Source: Sergiy Maidukov
It worries me that the creation of an identikit class of migratory senior managers is robbing the UK system of exactly what made it successful
I have had a very fortunate academic career. Back in the early 1980s, I took the friendlier of a couple of job offers and found myself in a lovely university that has been my academic home ever since.
The ensuing years have been very good for me, and for my university. I have worked with wonderful colleagues, taught many excellent students, and published some things that still seem to have been worth the effort. I have had the pleasure of heading a (mostly) happy and effective department, before taking on a series of other senior management jobs in which I feel I haven’t done too much harm.
On balance, I think I’ve made more friends than I’ve lost, and I feel a genuine spirit of camaraderie with the hundreds of colleagues who have shared this journey. Some are great friends, while others, inevitably, are genuine pains in the backside – but I know that (almost) all of them have been doing what they thought was best for the university and our community.
There is, of course, a “but” coming. It is a very simple one: success attracts ambition. The ambitious, of course, include students and talented young academics and researchers. But they also include senior managers. When I first joined the “senior table” at my university, I looked around and saw others who had spent a significant chunk of their active academic careers at our university. Now I see very capable people who, in many cases, have built their careers – and learned their values – elsewhere.
There is obviously something to be said for recruiting new blood and getting an external perspective from time to time. But I am pretty certain that the success of my institution is based on a core set of values shared by most of the staff, so it is very frustrating to feel that many of my senior colleagues are struggling to “get” the essence of those values. Occasionally I feel that the new arrival is a kindred spirit who has finally arrived at a place where they can feel at home, but these are the exceptions.
Meanwhile, our senior common room is ever more full of long-term colleagues of great ability who have been passed over as senior or middle managers in favour of these newcomers. You can imagine that it is perhaps a less convivial place than it was five years ago. Surely we should be looking to do more in-house training to enable local recruitment into senior roles. I don’t think my university is alone in this tendency either: I sit on any number of national committees and increasingly I feel that there is a mismatch between the homogeneous individuals sitting at the table and what I know of the unique institutions they are supposed to be representing.
Holy writ asks: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Although I don’t think we have souls, I do think universities just might. It worries me that the creation of an identikit class of migratory senior managers is robbing the UK system of exactly what made it successful. Just as the presence of the same set of chain stores and global brands on almost every high street robs towns of their historic identities, so failing to reflect our home values and local community when appointing senior managers risks turning our universities into clones of each other. That would be a tragedy on an almost unimaginable scale.
Who asked for this? Who wants this? Obviously, the government and funders play a part in this anonymisation of universities. The research excellence framework, for example, persistently treats universities as a set of independent research units that happen to share a postal address, rather than considering the institution as a whole and the values that link it as a community. Similarly, league table metrics imply that there is only one way to be a good university, and that all higher education institutions globally should be assessed by the same criteria.
But universities themselves are playing into the same trap. We have all been seduced by the headhunters, who depend on creating a transfer market for expensive senior managers supposedly capable of parachuting in and “transforming” an institution. If we are to avoid the “great beige university catastrophe”, we all need to think about what we are really looking for in our senior managers, and whether it is just skills and values appropriate for a university or skills and values right for this university. If, as I believe, the answer is that the particular and the local matter, why are we listening to middlemen who don’t understand local values and are clearly motivated to look away from local candidates to justify their large fees? The money would be much better spent hunting senior heads within our own communities.