UK higher education is a multibillion-pound industry, yet most of its 'chief executives' have only limited management experience. Caroline Davis looks at how a new MBA aims to address this lack of leadership training.
The UK higher education sector last year generated more than £13.5 billion, served more than 2 million customers and employed 116,000 full-time staff, putting it somewhere between the agricultural and utilities industries in terms of value.
Universities now compete globally for students and staff. Mega-mergers are being hotly debated; multimillion-pound international collaboration deals are common; ad campaigns are run on transport and local television stations, and the government trumpets higher education as an important contributor to the economy.
In short, managing a university is becoming more like running a company. Up until now, those in top university management roles would come up through an academic career with little formal training.
But last month, 24 university staff from administrative and academic roles embarked on the first MBA outside the US aimed exclusively at higher education leaders and managers.
The MBA was the brainchild of Michael Shattock, former registrar at Warwick University, and Gareth Williams, emeritus professor of educational administration at the Institute of Education in London. Run by the Centre for Higher Education Studies at the IoE, it aims to "improve the management of higher education" and to "create a cohort of professionals drawn from different institutional settings - academic, academic support and administrative - who will be well placed to take over leadership positions".
Williams began running short management courses at the CHES ten years ago after recognising a desperate need for management training. Two years ago, he and Shattock decided the courses needed to be formalised in the shape of an MBA.
"We're not trying to advocate that universities should adopt a business culture," Williams says. "Far from it. To some extent we want people to question that. But in many ways universities do have to act like businesses. They have big budgets that they have to sort out and they have to go out and collect money."
Traditional MBAs bring together managers from a wide array of sectors. But Williams and Shattock believe many issues that universities face are quite different from those faced by, for example, the oil industry or other public-sector areas such as health. Modelled on Warwick University's master of public administration, the course was developed with links to several UK business schools. Williams and Shattock hope it will equip university managers to deal with future challenges such as increasing expansion to meet government targets, reduced public resources, technological change and the need to manage larger amounts of non-government funding.
The other tacit aim of the course, as with all MBAs, is for participants to share their ideas and experiences and make new contracts. "The course comprises five one-week blocks over two years," Williams says. "The idea is that people will come to these and be able to network."
Williams began his academic career as an education economist in the early 1960s. Since then he has witnessed enormous changes in the way universities are managed. "When I came into universities, they were run by academic committees with the senate at the top. You had the council and the senate, the supreme bodies - one in charge of the money and one in charge of academic affairs. But, essentially, senate's job was to say what happened and council would just say OK."
In fact, Williams found that councils were virtually irrelevant to the operation of universities in his influential Leverhulme report on higher education in the early 1980s.
Management decisions were taken by academics and enacted by administrators. When he joined the IoE as head of the economic, administrative and policy studies in education (later renamed the department of policy studies) in 1983, Williams said his colleagues made it quite clear that his job was primarily to carry out the decisions of the departmental committee.
But this began to change as funding for universities plummeted during the 1980s. The creation of the new universities in 1992 added complications.
"Here were a whole lot of institutions that hadn't got a tradition of running themselves," Williams says. "Polytechnics were run in a different way by local authorities. So there was a lot of management - of money in particular - that they had to learn quickly."
The 1990s also saw the largest expansion in the history of higher education. "So what had been a fairly relaxed activity in which you could sit around in common rooms and go to lots of meetings changed into something where, if you got it wrong, you were in dire trouble. And a lot of universities do often get themselves into dire trouble these days."
More people were brought in to help run universities and the roles of academics and administrators became blurred, with administrators such as finance officers taking on a more managerial role.
Williams hopes the course can remove the ceiling many university administrators reach in their careers because they are thought not to understand the university as a whole.
"The idea is to get people from different administrative disciplines in syndicates with each other to talk over issues and see how each other sees things. Ultimately, we hope they will start moving into vice-chancellorial or pro vice-chancellorial positions."
The first residential unit took place at the end of October. The course delegates came from varied roles, mainly from old universities - a director of public relations, a medical-school student finance and support officer, two people from music schools, a faculty accountant and lecturers in history and applied sciences.
IoE staff specialising in schools and further education are watching the course carefully. If it is successful, Williams believes the IoE could end up with its own mini-business school.
COLLEGIALITY MEETS BUSINESS: A FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT
It is a brave person who launches a course for higher education administrators - as a group, we may not claim to be fully au fait with the latest management theories, but we all know (or think we know) what we are entitled to in today's world of quality assurance and consumer-focused professional programmes.
For this reason, whatever else the 24 participants may or may not have read from the book list before we arrived for our first week-long residential course, it is a fair bet that we had all devoured the course handbook from cover to cover. We had, therefore, already some impression of what to expect.
The breadth and depth of practical experience and theoretical knowledge of all those who led the sessions - all but one of whom were male - was one of the course's main strengths and, as time went on, we confirmed our suspicions that the absence of female speakers reflected nothing more than the scarcity of senior women in our sector.
As this first MBA cohort is two-thirds female, we have already identified one way in which we expect to be able to address that imbalance.
It is no secret to anyone who works in higher education and has ever worked in another sector that universities have their own unique approach to management, but it was not until this course that I learnt that there is a name for it - collegiality.
The week reassured us that we were right to think that there is no point trying to run a university as if it were a big business or a government department. There may be many ideas and concepts that can and should be transferred from the private sector and other parts of the public sector, but it is clear that they will need some careful tailoring.
Appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of this collegial approach may also make it easier for administrators to work with academic colleagues on issues of governance and administration.
The sessions and the input from fellow participants - themselves bringing diverse and valuable perspectives - ranged from management of change to mission statements via strategy and the nature of leadership in universities.
But why, you may ask, should we want to add to the pressures that we already face in our working lives by studying an MBA over two years, including four residential weeks - each followed by a piece of substantial coursework - a dissertation or project and additional coursework? Personally, I wanted the opportunity to think critically about the issues that I deal with in great haste every day and the ways that I deal with them.
So often it is easiest to take the familiar approach to solving a problem - but are there better strategies? As an MBA, this programme covers not only the theory that would make up a taught masters, but also includes a large amount of syndicate group work in which we share each other's experiences working in small groups to present our ideas to colleagues. So I am expecting my two years of part-time study to enable me to answer this question with some certainty.
"Chatham House rules" preclude me from sharing any of the intriguing insights that I have gained into the workings of other institutions, but the week did raise many general issues and questions - from whether public funding mechanisms are recreating a binary divide to the varying qualities that make a successful vice-chancellor at different stages in the development of an institution. One thing is certain: we all felt that Ron Barnett's theory of "supercomplexity" might well have been understating the situation.
Helen Carasso is director of public relations at the University of Oxford.