Spectres in University Governance

Spectres in University GovernanceIntroduction

150 years ago a spectre was haunting Europe, the spectre of communism. Which spectres could we identify these days?
The request of the editors of this issue of LINK was to give an experience-based opinion on 'the future of democracy and student participation in higher education governance, with a view to higher education legislation'. In doing so, it is useful to detect at least some important interrelated trends and driving forces: spectres haunting higher education and research in the years to come. Where are the students to help eliminating -better pacifying- these spectres? Are students needed in governance, or should they just pay tuition fees, and finish their expensive studies as quickly as possible instead of draining the purse of their parents and the taxpayers, in order to be useful to their family and their company?

Globalisation, and Two Europes Becoming One

The world of higher education and research has always been relatively small. At accelerating speed and intensity, staff and students from all over the world travel and meet, chat on the Internet, communicate. Learning how things are organised, from each others' experience, from the countries they work and study in, is facilitated by many exchange programmes, work of international organisations and non governmental organisations, and internationally oriented research institutes. The world has become more complex as well as much smaller, and knowledge-based, despite the deprivation in many parts of it.

After the end of the cold war and despite the regional conflicts, as in several parts of the former Yugoslavia, Europe became bigger too. Western European countries felt -and should feel even more- a responsibility to assist the many central and eastern European countries in their attempts to reform their public institutions, retrain their civil servants, and restructure their economies. Universities and their students in particular, should lead the way, now even more than after the euphoria of the fall of the Berlin wall. It is higher education and research that have a special obligation, having the people, the skills and the mission to transfer knowledge, culture, prosperity and democracy to citizens all over the world.

These and many other international developments must be taken into account when we discuss the ways and means universities are governed, as the function of higher education and research must reflect the needs of society. The role and responsibility students have therein is, in my opinion, a very important one. They should closely and critically follow the way their university reacts to societal change and international developments, and speed things up when needed. And it is needed.

Information and Communication Technology

The so-called virtual university is both a challenge and a threat to academic life. Students as well as staff need the Internet, however, they need much more. They need an environment that stimulates critic thinking, debate and actions. They need to learn from academic attitudes in a real academic world. To download information from web-sites is not to be compared with the academic thinking that requires much exercise and the smell of campuses and libraries. The web contains 'old' knowledge, although partly of a high level, but not the newest knowledge, and even less of traces of developing not yet existing knowledge and skills. The web reproduces much, but produces little. It is especially the students who should be able to intertwine information and communication technology in academic curricula. They also have much to lose if university governors do not succeed in the adaptation of their style and structure of governance to the accelerating speed of developments in this field. Students are the best advisers on information and communication technology, both in policy development and in implementation. Furthermore, they have a responsibility to ensure that modern technology does not impede access to higher education.

Diversified Funding of Higher Education and Research; Reduced Public Funding

The governments, taxpayers if you like, became less willing to fund higher education and research. They -usually- encourage open access for a larger population, but have given up their funding monopoly. Political motives to finance higher education are eroding. Sponsors, tuition fees for initial programmes, consulting, contract research for private enterprise, education programmes for profit, and other (semi-)commercial activities, make up for the loss of public money. The effects on institutional governance are enormous. Research workers feel the pressure of producing the scientific results that the contractors need, and even sometimes just demand. Executive boards do not only have to listen to the government but also to private business that pays for the music. Academic freedom is under pressure from different sides, but still needs protection in order to protect and safeguard independent research. Research becomes again more important than education because it does not only give higher status; it is earning capacity too. It is in the interest of students that they (have the right to) participate in discussions and decision making on these issues. It is also their responsibility as members of the academic community.

Quality Assurance, Life Long Learning, Work-Study-Contracts.

Study patterns have changed considerably over the last ten to fifteen years. Universities had to watch closely the always-unexpected developments on the labour market, and had to accommodate a huge massification. Furthermore, diversification and flexibilisation of curricula in various ways, and many other changes, had their effects on the contents and context of education. First and foremost, the new forceful and expensive- systems of self-assessment, peer review, and performance indicators, completely changed the picture. As a result, the management of education also went through many changes, affecting the style as well as the structure of governance. But students withdrew from university governance.

A Trend in Governance.

In western European countries, one can detect diminishing student participation in institutional governance. Professionalisation of the management, in crude forms called managerialism, wiped out student participation to a relatively large extent. In the Netherlands for example, new legislation reduced their formal position, especially in universities, thus reducing the attractiveness to participate. Various reasons can be given for the fact that students are less interested in co-governance and participation: reduced duration of studies, higher norms, stricter conditions for loans and grants, situation on the labour market that encourages part-time working, competition of other forms of pastime, and -again- less formal influence in decision-making. Not least, the need for students to participate is not very high, as institutions are usually not badly managed, and things go rather well. However, as to the future, it is not unlikely that sooner than expected, students start to feel the need again to build up a new wave of revolts if they keep on neglecting the maintenance of their interests. Those who are absent, are not heard, neither before nor after the decision. Students' absenteeism in university councils and boards, cannot be but temporary.

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