Campuses suffer leadership and information deficits

December 21, 2007

The Society for Research into Higher Education conference looked at reluctance to lead and opaque aid schemes. John Gill reports.

MANAGEMENT ROLES SHUNNED

Academics are avoiding managerial positions "at all costs" because of tension between the roles, a research paper has found.

Richard Bolden, research fellow at Exeter University's centre for leadership studies, argues that the conflict that exists is multi-faceted and hard to resolve.

"Where there is a very clear distinction between academic and manager, people don't necessarily aspire to be a leader or manager. In fact it may be something they try to avoid at all costs," he said.

"So in spite of a lot of talk about the need for leadership and a lot of devolution of responsibility, it's questionable how desirable those career pathways are."

The study found that leadership responsibility was widely distributed within universities but suggested that the true power lay only with those who controlled the purse strings.

A key theme was the tension between centralisation and decentralisation of power, with institutions struggling to strike the right balance.

On financial management, Mr Bolden said that devolving budgetary control could "disempower" a university, while holding it centrally could limit creativity.

"Despite the reported desire for participative leadership, the true locus of power and authority invariably lies with budget holders," he said.

The study, in collaboration with Georgy Petrov and Jonathan Gosling, is based on interviews with 152 university leaders, from vice-chancellors to professional services managers.

It also analyses successful leadership skills in individuals.

The paper argues that, although there is "overwhelming" support for a collective and participative approach, there is also a desire for "inspirational" and "visionary" leaders - particularly vice-chancellors, deans and heads - in times of change.

"The designated leader needs to be given the authority to act on behalf of the group, in effect to be seen to be 'doing it for us'," the paper says.

BURSARIES ARE TOO COMPLEX

Bursaries and scholarships used by universities to compete for undergraduates are so complex that they are muddying the waters both for institutions and students.

A research paper by Helen Carasso, a research student at Oxford University who was previously its director of admissions, analysed the "quasi-market" that has emerged following the introduction of variable fees.

Noting that all but four English institutions have chosen to charge the £3,000 maximum undergraduate tuition fee in the first year, the paper argues that bursaries and other student support programmes are now the most significant tool used to differentiate on cost.

But it warns that an "information deficit" has emerged because of the complexity of the market, which has resulted in confusion on both sides.

It says: "In an environment where universities are using bursaries and scholarships, rather than fees, to compete on cost, the financial support that an institution offers must be well known and accurately understood by its target groups if it is to serve as an effective aid to recruitment in what is increasingly becoming a buyers' market."

The paper, presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education conference, suggests that the complexity of student support schemes may be self-defeating for universities, as the bureaucracy they involve can absorb a large chunk of additional fee income.

Ms Carasso's paper concludes: "Not only is there an information deficit that is limiting the ability of applicants to make informed choices, but there is also an information deficit within institutions about their own markets and their competitors within those markets.

"As with any market, clear and accurate information is a fundamental requirement for effective operation and decision-making, and this is an area in which higher education still has much to learn."

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