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The challenge of representation

How do you represent the collective interests of the HE sector? Universities UK, the representative organisation for the UK’s universities, aims to be the voice for all institutions. They attempt to “promote a successful and diverse higher education sector” [Source]. This is a difficult task. A big reason is because of the word ‘diverse’. While … Continued
This article is more than 11 years old

Martin Hughes is passionate about higher education and writes about higher education at www.theuniversityblog.co.uk.

How do you represent the collective interests of the HE sector?

Universities UK, the representative organisation for the UK’s universities, aims to be the voice for all institutions. They attempt to “promote a successful and diverse higher education sector” [Source].

This is a difficult task. A big reason is because of the word ‘diverse’. While it may be difficult to distinguish between the mission statements of universities, there are differences in how things are done across the HE sector. Institutions hold different positions of success, prestige, research, and so on.

A while back, Mario Creatura and I were considering why no supportive body existed to represent the HE sector as a whole. Okay, Universities UK is in exactly that position, but separate university groups (Russell Group, Million+, etc.) are equally vocal (if not more so) in pushing their own positions. Representation becomes slightly more localised.

And representation can drill down until you represent yourself and nobody else. How can Universities UK contend with that and still appear to be generally representative for the HE sector?

In a sea of voices, consensus doesn’t come easily. Interests aren’t collective on a mass basis. Especially when interests range so widely.

This is best highlighted by the current situation surrounding NUS. The representative body for students attempts to be a voice for an eclectic population of minds.

However, NUS president, Aaron Porter, has come under fire by some who do not believe he is acting in the best interests of students. Porter has been accused of dithering, of working only to benefit his own career prospects, of not supporting certain student protest, and of condemning more violent forms of protest.

Porter is in a hugely difficult situation. The tuition fees debate has brought HE heavily into the public eye, giving much time to student reaction. When students first came to London en masse in the NUS/UCU organised ‘Demo-lition’, some protesters made a mess of Conservative HQ at Millbank. One protester, Edward Woollard, threw a fire extinguisher off the roof and was subsequently jailed.

Porter was quick to condemn the violent scenes, yet some believe the destruction is a valid political protest. Some students are now calling for a more dynamic direction for student representation.

And this is the problem. There cannot be a single way of representing such a hyper-diverse community. Some may believe they can represent a larger proportion of students, or make a better case for student needs. However, that doesn’t mean they truly can. Nor does it mean that students will suddenly find a single, unified voice.

If calls come from a minority and the minority is vocal enough, the voice(s) will be heard over others. Is that acceptable? And who’s to say the minority don’t have a point just because they are a minority? If a group seeks to represent all, when do you stop taking less common viewpoints into account? Does an individual opinion – however extreme you believe it to be – hold equal weight? If not, how are you representing everyone? And what of the people you represent who disagree with other views you choose to equally represent?

You cannot represent all sides and all accounts. It’s enough to make your head hurt. And that’s before you’ve started hitting it against a brick wall.

Solidarity and unity sound great. I feel warm inside when I see people using these terms to support others. But you still cannot bring these terms to their logical conclusion. Agreement cannot be whole. Full representation with nothing left wanting simply isn’t possible.

Yet these causes are worth fighting, even if the process is tough. Diane Davis explains in her book, Inessential Solidarity:

“Thinking is not the same as knowing, and the challenge today, the social, ethical, and political challenge is to learn to think the sharing of community without effacing precisely this sharing by conceptualizing it, turning it into an object to be grasped and put to work.” (p8)

Can this be achieved when we face a range of views that reach out in all directions, to all extremes? NUS highlights the need to try. In a speech on the challenges of student engagement for NUS, John Peart said:

“We must represent the hyper-diversity of the student body and ensure that they are engaged in the system.

Increased engagement and outreach has its own set of challenges, but a representative group cannot claim to be representative if they do not at least continue in attempts to engage with all those associated with them.

With this in mind, let’s return to the original issue of representing the collective interests of the HE sector. One important question that people attempt to answer all the time, as if hundreds of years haven’t given us an answer, is:

  • “What is the university for?”

The game is always changing, so we cannot find a definitive answer. With institutions striving to do so much, there are a multitude of reasons for the university; a growing list of reasons; an ever-changing list.

Add the current – ongoing – uncertainty to the mix and you can see why it’s hard to represent the HE sector in a full, overarching way.

This difficulty means that we don’t satisfactorily highlight the purposes and benefits of higher education to members of the public. Higher education touches everyone in so many ways, but it’s hard to translate that into something relatable, especially when it’s hard enough relating as a sector.

Nevertheless, all of this uncovers an important point. People are fighting to keep universities strong. People are fighting to allow students and academics a reasonable deal. People are fighting to keep higher education something to be proud of. People are fighting to maintain strong innovation and discovery.

Those people are unique. You are those people.

We don’t always see eye to eye. Yet we recognise the importance of HE and want to see its continued success for society.

People may argue over how best to achieve that success, but nobody is arguing over what’s at stake if we fail.

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