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Wicked problems: (how) does higher education solve problems for students?

Policy is about solutions, but how does higher education solve problems? Jim Dickinson interrogates
This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It matters for students that universities are able to identify and solve problems.

Partly because on an individual level students are told that their experience will be the first priority of their institution, but even more so because the UK sector sustains a student representative system in which students are invited to be part of a problem solving architecture that to many of them exists more in rhetoric rather than reality.

Could it be that higher education is more beset by especially challenging problems – “wicked” problems – than other sorts of organisation, meaning that no solution to any problem will ever be sufficient? Or has higher education developed a particularly sophisticated system of problem avoidance and obfuscation because of a lack of genuine incentives to address emerging issues?

These are the sounds of the wickedness

The theory goes like this. In the seventies Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined a couple of terms to describe problems facing social planners, and Keith Grint added a category in 2010. “Tame” problems are complicated, but contained and easily solved as long as someone prioritises the issue, allocates the resources and follows the instructions, because someone has solved it before. Think building a flat pack wardrobe.

“Critical” problems are created when there is danger, peril or harm. They require faster thinking, taking charge and not worrying too much about resources. Think handling a fire.

Then there are wicked problems. These aren’t just complicated – they are complex too. Unlike the wardrobe or the fire, people argue (sometimes endlessly) over the nature, scope and definition of the problem. There are multiple drivers of the problem, each of which can’t be tackled without having a knock-on impact on the other drivers. Think climate change.

The argument goes that each type of problem requires a different type of leadership. Tame problems require management skills – resource allocation, monitoring and evaluation, delegation, that sort of thing. Critical problems need command and control – someone to stand at the front and shout in order to get people to safety and galvanise action. But wicked problems need something else – the ability to facilitate definitions, draw in different points of view, to engage those affected, to develop hypotheses, to collect data, to coordinate investigation and piloting and know when to push solutions into tame.

Hear the drummer get wicked

If you follow those definitions, you’d think that universities would be great at solving wicked problems and terrible at the others. Universities are not awash with great managers – indeed, large chunks of the sector appear instinctively opposed to the concept, and people don’t tend to become senior in the sector by dint of their management capability. And the sector’s not a big fan of command and control either – in fact, autonomy is frequently claimed (from individual to institution to sector) as the very cause of greatness.

As the sector grows – from village to town to city – problems emerge, just as they did for the planners Rittel and Webber looked at. When tame issues don’t get solved, they affect more and more people in more fundamental ways – and the more diverse the student body gets, the more the compound impact of multiple instances of those problems hits.

Left unfixed, once the issues become critical, there are demands for “leadership” and “decisive action”, but this often results in defensiveness, poor decision making and only a temporary respite. And it’s not a tactic that can be overused – a fire alarm once a year gets us out of our seat – a faulty fire alarm that goes off hourly gets resented, resisted or ignored.

What a wicked game you played

Sometimes ministers, or the press, or student activists will attempt to reframe a problem as critical – and sometimes they’re right – but because no-one wants the blame for a student mental health crisis, or poor assessment feedback metrics, or a drop in league table position, the sector spends forever treating every problem as “wicked”.

But not in the sense of mobilising capacity around understanding and addressing the complexities of the problem. Despite academic research being suited to solving them – facilitating definitions, drawing in different points of view, engaging those affected, developing hypotheses, data collection, piloting and knowing when to push practical solutions into tame – instead we all sit in endless meetings debating the definition or pretending that the problems aren’t problems at all – or at least are inevitable, or will go away if we just wait, or definately are problems but aren’t our problem.

Unsurprisingly, this tendency leaves student officers perplexed at best, and more often frustrated. Beyond TEF headlines, student officers don’t report experiencing much in the way of issue prioritisation, and resource allocation and action planning always seem to happen outside of the multiple meetings they attend – if at all.

When you ask student officers what they perceive as wicked problems – and working with SUs I spent last summer doing this – you get a raft of hardy perennials: cost of living, assessment feedback, personal tutoring, dissertation supervision, placement support, student preparedness, timetabling, heating, attainment gaps, student conduct, joint honours, industrial relations, employability, and the lack of space. They’re problems felt viscerally by them and their members – and their disappointment in university leadership in tackling them is palpable.


