srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Covid-19 won’t change universities unless they own up to the problems that were already there

by Steven Jones

At a national level in the UK, two Covid narratives vie for supremacy. The first positions the government response to the pandemic as successful, pointing to a world-leading vaccine development and roll-out, a well-received furlough scheme, and an accelerated return to ‘normal’. The second positions the government response as calamitous, pointing to recurring misspends, accusations of corruption, and a death rate among the highest in Europe.

Within UK higher education, two parallel narratives have arisen. On one hand, sector leaders and institutional managers claim against-the-odds victory because most universities emerged reputationally and commercially unscathed from the most unforeseeable of global challenges. On the other hand, for many students and staff, Covid-19 further exposed the limits of market-based approaches to funding universities, and the harm done by corporate governance cultures.

Discursively, Covid-19 laid bare a higher education sector fluent in the language of competition but mostly unable to articulate its underlying value to society. Senior management teams continued to pore over league table performance indicators and rejoice in individual ‘excellence’, but struggled to co-create a narrative of common good and humanity in the face of a deadly virus.

Yet at the local level there was much of which to be proud: university staff listened to their students and put their needs first, recognising that welfare now took priority over academic outcomes. Learning persisted, even during the depths of lockdown, with pedagogies adapting and curricula evolving. The question now is how to reconcile a renewed spirit of collegiality and creativity with top-down policy wedded to the idea that universities are ‘providers’ and their students little more than consumers of a premium product.

The starting point may be to accept that UK universities were struggling long before Covid-19 struck. Many of the sector’s underlying problems were simply brought into sharper focus by the pandemic. This slower-burning crisis in higher education means that: 

  1. Relations between senior managers and their staff are broken. During Covid-19, university staff wondered why their efforts appeared to be appreciated more by their students than their employers. For those in positions of authority, the successful response of front-line personnel seemed almost to threaten their authority. Top-end remuneration had raced ahead of median campus pay for decades because governing bodies were convinced that the university’s most important work was undertaken by its executive. Suddenly, it appeared that collegiality at the disciplinary level was what mattered most. Institutional managers would no doubt retort that running a university by consensus is impractical, not least during a worldwide emergency, and that the financial sustainability of the sector was secured by their swift pre-emptive action. But to those on the outside, the simmering resentment between employers and employees remains unfathomable: how can those who lead the university be so far adrift of those who work for the university?
  • Relations between senior managers and students are also badly damaged. Partly this was the fault of policy-makers, for whom students were at best an afterthought. But instead of fashioning an alternative narrative, institutional management teams mostly followed the lead of a cynical government and framed students as potential individual rule-breakers rather than a vulnerable cohort of young people facing an extraordinary mental health challenge. One vice-chancellor foolhardily suggested that where students were forced into self-isolation it might engender a ‘Dunkirk spirit’. At times, international students were treated like cargo. In August 2021, over fifty UK universities clubbed together to charter flights and import students from China. Home students were also lured back on to campus prematurely, the risks to local communities apparently secondary to income from accommodation, catering and other on-site spending.
  • Ministers don’t listen to sector leaders. Despite institutional managers and their representative bodies dutifully following the marketisation road-map that policy-makers laid out, Covid-19 exposed a sector that had remarkably little sway over government strategy. Ministers showed no interest in University UK’s proposed bail-out package, with one Conservative peer pointedly suggesting that institutions show ‘humility on the part of those vice-chancellors who take very large salaries.’ This undermined the soft-power strategies of which sector leaders had boasted for decades. Some ‘wins’ for students did emerge, but they were invariably overstated: the government’s announcement of a £50m package of support in February 2021 was met with enthusiasm by sector representatives, leaving it to mental health charities like Student Minds to point out that this amounted to barely £25 per head. Ironically, when the government botched its A-levels algorithm, universities stepped in to bail-out policy-makers.
  • The business model on which universities operate is brittle. No-one would deny the reliance on overseas student income leaves the sector financially exposed. Many would go further and say that there’s something unethical – neo-colonial even – about charging sky-high fees to foreign students so that other university activity can be cross-subsidised. The most principled long-term approach would be for university leaders to reassert the common value of higher education, and seek to persuade the public that a system funded through progressive general taxation, akin to that of other nations, would be fairer and more robust. With graduates of English universities facing interest charges of 9-12% over four decades, there has never been a better time to make this argument.

