquiry and discovery of experiment and speculation..." This is an important text for the modern era as it simply defines what we currently are.
Newman defined "liberal education" as ideas about people, knowledge and intellectual communities that were not factories and treadmills.
What might he have made of the modern University College Dublin, which he founded around the same time that Queen's University Belfast was set up?
He could not have envisaged universities befuddled by a constant paranoia and reacting to the whims of Government cuts, nor the age of mass education. In heralding the expansion of higher education in the UK, the Robbins report of 1963 further set the tone with: "Courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so."
It did not include "and as customers have at least £9,000 per year available for fees and can feed and house themselves for at least three years". That is a more recent business innovation.
If a university aspires to be a business, then it must have its roots in an educational and teaching mission equally available to all who can benefit from it. It might be too much to ask the politicians and management to consider Plato and Newman and the ideas therein, but complaining that many of our politicians are not university-educated and cannot understand is hopelessly unhelpful and naive.
They put themselves forward to be elected in a democracy and have a mandate from the people. That is all that counts.
Nevertheless, through indifference, we might all begin to see a university through the window of a business plan and ignore the debate on education as our central mission at our peril.
At a time of cuts and target-setting in an intellectually sterile bureaucracy, nothing could be more urgent.
- Professor Mike Larkin is Professor of Microbial Biochemistry in the School of Biological Sciences at Queen's University Belfast. He has retired from teaching at Queen's after 35 years