Managerial takeover of UK universities stifles risk-taking spirit

The advance of the ‘business model’ of university governance has disempowered academics, diminished their decision-making authority and weakened their ability to innovate, says Michael Shattock

April 3, 2019
Students shopping

The 2008 White Paper on innovation issued by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in the UK stated that innovation was essential to the country’s future prosperity and quality of life. It became a key text in the government’s policy of investment in the knowledge society and the role of universities in research, the production of well-qualified graduates and the enhancement of the skills base.

In UCL’s 2019 Burton Clark Lecture on higher education, I reported on research I conducted with Aniko Horvath that suggested that what one might call “the English experiment in higher education policymaking” had the effect of creating conditions within universities that were antithetical to the spirit of the 2008 White Paper.

In 2010, the Browne review propounded the idea that “competition and choice” should form the basis of policy towards the development of higher education, and this was emphasised in the 2016 White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, which argued that competition in any market incentivises providers to “raise their game” by offering consumers “a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products at lower cost”. Higher education, it said, “is no exception”.

In an apparent confirmation, a highly placed member of the team that drew up the regulations that implemented the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act told us that they had been modelled on the market created for the energy industry.

Our research, which is the first leg of a larger comparative study of the governance of higher education in the UK and four continental European countries, involved interviewing policymakers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and a cross section, from the chair of the governing body to the president of the students’ union, in 12 universities representing research-intensive, research-active and teaching-intensive institutions in the four UK nations.

Our findings identified, first, the extreme and growing diversity of the UK system and, second, the increasing role of the state, particularly in England, where the 2017 regulations in HERA ran to 158 pages with 24 paragraphs and sub-paragraphs devoted to fining or deregulating institutions.

A third finding was the extent to which England was an outlier in its application of market principles. This inevitably impacts differentially on institutions depending on their age, prior reputation, location and patterns of recruitment.

In a situation where financial security is dependent on tuition fee income, student recruitment becomes, as one governing body chair described it, the “killer risk”, a sword of Damocles suspended over staffing numbers and academic teaching programmes.

The result has been marketing departments exercising executive authority over teaching and recruitment arrangements, the employment of financially incentivised marketing agents and the setting-aside of the interests and intellectual authority of the teacher in favour of risk-averse programmes geared towards a senior management assessment of recruitment potential. It would be easy to dismiss academic grumbles about increased bureaucracy, top-down intervention and restrictions placed on the academic autonomy of teachers if they were not as commonplace over a wide variety of institutions. We are in danger of breeding a retail outlet mentality where what sells is preferable to what is original and new.

In research, however successful the research excellence framework has been nationally, in concentrating scarce resources on the most productive research groups and institutions, operationally at the institutional level, it has contributed to a top-down organisational culture that involves the exclusion of individuals from institutional submissions, forcing staff to accept humiliating teaching-only contracts, demanding individual performance targets for research grant income based on a disaggregation of targets for faculties or departments and encouraging safety-first grant applications and publications.

The stress on individual academics creates conditions unlikely to produce groundbreaking or innovative research. Even in the most research-intensive universities, we were given evidence of “a kind of intellectual subordination”.

But the operation of the REF is a symptom of a wider governance issue: the replacement of academic participation by executive authority. Our research threw up cases where chairs of governing bodies acted almost as executive chairs, where governing bodies actually ran the university, where the executive (the “leadership team”) was subjected to detailed cross-examination by lay governors acting like a company board.

This created lines of executive authority running right down through the institution that were not accountable to senates and academic boards and reduced those bodies to rubber stamps. With governing bodies made responsible for giving assurance on academic standards and the student experience, lay members in some universities are seeking access to senate and academic board meetings to assure themselves as to the processes of academic decision-making. This has the potential to be the thin end of the wedge of lay intrusion into what is taught and by whom.

This “business model” of university governance does not apply with the same force in Wales and Scotland, nor is it yet universal in England; it is less apparent, although growing, in research-intensive institutions. In all the institutions we studied, however, collegiality, intensive discussion about academic ideas and heterarchical exchanges about policy have survived below stairs even when a university’s overall policy framework has rejected open-ended and apparently inefficient, controversial and time-wasting debate. Yet this is the organisational culture that offers the seedbed for those qualities of originality, creativity and innovation that society calls for. The result is what one Russell Group interviewee described as “a sense of disempowerment”.

In a decade’s time, will we be asking ourselves what happened to our universities’ capacity for innovation and new ideas?

Michael Shattock is a co-investigator on the Centre for Global Higher Education’s global higher education engagement research programme and a visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education.

The Burton Clark Lecture, which was delivered 3 April, was based on research for The Governance of British Higher Education: The Impact of Governmental, Financial and Market Pressures, by Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath, to be published by Bloomsbury Academic in the summer.

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Reader's comments (1)

This article points out an important shift in the governance of HE. Like individuals, organizations or segments of organizations (e.g., managerial staff) have group level survival instincts as well. There is evidence that more and more university finances are now devoted to the employment of managerial staff in US universities and I suspect the same is true for UK universities. This leads to the implementation of organizational imperatives and procedures that continue to justify their employment at the expense of competitiveness, cost-effectiveness, and innovation (e.g., increasing non-essential administrative bureaucracy to justify for the increase in managerial staff). In a way, HE does not follow a free market business model: it is not when, for example, the government engages in price fixing for HE as a commodity (i.e., fixed price for HE tuition fees), which in itself is anti-competitive.

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