In 2020, I wrote an upbeat piece in The Guardian suggesting that Covid-19 could change universities for the better. This is still just about possible. However, recent evidence suggests that there is no great eagerness on the part of management to seize the opportunity. Indeed, Covid-19 could change next to nothing, allowing sector leaders and institutional managers to distract from previous failings and double down on a failed corporate leadership model. At the national level, campuses have become battlefields for unwinnable ‘culture wars’, as right-wing politicians and media commentators take pot-shots at a sector lacking the confidence or guile to defend itself. At the institutional level, the cost-of-living crisis is already being used to vindicate new survivalist discourses that will later be used to rationalise further reconfigurations and cuts.

Covid-19 exposed the vulnerability of a heavily marketised university sector. As student loan interest rates rocket and staff pensions crumble, our sector leaders say almost nothing. Markets in higher education do more than monetise students’ learning; they co-opt and silence those whose primary duty it is to defend the universities that they manage.

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester. Steven’s new book, Universities Under Fire: hostile discourses and integrity deficits in higher education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) will be published in the summer.


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Are higher education managers becoming more professional and if so, how?

by Susan Harris-Huemmert, Julia Rathke, Anna Gerchen and Susi Poli

How well are HEIs being managed? Who are those in charge? Can we really be confident in their abilities? At a time in which the HE sector appears more complex and diverse, how sure can we be that those at the top are ‘professional’? How are they being prepared (or actively prepare themselves) for these positions, and if they get to the top, are they themselves making sure that staff members, too, are being ‘professionalised’? Especially in terms of new areas of employment within the HE sector, how are these staff members qualifying themselves? These seem pertinent questions and the ongoing lack of empirical work into HE governance reveals that there are considerable gaps in our knowledge. To address this, we bring together empirical data from ongoing research projects in the UK, Germany and Italy, which, from various angles and viewpoints, explore how professionalism within the HE sector is being developed to meet present and future needs and challenges.

A current German research project, financed by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) – KaWuM – is examining the career trajectories and qualification requirements of so-called higher education or science managers (www.kawum-online.de). Qualitative work has been undertaken to explore in depth the viewpoints and experiences of this particular group of staff, who work at the interface between research, teaching and administration (Whitchurch, 2010). A sample of 32 qualitative interviews has been drawn upon here from the project by Susan Harris-Huemmert and Julia Rathke, who examine the roles of German HE leaders from two vantage points. Firstly how do they prepare for and become more professional as institutional heads, and secondly: how do these leaders ensure that their academic or administrative staff members are also being professionally trained and developed? (Thoenig and Paradeise, 2016: 320). Interviews were conducted with both formal (presidents/rectors/chancellors/VPs) and informal leaders (science managers) and analysed in MaxQDa according to Kuckartz (2018). Findings suggest that formal HE leaders are encountering ever more complex management tasks, with little management training or ‘other’ work experience outside academia. They mainly learn by doing and often lack the time and/or motivation for professional training. It appears that formal HE leaders are seldom professionalised, although management tasks are their main responsibility. However, they are relying increasingly on professionalised science managers and their expertise, who can advance their professionalisation via personnel development.

In her work from within the BerBeo project, which also stems from the same BMBF funding thread as the above-named KaWuM project, Anna Gerchen is examining how the influence of New Public Management, academic reforms and increasing competition between universities have changed the demands on recruitment processes in German HE, in particular those regarding professorial appointments. Professorships in Germany are characterised by a particularly high degree of autonomy and prestige (Hamann, 2019). Almost all full professors are civil servants and hold tenured, safeguarded lifetime employment. This emphasises the importance of professorial personnel selection for which German universities use highly formalised procedures. To professionalise these procedures, Germany’s Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat) called for the creation of officers for professorial appointments to take responsibility for the “proper and smooth running of the procedure” (WR, 2005, p5). Following this recommendation and the subsequent legal revisions, many German universities have introduced officers for professorial appointment procedures – non-professorial staff members appointed specifically for quality assurance and decision-making support. These appointment managers – as shown on the basis of a quantitative survey (Gerchen, 2021) – are predominantly female, relatively young, highly educated and from the social sciences; in particular they show a background in administrative science or in law. Informing and advising the university management is reported by 94% of the respondents to be central to their work. This shows that the purpose of supporting the university management in appointment matters, as stated by the Council of Science and Humanities, actually represents the core function of this new position in practice.

