Friday, 22 November 2013

Strategic vision for the future of York University

It would seem that Ontario universities are facing some critical choices and decisions over the coming few years, many of which will determine the institutional shape and function of York University specifically and the higher education sector in the province more generally.

As a relative outsider to Canadian higher education – having only moved over to York University from the UK in 2011 – it was not always clear to me what informed these choices and decisions in the past. As I've read more about higher education policy in Canada and Ontario, as well as experience the ramifications of that policy at York University – the most recent example of which is the “Academic and Administrative Prioritization” exercise being undertaken at the behest of senior management and based on the work of Robert Dickeson – I have become increasingly disillusioned with the way that our universities are managed and run.

I see several critical issues when it comes to the future of York:

  • First, the provincial government's “differentiation agenda” has left York caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. More details on how Ontario universities are being judged is available here and analysis of this process is available here. On the one hand York has a strong undergraduate teaching tradition in some faculties and programs; on the other hand it also has a strong research reputation in other areas. Strengths in teaching and research do not always mesh. Unfortunately, the ambitions of senior management to imitate York's more illustrious 'competitors' – evident in the recent strategic research plan's emphasis on science and engineering at the expense of social sciences or humanities – has played into the trap of assuming that all universities must pursue the same objectives and goals – ironically, doing little to differentiate York from other Ontario universities. More bluntly, as York pursues this agenda it is going to be judged on the criteria senior management seeks to copy, and it is very likely to be found wanting. What would make more sense for York is to strengthen those areas that make it such a unique institution and that already differentiate it from the rest of Ontario's (and the world's) universities. York's unique selling point – to steal management parlance for a moment – is its reputation for critical, radical and interdisciplinary teaching and research that does not fit neatly into predefined disciplinary or institutional boundaries. York has a well-deserved international reputation for such things, meaning that it sits comfortably alongside other 'alternative' institutions like Aalborg (Denmark) and SOAS (UK). This is no bad thing. It is ridiculous to assume that all universities in the world can aim to become Harvard or Oxford or the Sorbonne, or even University of Toronto. This does not mean accepting mediocrity, but rather rejecting the artificial and superficial way that universities are currently judged.
  • Second, building on York's current strengths and reputation would entail thinking afresh about how to restructure, renew and run York as a higher education institution that is constituted by its students, staff and faculty – not by the bounded visions of senior management or government or business interests. We are the university in a very real sense – without students there is no rationale for the university as a teaching and research institution; without staff there is no institutional infrastructure to undertake either teaching or research; and without faculty there are no teachers or researchers. We are all part of the institution, we are all necessary parts. Now, there are examples out there that are worth examining and considering as alternatives to the current agenda for York; moreover, these examples do not seek to emulate what York cannot become or what York can only imitate badly. One alternative vision for York's future that I found really exciting is the idea of university co-operatives. I came across this idea when reading an article in the Times Higher Education magazine about the University of Mondragon in Spain – it is a co-operative university attached to the broader Mondragon Co-operative federation in the Basque Country. There is enormous potential to enrol and engage all members of the university – students, staff and faculty – along with its stakeholders – community, third sector, business, government – in the pursuit of a unique and different higher education institution. Working out whether and how York could be turned into a university co-operative is something I think is worth considering and pursuing as part of the re-envisioning of the university. 
  • As a final point, I want to raise a note of warning. I have moved from a higher education system in which managers have hollowed out any real sense of collegial governance – see here and here for my take on the hiring process, for example. In the UK, universities are now largely driven by the choices and decisions of senior administrators, replacing any sense of institutional service with administrative tasks previously undertaken by administrative staff who have been restructured out of their jobs. As a process it has not happened quickly; rather it has involved the gradual accretion of more and more governance tasks to senior management and / or senior faculty. This is something I've dubbed the shadow governance system because it has not involved any open or transparent decision-making or choices by those affected – students, staff or faculty. There is a real risk that York – and other Canadian universities – go the same way if we do not actively take up our responsibilities to manage the university. An article in Chronicle of Higher Education makes a related point about the need for faculty to take on leadership roles.

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