Vision from above is clouded 1

March 18, 2005

How surprising that a survey confined to vice-chancellors and human resource directors should decide that industrial relations problems in higher education do not lie at their door ("HR report slams the middle manager", March 11).

I cannot help wondering whether interviewing some of those middle managers, or even the odd trade union representative, might have given a more rounded perspective.

The report paints a largely complacent view of a deeply rotten system.

There is almost no mention of the scandals of ethnic minority and female underrepresentation and discriminatory pay, or of the lack of progress on implementing regulations on fixed-term and part-time working. Presumably those sorts of issues are "non-strategic", but I do not see how middle managers can be blamed for the failures of institutional leaders.

Instead, the report surveys the "pace and extent" of modernisation of the HR function, assuming that its direction is entirely unproblematic. Thus, "aligning personal performance to institutional ambition" is straightforward and desirable. Since we are also told that 73 per cent of interviewed HR directors were hired from outside the sector and 60 per cent have been in post for less than three years, we can only marvel at the success of this uncritical drive to modernise HR. The alternative interpretation - that the application of the "marketise and modernise" agenda risks destroying UK higher education - goes unconsidered.

Having stepped down after seven years as a middle manager, my perspective is rather different. I see staff with (mostly) quite exceptional abilities to manage themselves, their teaching and their research being increasingly frustrated and demotivated by continued interference from senior managers.

The most recent manifestation here has been "vacancy management", whereby we must increase the passage of time between a colleague leaving and their replacement starting to save 5 per cent of the unit's annual payroll costs.

It is only a matter of time before someone argues that if the unit has managed to operate without the replacement for six months, there was no need for the post in the first place.

There are voices of sense in the report. My favourite is a magnificent six-line demolition of performance-related pay by a post-92 university vice-chancellor who seems to be exceptional in understanding her or his human resource. The rest, Campaigning for Mainstream Universities or Russell Group, vice-chancellor or HR director, have embraced new Labour's empty jargon of modernisation and markets.

Daniel Vulliamy
Hull University

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