In her research Susi Poli turns the lens towards Italy and a number of other countries to investigate the role of research managers (RMAs), as one of the most hybrid or blended groups that can be found in today’s HEIs among staff in professional services. She asks to what extent these managers are qualified for this specific role, even in relation to qualifications, training, and any sort of network provided by their professional associations. Is what they have, and do, enough? Or is there much more than that coming up in the RMAs’ community, even as creators of new discourses in today’s HE management? She draws on Barnett’s notion of supercomplexity, in which he suggests the re-creation of discourse on competences, qualifications, and professional frameworks (Barnett, 2008: 191). In this new age, research managers should be “pioneers or the creators of these new discourses” (Barnett, 2008: 206). Susi’s work includes an analysis of professional networks and supporting bodies in countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Norway, the US, Portugal, Japan, South Africa (Romano et al, 2021). She concludes that there is a growing awareness of the identity and purpose of research managers and that the literature is now paying more attention to this staff group.

In sum, it appears that there is a developing international trend towards greater professionalism within the HE sector, including the work of formal and informal leaders in various capacities. Networks reveal an increasing level of support, but it appears that professional development per se is still very much in the hands of the individual, and is not the result of any particularly well-structured system. This is a question the sector needs to ask itself, reflecting what Thoenig and Paradeise stated in 2016: “If knowledge gaps remain, this may be to the detriment of the strategic capacity of the whole institution”. Our question should therefore be whether we can afford to allow such knowledge gaps, or whether we as a sector can do more, to fill them.

Susan Harris-Huemmert is Professor of International Education Leadership and Management at Ludwigsburg University of Education. Following her doctoral research at the University of Oxford on the topic of evaluation practice in Germany, she has researched and published internationally on topics such as higher education systems and their governance, quality management and the management of campus infrastructure. Contact: susan.harris-huemmert@ph-ludwigsburg.de

Julia Rathke is research assistant at the German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer in the project “KaWuM – Career Paths and Qualification Requirements in Science and Higher Education Management” since August 2019. In January 2021 she took over charge of the joint coordination and management of the project team KaWuM Central Coordination and Interviews from Prof. Dr. Susan Harris-Huemmert. Contact: rathke@uni-speyer.de; www.kawum-online.de 

Anna Gerchen is a researcher at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) in the research area ‘Governance in Higher Education and Science’. With a background in communication science, sociology and gender studies she currently works on the field of quality assurance and appointment procedures at universities. Contact: gerchen[at]dzhw.eu

Susi Poli is Professional Development Lead in the Education Division at Bologna University, after several years spent as research manager in Italy and abroad. She holds a MBA in HE Management and an EdD in HE from the Institute of Education and her research interests primarily cover research management, staff development, and women’s leadership in HE. Contact here: susi.poli@unibo.it

References

Barnett, R (2008) ‘Critical professionalism in an age of supercomplexity’ in B. Cunningham (ed) Exploring professionalism London: Bedford Way Press pp190-208.

Gerchen, A (in press) Berufungsmanager*innen an deutschen Universitäten. Profilmerkmale eines neuen Stellentypus. Hochschulmanagement 4(16)

Kuckartz, U. (2018) Qualitative Inhaltanalyse. Methoden, Praxis, Computerunterstützung.4th ed. Basel & Weinheim: BeltzJuventa

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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?

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Paul Temple


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Departmental dysfunctions

By Paul Temple

The quality of the management or, if you wish, leadership of university academic departments has been a cause for concern – from both ends of the hierarchy – for as long as anyone in the system can remember. In my usual guide to finding out what people were thinking the day before yesterday about university operations – Lockwood and Davies’s 1985 Universities: The Management Challenge – John Davies remarks that heads of academic departments are “middlemen [sic] in a complicated communications network…[with] enormous intellectual, emotional and physical demands in this difficult position… the role is a target for others’ frustrations” (74). I think this nicely sums up what we still find today.

It’s fairly clear that these difficulties arise in large measure because academics in these roles find themselves doing mid-career management jobs with, at best, limited prior experience. Up until that point in their careers, they have concentrated on being good historians, physicists or whatever; whereas their equivalents in most other organisations will have done several more junior management jobs and will perhaps have worked closely with people at or near the top of their organisation, in the process learning tacitly what good management looks and feels like. (Obviously, it doesn’t always work out like that, the world not being perfect.) Continue reading