Ongoing Ambiguity

It feels like an increasingly well-worn (and possibly down right weary) statement: we’re living in times of change and instability. On almost every front – no, scrub that – on every front that I can bring immediately to mind, significant change is the norm. More than this, the rate and pace of change is accelerating. Swiftly shapeshifting and complex fluidity of position is now seen as the paradoxical constant of our times; we see it everywhere – from the unprecedented and unpredictable  #cofefe and random bursts of spectacularly illiterate and emotive semi-incoherence sputtered out in 140 characters by the Tangerine Womble in his  unhinged and fluid position as POTUS, to, in almost another context entirely, the prolific acceleration of the Internet of Things, with all the ethical complexities, dangers and possibilities that are needing to be debated and considered as this new world permeates our lives, decisions and daily routines. 

Closer to home in the UKHE sector, change and fluidity seems just as seismic; the new Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 has lines within it which promise a reshaping of the UK landscape; similarly each of the party manifestos take an approach to the HE sector which have far reaching consequences of varying natures (this entry was written on the morning train at stupid-o-clock on election day 2017). Add to this the hugely negative impact of Brexit, the insistence of the current government to keep international students within immigration number targets and then, just for giggles and the sheer delirious fun of it, add a decline in UK university applicant population through to 2022, alongside an increasing marketisation of UKHE and one is inevitably faced with a destabilising, complex conundrum of competing factors impacting upon the wellbeing of our sector.

(As an aside, I’m reminded of a one-liner from Dean Martin during one of the infamous Rat Pack Summit sessions in the early 1960’s, when the braggadocio and male drinking schtick; a dizzying tower of swooning and crooning, triumphantly placed amidst tuxedos and chevvy tailfins, was at the nexus of pop culture for old and young alike – something about holding onto the floor the next time it came round to stop himself falling off it….)

Given the landscape painted above, one might expect a pervasive feeling of doom, gloom and something approaching helplessness as we sit in the passenger seat reluctantly witnessing the speedometer spin clockwise as the proverbial cliff edge draws nearer. However, from both an institutional standpoint at the University of Salford, and (given this blog is a personal and tangential reflection on the day-to-day) as an individual, I genuinely don’t feel gloomy at all. If anything, I see huge potential and possibility here.

On an institutional level our Industry Collaboration Zones are an ideally placed answer to this continued ambiguity and shifting uncertainty. Facing off to the industries and communities with which the university partners, they are, by their nature, reflexive centres of disruptive innovation – their very constitution relies on change being not only necessary, but desirable. More than this, they position us perfectly in the region to capitalise on devolution and to answer the call from the government for universities to be the growth anchors for the industrial strategy. Is it comfortable and easy? No, definitely not – nothing worth doing is, and a desire for comfort and a slow moving stability speaks to a vision of a sector which I’m not sure really exists anymore – however much one might long for a stasis of position. One necessarily needs to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

So how to do this and, moreover, do it well? How to avoid slipping into a reactive mode of being/doing, as we have to necessarily adapt and flex with this uncertainty – an uncertainty certainly due to be faced by our students as they step into this fast-paced graduate landscape of change and probably adopt portfolio, or patchwork career patterns (I’m resisting calling them career paths – I don’t think they have the luxury of being that linear…)

I think, on organisational and personal levels, its about fostering a real world resilience based on a position which is actually a meeting place for seeming contradictions – and more than this – necessarily and joyfully celebrating and inviting in this seeming contradiction – I say ‘seeming’ because I don’t actually see it as contradictory in practice.

One (an institution or a person, or an operating structure or #pickyourentityofchoice) must have certainty of purpose; a sense of grounded Heideggerian being-in-the-world, whilst having the agility and tenacity to embrace change (internal and external) as a creative working dynamic, bending with the wind so to speak. I’m again reminded of the absorption I find in surfing – it’s a similar position of tension – one has the certainty of needing to ride the wave, but where one goes on the wave and what happens in the 150 yards between the wave and the shoreline is, for me, an ambiguous mixture of response and desire – a fluctuating conversation between me, my board and the water. I can’t be fixed there – that would destroy the ride. Similarly, to give oneself over completely is an exercise in futility – at that point one becomes a passive passenger – no fun at all.

So I think resilience and a means of meeting this world and its challenges comes, in part, from resolutely adopting an uncomfortable, shifting celebration of necessary, responsible, accountable agility and a certain amount of ambiguity, perhaps drawing a soft parallel to Emilyn Claid’s idea of ambiguity seen in Yes, No, Maybe. More than a threshold resilience – a coping and surviving- I think dogged consistency in this modus operandi offers the possibility of thriving. And for those of you who are up for more – here’s a really interesting little article on excelling in this vein, taken from a psychological standpoint.

See you next week.

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