As you will already know, this is a minor hobby horse of mine, and I return to it here, partly as an act of public thinking (as in thinking in public, not a higher form of public intellectualism.. that would be a stretch for this time on a Monday morning and in general, really). For context, I write this whilst thinking about putting pen to paper for a more serious report on it, and I would welcome input from anyone here, or offline to my email address – click the link on the right. What I am particularly after is some blunt advice about how universities (not limited to war studies and related fields, but engineering, materials, maths, IT, design schools etc) can better engage with the defence community (widely defined)? Are there things we don’t do, that we could do, or things we should do that would drive a benefit? This ditty largely muses on university education and these wider concerns: it’s a starter for ten. My refined thoughts – which will be done and dusted by May 2013 I will make available here.
As people of this parish know I was lucky enough to work at the Defence Studies Department for a while and indeed to convene the MA in Defence Studies for a time. At the time I felt this put me rather more in touch with the working lives of a transnational collective of mid-to-high ranking military folk than the contracted hours of my diary really allowed. I now look back with some fondness about that proximity, and particularly of the small group work we did on the MA course as a very high level exchange of views. I remember some of those people vividly, and given our discussions I’d warrant they might even remember me too. Crucially, for the purposes of this short scribble, it felt like that sort of work that would translate into an impact on someone’s working life (minor, perhaps, but an impact). In the civilian sector, we prepare young minds for the world of work, we provide a grounding of knowledge and the transferable skills to operate both academically and vocationally. The balance between that intellectual grounding and the vocational after is the subject of some increasingly noisy debates in the UK: for those interested in some of them, they should head to the newly formed Council for the Defence of British Universities.
So, one core of the business of universities is preparing minds that will engage internationally for the UK.
But is the balance in preparing them for the sake of the individual or for higher purposes such as competitiveness or national interest? The so-called ‘post-Browne era’ would provide one with the idea that the balance is for the individual, but the needs of the country (where are our innovators, are economic growth champions, our ‘want to do betters’?) would lead me to believe we need to think more seriously about providing a platform for individuals to succeed in a way that benefits core objectives of the nation. Put another way: we’re being thrashed off the park by our competitors and we seem to have sleep-walked or been duped into a situation where we cannot compete. For me, this is more a problem that sits with schools, than it does with universities. As any fool knows, the earlier in life you try to learn something the easier, the better, the higher the curve that can be experienced. Gove’s reforms of what – in Britain – we call state schools, but Americans call public schools, have been dismissed as an ideological dogma let loose. But, stuck on my soap box, and as a parent and a school governor, he is absolutely correct. I sit as a minority of one on my governing body in favour of academy status – not because I particularly enjoy radically changing stuff, but because it’s the only way to ensure improved performance and delivery of academic skills. By a circuitous route it is one way to improve literacy contact time from non-existent to reasonable (and still nowhere near at foundation stage the norm of 3 to 4 hours a week within fee paying schools): world beating innovators are not created by providing people with just enough reading skills to function basically at a shop. If given a free-hand, I would turn the local schools into a large ‘free school’, as a way of freeing up the school to focus on creating the sort of wealth creators that my part of the UK badly needs. But there is also a balance for universities to strike between individual enrichment (and the individual is paying more and more, the state in the first moment, but then the individual) and the interests of a competitive state with global interests and threats. Connection to security – a future pool of talent able to compete, a future pool of talent able to create and use competitive technologies, and to better understand the mix of cultures that will blend opportunity and threat.
I am grateful to the suggestion of my e-friend and colleague Robert David Steele, for his wisdom on education, and his firm belief that once we’ve taught youngsters the basics we should give them internet technologies for free and let them find their own routes to knowledge: this free-marketeering approach to open-source everything is as fascinating as it is paradigm breaking and uncomfortable as a result.
Read any copy of the Times Higher in any week and you’ll see that university finances are under stress. This is stress from a general economic contraction, and the knock-on this has with potential-student sentiment (and ability to pay?) and business investment in R&D. The THES produced some indicative data of where individual universities sit financially, and it’s clear that some of the non-research intensive universities are in for a very bad time indeed. There may be closures. Even with the well endowed research intensive universities there is extra pressure on money, and where this pressure exists a greater requirement to ‘get out there’ and make some connections. So, universities are offering a huge amount of supply as a part consequence of, and just at the time of a contraction in demand (well, budgets… I’m sure the desire for the right sort of engagement exists). They are also offering this supply as a contingent element of the research assessment procedure – so double supply, dwindling demand. So, part of my first paragraph request for blunt views concerns a recalibration of this supply and demand relationship. The supply side knows that it needs to supply and is (mostly, save for a hardcore of those who’d rather be pure than employed) keen to supply it. It guesses at what it needs to supply, and hopes to God to find someone to demand.. The demand side doesn’t currently have much money and needs good value and strong results. Both need to be ‘smart customers’ and ‘smart consumers’, because otherwise we’re just wasting time and effort and not strengthening our core national interests.
So, finance is a key problem in higher education because without it we cannot do high end research, advance knowledge, nor teach future minds. But we also cannot carve out the areas of highly competitive activity that puts us at an advantage as UK Plc against our rivals. Should universities retain their position as a state-sponsored skunkworks, and what level of control is required for that to work?
There is a Keynesian argument for retaining universities as engines of local economic growth, and there are some very interesting statistics that I’ve seen on how that works (a relatively small university supports 3 non-university jobs in the local community for every one university job supported, for example). But instead of relying on a narrow economic Keynes, I would like us to find a scale of activity – in this case in securitized research – that we could put forward an adaptive Keynesian argument: ‘we are vital to the national interest’.
Universities sit as knowledge hubs in a wider network of knowledge providers and creators. If there weren’t already universities they’d have to be invented for this purpose. It’s the fine nuance of the relationship – of how they perform these roles and tasks – that needs working out.
University staff also sit in these networks, with each other, with alumni in academic or non-academic jobs, and with practitioners. The same can be said of our alumni. The challenge is, therefore, how to make the best of the network. And by this I don’t mean some grand Facebook or Linkedin conundrum, although that might be part of the picture, but of how to make the best of these networks of learning and engagement to do something that fulfils the needs of organisations that do need to be conscious of a bottom-line, but which also serve a national function.
Universities are not the most important aspect – by a long stretch – of national security and resilience, but they are an important component in the machine. They partly supply the human and scientific resource for our military endeavours, and provide some of the global reach the country enjoys. But this cog in the machine undoubtedly needs some better definition, and some lubricating dialogue and form to actually serve the country properly. As I say, any thoughts more than welcome and any used will be acknowledged, if appropriate.