Lecturers and researchers must 'align with strategic needs of their institution', not merely with their discipline, says leadership committee. John Gill reports. Academics must develop loyalties to their institutions as well as their disciplines as part of a wide cultural change in higher education, a high-level committee has said.
A report from the Leadership, Governance and Management Strategic Committee of the Higher Education Funding Council for England says that the sector is "on the cusp of substantial and complex change" and calls for staff to adopt new attitudes.
It says: "Staff will need to be more aware of and aligned to the strategic needs of the higher education institution.
"Academics' goals are often related to their discipline rather than their institution, and they will need to develop institutional loyalties in addition to discipline loyalties."
It also warns universities not to be "afraid" of the language and culture of business, and says that managerial leadership is not valued or rewarded highly enough.
Steve Egan, deputy chief executive of Hefce, said the committee was raising points for discussion rather than lecturing universities and staff on how they should operate.
He said: "Academic loyalties and commitment to students are still strong, and they need to be, but without a successful institution you can't do the other two things."
He said he believed that most academics accepted the need for institutions to be "business-like", and described management as "an enabling mechanism, not a controlling mechanism".
Steve Igoe, pro vice-chancellor (resources) at Edge Hill University and a member of the committee, said the advent of variable fees, and the increased competitiveness of the sector, had forced these issues to the fore.
He said: "There must continue to be a cultural shift placing the student at the centre of what universities are trying to do.
"Universities are large, complex businesses and in that context should be able to exhibit the best practices that one would see in any organisation, public or private.
"Indeed, some of the most successful private companies exhibit many of the characteristics of a university, in particular a collegial approach to decision-making and an alignment placing the customer at the centre of the organisation's strategy," said Mr Igoe.
But the points raised by the committee were less well received by some academics.
Tom Hickey, a philosophy lecturer at Brighton University, said: "This is a crystal-clear example of what could be called corporate debasement of the academy and its role.
"It is not just the tail but the dirty tip of the tail wagging the dog. I'm certain most academics will treat this with the contempt it deserves."
Mr Hickey agreed that staff should not be "afraid" of the language of business but said he did not believe it should be imported into the academy.
"If they're implying we should embrace such language as academics, that's a completely different matter," he said.
Another critic, Charles Owen, a senior lecturer in English language at Birmingham University, said the language of business had "colonised universities in an unacceptable and divisive way".
Mr Owen said: "The thesis that we shouldn't be afraid of that language is highly presumptuous. Many people dislike it, but that's a quite different matter because it's often hollow and has all sorts of presuppositions built into it that academics don't accept."
He also objected to the call for a change in staff loyalties.
"Very few of us went into academic life to be loyal to a particular institution, and that is as it should be. We recognise that if the institution succeeds then everyone gains, but our primary duty is to our students and our discipline," he said.
Pamela Barrett, executive adviser at KPMG's Higher Education Advisory Service, said that while it was important to recognise that universities were not businesses, they had to develop a professional approach in areas such as recruitment, marketing and fundraising.
Commenting on the significance of staff loyalties, she said: "It is essential that universities present themselves in a coherent way, having a vision that makes sense to students. It's difficult to develop that if you have, in effect, lots of different groups of self-employed people."
David Barnes, head of education for business advisers Grant Thornton, said: "It is dangerous to try to separate academics from business; they should be totally intertwined."