It's time to erase the malaise

September 14, 2001

Higher education might raise morale if it practised what it preached by promoting collegiality, argues Peter McCaffery.

Alienation, cynicism and demoralisation are rife in academic communities, yet we abrogate responsibility for this condition. Staff bewail degree-factory rhetoric and the "creeping cancer" of managerialism; managers rail against under-funding, over-regulation and excessive accountability; and the Treasury complains of "over-administered", "under-managed" higher education institutions. In truth, higher education has got what it deserves - a house divided against itself.

The challenge is to turn this parlous state around - in the first instance by admitting to ourselves some uncomfortable home truths. We need to recognise that the spread of managerialism is not a government-inspired conspiracy. Its emergence is as much attributable to the internal forces of institutional development as it is to any external pressure.

Put another way, the scale of higher education expansion and its increasing complexity would, by their very nature, have compelled institutions to manage their affairs in a far more self-conscious way than hitherto. Thus the mass yearning for a return to the "golden era" of the collegiate community - if indeed it ever existed - misses the point. Far from being an artificial implant grafted on to the sector, managerialism has been a positive response to the environment in which higher education finds itself.

Ironically for "institutions of learning", higher education exhibits a collective reluctance to learn from other organisations - public or private - even when alternative approaches could be used to ameliorate the worst excesses of bad management.

We are all subject to similar pressures, and our dogged insistence that we are sui generis does us no favours. Witness the deafening silence outside the sector towards our predicament.

Moreover, why do we tolerate a system of staff categorisation - "academic" versus "non-academic" - that is not only unnecessarily divisive, but also outdated? Such a system has more to do with the endemic elitist ethos that prevails within many institutions and less to do with the reality of how higher education institutions will operate in the future.

But most damaging is the prevalence of the (false) assumption that any intelligent, educated individual can be an effective manager - a view compounded by the disregard some managers have for their own development.

The bulk of the literature on management development in higher education is also grounded on the same premise. There is much cogent analysis and advice on what one could, or should, do in academic environments, but too little on how one should go about doing it. Worse still, this received wisdom invariably exhibits a consensual acceptance of the status quo, a disposition to regard academics as an undifferentiated mass, and a tendency to view the role of managers as confined solely to responding to the needs of the managed. Unsurprisingly, instances of mismanagement and incompetence have multiplied.

A turnaround also requires us to recall that vibrant academic communities such as Harvard and Stanford are characterised by their ability to balance the need for pluralism and individual academic freedom with a shared commitment to the values and success of the institution. It follows that managers must be properly trained professionals. Staff have rightly been critical of managers who have too often been either excessively lax or dumbly aggressive.

Our systemic malaise requires a creative revolution - one that recognises that values are only values if they are voluntarily chosen and that staff commitment cannot be imposed from the top. Such a system should give practical meaning to values such as collegiality - which we claim to cherish - rekindle the lost art of conversation and appreciate that innovation (a process) and creativity (a behaviour) can be taught and applied for everyone's benefit. In short, we need a system that entails that higher education institutions practise what they preach.

Peter McCaffery is vice-principal of Bolton Institute of Higher Education and Winston Churchill fellow. His book, The HE Manager's Handbook: Effective Leadership and Management in Colleges and Universities , will be published by Kogan Page next year.

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