Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Day 14 - We are not the Daleks

Universities are, we are told, a business.
As a business, we have customers and competitors.
Our aim is to crush our competition and make our customers very very happy.
I will rant on about the problems with this model another day, but I want, very briefly, to talk about competition today.

Who are our competitors?
We usually look to geographically close institutions against which to measure ourselves.
After the recent University guide 2014 subject tables were published by the Guardian, my institution proudly claimed that it had come top for Music (among a handful of other arts subjects) among all Scottish modern universities. Never mind that we came 41st out of 77 in the UK, or that the only other Scottish modern university in the table for Music is the University of the West of Scotland...
League tables are rubbish, and I think we all know that they're rubbish, but the sector still seems to be setting their clocks by them for the moment.
But I digress. As usual.

Do we want to do better than our competitors, beat them at their own game, or do we want to aim to address other areas of the 'market' and attract consumers that might be looking for something else?
In other words, rather than looking at the sector as a race, or as a battle between (for example) grocers, we should look at the whole high street. Yes, there is an Italian restaurant, but that doesn't mean that there can't be a Korean takeaway. If we begin to look at the sector this way, it isn't so much to do with competition as complementation; working in harmony to provide a varied education sector.
That's an idealist's view, perhaps.
I am a bit more pessimistic about the direction that most universities will continue to take, and I suspect that we will continue to be encouraged to destroy the opposition with our mighty brains and superior teaching powers.

But is that where our competitiveness stops?
In my institution, we have three Faculties, which are further subdivided into Schools, which are further subdivided into Subject Groups (departments to most of us).
There is an undercurrent of competition between Subject Groups, between Schools, and between Faculties. You can probably imagine how this happens, when different areas are invited to 'bid' for money, resources, and space, and I suspect it's the same everywhere.

We talk about healthy competition and unhealthy competition.
Unhealthy interinstitutional competition leads us to conflict and unproductive posturing (among other things). Staff and students suffer the consequences. In a rush for Mother's love, we aim to kill the other chicks in the nest and become the solitary bloated ugly cuckoo in the nest.
Not an attractive prospect.

Don't become too insular. Don't believe the propaganda that you may be fed.
Reach out of your department to other departments.
Today, I met with the programme leader for Psychology about my Music Psychology module. Not just another Subject Group, or another School, but a totally different Faculty... In short, I'm worried that the number of honours year modules we are currently teaching may be cut due to financial considerations, and I'm looking to address this preemptively (before a review). We had a great chat, and we will be (hopefully) trialling a few Psychology students on my module, and (in the future) bringing in some of their expertise into the module as well.
This is precisely the kind of model we should be pursuing. When a module can take on extra students, why do we put up barriers? This module does not require great musical aptitude, just musical engagement and intellectual curiosity. We can tear down the barriers.

In short, a tree that has a wider root system is harder to fell.
We shouldn't turn inwards to ideas of subject purity like the Daleks, hating all others who are not like us, instead we should be making connections and looking for allies.
The darkness is always coming, and there may come a time when you need to warm yourself by another fire.

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