The in-betweeners

Middle managers may be vital in today's universities, but a lack of training and grumbles that they undermine the collegial ethos have made many academics wary of the role. Tariq Tahir reports

July 10, 2008

Please accept my resignation," said Groucho Marx. "I don't want to join any club that will accept me as a member."

It might be stretching it, but the same principle could apply to middle management in higher education - if you want to get on, don't join the club that would have you as a member. Success in academia is traditionally defined by research excellence, not by the competent administration of departmental budgets and workloads - responsibilities that are often taken on out of a grudging sense of duty and without any real enthusiasm.

Yet middle managers, who are usually heads of department or school, are beginning to assume a greater importance as their role evolves from that of collegial administrator to professional leader in a way that their contemporaries elsewhere in the public or the private sector would recognise.

The need to find more external sources of funding, engage with the outside world and increase student numbers are just some of the pressures these new leaders face. And as their role expands, the growing pains are being felt - particularly in research-intensive institutions, where strong traditions of collegiality often clash with thrusting management styles.

Middle managers get the "worst of both worlds" at the moment, says Gillian Howie, head of the philosophy department at the University of Liverpool. "I think that we are in an odd transitional phase in higher education where your line manager isn't actually your manager, so we're occupying two cultures: one that is supposed to be collegiate, where everyone pitches in, but also another, where there is a set of targets and expectations, planning statements and strategies."

Howie admits to being something of a converted Luddite when it comes to acquiring managerial skills: she is now prepared to acknowledge that many aspects of management are worthwhile.

"There is benefit in taking the time to reflect on a department and how it might develop and grow, and it is also true that you need to set targets on the way. The problem is when those targets are externally driven and you pass the anxiety back down the line to members of staff.

"Prior to being head of department, I would have resisted the introduction of such managerial processes. But the sorts of skills you need to manage staff are not necessarily ones you pick up from being an academic.

"Because the skills that you require are very broad, training is very important. Then the questions are: if you are going to get that management training, is there going to be a management stream within the university and is that management stream then going to be cut off from academic life?"

Howie believes that higher education needs to work harder to marry the best aspects of collegiality and management. "Management is so time-consuming and people tend to view it as the end of their research, so it would put off a younger generation who would see it as cutting them off from their research base.

"If you were to view (management) in a collegiate fashion, as creating the type of research environment that members of the department would appreciate, then we would be able to bring the two cultures back together. But you still need to be trained to do that, and the management model needs to be something other than one based on crude productivity."

She is optimistic that universities can develop a managerial culture that maintains and respects collegiality.

"I think it can be done. Junior members of staff are very flexible and they realise that they've got to look outside the department or the university to secure various research grants or studentships. They don't expect to be left alone to do (only) their research."

Until recently, Justin Fisher was head of politics and history at Brunel University, but he has now been promoted to deputy head of the School of Social Sciences. He believes that there is an abrogation of responsibility in some areas of higher education when it comes to management.

"Academia is a profession where incompetence is often rewarded. People can excuse themselves from duties because they can't be trusted to do them. As a consequence, people who are competent at dealing with the many roles that academics have to play tend to become rather overburdened.

"It's not always that people take on these roles with reluctance, because you can have a role in shaping how departments move forward provided there is support from above."

Indeed, the unwilling middle manager seems to be a particular feature of old universities. According to a recent paper by Georgy Petrov, an associate research fellow at the University of Exeter's Centre for Leadership Studies, many ambitious academics in post-1992 universities envisage their careers progressing through management.

But he says: "Within the classic 'reluctant manager' route in 'old' universities, there was a sense of obligation where someone took on a formal leadership and management role because the faculty, school and/or department needed to be led, rather than because they thought they were the right person for the job or had a desire to do it."

There is rarely any competition in old universities for the role of dean or head of school, Petrov says. "Some were persuaded or even coerced into it, while others saw it as a case of Buggins's turn." But it is a different story in the post-1992s. "In new universities in our sample, the interviewees generally perceived dean and head roles as attractive."

