FOLD: “Fear of Looking Different”

University Design | David J. Staley

Glyn Davis, The Australian Idea of a University (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2017).

Of all the problems facing the higher education sector today, the lack of differentiation may be the root cause of many of them. Too many colleges and universities look like every other college and university, offering similar degrees, similar student services, similar athletic opportunities, their faculty publishing in the same journals and attending the same conferences. As the size of the undergraduate student market shrinks—as we now live through the long-predicted “demographic cliff”—the same institutions desperately chase a share of an ever-shrinking market. Perhaps rather than defining the problem as a lack of differentiation, we might instead call it “the drift toward uniformity.”

This affliction seems to have been built into the higher education system in Australia. Glyn Davis, who until 2018 was the vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, contends that “from the mid-nineteenth century Australia embraced a single idea of the public university.” They would be state-funded institutions, but self-governing. They would be secular, comprehensive and, most interestingly perhaps, they would be commuter. “This is the metropolitan model of a university, an institution of the city rather than a separate residential community.” (5) This is an important difference between Australian and American universities, with most of the latter having been founded in small towns and rural areas. (American metropolitan universities became more plentiful starting in the early twentieth century.) But most notably, Australian universities are all nearly uniform in their organizational form and mission.

For Davis, this Australian form of “lack of differentiation” is a cause for alarm. “How does an Australian public system offering just one basic model of the university cope in a world of unbounded study options?” (7) More specifically, the sector is ripe for innovation from without: “if Australian public universities are more alike than different, then disruption from Silicon Valley may affect the whole sector, simultaneously. The Australian university system consists almost entirely of those institutions targeted by entrepreneurs for creative destruction, namely, large public institutions offering a standard product.” (30) A decade ago, this kind of talk animated discussions of higher education in this country, especially with the rise of MOOCs and the growth of the for-profit sector. Those concerns have diminished—to be replaced by others—but perhaps American institutions should not let their guard down. The drift toward the standardization of higher education could still very well lead to intrusions by entrepreneurs eager to disrupt.

It isn’t as if there have been no efforts at designing new models in Australia. These innovative universities—such as the Australian National University (founded 1946)  and New South Wales University of Technology (founded 1964)—nevertheless tended to revert back toward the standard model. “The second and third waves of universities in Australia followed a similar cycle,” Davis concludes, “a desire by policy makers to increase structural and pedagogical diversity, brave opening gambits, then a slow but steady move over decades to a more conventional configuration.” (82)

Indeed, by the late 1980s, this conventional configuration was codified into Australian law. The years between 1987 and 1991represented the time when John Dawkins was Minister for Education, and Davis maintains that he more than anyone solidified the standard model. Dawkins conferred university status on several institutions, but at the same time created a “unified national system” of higher education. Only research institutions with at least 8,000 students would receive government support, which “meant an end to the independent art schools and music conservatoria, along with the rural and fashion colleges surviving on the periphery of tertiary education.” (91) Dawkins’ reforms, in effect, “took an existing model of a university, already credible with students and academics, and mandated it as the national norm.” (94) The Dawkins’ reforms represent a key difference from the American experience. Uniformity in US higher education has not been imposed by federal policy, but rather by market-based decisions. Indeed, what seems to drive America’s lack of institutional diversity is what we might call FOLD: “fear of looking different” from every other college or university.

“As universities are subject to the same policy environment, employ from the same pool of staff, and compete for the same students by providing the same set of offerings, they learn from each other,” Davis observes.

New institutions copy the already successful, and so reinforce a standard model. Academics reinforce hierarchies of status, journals and curricula. Over time, the sector converges around very similar profiles and ways of behaving; “rational actors make their organizations increasingly similar as they try to change them.”

This description of the situation in Australia should sound very familiar. “In America,” Davis concludes, “this is sometimes described as ‘Harvard Envy.’” (101)

There is a joke circulating in Australia that says “Rumor has it that a federal education minister once claimed the country had just one university with around 220 campuses.” (104) Davis fears that this single university in Australia is vulnerable to disruption. Can the same be said about the situation in the United States?

David J. Staley is a higher education philosopher, strategist, futurist and designer, and is an Honorary Faculty Fellow in Innovation at CHELIP.  He is the author of Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education and the forthcoming Knowledge Towns: Colleges and Universities as Talent Magnets.

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