srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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In the duck house

By Paul Temple

Last autumn, David Palfreyman and I completed our book Universities and Colleges in the OUP “Very Short Introduction” series by compiling the index. It’s a sign of how fast things have changed that if we were preparing the index now, just a few months later, I think that one entry would have to be on the lines of “Greed, vice-chancellors, accusations of.” How on earth have we got to this?

Our late and much-missed friend and colleague, David Watson, would, I am certain, be incandescent with fury at how some of his fellow vice-chancellors have allowed Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, plausibly to compare some vice-chancellors’ expenses claims with episodes from the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal. Halfon picked out the £1600 that Surrey University had paid to relocate its new VC’s dog from Australia, comparing it to the notorious “floating duck island” which, as it happens, cost the same. As with the duck-house, it’s the pettiness, the bathos – not to mention the comedic potential – that catch the attention. Was there nobody at Surrey able to say, “Vice-Chancellor, this really won’t be a good look if (when) it comes out”? And if not, shouldn’t there have been? Continue reading

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