Towards a theory of University ‘excellence’

Universities like to say they are ‘excellent‘. It’s a buzz word, and when you’ve been around campuses for a while, you realise it’s an adjective that’s applied to absolutely everything, so it kind of ends up meaning nothing. But when we look around universities, we see lots of ways they aren’t great—the organisations are sprawling, people are messy, systems are unequal. Some of the basic ways we typically measure our claims of ‘excellence’ (like student satisfaction surveys, peer review and global university rankings) are deeply flawed.

But recently I worked with another major partner in the global higher education industry (who is not a university) and it helped me see why ‘excellence’ discourse is good, actually, and the differences clarified what excellence actually means for universities. (I won’t name the company, but they are great, and I was really impressed by them. So none of this is a criticism of their approach—universities are just different and, yes, more excellent.)

Okay, so this other company is really well run. They hire good people. They have clear standard operating procedures for likely and unlikely events. They train their staff extensively. They have high standards and clear goals and they work tirelessly to meet those standards and goals. It is lovely to work with their teams—you always know where you are, what’s going to happen next, and whether we are on track. This company mostly focusses on first year undergraduates, though they do support the whole lifecycle of students.

And I came to see that they encapsulate that first year educational approach. There are right answers, and you demonstrate achievement by learning and reproducing those right answers, or perhaps by adapting those good answers into real world solutions. Everyone has learned what you should do in any circumstance, and we can all tick off when you have achieved it. Fantastic work everyone! And there is quite a lot of the university experience that does need to run like this. So this company has understood the brief and delivered.

However, universities are universes. They are all-encompassing. The modern Australian metropolitan university is a comprehensive institution: bringing together teaching and research and industry; professional, theoretical and creative disciplines; undergraduates, coursework graduates and research degrees; past, present and future students etc etc etc. In such complex and interconnected organisations, excellence can’t look tidy and you can’t mark it with a simple rubric.

When we look at ‘excellence’ in scholarship, we come to see that ‘excellence’ is messy. At the very edge of current knowledge, making a scholarly contribution is contingent, debatable, incomplete, limited and iterative. We don’t know the answers, and the answer you give is only the best one possible in the current state of knowledge. We always need to do further research to confirm, or make generalisable, or fully unpack anything we have just written. Someone else is going to prove you wrong, sooner or later and that’s a good thing. We’re out in the space beyond the standard operating procedures, the right answers. We’re in the realms of ‘excellence’.

Now, to be clear, there are lots of places where universities need to be reliable, accurate and correct: we need our finance systems to be auditable, and our OH&S practices to be compliant. We need our doctors to know the difference between a patella and a platelet. To this extent, universities should good at doing their job, like all tertiary training organisations.

But universities have space where they are allowed to be excellent. It’s okay to reach your goal and then to go beyond it. It’s okay to be ambitious, to ask big challenging questions, to try to change the world. And because of what the reality of ‘excellence’ looks like, that means usually we will fall short, we will have to compromise, we will only have partial solutions. That will be frustrating, because excellence is frustrating. You shoot for the moon but only reach the upper atmosphere. Sometimes you only get a little bit further up that big hill.

Excellence is the opposite of perfect, as I’ve said before. Universities are deeply imperfect organisations, because they are sometimes (imperfectly, messily, unequally, flawedly) reaching for excellence instead.

Photo by micheile henderson on Unsplash


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