Department heads 'shirk responsibilities', study finds

January 30, 2004

Many deans and heads of department are ashamed to be managers and avoid their managerial responsibilities, according to a study, writes Chris Johnston.

Anne Hollinshead, senior lecturer in education studies at Wolverhampton University, said widespread managerial problems encouraged a sense of apathy and cynicism in higher education.

She warned that unless steps were taken to remedy the situation, the quality of teaching and support for undergraduates would suffer as academics became ever-more demoralised and disinterested.

Dr Hollinshead surveyed 300 academic staff at all levels and concluded that many in senior roles were "ashamed to be managers".

She said they failed to deal with poorly performing staff in the hope that natural wastage would save them the trouble of having to tackle the problem. But this meant more trusted staff were burdened with more responsibility, increasing their workload and stress levels.

"There has been a professional distancing from the term 'manager' - most senior staff prefer to think of themselves as 'professionals' and 'academics' or 'academic leaders'," Dr Hollinshead said.

That is one of a number of common management issues affecting what Dr Hollinshead called a "very fragmented sector". She found that, overall, academics gained satisfaction from interacting with students.

At the same time, many were dissatisfied with their working conditions, reporting that their work caused them "stress or frustration or tears".

They cited problems such as a lack of time for research and a lack of resources. They were also unhappy with line-management structures.

"Many respondents felt that they had very little opportunity to get their voice heard in terms of strategic developments, policy initiatives and the development of practice," she said.

The adoption of a more corporate approach in higher education had engendered a "blame culture", Dr Hollinshead argued.

A principal lecturer from a post-1992 university says in the study that he has noticed a growing culture of blame and guilt over the past two or three years.

He says: "We've got a lot of new, inexperienced staff coming in who are aware of this culture - it's always somebody's fault. That's what a hierarchical line-management system does."

Academic staff become "complicit in their own exploitation" by working long hours to complete administrative tasks or to make up for others' failings, the study found. It also found that fixed-term contracts led to insecurity and a tendency among contract staff to work longer hours.

A lecturer in a higher education college quoted in the research was on five one-year contracts before being given a permanent job.

He says: "I tried to be very visible - I was always there. I didn't take all my annual leave and I was reluctant to take sick leave. Because I wanted a permanent contract, I needed to show that I was indispensable."

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