The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay

Lessons for HE leaders from recent events

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By Ian McNay

This is a longer piece than usual, an essay on leadership in HE, triggered by reflections on recent events and the lessons they offer. Turbulence in political leadership has been rife in the last six months from Italy to Gambia and New Zealand; UK and USA; the Labour Party, the Conservatives, UKIP; even the Open University. Which bridges to the first of five lessons to be drawn for HE leaders.

Lesson 1: listen to those you lead

If not, they will leave you – you risk losing their support, as in the OU, their loyalty, their commitment, even their compliance. Alternative leaders will spring up. I had hoped that the discourse about ‘disconnected’ might shift after the referendum vote. That showed that it was not the underclass who had disconnected from reality, but the political class whose bubble had floated off in to some cloud cuckoo land far from the reality of ‘others’ in those parts of Britain similar to my roots, on Teesside. It could have been Ashington, Scunthorpe, Motherwell, the Welsh valleys – alien places the perceivedly posh politicians do not go to and of which they have no understanding. But, after the shock wore off, the liberal elite, with its high proportion of graduates, returned to blaming the disenchanted – Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ – for their ignorance or even lack of gratitude for what the EU/Obama had done for them. As with the rust belt in the USA, the view was that, to quote Shirley Maclaine in Sweet Charity, ‘there’s got to be something better than this’. Or even, ‘it can’t get any worse, and voting to continue means more of the same old, same old, which has done nothing for us’. So, change, any change, was seen as worth the risk, even if its proponents were lying clowns. What does that say about their views of the incumbent leaders?

My work with the led, the managed, in HE gives rise to a similar, but less extreme picture of disillusion, disenchantment, demotivation, and for similar causes. While VC salaries have soared away, other staff have seen an income freeze and the gap between the leaders and the led has widened. Not to the extremes of the FTSE 100, where CEOs are paid, on average, £4m a year – over 120 times more than the average of their employees according to a government green paper on corporate governance – but the principle is the same: the principal’s salary goes up; mine does not; what extra has s/he done to merit that more than the unpaid hours I put in? The Guardian letters of 21 November label this a ‘casual disregard for staff’, following a front page article on 17 November drawing comparisons with Sports Direct. Is that a comparison our university leaders want? It is not just the UK: John Aubrey Douglass claims that leadership is ‘very poor generally’ across the globe with ‘very little management capacity’.

The former Secretary of State for Education dismissed the role of experts and their evidence: they are superfluous to requirements in a post-truth society. Phil Scraton in a recent THE article (1 December) wrote passionately on the state using Bourdieu’s ‘regimes of truth’ to ‘deflect, diminish and defeat oppositional discourses’. The ‘official’ truth is written by the powerful. He urges ‘hearing from below’ and seeking out dissenting accounts and alternative discourses. His work has been for thirty years on the Hillsborough disaster, uncovering THE TRUTH in a way that the Sun, despite that monstrously arrogant and repulsive headline, did not, in its invention of lies, which it, and the police, defended to the end. I take some comfort from Phil’s advocacy of the approach I have adopted throughout my academic career…at a cost.

Lesson 2: acknowledge the validity of checks and balances…and collegiality

There needs, then, to be scepticism, a testing of pronouncements from the executive enclave, a willingness to challenge. On the Iraq invasion, the chair of the enquiry said there was a failure by those in the inner circle (the senior management team on the sofa behind closed doors) to be willing to challenge Tony Blair, because of his ‘strong man’ leadership role and pre-eminence in the party. They behaved like those in one HEI whom one research respondent labelled ‘sycophantic parasites’. So, get out of the bubble; hygga has its limits and is no substitute for real life. Your position there may be absolute, but that is not a truth universally accepted, even in a post-truth society.

Barack Obama, commenting on strongman leaders, noted that they could never live up to over-expectation, and that ’history shows that strongmen are then left with two paths – permanent crackdown, which sparks strife, or scapegoating [external enemies]’. Charles Handy claimed that a crisis culture in organisations, including universities, and concomitant corporate control, could not endure; we seem to have had a continuous crisis for a long time, justifying continuing crackdown. Bill Gates recommends reading Archie Brown: The Myth of the Strong Leader, which refutes the idea that dominant leaders are more successful and that a collegial style shows weakness. My work suggests that it is a lack of competence and therefore confidence in oneself and then others by projection that leads to control models, which then do not work.

