Freedom a 'former value' in admin-led sector

May 17, 2012

Growing levels of performance management are threatening to destroy collegiate relationships between academics and administrators, a study has claimed.

Burgeoning administration has already led to clashes between older academics and managers because the former are increasingly being forced to account for their time, research activity and expenditure, says the report commissioned by administrators' group Universities Human Resources (UHR), titled Changing Times at UK Universities: What Difference Can HR Make?

And radical higher education reforms, including redundancy programmes, have soured relations between teaching staff and management, creating a "work culture that (is) fast-moving, demanding and stressful", the report says.

According to one HR director quoted anonymously by Linda Holbeche, the report's author, higher levels of assessment in universities "clash with (the) former values" of autonomy and academic freedom held dear by scholars.

"Old-style academics are seen as losing out as their time becomes more open to review," the source says. "There is a growing tension between the professional managerial approach and academic life - the need to account for resource and time, the need to ... measure."

Ms Holbeche writes that the introduction of a more results-driven academic culture represents a change in scholars' "psychological contract" with their university, which may cause a more fractious relationship with management.

"When psychological contracts are violated, employees tend to withdraw their goodwill, discretionary effort is suspended and engagement undermined," she says. "The employment relationship then tends to become more transactional."

She adds that the challenge for university managers is to re-engage such employees, especially given that research excellence and enhanced student experience depend on them.

However, the report, published at UHR's national conference in Ashford, held on 15-18 May, adds that administrators may be best placed to lead university restructuring in a system where it is a "question of survival of the fittest in a potentially very uneven contest".

"Academics often become successful thanks to their analytical skills and deductive reasoning, their pursuit of evidence and respect for peer review," Ms Holbeche explains.

"Such training may not always facilitate the development of broader strategic thinking, or an appreciation of insights based on intuition - thinking skills most helpful in the development of agility.

"As a result, university leadership commonly can be somewhat risk-averse and slow to act."

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