Whatever the institution, however, the reluctant manager is a dying breed. Things are changing as academics become much more mobile at the same time as universities increasingly recognise that the ranks of middle management need to be beefed up with willing recruits who can combine leadership skills with traditional academic skills.

Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, echoes Howie's views about the need to combine managerial and collegiate cultures in research-intensive universities.

"It's an issue that has to be dealt with and we have to be really quite creative about instilling an interest in leadership and management, otherwise it is regarded as the not-so-desirable path to go down.

"We have to be more canny about how people can be introduced to these roles at an earlier stage in their careers without losing touch with their research and be creative at constructing jobs that allow that contact with research to be kept up.

"It's about introducing the concept that leadership and management are not totally negative things and getting across that (taking on a managerial role) doesn't mean the end of a career or (must be) done out of a sense of duty to colleagues."

For the sector, a culture shift is vital. As Wooldridge says: "The truth is that the critical level that makes a difference in an organisation is the quality of the middle managers. In higher education, we are probably not doing enough to equip that level of management for the changes, pressure and competition."

However, he acknowledges that higher education has its work cut out to persuade academics that middle management is a viable career option. "Just to say 'It's exciting to be a middle manager' would attract an awful lot of cynicism."

But cynicism there is and with modern management has come the pejorative epithet "managerialism", a word spoken with a faint hiss.

Robin Briggs, senior research fellow in history at All Souls College, Oxford, is one of the many academics who believe that the right balance between the new style of management and collegiality has yet to be struck.

He was part of the opposition to plans to streamline the University of Oxford's structures, by John Hood, the university's vice-chancellor, a move that was seen as an attack on its traditional democratic decision-making process.

"I think that everybody can see that, in a world where one increasingly has to cope with a funding scheme built around these bloody targets and so on, some different management styles are necessary.

"We've all accepted that we're going to have to move in some ways, and we've gone along, not gleefully but more or less acceptingly, with a series of changes that do mean that we have a good deal more in the way of middle management.

"To me, it seems that the problem in British universities is that it is hard to see how these people are seriously accountable - the whole idea of a line manager is something of a problem.

"I think that a lot of people feel that their (working) lives are more controlled than they were - and not in ways that they wholly welcome. Of course, it's hard to detach this from the basic decline in the unit of resource - people are just going to have to do more anyway."

Not surprisingly, Briggs questions how effective vice-chancellors can be at changing universities without first winning the support of staff.

"My instinct is that there seems to be a leadership model - perhaps 'model' is too flattering a term - or some sort of notion that you want this leader to have his vision and that will change an institution.

"Well, I find that pretty implausible, to be honest. Some degree of leadership is obviously necessary, but I think the partnership model is a much more fruitful one for universities than the managerial one.

"It's always a question about whether generals win battles or whether it's their miserable foot soldiers. It doesn't really seem to me that many heroic figures have emerged!

"I think what leadership in (higher education) institutions needs is to get academics involved and ensure that they're valued. You need to have a strategic sense, but anybody who is confrontational is bad news."

For Italian-born Dario Castiglione, moving to academia in the UK in the 1980s meant having to deal with less bureaucracy, having closer contact with students and feeling that he had some say in the running of the department where he worked.

But the senior politics lecturer at the University of Exeter now argues that new layers of management have eroded all three without replacing them with anything he feels he can buy into.

"There is a tension. On the one hand, we don't want to let go of having some control but, on the other hand, the organisation is more complex, there are more students and so on.

"But the organisation is becoming more complex because there has grown a kind of managerialism. There is a bit of a facade built up, and it is so often a kind of show that it makes people upset. At least if they said 'There are things that you decide and other things that you don't', that would be a lot simpler," he says.

"There has been a growing tendency, particularly on the teaching side, for managerialism to take over. There used to be a more friendly staff-student relationship, but now there is more and more control under the pretext of more accountability and verifiability."

Dr Castiglione says that the content of courses is now often driven by outside management systems in which committees looking at courses consider whether submissions for change have been presented in the right way, rather than evaluating the content itself.

"It's supposed to make us more student-friendly, but the opposite has happened. Because of the minutiae of management it has become more bureaucratic. It makes you work more but it doesn't give you any feedback on the content.