On Brexit, the government resisted involvement in major constitutional decisions by the representatives of participatory democracy through a parliamentary debate. The equivalent in universities is the senate/academic board, but Boston, in Marginson and Considine’s book on the enterprise university recorded what happened in Australia:

‘The Enterprise University is less cumbersome than previous forms, less open to veto and inertia within, and generally more capable of articulating a single defining strategy for its own ‘re-invention’ during times of extreme turbulence in its environment. The logic of corporate decision-making is more freely embraced than before and collegial values are more frequently subordinated to central purposes…In response to outside imperatives, management has sought to re-focus [weasel word!] the representative role of [academic] councils and to define, and sometimes confine, their roles to that of supporters of a single corporate mission… Academic Board has had its role narrowed to procedural and curriculum matters which have little proactive impact.’

That reads more like a corporate university in my model: I locate Clark’s ‘academic heartland’ in the collegium’ and the developmental periphery’ in a collegial enterprise’, the two elements in symbiosis. In the UK, of course, as a result of the 1988/1992 reforms, academic boards have a majority of members with management roles, and staff and student members of governing bodies have lonely positions and fears of speaking out because of potential impact on their employment. A recent book – Academic Governance in the Contemporary University – by Julie Rowlands of Deakin University, to which Mike Shattock and I have given support during its development – so SRHE has a stake – examines the role of senate equivalents in England, Australia and the USA. She concludes that in Australia, universities have become corporatised and marketised, but not entrepreneurial.

In the UK the recommendations of the Stern review of REF include a criterion of quality as being the ‘fit’ of research with corporate university strategy in line with funding going to the university even though quality is judged in a disaggregated way by units of assessment. So, corporate centralism may well extend even more in to academic functions of teaching and research beyond the examples given below.

Lesson 3: Values are important

The collegial mechanisms dismissed above, rather than being developed, not only provide checks and balances, but reflect the values of higher education, ‘without which’, said the Dearing Report (para 5.39) ‘higher education, as we understand it, could not exist (emphasis added). Such values include:

–  A commitment to the pursuit of truth [out of fashion]

– A responsibility to share knowledge [by ‘experts’ who develop it, even when it does not fit with sponsors’ biases]

– Freedom of thought and expression [not safe spaces and trigger warnings; open platforms within the law]

– Analysing evidence rigorously and using reasoned arguments to reach a conclusion [see Gove, Trump and Farage, 2016]

–  A willingness to listen to alternative views and judge them on their merits [no ‘no platforms’]

–  Taking account of how one’s own arguments will be perceived by others

–  A commitment to consider the ethical implications of different findings or practices. [Ethics? On social networks?]’

Do we, then, meet all those, or would the Dearing group conclude that some of those are not evident, so we no longer offer what they thought of as higher education? On ‘evidence’ from one of Gove’s despised ‘experts’, I can offer an example of senior management pursuing a better student experience [good end] by restructuring the university [dubious means]. SRHE had just run a conference on the topic, so I asked members of the SMT if they had read any of the research – no. Nor did they intend to. The outcome was detrimental to the student offer and experience. Given evidence that emerges on equity (see above and previous blogs) and probity, how can we aspire to lead by example in fulfilling the legal injunction on New Zealand universities to be ‘the conscience and critic of society’?

So let us welcome Angela Merkel’s welcome to leadership of Donald Trump, where she listed the common values that bind [have bound?] countries together – ‘democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person’. I have an abiding memory of asking a class of young Ukrainians, about 20 years ago, for their role models of good leaders. The three suggestions I got were Stalin, Hitler, Thatcher, which led to an interesting discussion of values and the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘good’. Today, my EU funded project developing leadership in Ukraine shows that there is still a nostalgia for strong leadership, partly because it gives an illusion of security and certainty, and relieves subordinates/citizens of the responsibility of taking or sharing decisions. When I arrived in Greenwich as a head of school, conversations with staff showed the same attitude when I asked for opinions – ‘I don’t have one. Not my salary level. You are the boss, tell me what to do and I will do it’. Even that would have been welcome!

