Managers stick heads in the sand

October 25, 1996

Higher education senior management teams may not be prepared for the significant changes and restructuring they predict, according to a survey of team members.

"They see it's going to happen, but are neither positively planning as to how it should happen, and therefore controlling their own future, nor preparing for its imposition or trying to stop it happening," said Ian McNay, head of the centre for higher education management at Anglia Polytechnic University, who conducted the study.

Professor McNay said managers were also reluctant to accept certain inevitable trends, because many did not want them to take place.

He believed the absence of debate about universities and their place in society meant institutions were letting others decide their future. Vice chancellors were too busy fire fighting to plan strategy and heads of departments often were not given time to prepare before taking over.

"It's this lack of continuity which is the problem in strategic planning and management of universities," Professor McNay said.

The survey asked 15 senior managers from universities and higher education colleges to estimate the likelihood of 40 developments occurring within ten years by rating them between one (low) and ten (high). Twenty statements recorded a mean of more than 6.5 and most were above five.

The results reveal inconsistencies between likely trends and some institutions' current policy.

For example, most agreed that students are more likely to be based at home and commute, rather than live on campus.

However, Professor McNay said the universities of Essex and East Anglia both had vacancies for student residences for the past two years, indicating a lack of forward thinking.

Statements with low scores were also significant. Few thought that the age participation rate, the proportion of young people in full-time provision, would fall well below 1994 levels. But Professor McNay argued that the shift to part-time study will bring the rate down.

They also did not strongly agree that students from United Kingdom ethnic minorities would comprise 25 per cent of the full-time student body.

Professor McNay said the rate will increase, as there are more young people from ethnic minorities, who qualify at a better rate and receive more family support than the white indigenous population.

There was broad support (a score of 7.6) for the idea that institutions will axe marginal programmes and concentrate on select areas. He said universities looking to cut costs should take this type of strategic decision rather than search for early retirement volunteers.

The respondents supported the view that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have separate funding councils for further and higher education and that there will be significant institutional mergers, especially in major conurbations.

Graduate schools, either as separate institutions or separate units within them, were already a reality, but Professor McNay questioned how research done in them would feed into the undergraduate teaching curriculum.

The survey found that most managers did not expect to see more universities. Professor McNay, however, expects the trend to continue, with 15 proposals in the pipeline.

However, the market is probably saturated and electronic communication is making location less important, he said.

The statement with the highest score was "loans will replace grants totally". Most respondents also agreed that casualisation of both academic and service functions will become more prevalent.

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