Staff 'swotted' by managers

April 13, 2007

A draft document reveals the managerialism unions believe is incompatible with university life. Phil Baty reports.

Senior managers at Birmingham University have identified a key "threat" to their strategic goals - their own academics.

This was the conclusion of an analysis by Birmingham's "leadership team" of the university's "strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats" (SWOT) in an early, internal draft of a new human resources strategy.

Academics were top of the list of threats and, although the university has since removed them from the analysis, representatives say that the original document highlights wider concerns across the sector about the general decline of the status of academics as universities become business-oriented.

They said that it reflected a trend where the traditional notion of universities as autonomous communities of scholars was being superseded by corporate practices and "customer" students.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union said:

"The shift towards a market in higher education is inevitably bringing about a consumer culture in universities and the biggest losers will continue to be staff.

She said that academics were "determined to retain the spirit of what a university should be, even in this age of marketisation" and need "a renewed commitment to the principles of higher education as first and foremost a learning environment."

The issue is likely to be a key theme of the first conference of the 120,000-strong UCU at the end of May. A motion from Nottingham Trent University, to be debated, says that "the current managerialist governance culture is... doing irreparable damage to institutional organisational structures".

Another, from Sussex University, says that "current thinking about HE management, ie that the VC must act like a private sector CEO in order to 'manage' the university, is erroneous". It insists that "universities are not businesses" and managerialism is "anathema to the philosophy of higher education".

The Birmingham branch of the UCU said that it was pleased that the latest draft of the university's human resources strategy had dropped the notion that the academics were a threat. But a newsletter from the branch says that the latest version still raises questions about the university's commitment to traditional academic values of autonomy, collegiality and trust.

The branch calculates that while the words "manager" and "management" appear 119 times in the document, "researcher" appears five times, and "teaching" appears six times. The word "academic" appears twice after its removal from the list of threats.

The branch says that it fears that "rather than being treated as self-motivated creative professionals who are experts in their areas" academics are being seen as "work-units to be managed, performance-managed and even micromanaged".

"UCU members who want to work in a leading research and teaching university should be seriously alarmed by it," the newsletter says.

The strategy document, seen by The Times Higher , set "core themes" of the strategy including "performance management; reward; talent management".

It includes a strong emphasis on performance management, and performance-related pay.

A list of ideal aspirations for employees includes: "If I under-perform against my targets I am clear on what the impact would be on my salary, bonus and career development. I know that if I underperform, my salary inclusive of cost of living increases will not progress."

The university said: "Because the university values the expertise and intellect of all its staff, both academic and non-academic, a cross-section of colleagues were part of a consultation process that has led to a draft HR Strategy.

"All members of staff were invited to participate in a series of discussion groups to determine the themes of the draft HR Strategy... 150 took part.

"In addition, heads of school, senior academic managers and the campus unions were consulted prior to the publication of the draft for the second stage of consultation, which is now taking place within the university.

"This strategy will enable the university to achieve its ambitions. As the consultation process shows, we believe that engaging in constructive discussion with staff will enhance the draft HR Strategy. That discussion is best held internally within the university. The full strategy will be published later this year."

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