The un-managed university: could it survive and prosper?

During ten years spent working for a particular university earlier in my career (and there is no hint in the statement, as I have worked for 10 years for each of my academic employers), I amused myself by trying to find out where university-wide decisions were actually taken. Of course I knew the constitutional position, and was well aware of the committee or council or board that had the final say in any particular issue. But on the whole I was convinced that the issues were decided long before they got to these particular forums, and I wanted to find out who was deciding, and where, and when, and how they were able to navigate their decisions through the formal structures. I was never able to find the answer. Somehow all the obvious people and groups didn’t seem to be the originators. In the end I half came to the conclusion that decision-making in the university in question was really quite haphazard and subject to no identifiable pattern, and that as a result the development of future policies was highly unpredictable. Subsequent insights into the institution in question have tended to confirm my views.

Of course that doesn’t mean that the university didn’t take decisions. In fact, its leadership was astute and (I believe) benign, and they did what is done in most universities: plans and policies were allowed to ‘bubble up’ through informal discussions and were then negotiated through the formal elements of the system, with the champion for each proposal spending time recruiting and convincing supporters. In this way the university continued to do some new things, but it could not be said that these new things were part of any overall strategic design. They happened opportunistically and sporadically, and often they were not particularly compatible with each other.

It is often suggested that this somewhat anarchic and unpredictable, but often quite democratic system came under pressure as university presidents started to get ideas above their station and began to fancy themselves as corporate chief executives. In this view of the university as it is thought to have developed over the past decade or two, senior managers bought into corporate thinking and commercial principles. They started to sideline or ignore formal decision-making structures and just got on with implementing their policies without bothering much to secure anyone’s consent, and more particularly, without paying much attention to long-standing academic values. The consequence of this, as it is seen by some dissenters in particular, is that decisions are taken without proper support and without adequate analysis, and faculty and staff are kept in line by the imposition of a mindless bureaucracy that takes the edge off reasoned opposition. In Ireland this is, I think, the essence of the view that has been put forward by academics such as UCD’s Tom Garvin, as has been discussed in this blog.

Outside the academy, a wholly different picture of the university has been taking hold of influential opinion. Under this perspective, universities are chaotic places where individuals can refuse to carry out their work with impunity, where urgent national needs are willfully ignored, where under-performing academics neglect students, and where the work-shy hide behind the banner of ‘academic freedom’ at the first sign of trouble. And those who hold this view are now beginning to say, ‘hang on, we’ll solve this problem for you, we’ll establish an academy that works to explicit national priorities and that is monitored and controlled from the centre’ (whatever that may be). And that’s where we may now be heading.

If we want to take the view that this is an undesirable direction for us, we need to understand certain things. First, we simply cannot run a university system that now admits a large percentage of the population as if we were running small elite institutions. The elite students of former times generally had very un-specific expectations of their education. For them it was all part of assuming the knowledge and the style of privilege, not about undergoing specific vocational training. Today’s students generally have a much more tactical and career-oriented approach to what they are doing in college, and they expect to see that reflected in how they are taught and treated. Universities have in fact adapted quite well to that in the portfolio of programmes they offer, but not always in the style and methods of their pedagogy. There is still a kind of inherited nostalgia for a past golden age, without perhaps having a proper appreciation that the golden age in question involved what we must now consider a socially unacceptable framework for education.

Secondly, universities now need to make a coherent and aggressively defended case for themselves. They need to be able to demonstrate to those who may give or withhold funds that they have strategic aims that are worth supporting; and to do that they need to have agreed strategic aims in the first place, and they need to be able to show that these are being implemented systematically. The idea of an essentially un-managed university in which something may happen, or it may not, in relation to whatever the issue happens to be is no longer sustainable. The claim by faculty to senior managers that ‘what I do is none of your business’ is neither workable nor likely to protect the sustainability of the institution.

Thirdly, we cannot turn up our noses at money. If we want to do anything, and in particular if we want to do it well, we need resources. If we are failing to get those resources, then complaining that the government, or other backers, are behaving recklessly by not funding us is fine but is not an actual substitute for the money. We need to think intelligently about how we can maximise our income in ways that don’t compromise our integrity. And securing adequate revenues requires a coherent and well implemented plan.

On the other hand, universities are knowledge organisations staffed by fiercely intelligent and imaginative individuals, who are certainly not going to be anyone’s cannon fodder. Management can only work successfully if it has secured widespread consent, which in turn requires transparency, shared decision-making and respect for staff. It requires a very modern kind of leadership. And it is here that the success or failure of a university will increasingly be decided.

Universities today are under attack, and they need to be strong. The chaotic university cannot succeed in that setting. But neither can a bureaucratised dictatorship. Getting this balance right is the most important task for today’s higher education.

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9 Comments on “The un-managed university: could it survive and prosper?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I think you would be in error thinking that decisions were not made. They simply were not made inside the institution.
    The levers of power in UCD could easily be traced back to Drumcondra, with the other two Archbishops pushing the same buttons via proxy at UCC and UCG. Such that the only University with anything nearing real autonomy was the Pontifical University at Maynooth.
    While at TCD, her control box, a little less levers and wire or electrical was more radio controlled and could be moved to wherever the major tea parties were that summer.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    You are correct of course that what is required is real leadership from within the sector. In particular, the forthcoming (delayed again?) strategic review set high ambitions for itself in supposedly mapping out the future direction for up to two decades, but there is little confidence in the wider community that it is capable of doing such given its membership, leaks regarding its modus operandi and disconnect from the academic frontline of many university lecturers and students in addition to the economic situation and the fatal wounds being inflicted by the Employment Control Framework. There exists, in a sense, a strategy void and it is time that the sector considered filling this, not just with individual institutional plans, but with a concerted drive to argue the case for the real value of a university sector to the wider public.

