The first lesson - expect no thanks

The Effective Academic
December 13, 2002

This book, written with the early-to-mid-career academic in mind, is much needed. It considers aspects of academic life and work from the perspective of those with, or aspiring to, management responsibilities. It is easy to access and provides summaries of key issues, supported in some chapters with expert commentaries and personal reflections. Questions about personal and institutional circumstances and practice are interspersed throughout the text to stimulate thought, although some of these might be perceived as rather patronising. The book is divided into five parts, each preceded by an orienting introduction, co-written by individual authors and the editors.

The titles of each part communicate a great deal about the state of UK higher education: "The turbulent environment", "Running the business", "Creating intellectual wealth", "At the digital chalk-face" and "The harsh reality".

In "The turbulent environment", David Watson, with the editors, provides a historical account of how universities through the ages have reinvented themselves. This section explores patterns of participation, the technological environment and social expectations. It also looks at how universities have been given opportunities to retain their independence and gain increased security in return for clearer accountability and greater responsiveness to a wide range of legitimate stakeholders. It identifies the research-teaching-service axis and the extent to which the modern university can tap the market for professional services other than teaching and research as key preoccupations.

Robin Middlehurst discusses the impact of changes relating to the international context. Rob Cuthbert explores the influences of national policy, funding decisions and accountability mechanisms on institutions, departments and individual practice and the tensions created in attempting to satisfy the demands of each. An account of how students experience university life, utilising data concerned with funding, debt, hardship and employment, is provided by Rob Shorrock.

In part two, "Running the business", Martyn Davies, in conversation with Catherine Haines, suggests that heads of schools should plan, delegate and not expect thanks. David Allen goes further, providing a list of positive characteristics that he attributes to successful heads of department. Tom Kennie clarifies the distinction between strategic and operational planning and offers practical guidance as to the way planning can be linked realistically to what people do on an everyday basis. Anne Gold discusses issues relating to ethical management, which works with and through other people, while Haines and Steve Ketteridge provide guidance on managing human resources, an activity perceived as daunting by many novice managers. Andrew Snowden warns that the evidence from the US regarding performance-related pay is far from positive, and that such schemes are demotivating and do little to enhance performance. He also offers guidance on recruitment and selection, appraisal, job evaluation, dealing with poor performance, handling disciplinary matters and harassment.

Part three, "The creation of intellectual wealth", starts with an articulation of the needs of contract researchers by Leela Damodaran. Stan Taylor describes how to manage postgraduate research degree programmes, while Ewan Ferlie, Janet Harvey and Andrew Pettigrew examine the management of high-impact research groups. Ken Young reviews ways in which departments can develop a strategic approach to research. Young argues persuasively that research has never been more important to individual and institutional fortunes, while at the same time being under intense threat from the competing pressures of different accountability agencies. He observes that the research assessment exercise has led to the fates of individual academics becoming interrelated, with members of a department sinking or swimming together. At the same time, there is ambivalence among colleagues about the research success of others because research is highly competitive, with highly individualised rewards providing the most certain route to promotion. This contrasts with teaching, where staff tend to coalesce into some form of team. Tensions between teaching and research pose a major challenge, which he suggests should be managed through prioritising activities and balancing the needs of task, group and individual, and giving respect and support to the qualities and strengths of each member of staff.

"At the digital chalk-face" reflects the perception that teaching is the sharp end of university life and that electronic intervention in teaching is probably its most important contemporary development. Heather Fry and Stephanie Marshall present an overview of contemporary influences on curricula in British higher education, including understanding the starting point of students, overloaded curricula, moving students to higher-order conceptual levels, teaching diverse students, enhancing flexibility, achieving individual attention for learners in a mass system and employability. They offer practical ways of taking account of these issues in designing courses.

In "Learning from quality assessment", George Gordon suggests that those responsible for quality assurance expect individuals, teams and institutions to learn from assessment and to operate within a culture of enhancement informed by reflection, monitoring and benchmarking. He cites evidence to suggest that those who take quality assessment seriously generally perform better. Alan Hurst focuses on legislation to end disability discrimination in education, which forces institutions to plan in advance to meet the needs of students with disabilities, rather than to take a reactive approach. Sue White and Hugh Davis consider the issues facing academics who need to integrate communication and information technology across a course or on a department-wide basis. They suggest that change is most effectively implemented when it is driven from the top down and from the bottom up.

Finally, in part five, "The harsh reality", Gus Pennington and Brenda Smith stress the need for regular updating, periodic retraining and further development of practice, which should be built into people's work on a regular voluntary basis. They see commitment to relevant forms of continuing professional development as an investment in future career prospects, an ethical duty of care for others and an indicator of organisational and professional health.

In the last chapter, "Making choices: routes to success", the editors stress that one person's success can be another's imprisonment. They present a set of categories reflecting a variety of academic aspirations, including the top-class researcher, the career teacher, the academic manager and the committee person. They also cover newer roles such as the media star, the political animal and the national authority on topics of the day. They include tongue-in-cheek advice to the aspiring TV performer, first written by Adrian Mourby for The THES , acknowledging the increasing importance of the media in an academic's life.

Overall, the book serves a valuable purpose and is likely to become essential reading for those who have survived their initial years as academics and are preparing to take on managerial responsibilities. While not explicitly critical of the managerial practices adopted in some institutions, criticism is implied through the issues tackled and the ways in which approaches to management are discussed. As a result, it also provides food for thought for those already in managerial positions.

The final section even has a message for those who determine higher education policy nationally. Johanna Laybourn-Parry, professor of environmental biology at the University of Nottingham, highlights the sacrifices that may be made by female academics: "I do not think that a woman who is childless, single and spends part of her time working in some of the most remote, God-awful places in the world is a good role model... I have enjoyed science and academia, it has given me an exciting life. However, I have paid a price for it in terms of my private life. I pray that future generations of women may have an easier time."

Mervyn King, former professor of economics at the London School of Economics and future governor of the Bank of England, describes how his academic career led to opportunities elsewhere. He advises young academics to "keep looking for the unexpected". These reflective accounts highlight the fact that an academic career may have limitations. Indeed, armed with a range of well- developed management skills, young academics may choose to utilise them outside academe, where the financial rewards and quality of life are more attractive and commensurate with their expertise.

Susan Hallam is reader in education, Institute of Education, University of London.

The Effective Academic: A Handbook for Enhanced Academic Practice

Editor - Steve Ketteridge, Stephanie Marshall and Heather Fry
ISBN - 0 7494 3570 4
Publisher - Kogan Page
Price - £19.99
Pages - 292

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