It's bigger, better and buzzing

September 20, 2002

That's what the former head of Umist's school of management says of Manchester's mooted 'superuniversity'. Mandy Garner reports

Dale Littler doesn't like authority. An academic in the old style (1960s not 1930s), he is drawn to small, democratic set-ups. So it is ironic that until recently he headed the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology's School of Management and is now deeply involved in discussions about forming a Manchester "superuniversity" by merging Umist and the University of Manchester. And he is enthusiastic about it.

He says that what is on the table is a "double dissolution" rather than a merger. Both institutions will dissolve and form a new university "like a phoenix from the ashes". Although Umist is smaller and covers fewer subject areas than Manchester, Littler describes the superuniversity as "a meeting of equals". The heads of the two universities will meet in October to discuss whether the dissolution proceeds. Littler says there has been a lot of discussion in Umist with many working parties being set up and it has all been very democratic and sensitively handled. "They are trying to avoid giving the impression that it is a takeover of Umist. It's not a takeover," he says firmly.

In terms of business and management studies, the dissolution will mean a "new business and management activity in Manchester" that will require new facilities - although the School of Management where Littler is professor of marketing was itself built not that long ago at a cost of several million pounds. He says it is already too small for Umist anyway, given the expansion in business and management studies.

Littler thinks the dissolution should be exploited in adventurous ways - for example, to look at whether technological changes mean there should be more self-directed learning via databases, resource centres and so forth. His vision, he admits, would cost a lot, but he thinks that in the long run it will turn the new university into a "credible global presence". It could also encourage greater democracy through allowing students and staff to take part in debates now reserved for committees.

Another plus factor is the possibility of more interdisciplinary work. Manchester, for example, has a big social sciences department, which Littler is keen to exploit. "It will create a much richer educational experience for students," he says. He adds that many subjects would benefit from business and management input, such as science where spin-off companies are the current buzzword. Umist already does quite a lot of crossover work, particularly with languages, but Littler says that the fall-off in interest in studying languages at school is affecting the joint language and business courses.

The School of Management has already had a taster of how a more integrated system might work. Manchester University's Business School, the School of Management and the Manchester School of Accounting and Finance have been working together under the banner of the Manchester Federal School of Business and Management to reduce competition for specialists, who, due to the growth in business studies and lucrative offers outside academia, are thin on the ground. Each specialises in a different area, for example, the MBS in MBAs and the MSAF in specialist masters degrees. Littler says that this is "part of the logic for the merger" and will attract quality students and staff, who will in turn generate cash and "a buzz about business and management in Manchester". He realises that this kind of work takes money and time - each institution has a different culture and background - but says the proof of the pudding is in the amount of research funding the federal school attracts. So, even if the merger doesn't happen, Littler says the different business and management departments in Manchester will continue to work together.

Littler, who took liberal studies and science at undergraduate level, was set on a career in the private sector when he left university, but before he sat his finals in 1969 he was rung by the research and development unit at Manchester School of Business - who had heard he was interested in economics - and asked to do a project on curiosity-oriented research. He says the new school was an exciting place in 1969. "It fitted with me. I felt comfortable in the environment. There was not a lot of certainty or hierarchies." Littler, a grammar school boy who grew up in Manchester and Leeds, puts his rejection of authority down to his childhood, particularly his parents who he says had a strong anti-establishment outlook. His mother, a Catholic, used to present a critical analysis of the church sermon each week.

After his first research project, he was offered more work at Manchester looking at the social and economic effects of technological innovation. They were heady days. He had access to almost anyone he wanted for his research. He was wined and dined. "Where else would you get that at just 21?" he asks. It was early days for business and management and research was not as formalised as it is now. He loved "being nosy" and probing into organisations. But there were stresses: you were not sure what you were actually achieving as the area was so new. Self-discipline was important. "It wasn't like working on the baked beans line in Wigan."

After starting his PhD in 1969, he took a lectureship in marketing. He also taught at Teesside Polytechnic and Liverpool's business school before returning to Manchester - this time Umist - in the late 1970s.

Since then, he has been involved in a huge range of academic and business bodies, including the Customer Research Academy, of which he is chair, the Centre for International Business and Management, of which he is director, the Academy of Marketing, where he is chair of the research committee, and the Centre for Applied Management Research, of which he is also director. He has won major research grants and has a number of teaching company schemes. He was also until recently a member of the Research Grants Board of the Economic and Social Research Council and is now chair of the Academy of Marketing's Research Committee. In short, as he admits, he is a person who "likes to achieve".

Much of his work on committees and other bodies aims to foster dialogue between business and academics. He is, for example, a member of the Academic Senate of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and was recently on the panel of the institute's first awards, which aim to identify research themes (this year it was e-marketing) and focus resources on that area. "The ESRC works in a similar way," says Littler, who would like to see business and marketing research attain the same status as the social sciences and other more traditional fields.

He is clearly still enthused by his subject after more than 30 years. He says its relative newness and growth means that there "are no established paradigms. There are different schools competing for ideological pre-eminence and lots of streams of business and management - for example, psychology, economics and marketing. Sometimes they draw on different research traditions." Some, like economics, have more established frameworks, while others, such as marketing, are still up for grabs. Littler believes all different points of view and approaches are valid.

His own research interests include whether high-tech clusters work, and branding. Littler says that as competition for students hots up, issues such as marketing are going to come to the fore. He thinks that there is too much emphasis on marketing these days. "When you ask people, it is things like service levels that they remember." He applies this equally to universities. "They should be providing high service levels," he says. "Students should not be consumers of, but participants in the education process. It should not be us and them. That is the more adult, mature way of looking at the world."

This extends to trying to think in terms of the students' eye view when they arrive at the School of Management and trying to make them feel welcome and involved. "They have a right to be heard. It is easy to forget that, especially as head of school," he says. This was part of the reasoning behind the "one-level culture" that the new school building, whose construction Littler presided over as head, is aimed to encourage. All the offices are the same size and many look over an internal atrium so you can hail your colleague on the other side of the building or spy on their visitors.

As head of school, he felt a responsibility to encourage debate rather than to dictate, although the latter might have been easier. Littler says he doesn't like engaging with people who want to be told what to do. It is much more stimulating to mix with "clever people", even if they are cleverer than you. "It keeps you sharp," he says. "Not many jobs offer that reward."

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