Posted tagged ‘managerialism’

Students first?

May 22, 2017

A survey in the United States of America has found that ‘nearly three out of five Americans believe that higher-education leaders put the long-term interests of their institutions first over the needs of students.’ This is, I suppose, a variant of the view held by some in this part of the world that managerialist higher education leaders prioritise business projects over educational excellence.

Whether or not that charge is justified, it is obviously true that universities are finding it necessary to implement a profitable business model to ensure institutional sustainability, and not just where income for institutions comes from private sources rather than from government funding. Tight public funding also requires universities to deploy entrepreneurial creativity.

The nirvana of universities receiving generous financial support from the taxpayer on a demand-led basis is not one we will experience again – it is an impossible scenario in a setting of mass higher education. A university business plan is not of itself a denial of academic values. But it does make it ever more important that institutional values are clearly expressed, reinforced and widely applied. The needs of students must always be one of the most important; if we marginalise this, we have lost all purpose. And if students believe we have done so, we have an urgent need to put that right.

University managerialism: another narrative

October 21, 2011

One of the most common critiques these days of university life as presented by academics is that of ‘managerialism’. As far back as 2001 an article in Times Higher Education described it as follows:

‘”New managerialism” usually refers to practices commonplace in the private sector, particularly the imposition of a powerful management body that overrides professional skills and knowledge. It keeps discipline under tight control and is driven by efficiency, external accountability and monitoring, and an emphasis on standards.’

A frequent complaint amongst academics is that a new managerial class has taken control of the levers of decision-making in universities and is introducing private sector methods that disregard academic traditions and collegiality and which prioritise financial outturns over intellectual excellence and integrity. In addition this class of managers is said too have bureaucratised academic life, while avoiding accountability for these actions.

There can be little doubt that universities are today more bureaucratic places than they once were, and that a process of ‘management’ has emerged that would have seemed alien not so long ago. Rosemary Deem, who first produced an academic analysis of the phenomenon, wrote in 1998:

‘Until quite recently, the notion that the activities and cultures of universities either required managing or were, in any meaningful sense, ‘managed’, would have been regarded as heretical. Universities were perceived as communities of scholars researching and teaching together in collegial ways; those running universities were regarded as academic leaders rather than as managers or chief executives. However, as the higher education sector in the United Kingdom has grown in extent, it is also increasingly being required to justify the expenditure of public funds and to demonstrate ‘value for money’. Those who run universities are expected to ensure that such value is provided and their role as academic leaders is being subsumed by a greater concern with the overt management of sites, finance, staff, students, teaching and research.’

While the charge of managerialism may have some truth in it, the suggestion (if it were made) that this is the doing of a new managerial class intent on subverting the original academic mission is not really fair. Management systems in universities are not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a much wider movement that has included quality assurance systems, research assessment and greater financial accountability of universities. Some of these developments were entirely desirable, or at least can be justified easily enough. The problem is that they have taken what was or should have been the academic mission of finding and disseminating knowledge – i.e. content – and downgraded it, now taking second place to process. It is all to do with the desire to inject more accountability into higher education, a move made difficult by the fact that what higher education does intellectually is not easily measured. So other things were found that were capable of measurement, and in this way the system bureaucratised. And then of course the bureaucracy had to be managed.

Resolving all this is not at all easy. It is not possible, realistically, to roll back the last decade or two, and to be fair it probably isn’t desirable either. Universities back then were on the whole educators of the elite, with little inclination to justify what they were doing to anyone else. That’s no longer acceptable in today’s society. But rather than come up with ways of explaining and accounting for its actions and practices, the academy let external stakeholders lay down the rules, and this turned into what we have now got.

Not all of it is bad. Universities are much more cost effective than they used to be, have more professional support services, provide more serious back-up for students, manage their facilities more efficiently, engage more purposefully with the community. Where it is not so good is in the bureaucratisation of scholarship, and the inadequacy of inclusive decision-making. This is what we now need to get right. So to those academics who seem intent on suggesting that it’s all the fault of a managerial class, I would argue that the time is right to work with university leaderships to see how the academy can make its case effectively to a general public that wants more accountability, while preserving the best of the academic tradition. It shouldn’t be beyond us to achieve this.

Is there such a thing as a ‘university’?

January 14, 2011

Professor Steve Hedley is Dean of the Faculty of Law in University College Cork, and a highly respected academic expert in private law. As I suspect many Irish readers of this blog will know, he is also the owner of the invaluable academic news resource, 9th Level Ireland. He has also written about management styles in universities, and in one article he suggests the following:

‘… Most departmental members have little interest in making the university run like a well-oiled machine, especially as that vision consigns them to the role of mere obedient cog. Viewed from the departmental level, both the perspectives and the loyalties are very different – which gives the university much of its character, and makes it so hard to govern. As a generality, the academics’ viewpoint and allegiance will be discipline-based rather than tied to the particular institution. Fidelity to the university as a whole may be weak, or indeed (if it conflicts with fidelity to discipline) hardly discernable at all. In principle, we might expect institutional loyalty to be stronger in Ireland than in (say) the U.K. or the U.S., given that job mobility is lower. In practice, this does not seem to be so: each academic’s detailed knowledge of the university is typically about their own department or related departments, their contact with the rest of the university being less frequent and typically purely social. Their loyalty is owed to the people they know and whose activities they understand, not to others, with whom they might occasionally compete for parking space but whom they otherwise ignore. And whatever rationality and purpose may inhere in central university processes is very probably not apparent from the point of view of typical department members. This limits the influence that central university management has, or can possibly have, on the individual departments, and hence on the university’s activities as a whole.’

