London Met manager warns against consultation false hope

The project manager who oversaw a huge overhaul of London Metropolitan University’s undergraduate teaching has said that universities need to be careful not to raise false hopes when they promise to “consult” on major decisions.

March 26, 2013

Speaking at the Association of University Administrators annual conference in Edinburgh on 25 March, Christopher Sarchet told a workshop that if an institution consults on a decision, everyone puts forward their view but it may be impossible to accommodate them.

A university has to be prepared to say “we hear what you’re saying, but actually, for the good of the institution or whatever other reason we’re going to do this”, he said.

One audience member said that there was a mismatch between the common understanding of consultation, which involved a decision being altered following feedback, and the way universities used it, which amounted to saying “we want to keep you in the loop, but we’re not revisiting the decision”.

For this academic year, London Met has cut the number of courses it offers by two thirds and switched to a year-long, 30-week module system.

“The issue within London Met at the moment…is that we’ve used a consultative process and a lot of people are saying ‘well, you haven’t really listened’,” Dr Sarchet, who is  programme manager at the post-92 institution.

“We are listening, but for the good of the institution we’re going to have to do this [make the changes],” he added.

During consultations, it was often difficult to decide how much weight to give, for example, mainly negative responses that came from only 10 per cent of the staff.

“There are all sorts of issues around pressure, peer pressure on people [to respond in a certain way],” he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

Hmmm. Although the situation with respect to overbearing management in HE is rather different from that of the NHS where people die directly as a result of the disconnection between practice and management, nevertheless it is a key problem for HE that the many foolish disasters that are brought upon us are often the result of unaccountable management who, like bankers, cover their failures with self-aggrandisement and use the camouflage of reorganisation as a proxy for genuine problem-solving. In my experience, so-called HE managers, particularly since 1992, are inconsequential when it comes to 'adding value' to the student experience and they are often a burden that reduces agility and flair. It is 'front-line' academics who *are* the University. Without academics, managers are nothing; conversely academics can indeed flourish without managers. Though this could be challenging it is realistic to assume that HE could continue in this way whereas few managers, especially in the so-called corporate sectors of HE, would survive for even a day if they were called upon to teach for a living. Of course, as I am frequently reminded by my managers who object to this line of argument, HE is an internal partnership of specialisms and functions ... but it is not an equal partnership. Academics are essential; managers are not. We can live without them; they cannot live without us. Clearly it would be difficult but at least there will be more chance of genuine bottom-up debate and meaningully strategic use of resources based on actual need rather than abstractions. Imperious non-practitioners are really not completely qualified to judge the practical needs of education. They can advise, yes. They can keep the accounts, yes please. But education strategy, curriculum and pedagogy are the 'means of production' through which academics achieve educational goals. That we do not seem to own these means is an affront to our dignity and our expertise. It is alienation. Vice Chancellors and their lieutenants could do with a little more humility. Really they work for us, not the other way around. After all, funding comes to a university for its offer, which at core remains an offer provided by academics, not by senior managers who rarely teach. Why do we allow the organisation to take the cream for their expensive life styles but then simultaneously relinquish control over their behaviour, their attitudes, and as presented in this story, their blatant will-to-dominate? Who gave them that permission? Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, we did. Well, time to take it back. PS: apologies for over-generalisations about 'managers'. Space is limited. There are of course some great managers out there, but they are usually facilitators rather than colonisers such as Mr Sarchet appears to be.