The Society for Research into Higher Education

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What’s wrong with management in higher education?


By Rob Cuthbert 

Matthew Reisz reported for Times Higher Education on 30 March 2017 that ‘the results beginning to come in from the National Senior Management Survey are both startling and dismaying.’ He said: ‘Early data from the National Senior Management Survey, which is being developed by academics at eight universities, find that barely one in 10 (10.4 per cent) respondents is satisfied with the way their institution is managed; 76.5 per cent are not.’

This is fake news: take a look at the National Senior Management Survey. It has grand aims but asks a series of leading questions, and its self-selecting sample is likely to be all those who want to complain about senior management in their institution. There is something wrong with the methods of this survey, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing wrong with senior management in HE. Indeed, the progenitors of the National Senior Management Survey seem to have been motivated by despair at the apparently irresistible rise of managerialism and the equally irresistible rise of senior managers’ salaries, even while university staff salaries are held down. So what’s wrong with senior management?

One wrong thing is that some of them are paid too much. Annual stories about vice-chancellors’ salaries rising faster than their colleagues’ pay have become routine. Too often we move from astonishment to acceptance without even pausing for indignation. With a few honourable exceptions, VCs seem to find it easier to accept disproportionate pay rises than to raise moral objections to their fortune. Universities UK trots out the usual line about needing to pay the best to attract the best, while failing to notice that the logic is reversed when it comes to hiring most other staff – for them, it seems, the key thing is for their institution to be efficient and to compete in the global market. Which means holding pay costs down. It follows that many senior managers have an underdeveloped sense of shame and embarrassment. The corollary is that governors and their remuneration committees are failing in their duty to the wider institution, by overvaluing the importance of senior managers and undervaluing organisational climate and academic culture.

Neoliberalism usually gets the blame, and there is no shortage of academics willing to rail at its pernicious consequences. Craig Brandist (Sheffield) wrote in Times Higher Education on 5 May 2016 about ‘The risks of Soviet-style managerialism in UK universities’ , following his 2014 article on the same theme, ‘A very Stalinist management model’. In 2014 he had said that Soviet-style performativity had at least not been accompanied by censorship and repression for voicing critical views. In 2016 he told the story of attempted censorship by his university’s HR director after his 2014 article, concluding: ‘When our vice-chancellor learned what had happened, he apologised personally, but it is far from certain that all vice-chancellors would have taken this view.’ It’s a pity to ruin a good rant by an unexpectedly positive outcome: his conspiracy theory was maintained despite evidence to the contrary, of senior management support for the academic value of free open discussion.

To be sure, the rise of managerialism and the measurement of almost everything that is measurable have had many negative effects. Governors and senior managers bear a large share of responsibility for reinforcing the managerialist tendency, or at best succumbing to it, as the example of university rankings demonstrates. In a commissioned study for HEFCE in 2008, SRHE member William Locke and his colleagues exposed the slippery slope whereby league table evaluations first command attention: “The Board has set an institutional key performance indicator of improving the position in the league tables.”, then shape other management practices: “The aim of improving league table position … is encouraging moves to stronger central and corporate management for some functions.” (p 38). I have argued elsewhere that, in such cases, governors and managers are failing the challenge of institutional evaluation: ‘The goals of HE … defy precise formulation and reduction to a single measure. The challenge to managers is to reconcile that inevitable truth with the equally inevitable wish of external audiences to find simple metrics for their narrow purposes. The managerialist turn has meant proliferation of measurement, target-setting, key performance indicators and other monitoring and regulatory devices which sit uneasily with the more qualitative commitment of many staff, motivated by higher ideals than ticking boxes in the corporate strategy. There is scope for using qualitative evidence – case studies, human stories, prizes, awards – to rebalance the league table story.’

However, ‘Be careful what you wish for’. Paul Temple argued in SRHE News in January 2017 that neoliberalism was sometimes simply a ‘bystander at the crime scene … Politicians and their agencies, wishing to exert ever-tighter control over higher education through half-baked ideas about markets and business methods, were the ones wielding the blunt instruments.’ However true this may be, it is not the whole story. Academic culture must take some of the blame. While research has long been overvalued compared with teaching, what David Watson called ‘the collaborative gene’ is now in danger of being overpowered by intense competition between academics. This is creating pressures for ‘self-branding’, as Brooke Erin Duffy (Cornell) and Jefferson D Pooley (Muhlenberg College, USA) argued in Social Media and Society (January-March 2017: 1–11). Their article ‘“Facebook for Academics”: The Convergence of Self-Branding and Social Media Logic on’, said: ‘Academics … are experiencing … pressure to engage in self-promotional practices, particularly as universities become progressively more market-driven.’ For ‘… the site’s fixation on analytics reinforces a culture of incessant self-monitoring – one already encouraged by university policies to measure quantifiable impact.’ Some, perhaps many, academics seem to need no encouragement.

In the battle for the soul of academia the forces of managerialism and marketisation seem to be winning. The HE and Research Bill will reinforce the competitive tendency, despite claims that marketisation is not the Bill’s primary intention (as HEPI’s Nick Hillman has asserted, unconvincingly). This is risky for governors and managers alike. The rise of ‘challenger institutions’ encouraged by the Bill can only mean that it will become easier for institutions, whether ‘challenger’/for-profit or not, to change senior managers and perhaps whole boards of governors. For example, the recent sale of Apollo to new US owners was followed almost immediately by the departure of the chief executives of Apollo’s two best-known institutions, Phoenix University and BPP University.

In these circumstances it behoves managers to remember that as managers they make no direct contribution to the real work of the university – teaching and research. They are an overhead and, like all overheads, they need to justify their existence. The responsibilities of HE’s governors and senior managers are clear: to stand up for the best of academic values and to be transparent about their motives – supporting sustainable research and teaching. Their role is not to be a transmission belt, either for unthinking performance measurement from above or for unthinking academic populism from below. They need to rediscover, where it is lost, their responsibility to lead the institution by exercising their independent value-based judgement, and to educate those inside and outside the institution about the legitimate perspectives of otherstakeholders in the higher education enterprise, and about the inevitability of disagreement and compromise. The game’s afoot, but it is not lost. The time to worry will be when the headline in Times Higher Education reads ’76.5% of staff think their university is well-managed.’ Now that really would be Stalinist.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England, Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics, and Chair, Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service 

Author: SRHE News Blog

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

2 thoughts on “What’s wrong with management in higher education?

  1. Dear Professor Cuthbert,

    I liked your article. Funny enough I was earlier today browsing Ernest Boyer’s ‘Scholarship Reconsidered: priorities of the professoriate’ [ISBN-0-931050-43-x] and it does suggest that when many of the big universities (Yale, Harvard, Cambridge) were
    originally established their institutional strategies were fairly well aligned with the economic development requirements of their nation. I guess many of the imitative institutions on this side of the atlantic would have started with similarly aligned strategies.

    However, power corrupts and nowadays university strategy seems to be more aligned with the economic prosperity of the university senior management and professoriate.

    Wouldn’t be lovely to see university strategy realigned with student-centred learning. I think there are evidence-based models of such aligned university strategy. I’ve blogged a bit about it at:

    I’d certainly value any comments you might have on it.

    Best Regards

    Bob Lawlor

  2. Pingback: Defend Academic Freedom at Warwick | Academic Irregularities

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