A very peculiar culture

Making Managers in Universities and Colleges
December 8, 2000

The view from the Treasury - and, less surely, the Department for Education and Employment - is that universities and colleges are not managed enough; the view from the "academic estate" is that they are managed too much; and the view from the vice-chancellor’s or principal’s desk is that they are managed just right.

None of these views is surprising, but their inconsistency makes it difficult to make sense of how higher education institutions actually are managed. Empirical descriptions of what is happening and normative statements about what should happen are all jumbled up.

On the one hand, it is argued that the growing complexity of higher education, resource constraints, and the increasingly fuzzy boundaries between the academic (and scientific) systems and other social, economic and cultural systems, makes it imperative that universities and colleges are more rigorously managed; a cruel necessity perhaps but a necessity nevertheless.

On the other hand, it is argued (to paraphrase a famous resolution of the House of Commons about the power of King George III), "managerialism in higher education has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished". Sadly, both the proponents of more robust management and the opponents of "managerialism" are reluctant to define their terms. It is in this spirit that any new book on higher education management deserves to be welcomed.

In this book, management is treated as a cultural phenomenon and, therefore, as amenable to changing political discourses. The experience of the Thatcher period has demonstrated the tough truth of this interpretation (and not only in higher education). This emphasis on management cultures has a number of strengths, for example its acknowledgement of the contingency of organisational relationships and the façade-like fragility of institutions. But it also has weaknesses.

First, it tends to underestimate the importance of structural constraints. The freedom of managers in universities is hedged about not simply by collegial norms (and the desire to break free from them?) but also by legal frameworks, collective agreements, funding systems accountability regimes. Their ability to indulge in ideological discourse is severely limited. Cynics may even suggest that "managerialist" ideology is a way in which structurally constrained managers let off steam.

Second, it encourages fanciful (farcical?) speculation. Craig Prichard offers us a significant vignette of the female pro vice-chancellor who brought sticky buns along to meetings; he argues that the buns "introduce different spatial, physical, verbal and desiring micro-practices into these managerial sites, and thus challenge the existing embodied practices and knowledges of the managerial situation".

Third, the emphasis on culture can have the effect of uncritically endorsing "critical", or oppositional accounts of "managerialism" because structural imperatives are ignored. The "new higher education" (and the "new further education") are presented as unproblematic givens. As a result, it can almost seem that vice-chancellors and others are "managerialist" just for the hell of it, rather than because in some contexts they have no choice.

Despite these weaknesses, this book contains some fascinating case studies and tells some
funny stories. Its rather breathless theorising is balanced by important empirical research, in particular interviews with more than 70 senior managers. One university registrar comments that "the culture is not one that welcomes the concept of direction" - the words on the page are almost audible. Another university drafts a "code for management" to curb the behaviour of a so-called "rat-pack" of managers who had previously organised a senior staff conference in Montpellier, at an alleged cost of £25,000. There is sufficient material here for several campus novels.

The book has two particular strengths. The first is the attention paid to gender issues - which, pace the discourse of sticky buns (or maybe because of it), have yet to be adequately explored - in the wider context of academic work as well as of academic managers. The second is that the book debunks amoral and naive "good practice" accounts of higher education management, of which, sadly, there are too many bad examples.

But, for me, the main appeal of the book is its familiarity. As Prichard says, "managing relies on the regularised confinement of bodies in meetings". I know just what he means!

Peter Scott is vice-chancellor, Kingston University.

 

Making Managers in Universities and Colleges

Author - Craig Prichard
ISBN - 0 335 20486 4 and 20485 6
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £65.00 and £19.99
Pages - 242

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