Wednesday, 9 September 2009

University mission statements

Universities, Marketization and Missions
Over the past two decades, universities have been encouraged to serve the needs of the economy, and also to reposition themselves as simulacra of business. Indeed, so far has the association cemented itself in the governmental mind, that universities in 2009 have become the provenance of the newly-formed Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Part of pretending to be a business has been the espousal of a mission statement.

The work that I have been doing with Helen Sauntson, of the University of Birmingham, aims to examine the impact of mutually reinforcing discourses of neoliberalism and marketization on universities in the UK. We take as a particular case study mission statements – what they represent and what they communicate, and we present as evidence the linguistic analysis of three electronic corpora of all of the available mission statements for UK universities in the (elite, research-focussed) Russell Group, (smaller research-intensive) 1994 Group and Million + group (comprised of ‘new’ post 1992 universities). We hope to show the extent to which mission statements represent uniqueness, or whether this claim is tempered by findings of discursive uniformity and standardization.

What is a Mission Statement?
Pearce and David (1987: 109) provide the following definition of a mission statement, “An effective mission statement defines the fundamental, unique purpose that sets a business apart from other firms of its type and identifies the scope of the business's operations in product and market terms….. It specifies the fundamental reason why an organization exists”. As we know, hardly anyone, especially not academics, pays any attention to the university’s mission statement – so why do they exist?

What are we finding?
There are apparently just 21 frequently occurring nouns (more than 10 occurrences in each corpus) from which Russell Group universities construct their mission statements. !994 Group universities make do with 22 frequent nouns, while creativity rests among the members of the Million + Group who recycle 35 frequent nouns. This evidence would lead us to agree with another commentator who describes mission statements as “promotional ‘discourse kits’ with which to construct a brand” (Atkinson, 2008). Surely such standardization must compromise universities’ claims to ‘distinctiveness’ and ‘unique selling points’ that are so fearlessly marketed to students.

There are cheeringly still a few relatively enlightened mission statements, and by that I mean that they portray values that most academics would raise a hat to. Honourable mentions, then, to Kingston University which claims to be liberal, critical leaning, radical and public; University of Birmingham which is the only Russell Group university describing its (historic) mission as radical; and Goldsmiths University which mentions intellectual, freedom.

There are also, of course, some neoliberal nightmares, so let us enjoy the embarrassment of the following anonymised universities, which can be identified by a simple Google search for these publically available documents, produced with public money. All of these belong to the Million + Group of new universities. A controversial university in London appeals to the following abstractions: benchmarked, seedcorn, sustainable, corporate, robust, stakeholders, supradepartmental. Despite Laurie Taylor’s ridicule in the Times Higher, only one university describes itself fawningly as business-facing. Another university, with campuses lining the M4 corridor, styles itself as the “foremost employer-engagement university”. But the prize goes to a Scottish institution, characterized by “Exploring and exploiting the ‘whitespace’ interfaces between disciplines so as to create and transmit new knowledge and learning in new ways”. What an aspiration!

Skills aren’t mentioned as often as we might suppose in these times when universities are administered under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Predictably, most mentions come from within the Million + Group, with the fewest mentions in the academically aspirational 1994 Group. The Russell group has no customers at all, but even this buzzword only occurs twice among the missions of the Million + group. However, the latter do recognise stakeholders.

An interesting adjective is sustainable and its related nominal sustainability. It appears to be trading on a kind of eco-friendly acceptability (just in case any potential students might be reading), but this is often a smokescreen for its neoliberal function, since it frequently collocates with, or refers to financial management!

We have to conclude that universities construct mission statements simply because they feel they have to. It is part of what Richard Johnson calls their ‘corporate boast’. No doubt there are committees of highly paid university managers who are almost permanently engaged in this, as it is clear that these mission statements are constantly under revision. As government behests change, universities must comply, at least discursively, even though these discourses fail to be internalized by the majority of people who work within their walls.

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