Quote: Universities and business models

There are three generic types of business models: solution shops, value-adding process businesses, and facilitated user networks. Each of these is comprised of its own value proposition, resources, processes, and profit formula. Universities have become conflations of all three types of business models. This has resulted in extraordinarily complex—some might say confused—institutions where much of the cost is tied up in coordinative overhead rather than in research and teaching. A key reason why the for-profit universities and other universities such as Western Governor’s have been gaining such traction in today’s higher education market is that they don’t conflate the three types of business models.


Universities emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries primarily as teaching institutions, but most gradually evolved to become expensive conflations of all three types of models with three value propositions: research, organized as a solution-shop model; teaching, which is a value-adding process activity; which is a value-adding process activity; and facilitated networks, within which students work to help each other succeed and have fun. A typical state university today is the equivalent of having merged major consulting firm McKinsey with Whirlpool’s manufacturing operations and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. They have three fundamentally different and incompatible business models all housed within the same organization.

Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Caldera, L. (2011). Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education  [pp. 33-35]

Quote: Academics as the Four Yorkshiremen

While there are some, perhaps-justified, fears about modern academia effectively losing the insights of the next Newton, it’s worth recalling the circumstances in which many of the well-known figures in the history of science conducted their work. While they may not have been writing grant reports of marking exams, they were likely seeking patronage, carrying on journalistic careers, undertaking the duties of a doctor or a vicar, teaching, family business or otherwise making a – usually non-scientific – living.

Those who really were excluded were not solitary geniuses who could not find sufficient time for thinking, but those who were, as a result of class, geography, race or gender, never likely to have the opportunity to begin an education, let alone contribute to the established scientific societies and journals. And this affected the science that was done: ample research shows how the norms, assumptions and interests of elites have shaped supposedly value-free science.

Rebekah Higgitt, “Who’s missing in modern academia, solitary geniuses, or something much more significant”

This quote brings us to the heart of “well-in-the-bad-old-days-things-were-simpler ‘argument’, that has been trotted out since time immemorial. It’s the academic’s equivalent of the Four Yorkshiremen.

Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing “Hallelujah.”

But you try and tell the young people today that…

The demands made on academics are of course onerous, and we can’t deny that. But nor should we let this blind us to the situation faced by others in the wider academic and research world. We cannot let the poor working conditions of those who are employed blind us to the undermining of the work itself. We see this in the nouveau-indentured labour of the graduate students, the adjuncts, the non-tenure track lecturers, and the researchers on short/fixed-term contracts, all with little hope of security. Being aware of this casualization of academic labour, and the erosion of tenure, is imperative.

Getting rid of the academic as the heart of the academy is not a matter of ‘including stakeholders’, or ‘increasing efficiency’, or bringing better organizational models to bear. It is a coup against knowledge, and all the processes required to create it. Lecturers and researchers are at the heart of academia, as they live their lives in it. They cannot do what they do without the university. Administrators could go and administer anything, elsewhere. Students hang around for 3-4 years (any longer, and they cross over the border from student to researcher, on to the academic side of things) and then are gone. Presidents and Rectors always have the option to helm other forms of organization. But when we allow the role of  the academic as researcher and teacher to be shunted to one side, we lose something. It is not to suggest that, Smaug atop the horde, the academic is at the pinnacle of a hierarchy, and all others are subordinate to them. Rather it is that the academic has the centrality of the hub, the central node in the vast knowledge-creating network that is the university. Only by recognising, and asserting this can we preserve the workers as well as the work.

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Finding an alternative to the market discourse of culture via Iain M. Banks

This post started when I was reflecting on our inability to theorize culture, the arts, and humanities except within the paradigm of the market. We know the standard responses – and more often reactions – to this question of “what good are they?” (I will slip between culture, humanities, and the arts in this post, as I think they have many things in common in terms of theoretical justification).

There are various possible approaches. One might be via justification itself, and how to secure meaning and significance in a secular world (Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, Karl Löwith). Then there might be an analysis of the market and its internal logic (Debra Satz). Another is via the matter of value, of the worth of arts and culture and the humanities. This is seen in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic value, and it is a difficult and indeed perilous route to take. It is, however, the road more travelled. Continue reading

The ethics of research evaluation: the individual

One must endeavour at all times when reading evaluation proposals, policy documents, legislation, white papers, and journal articles without number, to see research in its proper context. Most of these documents suggest that we must see research in the “fullest” context, or the “broader” context. And interestingly, this full broadness has a tendency to favour the economic perspective. This is not necessarily the product of malevolent neoliberal intent. It is often a by-product of the hope that a quantitative approach lends itself to impartiality and objectivity. To an extent, I understand this. But I would say that objectivity and neutrality are not the same thing. To stand to one side and not critique a process which we consider damaging is not impartial, but it is rather decidedly compromised. To regard individuals and processes and structures equally impartially is compromised. To suggest that ‘research’ is a disembodied Thing, to be poked and prodded without consequences is compromised. Research is the product of an individual’s labour. Research is embodied. This is the proper context in which it should be viewed.

