29 Dec 2011

Transforming, reforming, or (merely) evolving?

In a brief, but aptly thoughtful, 'Thinkpiece' for the 2009 Universities that Count annual report, Stephen Sterling makes a distinction between universities whose sustainability-focused work might be seen as reformist in nature, and those where this might be viewed as more transformative.

Stephen writes:

The situation currently is that whilst debates are pushing into [transformative] territory, ... most universities are in practice still struggling to embed sustainability through the [reformist] pathway.

In this sense, reformist is seen in terms of an 'add on' to current practices — a working within the current framing of HE, if you like; and transformative is viewed as significantly challenging of mainstream policies and practices — an attempt to change that framing. Stephen is, as well-read consumers of this blog will know, keen on the transformative conception, as I think are at least some of the other senior leaders at his university, Plymouth, although whether they would all go as far as Stephen does in seeing the need for what he describes as

a systemic shift of culture towards a more holistic, participative and engaged form of education reflected across the whole institution

is a more open question. Stephen makes this reformist / transformative distinction in the context of writing about how we might evaluate what could be seen as progress in the development of a university to address sustainability. He notes:

How we evaluate and measure anything ... depends on what we think it is [and this informs] the kind of indicators we choose. So while it may not be possible to achieve consensus on the nature and implications of ESD, we can at least attempt some clarification of its dimensions, so that debate on evaluation is in turn clearer.

Just so. But what is to count as reformist, and who are to count as significant reformers? And where does the locus of the transformative have to be centred if it is to count as really transformative? Purists will already have noted a flaw in these questions in that, in some readings at least, the transformative will necessarily be de-centred if it is to count as such. However, I shall side-step this awkward little issue – in this posting at any rate – whilst I argue that, to be seen as either transformative, or reformist, implies a degree of institutional endorsement and leadership which is implicit rather than explicit in what Stephen writes.

So, perhaps it is useful to think in terms of leadership, although this can be tricky as HE institutions are stuffed with leaders of all kinds and at every level. However, I am thinking of formal structures, as universities are essentially committee institutions with codified decision-making. A sharp(ish) question, then:

Can a university be thought of as being on a transformative road unless its senior leadership have endorsed this vision and trajectory, with say, senate and senior management group minutes to formalise this, with then policies enacted and funded to realise the vision? That is, both endorsed and mandated, with everything that should follow from such a stance. In this, an institution would be well beyond where merely signing international declarations or charters would place it.

It seems to me that the answer has to be No it cannot. It's also reasonably clear that such a formalised eventuality would come about as a result of significant activity over time across the institution both in a practical sense (teaching, researching, etc) and in an argumentation one (seminars, working groups, policy proposals, etc.). Thus, in terms of identifying potential indicators of development / progress along the transformative road, it may make sense to think of the journey, rather than the destination, and to conceptualise this in terms of a (small) number of stages of development.

But it seems to me that these arguments have to apply to the reformist position as well as to the transformative, as even an 'add on' will need to be consciously developed both within the institution, and by it, if it is really to be said to be happening. And as Stephen says:

most universities are in practice still struggling to embed sustainability through the [reformist] pathway

which imputes agency to the institution itself, and not just its members.

With all this in mind, it seems to me that there are institutions in the UK (and beyond) where leadership clearly espouses reformist or transformative positions, and yet there are also others which do neither, and yet these institutions do manage to research, teach and engage with the public, government and corporations about sustainability in many ways, thus probably being just as effective within society. They do this because of the interest and expertise of their staff, rather than because of any institutional drive or vision, and the university is quite likely to judge staff success in quite conventional terms: for example,

students, grants, collaborations and opportunities in

– student satisfaction, prizes, patents, papers and prestige out

... rather than in any overt or proxy contribution to sustainability: a green gown award, say, a People & Planet top 5 position, or accreditation through LIFE. And where this institutional recognition is conventional rather than focused around sustainability, the term evolving seems more apt in that there will be activity on the ground (teaching, researching, etc), and maybe argumentation, but nothing formalised or endorsed by a senate or senior leadership group.

Thus it seems that we might usefully think of three developmental positions: the evolving, the reforming and the transformative, especially if we are to make a clear distinction between something that happens within an institution, carried out by (some) of its constituent actors: academics, managers, students, and support staff, as opposed to that which the institution itself does, and enables, as an institution through its structures and systems.

If we are to gauge development and even progress, then making these distinctions clear seems an important step.

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