Why the NHS is a perverse role model

October 18, 1996

I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I read David Albury's piece last week (THES, October 11). It is based on so many misperceptions and inaccuracies, and displays such a defective understanding of what is good practice in modern day personnel management, that one has to question the quality of the research on which it purports to be based.

For example, I was unaware that many of the National Health Service's staff were self-employed. A few very highly-paid consultants may be, but the vast majority of its employees work directly for trusts. Therefore the comparisons with the NHS seem oddly misplaced.

Second, Mr Albury seems not to have grasped how higher education works. The idea that staff simply teach what they want, oblivious to the needs of the system's customers, is wholly without foundation. So too is the idea that staff are in some way the barrier to change.

Over the past decade, academic staff have achieved productivity improvements that probably far outstrip anything achieved by staff in either the NHS or for that matter the Office for Public Management. Workloads have risen, job roles changed, new degrees and courses been developed and launched, old courses re-structured, and so on.

All this has been achieved by academic staff. Far from being a drag on the system, their creativity and skill has supported massive change.

The main personnel problem in higher education, as the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals admits, is that those who work in it are chronically under-rewarded, and many are employed on very insecure terms. As a result, recruitment of staff of the right calibre is increasingly difficult, and morale is slipping.

The not-very-hidden agenda of Mr Albury's proposals is to exacerbate these difficulties by attempting to drive down costs further and reduce everyone except a tiny cadre of favoured managers to the status of casualised labour only subcontractors.

Far from being able to nurture and sustain an intellectually, educationally and vocationally rigorous higher education, these proposals pave the way for low-cost, low-quality provision organised on the basis of a Dutch auction.

Higher education is a people-centred activity, and its prime resource is probably not best managed by treating it in a manner akin to casualised dock labour in the 19th century.

A vibrant profession of world-class knowledge workers is unlikely to be recruited, retained and motivated under these conditions, and without such staff there is no chance of higher education catering for the economic and cultural needs of the next century.

Ewart Keep Hill Street, Warwick.

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