Research is the result of an individual’s effort, experience, time, and toil. Even group research isn’t done by a group, but rather by the coordinated activities of individuals in concert. It is not impersonal, and all discussion that disembodies research is to be resisted. The reason it is to be resisted is that all work has a politics. So just as my work implies an ontology, a view of the world which it is necessary to make explicit as per standard research proposal/project structure, it too implies a model of interpersonal and social interaction. That a It is necessary to draw out this politics, this standpoint which can be objectively sketched, certainly, but which by no means implies a ham-strung neutrality. My point about neutrality here is that all forms of impartiality and objectivity should favour the individual, for they are the actors in research. We should not favour an evaluation protocol, or a quantitative methodology, or another disembodied process by putting it in the same category as the individual researcher.

My point, then, is that not to have a politics for ones research and work leaves one at the mercy of those who do. In this, I am assuming the implication of research in a nexus of various vested interests, both within the hierarchy of research, higher education, and broader social and economic networks and institutions. These vested interests are biased in that they have their own responsibilities (to shareholders, voters, boards of directors, etc.), and they can coordinate their activities accordingly. Research, as a whole, does not speak with one voice, but the researchers as individuals should speak for themselves, and be biased in terms of their own interests. This is one of the points that is glossed over in stakeholder theory, that these different stakeholders can be in conflict. Consensus and agreement are not the greatest good here. Indeed, the assumption that some compromises must be found, that there should be some give and take, hides a deeper conflict that needs to be brought out into the open.

A step towards this taking place on a productive footing is that researchers as individuals need to become more explicit about what it is they are doing, and why they are doing it. What makes them, as researchers in Higher Education, different to researchers in private industry, as well as different to business interests, to politicians, to bureaucrats and administrators – even administrators within their own Higher Education Institutions. With this a more open discussion and debate can take place regarding research evaluation and the direction which research should take. Researchers and scholars are citizens, and pay their taxes, and so their views and expertise should not be silenced in favour of the politician’s mythically intolerant and hard-nosed taxpayer, nor the minor deities of Innovation and Growth. Researchers do not necessarily need to speak with one voice (no “X of the world unite!”), but they do need to speak with their own voices, in their own language, and from their own expertise.

Where are the higher education libertarians?

How come we don’t have a Tea Party of research evaluation? Where is the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag for the REF?  How come all the market ideology which is imported into the administration of universities is the of the unreconstructed sort? How come the focus is on ever more regulation (of individual researchers and their work), whereas elsewhere in this grand market regulation is anathema? Where is the spontaneous order ideologues, the invisible hand acolytes for the knowledge economy? Where aren’t academics and researchers recognised as the experts they are and so left to self-regulation, as is the norm elsewhere in the ‘market knows best’ dreamlandfantastytime? If the Michael Goves and David Willetses of the world are bringing market mechanisms into education and research on the principle that these realms are markets already, well why not expand this thought to its ultimate conclusion. If they are markets (of ideas, of knowledge, of technology, of understanding) then the last thing required is any government involvement. Or perhaps it is an incoherent analogy from the off…

Humanities IN crisis, or humanities AS crisis

Reading Eleonora Belfiore and Anna Upchurch‘s edited collection of essays, Humanities in the Twenty-First Century: Beyond Utility and Markets, I noted how Belfiore draws attention to the fact that the humanities seem to have continual identity drama. We have, as they say, issues. Now, this takes many forms, be it in terms of the job crisis for recently doctored researchers, or issues of public funding, or university organization, or may go even deeper to the very metaphysical justification of the humanities themselves. A nadir of this was to be seen the culture wars of the 90s and 00s, which I think we are all tired of revisiting, but which certainly moulded my early years of university education.

In reading Belfiore’s introduction chapter, “The ‘Rhetoric of Gloom’ v. the Discourse of Impact”, a tweet I had read a while ago popped into my head. It was a propos one of those periodic Twitter squalls that whips up over something or other, but unlike many tweets in such circumstances, it cut straight through the particularity of the situation, presenting a view of the grand, long, universal view.   Continue reading

Redefining academic research – capital or plural?

“University scientists still do most of the research, but increasingly the allegiance of many is to the ‘research centre’, a quasi-academic institution which draws its heat and light from the university, its directions from elsewhere.”

“Cooperative groups, from the great industrial concerns to small research teams, inevitably tend to rely on what is already acceptable as common ground, and that means established, specialized techniques.”

“Companion to the team project and planning by committee is the blight of ‘research design’. Instead of being joined together in a flexible arrangement which allows the scientist to follow his own side roads, project members are bound up in a highly detailed, prefabricated master plan of research.”

The above three quotes are not from recent blog posts regarding higher education, or reponses to EU policy initiatives, but  from William H. Whyte’s 1956 work, The Organization Man, in his chapter “The Bureaucratization of the Scientist”.  Though over half a century old, the concerns and criticisms expressed here are as timely as ever they were (with the addition of there being organization women as well as men…), and the problems that prompted such reflections still exist. Indeed, in one form or another, I have heard similar remarks made by researchers, academics, and administrators in the last few years of working in higher education.  Continue reading