The extent to which universities are run like businesses is the subject of a study aiming to assess the impact of so-called new managerialism in higher education.
New managerialism has been tightening its grip since the 1980s. But just how far it has penetrated inside higher education is still largely unknown.
The research, backed by the Economic and Social Research Council, is led by Rosemary Deem of Lancaster University's department of education research.
She has found job advertisements in The THES quite revealing. Adverts for senior academic posts, for instance, include terms such as "used to introducing commercial thinking", "excellent strategic and financial skills", "naturally authoritative and decisive leader", "commercial acumen", "strong strategic awareness", "creative visionary", "energy, resilience with the ambition to drive the organisation forward".
"The question of what makes a successful university manager is no longer in the control of universities alone," Professor Deem said. It is becoming increasingly common for old and new universities to use head-hunting agencies to fill senior posts.
Such agencies are an unknown quantity because no research has been done on who works for them, the kind of managers they search for, how they search and the networks they are based on.
"Nor do we know the agencies' views about university management head-hunting and how well these match the views and practices inside organisations," Professor Deem said.
"Higher education managers may not only practise new managerialism but come to embrace it or live it," Professor Deem said.
New managerialism seems to provide a cultural solution to an economic problem in western societies, namely the lack of political will to fund public services adequately. More commercial management strategies and governance methods were gradually injected in to the university system with the expansion of student numbers. This shift has been more marked in the new university sector, Professor Deem said.
In old universities the notion of collegiality, where institutions are seen as a scholarly community of equals working in a spirit of mutual intellectual exchange with only the loosest of bureaucracies, does not sit well with new managerialism.
But what, if anything, is wrong with applying the techniques of the commercial world to that of higher education? Professor Deem has identified a number of potential problems: The techniques do not sit easily alongside academic activities * There is evidence that new managerialism has paid scant attention to people working in institutions as opposed to consumers more generally
* It may be biased against women
* Techniques such as devolved resource allocation may cause entrepreneurial individuals to act in their own interests rather than in those of the whole organisation.
"Some university managers may embrace the ideas of new managerialism wholeheartedly while others, perhaps a minority, reject them," Professor Deem said. "This is particularly likely to be so when there is a suspicion that some of the practices advocated have already proved unworkable in the private sector."
There is also the worry that selection methods for managers who must become carriers of new managerialist ideologies may preclude the unconverted.
"Furthermore, in seeking to introduce new managerialist philosophies, some values such as democracy, concern with social justice and involvement in fostering inclusive models of citizenship may be lost," Professor Deem said. "This can only be established through qualitative research."
WHAT IS THE `NEW MANAGERIALISM'?
Professor Deem, of Lancaster University, defines new managerialism as the application of techniques, values and practices derived from the commercial sector to publicly funded institutions.
Professor Deem said new managerialist ideologies usually claim to be based on a search for efficiency and excellence and the notion of continuous improvement.
Typically, the approach will encourage competition between employees. It will use targets, appraisals and market rhetoric.
Practitioners also monitor efficiency and effectiveness through the measurement of outcomes and of employees' performances.
Other features of new managerialism may involve explicit attempts to alter the regimes and cultures of organisations so that they more closely resemble those found in the private sector.
TWO VIEWS ON UNIVERSITY MANAGEMENT
Peter Knight, vice-chancellor, University of Central England Professor Knight describes himself as a cautious managerialist. "Years ago I thought it would be easy to apply management techniques to higher education. But it is far harder to run a university than a business, although universities should be run in a business-like way. We have to have proper financial control, anticipate problems and be accountable for people's livelihoods.
"On the other hand, there are some business techniques that we should tear up into shreds. Mission statements, for instance, are an abject waste of time. We were just as effective before we had one. Market rhetoric is old-fashioned now, and fostering competition between employees is particularly inappropriate in higher education.
"Appraisal, on the other hand, is sensible and desirable as long as it is developmental. And we do set targets because our income depends on it.
"There should be no mistake - changing a culture is extremely difficult but it is a strength of a university that people argue. And don't forget that academics are much more loyal to their subject than to their institution. In a corporation, that would be heresy."
Harry Lahmers, physics lecturer at Huddersfield University Five years ago, Huddersfield began to remodel its governing body to mirror a commercial board of directors. The move, under vice-chancellor Kenneth Durrands, was interpreted by staff as the end of democracy, and a two-year battle began.
It was led by Mr Lahmers: "The idea at the time was that business could run everything, including our universities. The idea was tried on us, and it failed spectacularly.
"The governing body was determined to become akin to a board of directors, and elected representatives of staff and students were thrown out. Our governing body was accountable to no one. Even the secretary of state could not get rid of the governors. We had the largest vote of no confidence in any university this century.
"After an 18-month struggle, we got our elected members back. The chancellor and vice-chancellor left. I am convinced the Huddersfield experience is the reason for the failure of the previous government's attempts to get managerialism into universities."