Lesson 4: ‘the centre cannot hold’; leadership must be shared and supported

Currently the Westminster government is giving local government less money, but demanding more be done with that less – on social care, infrastructure, libraries, a long list. The immediate response to £9k fees in English HEIs was to transfer funds to the centre, for increased spend on marketing, Ozymandian building projects (easily top of the student list for making savings, according to a HEPI survey), student induction, ‘engagement’. Control over the REF was already extensive:

The approach was to be more ‘selective’ this time round, having been ‘inclusive’ in the last RAE. This was achieved through a centralisation of decision-making where decisions were not effectively open to challenge. No senior member of the School questioned that the game had to be played according to the rules (though some whinged about the rules) so of course we became agents of the state. (Professor, Russell Group)

Another university demonstrated the ‘balance of power’ a few years ago in a submission to the QAA:

These initiatives [changes to previous, commended arrangements] [include] strengthening the administrative spine and …have ensured the appropriate balance academic diversity and administrative consistency. [School-based] Directors of Quality…secure a greater understanding about the requirements of the University…To safeguard quality and standards, the University has strengthened central oversight through a range of management devices [unspecified] and considerably strengthened accountability through the central structures of the university… In the University’s view, the links between the central structures and the School Directors of Quality are key to the management of quality and standards and have given the centre greater confidence in the activities of Schools…The degree of flexibility permitted to Schools is contingent on a School being able to demonstrate consistency and comparability of approach, compliance with University policies and adherence to guidelines on procedures.

That raises several issues. Are not the Directors of Quality – many of them professors – part of ‘the University’? If not, as implied, who are ‘the University’? What is the fear – Directors of Quality will behave like recalcitrant teenagers running amok with defiance and low standards? Is such a contemptuous, condescending, diminishing tone appropriate in a public document? Should leaders treat senior staff like that? Does not compliant adherence to guidelines mean they are no longer guidelines, but requirements to be enforced? If that is ‘the University’, like some announcements about UK government policy as ‘the UK believes …’, not in my name.

Lesson 5: manage the border

I give this two interpretations within HE.

First, there is a defence strategy, to defend autonomy, to ‘take back control’. I have seen too much evidence of senior leaders acting as branch managers of the government’s project, and responding to the populist views of the press. The use of the term ‘delivery agents’ by civil servants to describe the role of universities confirms this. Peter Scott, an SRHE ‘notable’ agrees:

Universities … have sacrificed their freedom to make their own choices. Instead, they have to conform to all the directions and choices embodied in external measures set by others: politicians, the media and management ‘experts’ [ouch!] Nearly all the measurement tools applied to higher education are designed to influence behaviour [an overt aim of the introduction of impact into the REF]. And the higher the stakes – in reputation, or money or both – the more unreliable the results…University planning departments do little planning, at any rate of the long-term strategic variety. Instead, they focus on manipulating the data they report – on employment rates, for example – because the data influence newspaper league tables.

That does not bode well for the validity and reliability of the TEF and its measurement tools.

On the second border issue, in direct contradiction to Theresa May and the Brexiteers, I believe that y/our graduates should be ‘citizens of the world’; in part at least, because of their HE experience, which should develop both a strong, mature sense of personal identity, and a wide view of the world: its diversities and delightful cultural mix. We need to counter rampant xenophobia, the cause of so much hate and conflict. Our graduates also need an empathy for the less advantaged, not a contempt for those on other life paths outside Westminster, Kensington and Islington, who suffer from government policies, delegating to them the blame for the impact of those policies. HE leaders need to exemplify that empathy. One of my students, working on my model of university cultures defined the enterprise culture differently from that Australian model, in terms of values – ‘being open to the world and going out to greet it’.

Finally, and to add balance, there is one lesson for followers:

Be careful what you wish for … and vote for.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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