University managerialism ‘can boost academic freedom’

Choice between overarching managers and collegiality in universities a false choice, study suggests

August 21, 2015
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Overlord: the study accepted that staff bonded over a shared hatred of managers

For decades, scholars have feared that their power within universities has dwindled, with important decisions instead being taken by ever more overweening managers.

But this may not actually be so, according to a study of institutions across Europe that argues that this is a false dichotomy and that professional managers can actually boost collegiality among scholars.  

Across 26 universities, those with high levels of control by managers were also more likely to be collegial places to work, the paper found.  

Co-author Giulio Marini, a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Research in Higher Education Policies in Portugal, said that while managers dealt with setting rules and making strategic decisions, scholars could still have autonomy over how to achieve these aims.

“Me as a scholar, I must have autonomy in order to meet these goals. You can’t tell me how to do good research and teaching,” he said.

“We may welcome more managerialism under certain conditions,” he said. However, he cautioned: “Trust is something that can be destroyed or cultivated by managerialism.”

One of the main conclusions of the paper is that, for all the predictions that a US-style managerial culture would subsume European universities, “collegialism is not disappearing, and probably will not disappear”, Dr Marini said.

But there is a more cynical explanation as to why the two organisational styles might happily co-exist – nothing gets academics working together better than a shared hatred of management, as Dr Marini acknowledged.

“The more you are managerial as a president or a rector, then the more the base of the university will react…in a defensive stance or a ‘playing the game’ stance,” he said, referring to an attitude of meeting targets to achieve advancement. “Scholars will not obey like soldiers,” he said.

Mike Shattock, visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education, said he accepted that managerialism could “stimulate an increase of collegiality at the lower levels as a reaction to it. When managerialism penetrates downwards into and through the academic heartlands, however, it changes the academic culture fundamentally.”

David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, said that in the vast majority of universities, managers now run “the big and important stuff like budgets, marketing…strategic direction” while collegial decisions still steer lower-level academic units.

Only in the very highest ranked institutions globally, such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, are the “academic lunatics” still “in charge of the asylum”, he added, because “academics at these elites can’t be treated badly given that they are internationally mobile”.

The paper, “How does collegiality survive managerially led universities? Evidence from a European survey”, was authored by Dr Marini and Emanuela Reale, a senior researcher at the Research Institute on Sustainable Economic Growth in Italy.

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Print headline: Managerialism may aid freedom

Reader's comments (1)

'Strategic direction' involves the decision to make unadvertised appointments, (as recently in the Cambridge Music faculty) and to sack staff and close departments.

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