UCU fears for collegiality

December 15, 2006

Union leaders worry that Birmingham restructure heralds loss of academic voice in governance, writes Chloe Stothart

Lecturers' leaders claimed this week that academic collegiality was being eroded as universities restructured. This came after Birmingham University proposed management reforms to improve competitiveness.

Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said staff "must work to increase academic control over their institutions".

She added that the recent vote by Oxford University academics against external members becoming the majority on Oxford's council showed that academics had"little faith in top-down managerialism".

Her comments came as Birmingham proposed a restructure that would, UCU said, reduce the influence of ordinary staff in the institution's running.

The shake-up, which is out for consultation until March, includes replacing 19 schools with four to six colleges whose budgets would be linked to performance against targets such as student recruitment. The changes are intended to make Birmingham more efficient, more responsive to change and more welcoming to interdisciplinary groups.

But Penny Mullen, president of Birmingham's UCU branch, said: "The union is concerned about democracy in the university and about the implication of performance management turning into micro-management."

She fears that unelected members would become a majority on the new college boards. "There will be colleges, but will there be any collegiality? Collegiality is dying in many universities, and some of us fear this is a step in the same direction," Ms Mullen said.

Michael Stirling, Birmingham's vice-chancellor, said school heads may remain, but with a tier of college heads above them. He said the senior management team would find it easier to work with four or six college bosses.

"We are looking to make an even stronger connection between academic disciplines and senior management to break down barriers and have more interdisciplinary research." He added: "I have not been inundated by people saying this is outrageous."

Michael Shattock, a university management expert at the Institute of Education, said some reorganisations cut academic input and increased bureaucracy without raising performance. He said that in big organisations, individual democracy might no longer possible. "But there is a serious question that individual academics are pushed to the periphery by the structures being introduced."

Other controversial restructures include the separation of teaching and research at Keele University proposed in November 2005.

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