Power in partnerships

March 29, 1996

Alison Utley reports on the British Educational Management and Administration Society's conference in Cambridge this week. While the thrust of Government education policy over recent years has been to promote competition between institutions, the number and extent of partnerships between schools, further education colleges and universities has been increasing. This apparent paradox has come under the spotlight in Scotland recently where Strathclyde University researchers are completing a study of the new "quasi market" and the changed relationships it has brought about.

The balance of power between the different players within, for example, an associate relationship between a university and an FE college, was difficult for the researchers to determine accurately but the clear message was that universities dominated despite a rhetoric of equality.

Neither weaker nor stronger members of a union were likely to admit to their position although the balance of power in any partnership agreement was seen as a critical factor in its success. The researchers concluded that despite much of the talk about equality "in almost all partnerships studies we detected inequalities". In particular, the partnerships involving universities and colleges "clearly had hierarchical structures with the university in the dominant position."

From a series of case studies conducted with the Open University the researchers believe two features emerged as important in determining the balance of power. These were the dependency of partners on resources held by other partners and the structural relationship between the partners which often gave one partner administrative power over the other.

Resources in this context were broadly defined to include, alongside people and equipment, factors such as status. "In these days of intensive marketing the status of being the associate college of a university can be highly attractive to a further education college."

In most cases where senior managers were interviewed and asked about the balance of power with their partner institution they would answer that the relationship was characterised by equality.

The researchers remained sceptical of this view however. "It was interesting to see how the rhetoric often conflicts with the realities of the relationships," they conclude. "Decisions were seen as being made on a consensual basis, power was seen as evenly distributed." However, the rhetoric of equality could be "refuted" by the perceptions of those at some distance from the link and also by the structural and operational features of linkages. The researchers conclude that if as partnerships grow, the nature of power within them remains hierarchical they are unlikely ever to become widespread.

Another project, conducted by the Swansea Institute of Higher Education, has been investigating the educational marketplace to discover whether some colleges would fail in this environment. Researcher Robert Brewer said the findings indicated that some quite talented managements were failing due to the overwhelming nature of external circumstances while other more mediocre college managements were surviving because of built-in competitive advantage.

On evidence from case studies in London, Birmingham and South Wales, the researchers conducted a survey which revealed that since incorporation in 1993, further education colleges have ceased to be "stable equilibrium organisations".

Instead they are battling to regain equilibrium in an environment of increasing flux and environmental diversity. And while management styles were having to adapt, the conclusions indicate that colleges are "prisoners of factor conditions, industry structure, rivalry and chance." In some cases, history and chance have defeated sound management.

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