A rethink required

November 15, 2002

Imposing private-sector management on higher education is a mistake, argues David Robertson.

Government comments on management quality in higher education have been followed by squawks of injured innocence from the usual suspects. In that context, the forthcoming strategy paper on higher education could be the chance to take an honest look at what management in universities and colleges should be.

This might start with the post-1992 universities where, a decade ago, a fresh model of governance and management was introduced, with business-dominated governing bodies appointed to support chief executives. Gentlemen academic managers in tweeds, raised on pro bono publico values, were to be replaced by executive entrepreneurs in suits.

The new universities were to be focused on mission, innovation and nimble organisation. In fact, the opposite happened. With a few exceptions, the new universities have lost their vision, voice and identity. They are seized up with managers - many out of their depth, others incompetent - and, in keeping with the model, the vice-chancellor/chief executive now directs affairs, unencumbered by checks and balances.

Solitary executive power has brought its own inefficiency, encouraging people to play safe so as not to scupper their careers at the next restructuring. The adverse impact of the evidence-free nostrums and egocentric bluster of "managerialism" could be to blame. But they are only part of the story.

Managerialism fills the void left by incoherent models of what is to be managed. Until management models get a satisfactory conceptual grip of the entity to be managed - bureaucracy, business, collegium, or organised anarchy - we will struggle to find people able to do the job.

The government may believe a better-trained leadership will change this. But the entire "new" governance and management model is the problem. In the post-1992 universities, contrary to initial expectations, governing boards have become a breeding ground for poor management. Self-selecting, remote, unconstrained by performance indicators and unaccountable, these boards are easily captured by executive agendas. Consequently, many boards have presided over a loss of institutional focus. Some poor senior appointments, shambolic restructuring, over-trading and excessive executive payments have contributed to debt burdens, mission drift and a loss of reputation.

This governance model has further sponsored the advance of executive aides-de-camp who have done little over the past decade other than negotiate their passage through the cordillera of paperwork that lies between universities and the public interest.

Universities are a peculiar entity. Their bottom line is reputation gain; their "business" is knowledge and inquiry, extracted from employees who owe greater allegiance to their peers than to their employer.

Above all, the university's business is social justice and economic capacity-building. Command models can be imposed, but only disastrously; management fads can be applied, but only hilariously.

The new universities would do well to roll back the post-1992 management model - and the older universities to avoid imitating it - first, by curtailing the dysfunctional aspects of executive power; and, second, by reintroducing a model that "loans" good academics into management service for a time, but not for ever.

The huge wage returns to management in the post-1992 universities provide positive economic signals to the burnt-out or useless, and reflect the ascendancy of management over academic life. They also create an absurd dilemma for the best academics - see your salary stagnate or give up academic work. Third, good management is about the absorption of risk, not the shifting of risks from the top to the frontline implicit in the rhetoric of "empowerment". Absorbing risk at the top speeds up the "refresh rate" below, allowing renewal to emerge from within.

Finally, the new universities need a better vision. The coming generation of institutional managers needs to regain a voice capable of articulating a realistic vision to revitalise the sector. If not, the drift goes on - until something else shapes our affairs for us.

David Robertson is professor of public policy and education at Liverpool John Moores University.


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