It is true that when you start a PhD, you start with a topic in mind. A topic that you think is important, critical, urgent and one that will not change. When I started my PhD in 1998 or thereabouts, I was convinced the relationship between university managers and academics was the topic for me. I withdrew from that PhD for reasons that are best not discussed in a public blog while promising myself I would finish a PhD. I kept that promise when I returned to Swinburne in 2012.
The intervening 14 years saw me with the same topic but a very different person. I had foresight wired into my brain for a start. I no longer worked in universities but in my own business. I was a foresight practitioner not a university manager. Yet my belief in that original topic remained strong and unwavering. And here I am in 2015 having moved through three iterations of that topic to arrive at what has to be my final one: The Future University: what it is and what it does.
What happened along the way? At the end of my first year, I had an epiphany that it wasn’t the relationship that mattered, it was university management as a whole – the future of university management. That kept me going for two more years. I went through confirmation, ethics approval and starting data collection – no more changes I said. Then, to my confusion and disappointment, not enough people wanted to participate in my research. Well, to be honest, I’d probably made my data collection process too complicated, but this lack of response sent me back to the topic.
After a meeting with my supervisors, I shifted again from the topic of management to the university itself and would the future university need to be managed? All good. I tried recruiting participants again with a revised data collection process. Two more people signed up. Ah, I began to think – there is something wrong here. Maybe use social media to recruit? Maybe not. What to do? A tinge of desperation set in.
Thanks again to my supervisors and their faith in me – or perhaps the topic – we spent two meetings working this through. Importantly because they know me and my skills and ways of operating, we arrived at The Future University: what it is and what is does. My first reaction at going this broad in scope was immense sorrow that I’d left my deeply held belief in my original topic behind – cutting the apron strings finally was hard. It was in the new topic somewhere but it wasn’t immediately visible and certainly not at the core of what I’d be looking at now. My second reaction was fear – such a BIG topic. And disappointment – it seemed like I didn’t know what I was doing really changing my topic all the time. My third reaction was acceptance and a degree of excitement. This would work, and because it is now taking a more theoretical focus, no ethics approval needed which is a relief.
Ultimately, I get it that these shifts and curves are part of the flow of the PhD process, part of my development in deepening my thinking and gaining clarity around what it was that I wanted to contribute to this conversation about the future university. Where I’ve arrived suits me too, it suits how I use foresight in my work. A global perspective first and the detail second.
First – the university and whether it has a future, the university and whether it will fit in the possible future societies which are out there, the form of which are still uncertain and infinitely complex from today’s vantage point. A focus on why it’s not a good idea to take today’s idea of the university and the perspectives that underpin it into the future without first challenging that idea for relevance and usefulness.
Second – if the university as a social entity has a future, what might it look like? What is its future purpose? Developing scenarios will help here to get an idea about possible futures for the university and then to think about what would it be that a future university might be doing. Will the university need to be managed? I had to get that in there somewhere didn’t it? What will it do? How will it be led? What will university work look like? What culture will underpin how it does what it does?
The assumptions in the literature that I’ve read so far are that (i) there will be a future university, and (ii) that teaching, learning and research will be at the heart of what that university does. These are comforting assumptions but largely untested and unquestioned in any great depth. A huge number of questions start to emerge if you don’t accept those assumptions, opening up the conversation to think the unthinkable: does the university we have today have a future?
This is the murky space into which I am now heading. Wish me luck!