Why I...believe Gordon Brown is right to criticise university management

November 29, 2002

University top dogs have been scolded. Barbara Woodhouse-like fingers are being pointed at vice-chancellors, who stand accused of bad planning and bad management. Some will counterattack by pointing towards others further down the line. "I direct, they manage." Such a view will only underline the claim that they are out of touch and are in danger of losing control. Not because they have tried and failed but because they were never properly in touch in the first place.

The reason is that university management is akin to Frankenstein's creation: a lumbering wayward monster made up of ill-fitting parts, whose heart is permanently on the verge of being broken by the egotism of individuals. For, despite a plethora of theories and training sessions, perceptions and practices of management in different sections of the university are inconsistent, with little or no intervention from the top. Methods differ wildly from the absurdly autocratic to the detached democratic. And the seductive idea of management by consensus can easily lead to the inevitable abdication of duty. Meanwhile, personal styles include managing by walking about, managing by saying no nicely (sometimes) and the favourite, managing by going away a lot.

The organisation of academic departments is prone to a specific problem. Teaching and research staff are channelled into narrow areas of interest to satisfy quality assessment. Administrative duties are scattered randomly between academic and support staff, so that managerial responsibility is spread thinly, leaving dangerous gaps in expertise. Heads of departments may be accomplished at attracting good researchers but only dimly aware of equal-pay legislation; department administrators may be fiends with financial management but hopeless at human-resource issues; laboratory superintendents may be brilliant with Bunsen burners but dismal with disabilities.

Many staff who undertake administrative functions have been forced to accept trickle-down managerial responsibilities. Regrettably, this ever-growing cohort of middle managers includes a number who are too frantic to take part in training courses or too demoralised to raise the enthusiasm to attend. This begs a number of questions about how roles are defined and individuals rewarded. There is a tendency to deny entitlement to the status of manager for fear of encouraging an expectation of promotion.

A glance at the gender breakdown of those who manage research projects reveals a shocking inequality in pay. Those who manage porters' lodges, college kitchens or campus grounds are unlikely to revel in the title of manager. Meanwhile, those who love titles will have gone a step further. For them, nothing so bureaucratic. They will have become directors, vice-chancellors, principals or professors. The last of these should take note that one of the dictionary definitions of "to profess" is "to pretend". Some professors - and vice-chancellors - might care to consider whether their management abilities do indeed amount to pretence and take advantage of courses offered. And those who enjoy the title could cast an eye on definitions too, for the noun manager is also curiously at odds with its sibling verb. To be a "manager" might imply dynamism, control and superiority. But "to manage", when shifting its context slightly, has elements of desperation.

Meanwhile, for the most part, vice-chancellors remain as remote from their constituents as prime ministers from their firefighters. Only when the smoke of accumulated dissent starts to seep under the doors of their ivory towers will they understand the value of their staff, how much they need them and how crucial are the tools of good management.

Valerie Atkinson is a department administrator at the University of York

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