Forget copycat management

November 16, 2001

Universities cannot get their management solutions off the peg, Michael Shattock writes.

It is an open secret that the government does not think much of the way universities are managed, but it should recognise that, if it is right, it must carry some blame. Over-regulated, underfunded institutions subject to pseudo-market forces created by funding formulae are not going to find it easy to develop innovative and coherent management styles.

But universities owe it to themselves to think seriously about how to achieve good management and effective governance because those qualities assist academic performance, improve ability to withstand erratic funding policies and environmental turbulence and, perhaps crucially, give institutions confidence in facing the future.

Too often, academics and administrators pluck out of the air ready-made managerial solutions and present them as answers to their problems. A classic cliche in university committees is the notion that the better the decision, the closer it is taken to the coalface, implying that academic resource decisions are best taken at the departmental level. But there is no evidence that coalface workers are good at closing seams, determining strategy about the future of pits or even diversifying the scope of mining activity. Similarly, too often one hears university managers quoting outdated managerial concepts as ultimate truths when business research, known to their own business-school colleagues, can tell universities that the world is no longer that simple.

We deceive ourselves when we draw easy analogies between customers and students, chief executives and vice-chancellors, governing bodies and company boards. Organisationally, universities remain in part sui generis and their management will be most effective when it respects this.

We should recognise that leadership in universities, as in other groups of professionals, depends on building a consensus, and that management is a team activity, not a matter of issuing directives from behind closed doors. Universities are often hierarchical, excluding the most knowledgeable people on particular management issues from participation in decision-making. Universities are often resistant to flat structures where communication lines are short and decisions can be taken quickly, preferring extended structures where process triumphs over timeliness. Too often relations between academic and professional managers are confused by considerations of status when it is clear that partnership, a sense of equality and open discussion encourage creative thinking and innovation.

We therefore need not new managerial fads and toolkits, but more investment in thinking about university management issues. Many universities have turnovers of £150 million or more and are big organisations that can only get bigger. They require input by a partnership of academic and management professionals. But too many universities still have not recognised the implications of scale in their management or kept pace with the speed of change, particularly as regards financial management.

Universities are interlocking organisations in which all the parts are interdependent; improving institutional effectiveness is more to do with examining each related activity on a holistic basis than grand new policy initiatives or bold restructuring. To improve university management we need to educate a wider proportion of our staff in management issues. It is not sufficient to delay this until they become a dean or a pro vice-chancellor or until they have been consigned to one specialist administrative area for ten years or more. If we are to take institutional management seriously, we must prepare a subset of the younger generation of academics and administrators so that when they reach senior positions, they understand the issues and approach them professionally.

Michael Shattock is visiting professor at the Centre for Higher Education Studies, Institute of Education, and was previously registrar of the University of Warwick.

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