Higher Education providers have experienced much less turbulent times than these. The stormy climate within contemporary United Kingdom Higher Education, for its part, is presided over by a coalition government which, for many, has over-hastily introduced poorly-considered policies that have largely served to foster, rather than reverse, or even hasten, the much longer drawn out process of cloud on the horizon congregation. As Cambridge Professor of English Stefan Collini’s recent spiky review of two equally spiky and almost as recent analyses of UK Higher Education policy argues:
‘Just as the replacement of public funding by fees is the vehicle for remaking universities in the image of consumer-oriented retailers, so it is also the Trojan horse which allows private capital to make a profit out of higher education.’
Behind recent HE policy reforms, then, what Professor Collini uncovers is not so much a coherent philosophy of education as a cynical yet forceful attempt to reduce traditionally exalted educational concerns to relatively trivial matters of economic projection. Collini is certainly no Cassandra. Here, earlier and in many other respects he is echoing the disturbing conclusions which Bill Readings had already come to when he portrayed ‘The University in Ruins’. In becoming ever more beholden to lucre’s allure, so this argumentative tradition goes, Universities have lost the bearings originally guaranteed by their classical foundations. Accordingly un-moored, they have become playthings of the winds of trade: devoid of rudder, devoid of compass and, most importantly, devoid of an autonomously considered destination. It is in this sense, Readings suggests, that we are to understand the groundswell in ‘interdisciplinary’ offerings littered across the terrain of contemporary universities – not, as their advocates would have it, as the synergistic coming together of the various parts of a thriving institution but rather as the incoherent ramblings of a decaying elder undergoing its terminal death-throes.
There is much in the above that I concur with. Nevertheless, if you will forgive me a final Homerism, I would like to take issue with the suggestion that interdisciplinary study is a siren call which we would all bethe healthier for having ignored. Certainly, there isn’t much on the surface which unites academic disciplines as diverse as Economics, Physics, Sociology, Geography, Philosophy and Anthropology, other than the fact, perhaps, that they can be categorised as academic disciplines – this, for those that haven’t encountered it before, is the crux of Readings’ complaint against what he calls “the University of Excellence”. Beyond this formal likeness, however, I would like to argue that there is at least one other sense in which these disciplines should be intimately connected and that is insofar as they collectively offer insight into the nature and purpose of contemporary management. As Professor in Information and Organisation Studies and Head of a School of Management originally trained as a psychologist I’m bound to say something like that, of course! It is, however, also something which my two predecessors Alan Bryman, the social scientific methodologist, and Gibson Burrell, the industrial sociologist, have also said, believed, and organised the most unique School of Management in the country on the basis of.
Think of management not in the narrow sense of its being a relatively exclusive set of activities which people called managers do but rather in the broader sense of its being something which we are all engaged in whenever we want to get something complex done and you get a sense for what we go on about when we go on about management here. ‘The Leicester Model’ researched and taught at our School deliberately recruits insight into the nature of management from wherever it might be realistically found – quantum physics and art history being two of the more exotic sites we draw from – in order to produce intentionally interdisciplinary accounts. We do this not solely for the sake of exoticism but rather for the sake of realism – management, as our School slogan has it, is too important not to be debated and it is for this reason that we draw our debating team members from across the faculties.
Those that take their rhetorical imagery from the comics rather than the classics know only all too well that with great power comes great responsibility. So we could introduce the Leicester Model of management by instead saying that the nature of management is too important to be decided upon by managers alone. Management is a multi-faceted phenomenon and so it requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Professor Collini’s convincing diagnosis of the mismanagement of UK Higher Education policy closes with a call for further criticism of the mis-managers. I concur and would add only that the study of (mis-)management more generally must be distinguished from just so many acts of sycophancy.