"New managerialism" is emerging as a dominant force in British higher education, according to a two-year study into the running of universities.
A team led by Rosemary Deem, professor of education at Bristol University, has conducted interviews with more than 150 senior academics and administrators from 16 universities and held focus group discussions in a bid to understand what is happening.
"New managerialism" usually refers to practices commonplace in the private sector, particularly the imposition of a powerful management body that overrides professional skills and knowledge. It keeps discipline under tight control and is driven by efficiency, external accountability and monitoring, and an emphasis on standards.
Higher education, with declining public funding, the shift from an elite to a mass system, and the increasing reliance on internal and external controls, is a fertile breeding ground for these practices.
"The imposition of new managerialism has been much studied in public services from health to local government and schools but has been little examined in higher education," Professor Deem said.
Her study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found that higher education was perceived to be highly bureaucratic with declining trust and discretion. Complaints about greater workloads, long hours, finance-driven decisions, remote senior management teams and pressure for accountability were common.
A head of a humanities department in a pre-1992 university said: "I think the whole intrusive culture means that people are not left to just get on with it in the way that they were. There is perhaps too much monitoring and too much written reporting which is a bit of a dilemma - being asked to implement something while having misgivings about it."
The research found that manager-academics' lives tended to revolve around long hours packed with meetings, mountains of paperwork and email and the search for additional resources. Research was marginalised and there was little time for reflection. The absence of proper reward structures and the lack of adequate administrative support for heads of departments and deans contributed to workloads. Only one third of the sample had received any formal management training.
"Unlike, for example, a sales manager, academics cannot be told what to do," Professor Deem said. "So a great deal of management time is spent negotiating with individuals about their work. This partly explains why things take so long in higher education."
A maths dean from a post-1992 university said he had learnt to think more corporately. "When I first became dean (faculties) were quite frequently seen as competitors... nowadays we tend to think much more corporately, particularly in terms of the different profitability of the faculties. Department X, for example, in this university is generating a surplus of £2.5 to £3 million every year which we see nothing of because it goes to the centre, but it subsidises the deficits in areas like humanities. We decided some years ago that we were not unhappy with that."
Many respondents found the constant monitoring of targets frustrating. One head of department in a post-1992 university said: "You are expected to deliver as far as the directorate is concerned. So, for example, you hit student targets, generate external income, raise the research profile... And at the same time you know from the troops that some of those things are almost impossible to do given all the resource constraints that have been imposed."
According to Professor Deem, academic and support staff not in management roles say higher education has moved towards new managerialism. However, the situation as described by manager-academics contains evidence of more hybridised forms of management. Unlike in the National Health Service where big organisational changes had to be introduced, universities have tended to develop within existing structures.
Some cultural re-engineering of higher education has clearly been attempted, said Professor Deem.
She said: "While public sector organisations have always been combinations of markets, bureaucracies and networks, the reforms associated with new managerialism have exacerbated the contradictions they contain.
"New managerial cultures may have been grafted on in a piecemeal fashion to existing structures and since this has happened in universities, professional power is being incrementally diluted and displaced by ideological new managerialist reforms."