We’re going through a bit of a strategy blitz in DCU at the moment. First we had the University plan – I can’t quite remember its name but it includes that most important of words, “transforming”. (For some reason it reminds me a little of that skit on Fiona Bruce, the BBC Newsreader – “Breaking News, Breaking Hearts”.) In the universities, we’re transforming stuff.
Recently we had the Strategic Plan for Research and soon we will have the Strategic Plan for Teaching and Learning. The Strategic Plan for Research is not bad and should be read by all those involved in making submissions for Technological University status. Our plan reads exactly like one would expect from a TU. I am a little anxious about the T&L plan because I suspect that it will include lots of nonsense about Online Learning and/or Enterprise. DCU is now, after all, the “University of Enterprise”. I’m not sure how that happened but there you go. I suppose we have to find some niche given that we are the third ranked university in Dublin.
But as well as University plans, we also have Faculty Plans – both for Research and T&L. Further down the line, we have School (Department) Plans. One can imagine a time in the future when we’ll have to have individual plans. I suppose that was the idea of the Performance Management thing that we went through for a while. Whatever happened that? All of these plans have to be “aligned”, i.e. made consistent with each other – not an easy task.
Most strategic plans make hard reading. They are filled with buzzwords like “foster”, “leverage”, “transformational”, “synergy”, “interdisciplinary” etc. Academics are ‘roped’ into writing these things by virtue of having climbed up the academic ladder and I suspect that they hate writing them. I would.
I find the strategic plans that I read in academia to be somewhat puzzling. Academics are typically ‘free spirits’. They like to get on with their research while doing as little teaching as they can get away with. They hate administration. They don’t normally talk in the language of the strategist. Yet many of them seem obliged to write strategy documents in a convoluted style, replete with jargon and buzzwords. Perhaps it is a result of a lack of real clarity as to what we are trying to achieve in the University sector. (Mind you, a small number of academics will benefit substantially from strategies that favour their discipline and they obviously have no problem with the ‘strategic’ approach. Without wishing to go all ‘David McWilliams’, they are the ‘insiders’.)
All of this planning strikes me as being a little ‘Soviet’ or maybe just a little ‘EU’. If I were in a position of power, I’d take a much more laissez faire approach – more ‘American’ perhaps. I’d try to identify what were the barriers to people excelling at research and teaching. (Maybe someone should ask the academics some time.) I’d try to remove those barriers and let the academics get on with what they do best, not what is deemed to be strategic. Most academics would respond positively. Believe it or not, most have a very strong work ethic and many are very ambitious. A more ‘free’ system does not have to mean that academics would be unaccountable – good management throughout the system would ensure that everybody would pull their weight both on the research and the T&L side. Unfortunately much of the management in the typical university is done by reluctant amateurs – untrained academics who would much rather be doing something else.
I suppose the best thing about the strategy blitz is that most academics just ignore it and find a way to do what they like – and what they’re good at.