Thought for the week, 22nd June; not business as usual

Recently, I was talking with a group of friends. We all were university teachers, but also of a certain age, with retirement fast approaching. So, as people of a certain age are prone to do, we looked back. We discussed what advice we might give to our younger selves; if we were forty years younger, would we contemplate careers working in universities? I was probably the most positive, but even I am very glad I am not just starting out in the university sector. Universities now seem to have a much harder edge than when I started. We have key performance indicators, we have to set SMART objectives which can be measured and evaluated every year. We have targets for income raised, papers published. In short, universities have whole-heartedly bought into the world of commercial business, where profitability and accountability are key. Now some of this is a good thing; 30 or 40 years ago, some in universities had very comfortable lives, drawing a good salary for very little in return. Universities do need to change and to meet the needs of society. However, we all agreed that whilst we needed to learn from the outside world, we simply could not copy what successful commercial companies did, because the core business of a university is not to make a profit but to educate students and undertake research. Somehow, this seems to have been lost, hence our collective lament.

Now on one level this story is simply about four elderly university professors and their lament. But I think there are wider lessons here. So many organisations, including the church, seem to have uncritically embraced the ways of working that are successful for big commercial concerns, forgetting that they exist for other purposes. I suspect a business case based on following an itinerant preacher with a handful of followers, ending in his execution, would get very far on “Dragons Den”. But in that there is a lesson.