Higher education: sunk at the end of history?

A reply to Justine Andrew. ‘The Strategic Imperative: Planning for a Post-Covid Future’. Wonkhe.

Justine Andrew in Wonkhe (6 May 2020) sets out a strategic approach to the big questions facing higher education: sector, institutions and their governors. She, at KPMG, uses the structure: React; Resilience; Recovery; Renewal and New Reality.

I want to suggest there is a flaw in her argument particularly when addressing the “New Reality”. The flaw is that higher education is a service delivered to customers by firms with employees. I acknowledge that this model underpins most orthodox economic thinking about society. I also acknowledge that that such a model is part of the story. The mission of the Office for Students to regulate higher education as a public utility confirms this. But, it is not the whole story.

Andrew asks, among other questions:

WHO is the “customer” (students, employers, government, partners in our region and globally) and what are their needs, now and in the future.

Higher education does not easily fit into the customer service model which dominates thought in the big accountancy consultancies and outsourcing firms. Higher education particularly does not fit into conventional accounting cycles, though it is forced to do so.

Higher education is, among others Andrew lists, its own customer, acquiring some of its “outputs” (graduates) for some of its own purposes (teaching and research). Therefore, higher education is also an employer. And, higher education is a partner. Institutions partner with each other as well as with local, regional and transnational partners in many categories: businesses, governments, militaries and NGOs.

But such a view is entrenched in the cadre of senior managers and governors of higher education institutions. Andrew asks:

Is the portfolio mix the right one and how can the university balance the need to reduce cost, generate revenue and, most importantly, meet the needs of the wider economy post-Covid-19, as well support strong recovery in the places where the university operates?

Lost in these questions is the epistemic role higher education plays as the “psyche of society”, one among several repositories of our cultures’ memories.

To point this out is to risk the accusation of elitism. To engage in activity that does not appear to deliver a customer a service within an annual accounting cycle for an efficient return is presented as a privilege to be pulled down. And that is not how a “new reality” will be shaped. That is the old one seeking to reassert itself. If there is one thing that the corona virus crisis should show us is that we are not sunk at the end of history.

Reference

Andrew, Justine. 2020. ‘The Strategic Imperative: Planning for a Post-Covid Future’. Wonkhe (blog). Accessed 6 May 2020. http://wonkhe.com/blogs/the-strategic-imperative-planning-for-a-post-covid-future/.