All hands to the rescue

November 4, 2005

Phil Baty reports on claims that universities' malaise can be halted by involving all levels of staff in running institutions

Junior university staff should work with senior managers to challenge a conspiracy of silence that is hiding a crisis in higher education, a new book claims.

All those working in universities are "complicit in exploiting themselves and students" by focusing on government measures of success such as generating income, rather than addressing real problems such as low morale, high stress and poor staff management practices, argues Steve Shelley of Hertfordshire University's Centre for Research in Employment Studies.

His book, Working in Universities: The Realities from Porter to Professor , warns that university staff are conforming to Government-led systems of measuring and funding higher education that give a false impression of success and create "perverse and bizarre" outcomes.

He told The Times Higher that one way to break the conspiracy was to embrace "vertical" instead of "horizontal" management.

"With current management development in universities, we tend to select cadres of senior managers and send them off for select leadership training," said Dr Shelley, principal lecturer at the university's business school.

"Rather than a horizontal grouping of managers, we need vertical groupings with a greater collective awareness of the stressful, perverse and bizarre outcomes that target-setting is leading to."

He said all levels of staff experience the harsh realities of university life, but "the aim should be to develop a capacity in individuals and groups to critique and challenge current assumptions."

His book, to be published later this month, argues that what is measured in higher education and how it is measured - via the research assessment exercise, the Quality Assurance Agency and league tables - hides reality.

"We have a higher education sector that is judged to be extremely successful in terms of growth, productivity increases and quality measures, and in terms of some staff measures, such as recruitment and retention statistics," he said.

"But this hides the softer measurements I have identified, such as low morale, stress and poor staff management practices."

Dr Shelley said that the universities, departments and academics were increasingly judged on how well they competed for funding, and that this was being embraced by managers and staff.

Andy Pike, national official at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "In many institutions, the emperor is wearing no clothes, but academics are reticent about pointing it out for fear of retribution, so engaging people wherever they are in an institution is far preferable to issuing diktats from on high."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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