Getting down to business, Australian style, may be the only option

Association of University Administrators conference hears that too many UK institutions are ‘emulators, not leaders’ in disruptive times

April 9, 2015

Source: Reuters

Leaders or followers?: UK universities are ‘emulators’, senior administrator says, while commercially minded Australian sector trains sights on costs, investment, teaching quality

Universities may have little choice but to operate like businesses in the face of increased global competition and reduced public funding, a senior administrator said.

Jon Baldwin, who has served as registrar of three UK institutions including the University of Warwick, said his most recent university post in Australia had shown him how a more commercially minded approach may help higher education through a challenging policy environment.

But Mr Baldwin, who served as deputy vice-chancellor (professional services) at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia until last year, expressed scepticism about the prospects for significant entrepreneurialism in the UK higher education sector – claiming that its institutions tended to be “primarily emulators, not leaders”.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of University Administrators on 31 March, Mr Baldwin said he had been surprised to hear his Australian counterparts focus so closely on cost, investment and the “bottom line”.

While such issues are of course discussed alongside academic priorities inside UK institutions, Mr Baldwin said, the language of his fellow deputy vice-chancellors was like that of a managing director.

He argued that UK universities may have to consider a more entrepreneurial approach in the face of disruptive forces including technological change and rising public scepticism about the value of a degree – alongside increased competition from around the world and reduced state support.

The Australian approach was not wrong, Mr Baldwin said, simply different.

“Maybe in the context of all these forces the Australians are right because we have to run the university like a business,” he said.

Mr Baldwin, who is now managing director for market development at Bristol-based education support services company Tribal Group, said that the disruptive trends in the university sector had been accompanied by growing student expectations.

In Australia, he said, there was a much greater focus on teaching quality, and he expressed “real sadness” that it had taken the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees to make the UK sector put greater emphasis on the undergraduate experience.

Mr Baldwin said UK universities planned to respond to changes in the market largely by cutting administrative costs, and he did not see signs of “any entrepreneurialism, or much”, beyond some online initiatives.

In contrast, in Australia he found “greater maturity” about the role of private providers, for example, and the way they could help to increase choice.

Mr Baldwin said UK universities could not “all pursue the same strategies” because there was “not enough room for them in this complicated world”.

“Everyone is trying to do the same things; I don’t see many leaders out there,” he added.

University leaders should be “facilitators of what can be”, rather than the “defender of what is”, Mr Baldwin argued, but he complained that some vice-chancellors “imagine they are the superhero standing astride the institution”.

In particular, he expressed concern that for some vice-chancellors, perks such as an executive assistant, a car and hospitality became “a way of life” – and that they can “lose sight of the fact that [they] are employed to lead a university”.

“That has to be guarded against as we move through these kinds of conversations,” Mr Baldwin said.

Top jobs for the boys: are quotas or a culture change the solution?

Ending the male stranglehold on leadership posts in UK higher education will likely be impossible without the introduction of diversity quotas, a debate at the Association of University Administrators annual conference heard.

Simonetta Manfredi, professor of equality and diversity management at Oxford Brookes University, said that without quotas it was unclear how a “critical mass” of female and minority senior managers could be achieved in order to challenge what she described as male-dominated notions of what made a good leader.

Speaking at the conference on 30 March, Professor Manfredi said a “cognitive bias” was working to create preferential treatment for men. For instance, the debate heard that a powerful woman leader may be described as bullying, while a male counterpart would instead be seen as being in control.

“That’s why we need some kind of intervention, to try to remedy that situation, but also to open up a debate about merit,” she said.

Speaking against the idea of quotas, Smita Jamdar, head of education at law firm SGH Martineau, warned that women and minority candidates did not want to feel like they got a job simply because they filled a quota, and she questioned how different types of diversity could be weighed against each other.

How would an Indian woman rate against a gay man with a disability, she asked – and would any assessment change if it emerged that the woman went to a private school and an Oxbridge university, while the man had not?

What was more important, Ms Jamdar said, was to change the culture of institutions to encourage equality.

“This is about embracing diversity, not just measuring it,” she said. “Embracing it, making it part of your decision-making – that’s how you make it effective.”

Ms Jamdar, seconded by Paul Greatrix, registrar of the University of Nottingham, won the support of conference attendees in a close vote on whether quotas were needed.

Compliance: keeping promises could be a full-time job

The growing influence of consumer protection legislation on higher education is likely to lead to the creation of a new post at UK universities – director of compliance.

That is according to David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, who told the Association of University Administrators conference that institutions face a “big burden” in ensuring due regard is paid to students’ rights as customers.

This stems from the increased interest of the Competition and Markets Authority and consumers’ association Which? in the sector, as well as the implementation of the new Consumer Rights Act, he said.

Universities may find themselves held liable for statements made to students as early as an open day – for example, about whether a module will run or a particular tutor is available, Mr Palfreyman said. These obligations could be maintained for the duration of a course and could ultimately lead to legal action.

Mr Palfreyman said there could “easily” be a “mismatch” between statements made by marketing staff who are “paid to get bums on seats”, and what is actually delivered, particularly over a long period.

The consequence could be the recruitment of directors of compliance to ensure that universities meet their responsibilities, he said.

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