The Darwinian Paradox?

 
A different and somewhat divergent take on college management?
One of the more acceptable and helpful tenets of effective and good management and leadership is that managers should adopt a reflective and more critical stance. Continuous, systematic and careful reviews of the processes and outcomes of the business are, indeed, an invaluable and essential aid to the effective manager and leader.
Technical colleges as all educational and training institutions have much to reflect in the current climate of budget cuts and unprecedented austerity and hastily introduced government reforms to the curriculum, institutional governance and inspection regimes. The parenthesis model of management has never been more valid. The model challenges the whole of the existing thinking on organisational theory. It identifies a new type of person, namely the parenthetical person, one who reflects and reacts to the new societal circumstances facing the world. Simple definitions of inputs and outputs, as currently defined, are naive and simplistic.  A Chinese proverb brilliantly reflects the need to be flexible, responsive and pragmatic namely: ‘cross rivers touch stones.’
The approach states forcefully that it is not enough merely to manage an organisation but it is necessary to attempt to manage the whole environment in which the college exists. It is essential that all managers and leaders perceive the broader societal implications of their managerial and leadership functions. Colleges are currently exposed to a very volatile environment. The education and training landscape in which they operate comprises a series of fragmented elements including funding agencies, many of which introduce policies and strategies that are contradictory and paradoxical. These impact on the institutions and require totally new forms of management and leadership skills. The continued development of market-force philosophies makes it difficult to seek sanctuary in the past. Even the awarding bodies are now operating and defining education and training in terms of hard headed businesses. As a result it often strikes me as being a classical example of Darwinism.
Historical practices and sign posts are often of little help. This is in itself is no bad thing. Many practices in education and training are still plagued by atavism so one must be prepared to accept change, development and improvement as inevitable. One, however must ask whether all changes are necessarily good for the educational/training service and are some of the changes precipitated by questionable external imperatives just bring change for changes sake e.g. examples of political short termism or political dogma?
Natural Selection
So, during a period of reflection I explored the possible links between Darwin’s theory and current education management. Evolution theory is about progression and the imperative of the survival of the fittest and strongest. This looks a promising connection, especially in the current (free?) market forces where competition and (quasi) institutional autonomy is encouraged. Recruit more students with fewer resources, which clearly means ‘do more for less’ threaten some strategically important provision in such areas as construction, engineering and the physical sciences. Sadly these subjects along with others like mathematics and statistics continue to struggle to recruit sufficient students. One just has to read comments from employers about the lack of sufficient and properly qualified graduates in these subjects and other vocational areas of study. The often simplistic accountancy driven methodologies make it increasingly difficult for managers to protect high-cost, low recruiting programmes of studies. The funding regimes that are introduced quite rightly require gains in efficiency and effectiveness and the elimination of anarchic practices, but the regimes are not able to fully recognise certain vulnerable areas of study i.e. they lack sensitivity. It would therefore seem that we do manage a Darwinian scene and that managers must make every effort to protect threatened strategic programmes.
Constant Improvement
Just as Darwinism is about progression and advancement, in the natural world, education must be about constant improvement of the service offered to all its students whether in employment, entering employment or as citizens in general. Provision must be of the highest quality as possible and match the future requirements of life and work. The early theories/hypotheses of evolution were about long-term change and improvement: this was called ‘phylogenic gradualism’. Species coped successfully or otherwise with a whole range of external forces and adapted to these influences. It was usually about long-term developments, progression, survival and ultimately improvement.
In the light of more recent observations, data and field research a refined hypothesis has been postulated, namely ‘punctuated equilibrium.’ Distinct and discernible changes are observed, often over short time scales.
So which of these hypotheses is more valid in the current climate? Changes come thick and fast and often precipitate rapid and unforeseen mutations/consequences, so it would seem that punctuated equilibrium – or should that be ‘rapid punctuated equilibrium’? is more appropriate to the world of education and training. Where the analogy with Darwinism breaks down, or weakens, is that much of the current change in education/training is regressive, not progressive. Mass scale introduction of accountability structures and bureaucracy, much of which seeks information to a ridiculous and questionable degree of resolution diverts the colleges from their true business, namely improving access and participation of students, increasing the effectiveness of learning and teaching and increasing achievement levels. This diversion seriously affects the quality of service as the learner-staff have to respond to innumerable requests for information and become more involved in administrative tasks. Also the obsession with testing and increasingly heavily prescribed syllabuses further constraint teachers and learners even more. Leagues tables and questionable targets abound linked with obsessive and intrusive inspection and assessment regimes.  Perhaps a modified version of rapid punctuated equilibrium indicating regression is a stronger case to consider?
Different sponsors/organisations require different forms of information at different times, although in many cases they are asking for the same measures. No apparent coherent or long –term strategic planning process exists between these sponsors/organisations, especially in the area of education and training. To extend the Darwinian hypothesis perhaps one could identify these sponsors/organisations as forms of predators-maybe-but that is worth a longer and separate period of reflection.
So there are a number of parallels, some strong, some weak, between education and Darwinism. The external environment can be both supportive and hostile and managers and leaders must deal with a multitude of external influences operating on short-term political agendas and policies, often in contradictory fashions.
Policy, planning and strategy determined by humans are too often driven by a range of many interconnected values e.g. political and ideological which are placed on human worth. The parenthetical manager and leader, referred to earlier, will also assert some values for the organisation and the external environment which means that the manager and leader must be aware of these values and as a result cope more effectively with change-or should it be rapid punctuated equilibrium?   
References:
Bush. T. ‘Theories of Educational Management.’ Paul Chapman. 1988.
Bush. T. (ed). ‘Managing Education Theory and Practice.’ Open University. 1989.
First published in ‘t’ magazine.
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