Blog confidential: Things have to change

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

May 6, 2010

I am a senior university manager recently appointed from the private sector. My institution is one of the top 30 in the UK. The specifications of my role are clear - form strategic objectives, encourage organisational efficiency, secure a robust project portfolio and maximise business opportunities. This has required setting up real-time business-information systems and a secondary brief to optimise human and technical resources.

My post was established because our vice-chancellor saw a clear need for changes in culture and internal learning. I was very excited by his vision and desire for a more fluid dynamic and, most importantly, the optimisation of new technologies to create better profit margins compared with our competitors. However, my position papers to the board of governors have been kicked into touch for being (get this) "too visionary". They include proposals to seek a proposition statement from each school to explore their notions of business-to-business definitions of product delivery, and a critical appraisal of where profit opportunity margins could be enhanced.

The contribution in last week's blog ("The managerial perspective (part two: a response)", 29 April) seems to exemplify everything wrong with universities as they currently work. Academic elites seem to focus on developing their comfortable lives, with many undertaking ridiculously irrelevant research that will not do anything to enhance our position in the free market. Do these people live in the real world - the one where we have to survive?

During the Easter holidays, I meandered around the psychology department to find only two junior staff present out of a total staff group of 68. It was the same last summer - almost all academic staff disappeared. I obtained permission from the vice-chancellor to discover from personnel how this was possible.

The responses to my enquiries about staff whereabouts were outrageous, for example: "extended work from home on data analysis" and "completing publication proposals". I cross-referenced several academics' teaching workloads to assess the time allocated to tutorials, research and the formulation of bids: there were incredible discrepancies in what made up a "working week". I wrote this up, submitted it to the board - nothing!

Academics need to know that views such as those expressed last week are archaic and unrealistic.

The contribution this week is an example of the terrible nature of the emerging new order. I realise some things need to change and that we should be more dynamic and accountable, but most academics I know work very hard, with little support. Most importantly of all, they pay their way.

I am not sure what our entrepreneur wants - ridiculously embarrassing profit margins? An environment that is more like the Gulag than a place of learning? The key issue seems to me to be that the academy has little idea what it wants to be. Should it be a social resource or an expedient, lean, highly profitable sector, a place to learn for learning's sake or a conveyor belt for rampant capitalism?

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