    The problem is that some academics produce statements and articles/letters in the press that appear to champion privilege, argue against change and whose personal comments are unrepresentative of the lived experience of the bulk of their colleagues and students. And then of course the media loves a good public spat, so are happy to stoke the fires.

    Hopefully, your planned event in June will start a discussion that goes to the core of the issue.

  3. Colin Scott Says:

    It should not be forgotten that Cohen, March and Olsen’s classic 1972 article ‘A Garbage Can Model of Organisational Choice’, whilst offering a general theory, applied its ideas chiefly to university decision making. Without denying that management is important to contemporary universities, we should continue to expect a degree of chaos in decision making processes within universities and be prepared to acknowledge the virtues (in terms of capacity for dealing with uncertainty, conflicting values, etc).


    • Interesting reference, Colin. As it happens by coincidence I have just ordered James March’s latest book where, I believe, he reprises some of those themes. I have never been able to get hold of a copy of ‘Garbage Can’.

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    One simple question, Ferdinand: What sort of ‘practical’ ‘training’ is appropriate for a world in which one is expected to change jobs 10 or 15 times in a working lifetime?

    The ones who are behind the times are not those advocating knowledge for its own sake in our universities. That is, those advocating a vision of undergraduate education as acquaintance with a wide range of ideas and the sort of critical mindset required to encounter them fruitfully. The one’s who are behind the times are those who think you can ‘train’ workers for a work world that no longer exists.

    But it’s not surprising that those who derive all of their ideas about management from 1950s textbooks (I’m not talking about you, Ferdinand) think that the world they have to prepare students for is the world of the 1950s, where one masters a ‘skill’ (after having been ‘trained’ in it) and then goes on to make a lifelong career putting it to use. Those days are long gone, except among the benighted leaders of Ireland who got us into this mess.


    • Ah yes, Ernie, but the ones who think that universities ought to provide ‘training’ are not primarily administrators and politicians, but the students themselves. And we need to be aware that telling students, ‘Trust me, you don’t know what you’re talking about’, is unlikely to cut the mustard.

      I must also confess that I am hugely sceptical about the idea of ‘knowledge for its own sake’. Even those who say that don’t usually mean it. They are not suggesting that knowledge has no value beyond its own existence (which is what the slogan implies), they believe that knowledge creates qualities and abilities that assist those who hold it and that support society. In fact, they are just as tactical about knowledge as anyone else, just with a slightly different outlook.

      • Jilly Says:

        I don’t tend to use the phrase ‘knowledge for its own sake’ much myself. So picking up on Ernie’s point, I’ll have a go at articulating what I see my (teaching) job as being.

        I hope to develop in my students an ability to think rationally and critically, and to be able to assess new or different ideas or information in an equally rational manner. I also hope to teach them to understand the flows of power and change in the society in which they live, sufficiently to at least survive them, and at best to be informed, active and thoughtful citizens.

        The extent to which I achieve any of this is quite another matter, but at least I can try!


  5. […] The un-managed university: could it survive and prosper … […]


  6. “First, we simply cannot run a university system that now admits a large percentage of the population as if we were running small elite institutions. The elite students of former times generally had very un-specific expectations of their education. For them it was all part of assuming the knowledge and the style of privilege, not about undergoing specific vocational training.”

    I disagree. Of course increased numbers and different times mean change but the whole purpose of increased access is to make higher learning available to all who can benefit. Moreover, that’s what the world of work now requires.

    More vocational training rather than education is the demand of people – including students – who fail to appreciate what has happened to work and yet are aware that too many graduates complete their education lacking important skills.

    The “information society” has consequences for university education. As a term, it is often reduced to meaningless guff but it should not be dismissed by thoughtful people. In careless use it becomes fused with “knowledge society” and provides a justification for a pretty daft approach to education: an increased emphasis on mere training for the majority and an increase in the number of PhDs. I don’t want to talk right now about the latter but training in preference to education is precisely what, let’s call it, industry doesn’t need right now.

    Anyone who has given serious thought to the concept of an “information society” either from a political or a business perspective realises pretty quickly that such a society depends not merely on skilled people but on educated, thinking, and – yes – innovative people. In short, the humanities graduate’s time has come! (I recall commenting during a discussion with a group of lecturers that innovation is what separates a 2.1 from a 2.2.)

    There are however “employability” problems with some graduates and the problems have nothing to do with the traditional university approach to learning. Too many students lack the skills necessary to making the best use of their education. Too many are not fully literate, cannot cope with the mathematics essential to a full life today, have no real understanding of technology or economics, have poor general knowledge and cannot present themselves or their work in public. These are mere skills and could never figure in a university education. However, it should not be possible to achieve the status of graduate without these skills. They are essential and they should be mastered while in primary and secondary school. Most lecturers are aware of the literacy and the general knowledge problem. Many may be aware that perhaps the majority of students are poor communicators and that work today demands effective participation at meetings and making presentations. Some lecturers may not have noticed the mathematics problem. What do I mean by this? Here are a few examples that I’ve come across. Students frequently have no grasp of the magnitude of numbers. They would find the creation of mathematical expressions for, say, a spreadsheet very difficult. The concept of random distribution would be new to them. I won’t labour this on into basic science, technology and economics. The point is that today effective citizenship – never mind a job – requires these skills. While someone without them should not be at university, most certainly a graduate must have them.

    A university is not the place for teaching skills. However, until such time as the rest of the educational system addresses the problem, universities in order to maintain standards and credibility should test for them. There can be no question of awarding grades, let alone making it part of the degree programme. This is about finding competence; it is pass or fail. I realize that suggesting such tests – and I’m not talking about labour intensive exams. – seems impractical or extreme for institutes of higher learning but I can’t come up with another short term remedy.


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