So what can be done? First, we should be careful with the frames. Too many student officers over the summer thought their university treated every problem as complicated, overlapping, systemic and wicked. That’s probably the way the press and the public see us too. “They do nothing for years then when a case hits the press it’s all here’s some decisive action”, said one officer to me. “Why does it have to become a crisis before something happens”, said another. “Why is everything so complicated?”

For tame issues – things that really ought to just be fixed that we know other large other organisations have sorted – we really do need better management. That involves a grown-up debate about what good, ethical management looks like in a university, rewards when it’s done well and swift action when it isn’t. And (and I’m looking at you OfS) does mean focusing on sharing practice rather than just comparing outcomes. Try finding out what other universities are doing about their assessment and feedback NSS scores, and you’ll see the problem.

For critical problems, we should listen to the canaries in the coalmine. The press has been on about grade inflation for a decade. I have student officer manifestos in the attic talking about student mental health from the late nineties. A glance across the pond should have signalled coming crises of free speech and sexual misconduct. The universities I heard about over the summer with 100 students in a seminar (“yes, but what is the shared definition of a seminar”) should listen to their students now, not wait for the issue to turn up in a bodged TEF metric in flames.

1 2 3 4 get with the wicked

But ideally, not least because so many problems that universities themselves face (and, outside the sector, could contribute to solving) really are wicked, we should set about about not just framing problems as wicked but picking a few and solving them as wicked problems too.

That means more meetings that agree definitions rather than just debating them. It means more effort in drawing in different and diverse points of view, more programmes that actually engage those affected, and more focus on lives than opinions. It means more hypothesis development, more investigation and piloting and more conversion of that work into practical action. It means a bit less conspiracy theory and a bit more complexity theory.

In other words, believe it or not, the answer could be that we need more research.

5 responses to “Wicked problems: (how) does higher education solve problems for students?

  1. And the answer may be that there is sufficient research and we need to apply it address the wicked problems. More often than not, wicked problems often require wicked solutions. Take the ‘attainment’ gaps, there is sufficient evidence as to the interventions that will reduce the various gaps, but little real effort to use this evidence and make headway with the gaps. But, and here’s the irony, while academics pride themselves in using the best available evidence in their subject area, they are woeful in seeking and using evidence to improve their practice. Models of how to get evidence into practice abound, HEIs need to start using them. Ca

  2. I think there’s good news for Jim in the continuing collaborative links across the UK sector. Andy Youell has compiled a vast list of the different bodies that exist to represent, coordinate and share good practice, from the grand (Association of Heads of University Administration) to the niche (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard Special Interest Group). Not all of them will be delivering better management or solving wicked problems on their own, but they will be playing a part.

    Similarly, the wider umbrella body, the Association of University Administrators, has themed its 2020 annual conference around ‘collaborating for success’ and it will be a festival of sharing problems and solutions. Although this time I will be banging on about the past (as usual) I do clearly remember running a session on how my then university (this was 2007) was planning change as a result of the NSS.

  3. A good read as ever Jim. There are plenty of opportunities for people to share practice and as per the comments above, evidence abounds – its at the core of what Advance HE does across the areas of learning and teaching, leadership management and governance and EDI. Indeed, our Good Practice Grants will be launched shortly.
    I often wonder why we wait to be told by the OfS so much (though some caution is understandable), but really do question are they best placed to know what ‘best practice’ is anyway, and do we want them to be? Most of the reasons why more problems aren’t addressed raise governance, as well as leadership or management, questions. I think we have a golden opportunity right now – with a government largely fixated elsewhere and a nascent OfS – to actually prove that we can address issues and get a grip of things for ourselves. We’ll see.

  4. “…it will be a festival of sharing problems and solutions.” – LOL

    From an academic’s point of view, who is usually at the receiving end of the latest claptrap “initiative” or “strategy” dreamt up by the managerial/administrative class, it should rather read “…festival of creating problems, bureaucracy and KPIs.”

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