Stake recipe

John Lewis’ values: a palatable hit for a divided sector, argues Sally Feldman

February 9, 2012

I’m about to make a start on my school’s business plan, which along with my financial forecast will present a sensitivity analysis, an assessment of options and scenarios, my objectives relating to key performance indicators and, naturally, a risk register.

Sadly, this will not surprise any university staff. Ever since Margaret Thatcher and John Major expanded student numbers and created the post-1992 sector, we’ve all become used to the ugly language of the boardroom. As Stefan Collini remarks in his cathartic new book, What Are Universities For?, “they attempted to impose a particular conception of ‘efficiency’, which entailed changes in governance to make universities more closely resemble the business school conception of a well-run commercial company”.

That’s even more true today with our mission statements, employability ratings and endless cost-cutting in pursuit of a healthy bottom line. And yet, many of the processes we regard as “businesslike” are hopelessly out of date. Universities are taking on sets of practices that have long been abandoned or moderated by the blue-chip world. And by doing so, we’re fast losing some of the basic values that have long defined us.

Forward-thinking firms aim for flatter management structures, while we’re still arranged in hierarchical pyramid formations. “I work in the knowledge and human-resources industry,” explains Collini, satirically. “I hold a middle-management position, responsible to a divisional head who reports directly to the Chief Executive.”

His point is that this stark description does little to explain how universities operate. In the effort to ape the commercial model, we are increasingly obsessed with the surveillance of workloads, maximising “efficiency” and ensuring accountability through endless monitoring and reporting. And, he argues, this drive is at odds with the earlier concept of universities as self-governing communities of scholars. We still have the committee structures and academic councils that appear to operate democratically, but they are in thrall to the requirements prescribed to us from on high.

And although we’re exhorted to work as if we were one big happy family, everything conspires to divide us. Internal competition is increasingly aggressive now that schools and departments are expected to operate as business units, competing for ever-scarcer resources. It’s hard to work cooperatively when everyone is grappling for slices of that ever-diminishing cake, hard to rejoice at another’s success if it means your own area will be depleted.

So how are we to find our way back to a more collegiate and benevolent governance? It could just be that Nick Clegg has come up with the answer. Workers, he suggested recently, should be given the right to request shares in their company to create what he calls a “John Lewis” economy.

And who could really argue with him? Like Downton Abbey, cricket on the village green, the Cup Final and the Boat Race, John Lewis is a catchword for Britishness at its most reassuring. When a radio reporter conducted a vox pop in Oxford Street, asking people what they’d do if there was a four-minute warning, one woman replied unhesitatingly: “I’d go to John Lewis, because nothing bad ever happens there.”

So I’ve started wondering whether Clegg’s proposal might also apply to universities. Why shouldn’t we, too, operate the way John Lewis does? After all, we share many of that remarkable store’s basic principles. We offer high quality, a rich variety of goods all in the same place - and, of course, value for money. We put our customers first even if we dislike calling them that - and even though they can’t, if unhappy with a harsh mark, claim that they’ve been knowingly undersold.

We may not be able to take shares in our institutions, since we don’t make profits. But we could still become more like John Lewis-style stakeholders, with that same sense of common purpose. One way to create that ethos, suggested in Times Higher Education last year, was the idea of “trust universities”, with staff and students as partners engaged in a common enterprise: teaching, learning and research (“Shopping around for a better way to operate? Try John Lewis”, 13 January 2011).

Of course, such an arrangement wouldn’t entirely eliminate tribal divisions and internecine warfare. But then, for all I know, in John Lewis there may be fierce enmity between dapper staff in haberdashery and those geeks in electronic and audio; fisticuffs may break out between bra fitters and carpet layers when monthly accounts are circulated. But whatever the rivalries, everyone benefits from the overall success of the enterprise. And that is a huge incentive.

“Two of the most important sources of efficiency in intellectual activity”, Collini reminds us, “are voluntary co-operation and individual autonomy.” Competition, he argues, is not an effective motivation for academics: “Co-operation and a sense of shared community is…more fruitful.”

That is the reasoning behind Clegg’s initiative. He argues that companies in which staff have stakes have higher productivity, greater innovation and more patient investors. This model, he says, is “a touchstone of liberal economic thought”. There’s some irony in the fact that businesses are being urged to adopt the values of higher education, just as universities are having to behave more and more like businesses.

The contrast between these two sets of values was epitomised by John Lewis’ Christmas television commercial, which featured a little boy who can’t wait for the morning to give his present to his parents. The message was that joy is in the giving. But it’s difficult to sell that to hard-pressed university staff scrambling and jostling among themselves for the last few packages left under the tree.

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