University managers are largely to blame for five "fatal flaws" that experts say can ruin an academic department.
Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University's Centre for Integral Excellence identified the flaws as weak leadership, blame culture, poor communication, conflict and excessive bureaucracy.
Each can destroy the working ethos and reputation of even the finest departments, they said.
The researchers warn universities that they must deliver top-class "organisational excellence" as well as academic excellence to compete in a global market.
Mark Pupius, director of the centre, said: "One of the things we've learnt is that 85 per cent of the problems are with the organisation, not the people.
"Higher education organisations are very complex, and to manage this complexity they need to take on board good management practice. Offering great academics and a reputation for wonderful research just isn't good enough any more."
The findings are published this month in a report, Embedding Excellence in Higher Education , and will be used as the basis of a series of training courses in the new year.
Mr Pupius said the research, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, looked at developing the use in academia of a business effectiveness model that is already popular among private sector managers.
He added: "As academia becomes more consumer focused, this study comes in response to new student demands for more value for money in their university courses.
"To compete within the global market, higher education institutions are faced with the dilemma of how to offer the best services.
"Students are consumers and demand not only academic excellence but value for money. Universities have to address this, as it's the customer who brings in the money."
The research findings are based on interviews with staff and students in hundreds of university departments, including Sheffield Hallam, Cranfield and the University of Central Lancashire.
Mr Pupius said: "Not all universities will have each of the five negative factors, but these are examples of aspects in departments that need improving.
"The whole action plan originated from our vice-chancellor, Diana Green, when she first came to Sheffield Hallam about eight years ago.
"We wanted to explore the application of the excellence model to enhance the student and staff experience and to enhance organisational effectiveness.
"There is no fix-all solution to solving weaknesses within departments. But by identifying the areas where we might be going wrong, we can stop the rot and start to offer our students the kind of service they need as consumers of education.
"This report presents an opportunity for the sector to be great in all aspects of its working," Mr Pupius said.
HOW TO MANAGE CHANGE
- It is critical to involve all staff in plans as early as possible
- Flexibility, adaptability and patience are needed to support any change process
- It is crucial to get the right balance between focusing on short-term operational issues and long-term strategic change issues
- Staff changes can affect scale and pace of change, particularly when it takes time to recruit and form new management teams
- Initial investment of time and effort in planning will lead to greater effectiveness long term
- Pace of change is emerging as an issue for all institutions. Wide consultation, open communication, training and development can overcome barriers.