The point made in the above passage is of great interest to anyone who has ever been involved in developing a university strategy. In fact, the first question that often precedes any actual strategic formulation in a university is whether an institution-wide strategy is even possible. I distinctly recall at one meeting of university presidents, when I suggested to the others that we should issue a joint statement on a matter of common concern to all of us (and, I felt, to the entire academic community), that one president argued that he could not sign any such statement, in the sense that he could not sign any joint statement, regardless of content. He could never speak on behalf of his institution, he said, because there was no such thing as a policy or position that it could adopt (as distinct from one of its constituent departments). The university did not have a sufficient corporate existence to be able to have a policy; or at least that is what most of its staff would believe.

It is indeed true that most academics believe they are part of a department or school or maybe Faculty, and part of a discipline. Their relationship with the university that employes them is often thought to be like that of an English barrister with her or his chambers: they provide accommodation and a degree of work planning, but not a corporate identity. Universities, the view might be, are communities of scholars, not corporations, and the scholars must, for the sake of their intellectual integrity, maintain a significant degree of autonomy from their institutions.

Before saying anything else, it is worth suggesting that this is not altogether an absurd position. One of the imperatives for academics through the ages has been to defend intellectual independence and to avoid being corralled into positions that are informed not by the search for truth but by the imperatives, compromises and whims of temporal power. Fidelity to the discipline provided some protection from undue influence.

Three things have made this position difficult to maintain. The first of these is that universities have moved far beyond teaching, and the demands (including the material and financial demands) of modern scholarship require a process of management. Institutions (rather than individuals) now usually compete for resources, connections and advantages, and they need to be able to plan their moves, like other organisations.

Secondly, knowledge itself has changed, and the demands that society makes on universities to solve problems in culture, society and industry require the engagement of interdisciplinary techniques and partnerships. In a university setting, disciplinary units have often felt their primary task was to defend their departments from the encroachment or financial profligacy of other departments. Now such barriers stand in the way of both teaching and research, and universities need to be able to organise themselves.

Thirdly, whether we like it or not, society (and that includes our funders) has become tired of the old academic order and has started to equate it with under-performance and inefficiency, and the taxpayer has punished universities financially in consequence; this is a trend that, if continued, has the capacity to destroy higher education altogether.

The trick – and who knows whether anyone has yet got this right – is to develop universities that respect intellectual integrity and freedom and can harness academic coordination and collaboration: knowledge organisations that are also efficient and effective. We can no longer afford to be institutions that have no institutional order. But equally we cannot just be organisations based on command structures. Overcoming this apparent conflict successfully is the holy grail of modern higher education, and a conditions for its success.

The illegitimacy of management?

May 6, 2010

It has become common within universities to identify and criticise something described as ‘managerialism’. in 2007 a research team led by Professor Rosemary Deem of the University of Bristol published an article in which they identified a pattern called ‘New Managerialism’, which in essence was said to consist of a drive to create a centralised strategic direction in universities, administrative structures to implement the strategy, and control mechanisms that allow the strategy to be transformed into action.

If this is the essence of ‘new managerialism’, then what this tells us is that the legitimacy of university strategy as a concept has not been accepted everywhere in the academy. This reminds me of an experience I had in the earlier years of my term of office. I was present at a meeting of university heads at which one president told us that he could talk about a ‘strategy’ for his university without some staff telling him that no university should claim to have a strategy: this should be a matter solely for departments or maybe even only individual academics. In that setting any attempt to use management structures of whatever kind to supervise a strategy formulation and implementation meets resentment among staff.

Clearly here is a distinction between criticism of managerialism as a claimed excess or even abuse of power, and management as a tool of organisational oversight. But in some people’s eyes the gap between the two is not large.

Universities are much more complex organisations than they used to be, and frankly I doubt that many could now operate successfully as loose coalitions of academics. On the other hand, there are contradictions between the desire to keep the overall control of the institutions in academic hands, and the need to professionalise key functions such as finance and human resources and ensure that they are run in accordance with best practice.

Academic institutions have not worked out properly how they should be run, how within a necessary management structure the integrity of scholarship and learning can be assured, and how they can build up institutional success through focused strategies. And because there is no consensus around this, universities are dogged by suspicion and tensions within.

I think it is time to stop using what are in essence terms of abuse such as ‘managerialism’ that suggest that all management is illegitimate, no matter how it is exercised. It is also time to ensure that management in universities secures consent and cooperation and recognises the special ethos of the academy. All of which is probably more easily said than done.

* ‘Managing Contemporary UK Universities – Manager-academics and New Managerialism’, in Academic Leadership, 2007. Project director: Professor Rosemary Deem, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol