Maximising institutional diversity in higher education

Maximising institutional diversity in higher education

The International Association of Universities (IAU) recently held its 5th Global Meeting of Associations, co-organised with the Northern Consortium of UK Universities, in Manchester. The theme of the meeting, Institutional Diversity in Higher Education: Advantage or Threat for Associations, was discussed in-depth over one and a half days by some 70 representatives of higher education associations from around the world.

The importance of diversity

An insightful keynote speech to feed the initial debate was delivered by Ellen Hazelkorn from Dublin Institute of Technology, in which she explored the nature of diversity within higher education and made the point that diverse and distinctive higher education institutions are necessary for the coherence and success of the overall system, as this diversity creates the necessary conditions to maximise capacity beyond individual institutional capability.

Six principles for institutional diversity

Michael Hoey from University of Liverpool developed the idea further, pointing out his six principles for taking advantage of institutional diversity. The first was the ‘cloning versus childbirth’ principle, in which he suggested that two parents are better than one, and that an initiative born to and brought up by an international partnership will have a better chance of survival and success than a “go-it-alone” venture.

Next came the ‘two dogs’ principle, where he maintained that mongrels are, generally speaking, more intelligent and live longer than purebreds. Thus, collaborating with a different type of institution – mixing the gene pool – makes for a more successful partnership.

Professor Hoey’s third point was the ‘value of ignorance’ principle – using collaboration to do things you can’t do on your own. He gave the example of a language department with expertise in storytelling but very little knowledge of video gaming working together with a department excelling in video-gaming but with no story-telling expertise to create together a new generation of video games. Bringing ignorance as well as knowledge to the partnership has its own value.

The fourth point, the ‘long spoon’ principle, gave us a curious vision of Heaven and Hell where both were represented by a banquet with very long-handled spoons. The difference was that in Hell you had to feed yourself (a complicated task with a long-handled spoon!) whereas in Heaven people fed each other. This shows us the benefits of working together rather than competing with each other.

The ‘every child is different’ principle proposes that if we seek to replicate success, it will not necessarily succeed. We need to adapt a successful project to the situation it will be developed in. We need to listen to others – dialogue is essential to create a win-win situation.

The sixth and final principle proposed was the ‘happily ever after never happens’ principle. Institutions come together to achieve a goal, not for the sake of creating a partnership. Like in a marriage, relationships change within a partnership of institutions, and we need to work at the relationship and nurture it through the tough times, which will inevitably occur.

All these principles can help us find ways to serve the interests of the diverse members of an association so they can change and grow, and to serve the association itself so it can also change and grow. Certainly food for thought – and all the tastier if fed to us on a long-handled spoon!