An afternoon with Roger King…on risk and the university

What a wonderful way to spend a Friday afternoon at the University of Bristol;  in GESF’s Friday seminar with the noted sociologist of higher education at the London School of Economics (as well as being a former Vice Chancellor), Professor Roger King.

Roger’s current work is on the rise of risk governance as a means of regulating universities – notably in the UK, but also in countries like Australia.

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Roger’s approach to understanding the rise of risk is to think of it not only as a technology of governance more generally, but also as a manifestation of deeper social and economic dynamics tied to navigating futures which are, by definition, uncertain.

In different historical periods, managing the risks confronting us as we go about life – from those that nature unleashes to those that are man-made – has resulted in efforts to understand and make risks visible, as well as  opportunities being created for the development of risk tools brokered by risk merchants able to capitalize on selling risk products aimed at making a profit out of this new kind of value. However, King points out that in his research to date, not all societies approach risk  in the same way, or even have a similar view of the future and the uncertainties it brings.

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What characterizes the current period, argues Roger, is that these risk tools promise their users a ‘god-like’ view from above that includes the probability of events into the future shaping likely outcomes – much like a state tries to ‘see’ by  making visible the objects in the landscape that it seeks to govern.

For governments and also families investing in higher education, and indeed universities seeking to manage a range of risks – from reputation to financial and academic risks, risk governance promises to manage risks,  in turn managing future uncertainties.

But there is a paradox here as well around risk taking and risk management. Risk taking generates innovation and dynamism, whilst risk managing tends to lead to risk aversion and conservatism. Yet managing the future might very well require invention and innovation but they are precisely those practices that tend to be regarded as ‘risky business’. There is also another paradox at work. Efforts to understand what the future might bring and set up mechanisms aimed at controlling the future are not only likely to get it wrong as the future cannot be known, but risk management practices in the form of policies and strategies will end up being largely symbolic, and ultimately misleading and self-deceiving.

Roger was at pains to point out that he was not talking about ‘due diligence’ – which is something all of our deliberations and decisions, particularly in the university, should engage with.

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What is the way forward? – posed one of our colleagues – Keri Facer – in the audience, especially if risk approaches to organizing life inside the university and the sector cut off normative conversations about what a university is for and how to create effective and responsive spaces for creating knowledge? Indeed, does the focus on probability data and managing certainty result in us not seeing the small ways in which life in the university is being governed?

Roger agreed with this, and from there argued in a very convincing way that we need to promote a rather different debate drawing on a different lexicon around governance of the sector in the face of uncertainty; one that promotes conversations among rather different groups about that future, how they might develop ‘resilience’ in the face of challenges, and the best configuration of constituent parts that enable imagination and innovation to flourish.

A copy of the paper presented by Professor Roger King can be accessed here


Editor’s Note:  Susan L. Robertson is  Professor of Sociology of Education in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research is concerned with the changing nature of education as a result of transformations in the wider global, regional and local economies and societies, and the changing scales on which ideas, power and politics is negotiated. Contact: S.L.Robertson@bristol.ac.uk