The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Buddy, can you paradigm?

by Paul Temple

Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a remarkable academic book in that it remains a best-seller (as academic books go) more than 60 years after its publication. Even more unusually, Kuhn, a theoretical physicist, apparently “spent the rest of his life distressed by its success” according to the science historian Steven Shapin, who knew him, writing in The London Review of Books in March this year. He should have been so lucky, most academic authors would say. Also unusually, Kuhn intended his study as an encyclopaedia entry, not as a stand-alone book at all, and didn’t expect social scientists, historians, and others to latch onto it. But he shouldn’t really have been surprised, as “things are either x or y” claims are often pounced upon by those in search of a neat structuring for an argument. (One of my favourites is, “There are two sorts of people in the world: professional social scientists and amateur ones”.)

Anyway, Kuhn’s distinction between “normal science” and the intellectual revolutions that from time-to-time upend the discipline in question, “shifting” to a new “paradigm” before normal science resumes in a new paradigmatic way, can be applied in many fields. I’ve used it to help think about how management (or leadership) works: mostly it’s in normal-science mode, keeping things ticking over nicely, dealing with minor problems, making a few tweaks here and there; but then something really big comes along, the present methods are found to be inadequate, and a new way of working – a new paradigm – emerges. Then, after a bit, normal science resumes, but differently.

I think you could say a new paradigm for university leadership (or management) arose when league tables came along. These used performance indicators (KPIs, as they became known) which began to be produced in the UK in the late 1980s, following the Jarratt Report of 1985 which argued that university managements needed comparative data in order to become more efficient. Before then, everyone in the trade had a general idea of where their own institution fitted in, but management decisions weren’t made with the idea of becoming better than a particular competitor – just about becoming, if possible, better in some overall sense. League tables changed all that: managers were, often, told to do whatever it took to change the metric for which they were responsible. A new management paradigm had emerged. (HESA announced in 2021 that it was ending the publication of university KPIs – so perhaps that’s a paradigm that, over say 30 years, has run its course.)

When wars begin, effective political leaderships typically remove the peacetime generals who got promoted by being good at normal science – fitting in with the military bureaucracy, writing nice essays at staff college – and finding replacements who understand the new paradigm of war: winning battles isn’t the main task, it’s (almost) the only task. As Ukraine’s army chief of staff, General Zaluzhny (who looks like a man you wouldn’t want to annoy) told The Economist in December 2022, “I trust my generals. Since the start of the war I fired ten of them because they were not up to it. Another one shot himself.”

Which brings us to Mr Tony Chambers, formerly Chief Executive of the Countess of Chester Hospital. I suspect that Mr Chambers had been on a leadership course where your group is given a task that involves manipulating a number of variables, perhaps a game about managing a supermarket to maximise profits: do you cut prices to increase turnover, or increase prices in the hope of more revenue?; do you cut staff numbers to save on wages, or increase them to improve customer service? And so on. (Of course there is an algorithm underlying the game: mathematically-minded team members spend their time trying to crack the algorithm – I could never quite decide if this counted as cheating.) Mr Chambers saw his job at the hospital in this way, juggling variables: “[I had to] balance the competing priorities of the safety of babies and their families, the health and wellbeing of our staff and the reputation of our services…I have not always got the balance right…” (Guardian, 19/08/23). He was, in other words, operating in a normal-science mode based on a long-standing paradigm and, despite a mounting death toll in the neonatal unit, saw no need for a new paradigm. What, I suggest, the hospital needed was a wartime-mode chief executive, with one aim in view: to stop babies dying. The HR and comms issues that were obviously taking up a lot of Mr Chambers’ bandwidth needed, under the new paradigm, to be relegated or delegated. Keeping babies alive shouldn’t have been one priority among many, just as for Ukraine’s generals winning battles isn’t just a priority – it’s the only priority that counts.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.