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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

University reforms in a complicated world

Apart from the food and festivities, the Christmas break is a time to catch up with friends and family, debrief the year that was, and think about things to come. The social media meme that summed things up best for me about the past year was a version of the old proverb 'if you think you know what's going on you probably don't know how bad things really are'. 2016 was a year when pundits and experts were made to look silly. It was also a year when war and terror destroyed lives. If I learned one thing this year, it's that the world is very complicated. I am one of the most highly educated people I know, and am really struggling to figure out what's going on.

In my annual holiday catch ups with friends who work in universities we swap our various analyses of events from different personal and theoretical positions. Then we talk about work. Invariably we kick off the annual championship competition for the 'most Kafkaesque experience of university administration' of 2016. This is cathartic and amusing, but given the state of the world, the state of our universities is increasingly becoming a source of shame and despair.

The world needs people who can think clearly. Now more than ever. The role of universities is to do some of that thinking on behalf of society, and to educate people to be able to do it for themselves.

Yet, when I talk to colleagues from universities all over the world, each year we seem to be moving further away from this purpose. University leaders are caught up responding to constant changes in government policy driven mostly by ideology, untested by an electorate who don't know that 'higher education policy' is anything other than tuition fees. University administrators are absorbed implementing reform to address a murky mixture of myths and realities about inefficient services and out-of-touch academics. Academics muddle through. Year after year, policy reforms come and go, consultants march in and out, surveys and focus groups and system reviews roll on, all in the name of improving the capacity of universities to respond to a changing world.

The tragedy is that the more intense and ambitious these processes of change and reform, the less capable universities seem to be in actually delivering on our core purpose. Processes that are sold as improving efficiency and reducing barriers to excellent teaching and research seem to create new and moving obstacles. My friends may be a cynical bunch, but never have I heard anyone who works in a university say 'we went through a really difficult and far reaching administrative restructure, but thankfully now it has released me to truly give my best to my students and to produce ground breaking research'.  Continuous improvement never rests.

The world needs clear, critical and creative thinking. It's time for universities to step up. We certainly need to change the way we work to be able to better address a changing world, but we also need to draw a line against endless distractions of reform and get on with the job. Knowing how and where to draw this line requires wisdom and good judgement. Where would you go to find people like that in a chaotic world? Let's hope we don't have to look too far.