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Wicked problems: the solutions on offer need to improve

Local and national policymakers in HE tend to face hostility and resistance. Jim Dickinson wonders if there's anything we can do about it.
This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

We like it when the comments flow on articles on Wonkhe, and the piece that kicked off the series on Wicked problems in universities generated a few choice observations.

One commenter was keen to point out that the Association of University Administrators has themed its 2020 annual conference around “collaborating for success” and that it will be a “festival of sharing problems and solutions”. But another contributor was somewhat less enthusiastic:

“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.’

This sort of debate matters to us at Wonkhe, because we really do want higher education policy – national, local and even departmental – to be better. Policy – collective solutions to identified problems – ought to be useful, helpful, effective and accepted by all involved. Yet much of the debate between policy makers and those on the receiving end of it in our sector seems to manifest in cynicism and conflict. Is there anything we can do about that?

Policy is really about people. In the piece on wicked problems I referenced Keith Grint’s work, who as well as referencing Rittell and Webber’s typology of Tame and Wicked Problems, also discusses Mary Douglas’s “cultural understandings” – some ways in which people think about the world and use them (often simplistically) to tackle (wicked) problems. With a bit of adaption, they’re an interesting way to think about both local and national problems in the sector, and alternatives to the solutions that are often on offer.

Power and authority

First up there are “hierachists”, who tend to tackle problems by implementing “authoritarian” solutions – monitoring, rules and punishments. This is a world where filling in forms and capturing data is crucial – because if we can spot an offender (or at least give them the impression of being monitored, panopticon-style) we will produce different behaviours. But there are problems.

First, none of us like being told what to do – it suggests we’re not trusted – and usually authoritarian solutions get introduced amid messaging around of failure or poor performance which we (quite reasonably) may object to. See the “talking down of the sector” OfS has to use to justify formal regulation, and the often wobbly implementation of TEF-talk at a local level. And whilst everyone has an assessment feedback policy, almost no-one moderates that feedback. We trust that it’ll be done right.

Second, none of us believe that we are going to get caught when we commit a “crime”, and many of us go on to commit transgressions if the punishments are weak and the monitoring ineffective. If I’m busy and I can get away with a one line bit of feedback on an essay, why bother writing the detailed feed-foward that the policy says I should? And who’ll know if I’m egging others on to be even more sexist than me on a secret WhatsApp group?

Crucially, a set of rules, laws and punishments can only really work if people accept the problem that they’re designed to solve, actually solve it, and aren’t so baffling and overwhelming that people don’t understand them. They also only work if the requirement is actually possible within a working-week or set of skills. Plenty of us can think of examples in universities where some of the rules that are introduced by the well-meaning fail all of these tests, let alone one of them.

Making the world a better place

Then there are egalitarians. These happy types believe that the solution to every problem is education, empowerment and working together to cultivate the right norms and community values. For obvious reasons, universities are crammed full of them, and they get very upset when a solution to a problem like student mental health or personal tutoring policies isn’t a meeting, a working group, a consultation or a training course.

They’re not always right, though. The “optional” training course (egalitarians like “optional” – because forcing something makes people reject it) tends to be attended by those who don’t need it. But participation matters. Oddly, right now, more UK academics and professional services staff have been on a compulsory “Prevent” course than a mental health or sexual misconduct disclosure course – not a great look.

In many ways the theory of the university committee system is that so many are involved in its laborious deliberative processes that by the end of it all will have accepted a policy solution – but that’s just not how things work in a busy, mass system. How many times have some of us attended a committee deliberating for hours over the wording of a policy that has barely consulted outside of itself and never discusses dissemination, let alone understanding of what’s been agreed?

And sometimes, sadly, education really isn’t the answer. The authoritarian-egalitarian “speed awareness course” has been proved to be more effective than the exclusively authoritarian “points on your license” thing – but anyone who’s been to one will know the bored bloke on your table in a provincial Holiday Inn that you just know is about to do 90 mph back to the motorway. Almost everyone I know has been on an E&D course in a university where we could spot the 90mph sexist/racist by the 11am coffee break.

One of the fascinating things to watch has been the slow switch of OfS from egalitarian to authoritarian over student welfare. 18 months ago the solution to sexual misconduct was letting UUK get on with its changing the culture work, and a set of projects and dissemination events from the old HEFCE catalyst fund. But the press stories kept coming and the research suggested things were changing too slowly, hence the switch to formal regulation with threats of fines.

Winning here

As well as our types above, individualists design incentives and support structures. This is policy as reward and celebration, where one drives behaviour change by giving out points, or awards, or money – and there’s no better example of this than the “market” system of English (and, for international students, UK-wide) HE. Most people that look at grade inflation or unconditional offers argue that it was the incentives wot dun it, and that the only way to change the behaviour that ministers and regulators dislike so much is to change said incentives.

But there are problems here too. Rewards and awards often can’t make their mind up whether they’re rewarding effort or attainment – do the latter and you might shut out someone in difficult circumstances, do the former and what’s the point? They result in inequalities – people get paid more, or more subtley some academics get the “student-led teaching award” and others just don’t, which may or may not be about their achievements in a particular set of circumstances. There’s a reason why performance-related pay is so resisted by the trade unions.

Though inevitably powerful, “individualist” solutions are also viewed particularly suspiciously by egalitarians who think people (or organisations) should be motivated by something other than personal incentives. “They end up doing it doing it for the money not because they care” isn’t a million miles away from “they’re only doing this for a TEF gold not because they care” – and in some cases they’re right.

Give me elegance

In that Grint paper, the central argument about all of this is fascinating. His central pitch is that too often, “elegant” solutions to wicked problems are pitched and then implemented which only make sense inside one of these “cultural understandings”. But that’s a problem, because by their definition, wicked problems span cultures and institutions. Basically, not everyone responds well to punitive, hierarchical rules and punishments, and nor is everyone affected or motivated equally by the incentives and support that individualists offer. And we’ve seen above that the egalitarian, educational solutions that seem to match the purpose of education and the folklore of the academic profession are often faulty too.

Politicians and traditional leaders like “elegant” solutions, especially authoritarian ones – it makes them look decisive and “in charge” when pressure builds over a problem. But it’s no use simply arguing for an incentive scheme or an egalitarian alternative – because according to Grint, it’s “clumsy” solutions that work best. These are the ones that use and draw upon different and multiple cultural understandings, that use experiments and that get under the skin of the people we’re trying to influence to understand why they do what they do in the way that they do it.

Nationally, what happens next with the TEF and OfS more generally is interesting in this context. Much of OfS work thus far has been egalitarian (see Catalyst funding and Challenge competitions), but the money is drying up. Some has been individualist – and subject-TEF will drive that further – but brace brace therefore for even deeper feelings of being treated unfairly. And that aggressively authoritarian shade of baseline regulation has all the hallmarks of carrying with it the downsides of loss of trust and a general tone of being talked down to justify it all.

More broadly, we do need better policy solutions inside universities – those that simply dream of a time when academics could be “left alone” to do their work are harking back to a time that didn’t really exist, and anyway isn’t really coming back. The killer question is how we develop these sorts of “clumsy” solutions to the problems universities and students face in a way that works. What’s clear is that 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 are problems that are not going to solve themselves.

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