More than a branch of UKHE plc

January 2, 2004

Diversity, not corporate bureaucracy, is essential in university management, says Ian McNay

Academics committed to developing the government's e-learning strategy have complained about being discouraged by institutional priorities and organisational bureaucracy. The pressure is to research, not to pursue teaching initiatives, and getting "deviant" models of teaching and learning or course organisation recognised is difficult, they say. Reviews of teaching and learning strategies have also found that some institutions constrained what staff wanted to do to meet what they perceived to be the needs of students. My work on academic networking shows that many networks developed despite prescriptive policies that treat institutions as homogenised entities.

Recently, there has been a drift towards universities adopting a management style modelled on corporate bureaucracy. Frank Coffield, professor at the Institute of Education, speaks of the government having 101 initiatives and no strategy. These initiatives have money attached, so heads of cash-strapped institutions become less leaders of autonomous universities and colleges and more branch managers delivering what the directors of UKHE plc have decided. This is reinforced by regulatory bureaucratic mechanisms through the Quality Assurance Agency, the research assessment exercise and so on.

It is then replicated internally. One vice-chancellor told me that there was no time for democratic decision-making if response deadlines were to be met. The staff had to trust him. Did he trust them? "Not those buggers," he said. That loss of trust is a threat to the adaptive, proactive, responsive, inventive higher education sector that the government says it wants.

The corporate bureaucratic culture in universities responds to system controls. By contrast, the collegial enterprise links to a wider world, either the global academy or an audience of diverse learners or employers.

Such a culture struggles to survive under the pressure for conformity with corporate bureaucracy. This encourages a low-risk approach that goes against doing anything different, which may carry high risk in the longer term.

If an experiment fails, a blame culture kicks into action. The lesson learnt is not to do better, but never to do it again. As in government, resource allocation is used as a control device. In one institution I looked at, services for campus-based students and those studying at a distance were allocated the same amount of money. The attitude was that if one exception were made, there would be a flood of other claims. Yet, the cost profile for distance provision is different and borne more at a devolved level.

In several institutions, staff talked of changes "driven from the centre" that failed because of a lack of understanding of the local context. So, a market rhetoric co-existed with a failure to understand the markets served, market processes or even, perhaps, the nature of the product across different academic areas.

One source of the problem may lie in senior staff's lack of confidence - many have not had leadership training. This lack of confidence leads to control strategies where even minor decisions have to go further up the decision-making hierarchy than is efficient.

Subsidiarity is a good principle - decisions are best taken closest to where they have to be implemented. Good leadership creates a framework for self-management. It sets broad aims for the institution but allows diverse means to their interpretation and achievement and, in doing so, recognises the collegiality in teamwork that persists at a devolved level. Leadership and management are distributed, and small, agile, adaptive units are created.

These bring together the new knowledge and the standards set with the entrepreneurial responsiveness to student needs and a changing market. And it may avoid the ivory tower image being displaced by one of a monolithic ziggurat.

Ian McNay is emeritus professor of higher education and management at the University of Greenwich.

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