When university staff seethe, blaming the messenger won't cut it

Matthew Reisz discusses the preliminary results of the National Senior Management Survey

March 30, 2017
Source: iStock
The grimaces far outnumber the smiles when academics are asked about university leadership

It is hardly news that many rank-and-file British academics are unhappy with what has been happening in university management over the past five or 10 years.

But even to someone who spends his time hanging out with academics and has heard many gripes and even horror stories, the results beginning to come in from the National Senior Management Survey are both startling and dismaying.

When only just over 10 per cent of respondents agree that they are “satisfied with the way their university is run” (and only 1.5 per cent “definitely agree”), something pretty radical seems to be going wrong. “Satisfaction” is, after all, a fairly low bar.

What makes the survey particularly striking is that it uses very straightforward and down-to-earth questions. Ask about attitudes to “marketisation” or “the neoliberal agenda” and people may express strongly negative views, but it is hard to tell how such developments have actually affected their quality of life or ability to do the job.

This survey, by contrast, asks directly about academics’ working lives, the level of time and energy they feel able to devote to students and teaching, and what they think of the people running their institutions. The top brass basically get a loud raspberry and all the other results seem unequivocally bad.

They are so bad, indeed, that it is natural to wonder how reliable they are. As Carl Walker, one of the main people behind the survey, freely admits, it is hard to tell how representative the initial 2,200 respondents are – which is one of the reasons he is extremely keen to hear from more academics and look in greater depth at the qualitative material. Get together a group of people from almost any profession, and they soon start talking about how they are underpaid and underloved.

How much does that sort of feeling come to the surface when individuals are confronted with a survey? Except in the more happy-clappy kind of American corporation, where employees are happy to say they would be willing to die for the company, do many people in any sector feel genuinely “respected and valued by senior management”? (And even if they do, would they be embarrassed to admit it?)

So those who want to promote a much rosier picture of where our universities are going will no doubt offer reservations about what this survey seems to be telling us. Nonetheless, when reports of dissatisfaction are so vocal, blaming the messenger can only go so far. 

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Very odd that management" jobs are usually open ended while research jobs, which produce what universities are meant to do, are always short term limited contracts. So people with experience of what is needed to do research get chased out while those with no experience can stay indefinitely. It would be too easy to demand that administrative jobs be time limited as well.

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