More academic leaders from arts than science

Hefce data reveals 70 per cent of department heads from arts, humanities and social science disciplines

September 18, 2014

The majority of academic leaders at English universities come from the arts, humanities and social sciences, disproportionately outweighing their colleagues from science, figures show.

Scholars in arts, humanities and social science disciplines comprise 55 per cent of all academics but almost 70 per cent of all heads of departments, centres and schools, also known as “academic leaders”, according to data compiled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

By contrast, 34 per cent of all academics work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and just 25 per cent of academic leaders have a background in these subjects.

Amanda Goodall, senior lecturer in management at the Cass Business School at City University, said that the data partially reflect the higher number of departments in the arts, humanities and social sciences compared with STEM.

Independent data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that there are 1,613 departments in the arts, humanities and social sciences in England, more than double the 739 STEM departments. This could mean that there are fewer opportunities for academics in STEM subjects to move into leadership, Dr Goodall said. But she stressed that other factors play a part in who gets promoted into leadership roles. Dr Goodall pointed to her own research, which suggests that economics academics who deal with data are more likely to rise up the academic ranks than those that study theory, for example. This could be because of the empirical nature of their work, or because they work in a less isolated way, she said.

Dr Goodall said it was more common for department heads to be “dragged into that position than for them to be desperate” to do it. “It is always a problem trying to employ heads of departments,” she explained, adding that the end of the final salary pension scheme could “thin out the pipeline” for academic leadership further as this can prove an incentive to take senior posts.

Rajani Naidoo, director of the International Centre for Higher Education Management at the University of Bath, said that having detailed knowledge of how higher education works is more important than what discipline a leader came from so that they are not just seen as “bureaucratic cogs”. She added: “Academics will have much more trust in a leader who had an academic standing in the field.”

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