He adds: "It's basically wasting your time. The most important thing for us is time, and if we are chasing about filling in forms we are not doing our jobs properly. The systems of accountability are self-referring and are not related to external delivery.

"There is this mixture. On the one hand, they are telling us that you need to be much more professional and market-oriented, but, on the other, they are setting up a bureaucratic system that is the opposite. It's like a market run on Soviet lines.

"They are inadvertently creating a culture of cynicism."


David Watson believes that most universities succeed in fostering a grown-up academic culture

Universities are very peculiar places. They are very flat in organisation and support a professionally argumentative culture. Almost every member of the university has a right to be heard on almost every issue.

Universities' reputations are on the line in relation to decisions made within them by individual members and by small groups in high-stakes situations: admissions, assessment, ethical procedures, partnerships and so on.

They have major economic impact and exposure. And yet they have proved to be both successful and stable.

Inside the academy, we are all managed for some purposes, and most of us manage something at some time or another. At the same time, an older "apartheid" between academics and support staff has been broken down definitively.

It may be significant that the "statutory" universities - liberated from local authority control in 1988 - never had this formal distinction, enshrined as it still is in the charters of many traditional institutions.

Higher education management seems to be an easy target - from inside and outside the academy.

To take the "outside-in" view first: there is a public and political perception of management deficit in society at large. There have, of course, been near misses, but UK higher education still awaits its Millennium Dome or Terminal 5 moment.

Meanwhile, the internal discourse about how institutions and their component parts are managed can be ideologically captured, from both ends of the spectrum.

A kind of naive managerial triumphalism can be met by a nostalgic (if historically insensitive) academic populism.

What is unacceptable about the "new managerialism" isn't really new at all. There was always the possibility of insensitive, bullying authority, and of stultifying bureaucracy, while toxic leadership can be faced by toxic followership.

In these circumstances, the management priority is to create and preserve a grown-up internal culture, where emotionally intelligent interactions predominate, which neither overclaims nor overblames, and has a good, research-informed sense of itself, its possibilities and its position in the scheme of things.

Mature institutions cultivate a discourse in which intellectual excitement, joy (and even fun) co-exist with a sense of responsibility (and even mercy). The record shows that most succeed.

Sir David Watson is director of the MBA in higher education management at the Institute of Education, University of London.


Dennis Hayes argues that managers are antithetical to academe

Everyone is a manager these days. Academics manage students, courses and programmes, while other staff manage departments, faculties and universities. There are management teams everywhere, and there are even "quality" and "knowledge" managers.

This army of managers in colleges and universities increases bureaucracy and encourages endless "management" meetings, which are much easier than researching or lecturing because they involve only a minimum of intellectual effort.

The ubiquity of the "m" word might suggest the triumph of managerialism, but the irony is that "managers" don't manage. All the meetings, appraisals, exit interviews and the like are expressions of anxiety about what universities are supposed to be doing.

Meetings about "mission statements" are the classic example, but management meetings are often like therapy sessions to cope with middle-management angst.

Sometimes management adopts explicitly therapeutic forms such as "consultations", where it can safely air plans for the university, but which have no real impact on decision-making.

When it comes to dealing with problems, there is an increasing tendency to look to consultants with therapeutic training to resolve them. This lets managers off taking responsibility for management.

In fact, the plethora of managers is one expression of the avoidance of managerial responsibility, as it has become harder and harder to know who is responsible for what in today's university.

Who really manages the university? The vice-chancellor? The vice-chancellor is "managed" by governors, who in turn are managed by the "quangocracy", including the Higher Education Funding Council for England and its epigones.

Academics should be worried about managerialism not just for the reasons stated but because it has epistemological consequences. You can manage "training" with clear outcomes, but you can't manage the pursuit of knowledge.

The pursuit of knowledge is necessarily unpredictable. Asking "managers" to manage knowledge is seeking the impossible. The consequence is that they try to turn it into skills training and academics get sucked into "learning outcomes".

To the extent that they get away with this transformation, managers undermine the university.

Dennis Hayes is the head of the Centre for Professional Education, Canterbury Christ Church University.

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