An ABC of British higher
Newcastle Business School, University of Northumbria at Newcastle,
Purpose – This paper marks the centenary year of W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972), one of the founders of
the interdisciplinary subject of cybernetics. Its purpose is to Ashby’s cybernetics to construct a
framework for understanding some of the features that presently characterise British higher education.
Design/methodology/approach – The contents of Ashby’s 1956 book, An Introduction to
Cybernetics, are outlined. Cybernetic concepts, principles, and laws are then applied to some of the
features that presently characterise UK universities: growth in student numbers, the modularisation of
curricula, concerns over academic standards, and bureaucracy.
Findings – The paper ﬁnds Ashby’s writings to be critical to understanding the nature of many of
the contemporary debates about UK higher education. A diagnosis and critical evaluation of the policy
impetus to increase student numbers and modularise curricula is supplied. A cybernetic analysis in
support of the current concerns over academic standards is provided. The paper demonstrates why the
current higher education quality assurance regime produces a bureaucratised university.
Research limitations/implications – The paper’s framework is supported by an analysis of
available national statistics and other secondary evidence, but more detailed, cross-comparative,
longitudinal studies of the UK labour market and educational attainment are required.
Practical implications – Given the economic perspective adopted by policy-makers – the paper
identiﬁes three reasons why the current policy of expanding UK higher education may be ﬂawed.
Originality/value – The paper marks the centenary year of W. Ross Ashby by demonstrating how
his writings can supply a framework for understanding the current debates about UK higher
Keywords Cybernetics, United Kingdom, Universities, Higher education
Paper type Research paper
Is the notion of an organizational science an oxymoron? It would appear to be so – on
the basis of this classic statement from Britain’s foremost Sociologist, Giddens
(1993, p. 18):
... a sort of yearning for a social scientiﬁc Newton remains common enough, even if today
there are perhaps many more who are sceptical of such a possibility than still cherish such a
hope. But those who still wait for a Newton are not only waiting for a train that will not arrive,
they are in the wrong station altogether.
One wonders what such stranded travellers would think if their waiting room were
shared by a cybernetic scientist such as the late Professor Stafford Beer? For Beer
(1998, p. 9) invariably declared that “[The Law of Requisite Variety] ... has the same
stature in the world of affairs as the law of gravity has in the world of physics.” For
him this law is “the dominant law of societary systems” (Beer, 1974, p. 23). It “stands in
the same relation to management as the law of gravity stands to Newtonian physics”
(Beer, 1979, p. 89).
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Vol. 35 No. 1/2, 2006
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