Keep staff on board

January 3, 2003

Woe betide the government if it opts to ignore academic opinion in its reforms, says Roger Brown

It seems clear that the government's higher education strategy paper will include among its main features not only a bigger and more sustained effort to bring private funds into higher education, a still greater concentration of research funding and training and even stronger emphasis on widening participation, but also a renewed priority for "teaching excellence", greater institutional collaboration and sharper differentiation between institutions.

There will also be a much more open approach to higher education provision, with fewer institutions apparently meriting the title university, but a much wider range of organisations being able to offer degrees and diplomas.

Yet while there has been some discussion of the potential impact this will have on institutions, students and parents, little consideration appears to have been given to the effect it might have on staff. But this dimension matters.

It matters because as one or two recent failed mergers have shown, the views of staff are crucial in determining what happens to institutions. As soon as the merger between Imperial College London and University College London was announced, a succession of cabinet ministers trooped into the BBC2 Newsnight studio to extol the benefits of creating a "world-class" institution (perhaps to go with those world-class companies created in the 1960s and 1970s, most of which no longer exist). But all this political flimflam was rendered insignificant by the efforts of an admittedly distinguished group of academics.

However, while making the positions of their institutional heads almost untenable, they may have done the sector a favour by reminding institutions that they should try to take their staff with them if their plans are to succeed.

The staff dimension is particularly crucial given that it is by no means clear that the changes envisaged in the strategy paper will be seen as advantageous by staff, and so win their understanding and engagement. It is true that there is talk, in the context of the financial settlement for 2003-04, of pay increases. However, these will be explicitly linked to that dreaded Blairite word "modernisation". What will staff feel about their institutions losing research funding, about closer collaboration with other institutions in research and teaching, about being required to educate students from a wider range of backgrounds and about a greater emphasis on customer satisfaction - all as a means of fighting off competition from further education colleges and private providers?

These trends are changes occurring across the world. Nearly everywhere traditional academic values are being challenged.

As Peter Coaldrake, director of an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study on student expectations, wrote a few years ago: "The conventional ideals of academic work extol individual independence and autonomy underpinned by secure full-time employment, authority derived from academic standing, local control over all academic matters, linkage of research and teaching at the individual level, high status for original research and widespread disdain for what are seen as the lesser tasks of administration and management. Whether or not these ideals actually apply within the day-to-day operations of universities is a source of much debate, but many academic staff believe that they are appropriate objectives."

Coaldrake also made the point that, in general, academic work had "stretched" rather than adapted to meet these pressures. He wrote: "The preference of many universities and individual academics is to allow accumulation and accretion rather than to undertake the more difficult and threatening task of making strategic choices and reconceptualising what it means to be an effective and productive academic."

Will the major reforms that the government plainly intends to make to give market forces a greater hand help us to make these choices or will they make it harder? I think some of us can already guess the answer.

Roger Brown is principal of the Southampton Institute.

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