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Higher education is a complex adaptive system

September 19, 2010

I want to reflect on the nature of higher education. We talk about the schooling system and the higher education system and I want to discuss some of the characteristics of such systems. A better understanding of these systems will help us to understand how they can (and can’t) be changed.

About systems

The engine in your car is a system – a lot of parts that work together to move you, and the body of the car, from place to place. Higher Education is a far more complex system consisting of national bodies, educational institutions, individual students and lecturers, administrative structures, faculties and departments, research institutes, disciplinary research practices, curricula and practices of teaching and learning.

A car engine is a self-contained system. It sits in a defined space – you can point at it. An engineer can enumerate the parts that it is comprised of. The higher education system is different. It is difficult to say where the system starts and ends. For example, are the parents of students part of the higher education system or not? It is geographically scattered. It also includes many parts that are procedural or conceptual, rather than physical – like the process of peer review or the idea of academic freedom.

The purpose of a car engine is clear. It converts fuel into energy to turn the wheels. And this means that it’s easy to tell when it is or is not working. If the wheel’s don’t turn the engine is not doing its job. The higher education system, on the other hand, has multiple functions. Depending on who you talk to, they include developing high-level skills, doing research to create original knowledge, sharing knowledge with the broader community and leading public intellectual debate. But not everyone agrees on these functions.

Even if there is agreement on a particular goal, for example the need for universities to provide undergraduate teaching, it is difficult to tell if the system is or is not succeeding. Is higher education producing enough of the right kind of skills? We have national targets to increase the proportion of students enrolling in science, engineering and technology qualifications to 30%. In 2007 we were just short of this target, but that does not tell us on a more fine grained level, whether we are producing the right skills. There are more complex questions. Do those graduates know what they need to know in order to perform their work? Another goal of the National Plan for Higher Education was the “enhanced cognitive skills of graduates”, but we have no idea whether this goal has or has not been met. Measuring the cognitive skills of graduates is complex. We are not doing it systemically and it is doubtful if we could.

How systems respond

But perhaps the most frustrating characteristic of the higher education system is that it is not predictable. Any driver can tell you that, if you increase the flow of fuel into the engine of a moving car, the car will go faster. An engineer or mechanic  can tell you exactly how to calibrate the carburetor for optimal performance. With higher education, adjusting the flow of funds into the system has unpredictable results and there is no expert who can tell you exactly what circumstances will give rise to the outcomes you might want.

A new funding formula for higher education was phased in between 2003 and 2008. One of the things that it does is grant institutions direct financial rewards for each journal article published in an approved journal. Since this change in funding, there has been an increase in journal publications. But the response has not been the same across all institutions. Institutions respond according to how central research is to their mission, and the resources they have to encourage research. Some institutions have passed the financial rewards on to individual researchers, others have not. Individual researchers respond differently to these incentives depending on their interests and workloads. The funding formula also rewards the publication of monographs and yet the number of monographs published has not increased to the same extent.

The higher education system includes intelligent agents – the institutions, individuals and agencies that all make their own decisions about how to respond to circumstances. Because of this intelligence inherent in the system, changes in policy have unpredictable results. The agents have their own goals and respond according to how they value the expected rewards and the best strategies they can muster. Institutions set their own missions and put in place policies and procedures to support these. Individuals make their own choices about whether or not to pursue further qualifications, to undertake research, or to get involved with community engagement activities. So even though the system is desperate for more PhD graduates and has limited supervisory capacity, an individual professor might still choose not to supervise because sitting quietly in his office and writing papers might be more rewarding.

Higher education is a complex adaptive system

These characteristics of the higher education system, and indeed of any education system, are those of a complex adaptive system. Complex adaptive systems are comprised of many parts, including intelligent agents. They are often open or porous systems in the sense that it is difficult to delineate their boundaries and the outside context influences the functioning of the system. While there may be common overall goals for such systems, the agents in the system might have different goals and different strategies to meet them. Most importantly, the agents modify their behaviour in response to conditions in the system and the actions of other actors.

The overall effect is a system which functions in complex ways. While connections can be observed between things that happen in the system and the effect, the actions are unpredictable and sometimes quite different to what was expected. Such systems cannot be directed because the way in which the system will respond to a change in circumstances can never be fully predicted. This also explains why research into education does not result in predictive laws, and education experts cannot give simple answers as to how to improve the system.

So, when the Department of Higher Education and Training speaks of funding, planning and quality assurance as the three steering mechanisms of higher education, they are misguided and doomed to frustration. Cars can be steered, the higher education system cannot. Steering implies that there is a driver who can control the system. In reality, a complex adaptive system like the higher education system cannot be controlled. It can be observed and it can be influenced, but no matter how wise and knowledgeable the policy-makers, it cannot be steered.

(This is partly derived from a speech which I gave to the Black Management Forum in October 2009.)

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