Centralising universities ‘ignores evidence of what works best’

Cutting academic autonomy contradicts studies on what makes businesses effective, policy expert claims

February 15, 2016
Boy riding BMX in front of bust of Vladimir Lenin
Source: Alamy
Power play: university leaders and managers concentrate decision-making despite lack of proof of its efficacy

University managers are ignoring research that shows that organisations function better when they are decentralised and workers given more autonomy, and are instead are consolidating ever more power in their own hands, an expert on science policy has argued.

Broadsides against bureaucratic accountability measures, centralised university power structures and the rise of administrators are far from uncommon in higher education.

But Ben Martin, a professor of science and technology policy studies at the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit, has said that this trend towards centralisation not only demoralises staff but also flies in the face of recent literature on what works best in the business world.

“I’m not sure how familiar vice-chancellors are with management organisation literature,” he told Times Higher Education. “I suspect some are dimly aware of it but just don’t think it’s relevant to their particular circumstances.”

His latest paper cites decades of studies, including a 2010 review of management literature that found “the majority of scholars have agreed that a decentralized organizational structure is conducive to organizational effectiveness”.

Professor Martin’s paper, “What’s happening to our universities?”, recently accepted by the innovation journal Prometheus, cites research showing that centralisation in organisations leads to a lack of innovation, less knowledge sharing and a lower level of idea generation.

One recent study found that “audit culture and managerialism” in universities encourages cronyism, “change for the sake of change”, short-term decision making and what it called “the rise of organisational psychopaths”.

“As academics, we normally like to think we rely on evidence,” Professor Martin told THE. “There’s a lot of evidence pointing to the benefits of flatter structures and autonomy,” he said, but universities are moving in the opposite direction, evidenced by the growing proportion of administrative staff.

“I want people to start thinking about this and start discussing it.”

His paper asks why university leaders have centralised their institutions despite limited evidence of any benefit.

It suggests that new vice-chancellors “almost without exception” tend to assume that centralisation is the solution to financial and league table targets, escalating competition and a perceived need for growth.

“Or perhaps they just lack the self-confidence that a decentralised but well motivated institution can survive in an era of intense competition,” his paper suggests.

“Many new vice-chancellors, particularly those appointed from outside that university, reach instinctively for the ‘lever’ of restructuring – merging departments and other units into larger agglomerations of schools or faculties,” it observes.

“Yet there is no rigorous evidence that bigger operating units in higher education institutions are more efficient, a belief with overtones strangely reminiscent of Soviet ideology that scale is the solution,” the paper argues.

Professor Martin acknowledged that “it might be perceived that there’s a conflict of interest” when academics write on the topic of autonomy in universities. As a result he had “hesitated” before publishing the paper, in case it was “misconstrued”, although he conceded that it was still somewhat “polemical”. 


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