With the managers in charge, autonomy isn't what it used to be

The market, not academic freedom, is what our leaders have in mind when they seek to resist political interference, John Holmwood argues

May 17, 2012

Credit: James Fryer

University leaders have recently spent much time and energy emphasising the need to preserve "institutional autonomy" and to resist the threat of regulation or political interference. The issue was thrust once again into the spotlight by a recent Higher Education Policy Institute report, which warns of a reinforcement of the role of the state in driving change in the devolved jurisdictions. It was covered in Times Higher Education under the headline: "Price of avoiding the market: your freedom" (19 April).

Yet while "autonomy" is a powerful signifier in the academic community, it is also a shifting one. For scholars, autonomy stands for the academic vocation and academic freedom. However, for today's university leaders, it usually stands for something else: the right to manage their university in a higher education market. This isn't the vision of autonomy previously embedded in collegiate organisation or in the idea of academic vocation.

Given that vice-chancellors have declined to characterise their universities except as globally competitive businesses, it is difficult to see how their defence of institutional autonomy is different from that of any other chief executive protecting their market freedom.

The government's plans for higher education in England envisage a culture change: the institutionalisation of the continuous change necessary to maintain market responsiveness.

As one submission to Ferdinand von Prondzynski's review of Scottish higher education governance argued, "universities are large and increasingly complex businesses operating on a global stage - we need to be agile and to take decisions and operate quickly and flexibly".

Members of academic staff at many universities already have some understanding of what this means from the systems of academic planning and performance review being developed across the sector. Just as prospective students are expected to make decisions by consulting Key Information Sets, university departments and other groupings have "key performance indicators". They include applicant numbers and tariff scores, the proportion of students paying overseas fees, National Student Survey and research assessment exercise scores, and research income per full-time equivalent member of staff.

These are converted into individual targets and objectives in annual performance reviews in order to align individual performance with institutional objectives, a process overseen by senior management.

The professional ideology of human resource management is that the relevant characteristics of jobs can be abstracted from their specific substance, so that administrative, service and academic tasks can be subject to the same kind of review and disaggregation into monthly and annual objectives.

All relationships are embedded in systems of hierarchical line management, in which employees betray positive or negative dispositions from the perspective of institutional objectives set by management - "resistance to change" being one such negative attribute. University management rises to claim status as a profession (one central to performance in the global market for higher education) just as the academic vocation is reduced to systems of bureaucratic, hierarchical administration.

Some will suggest that all this has been a feature of higher education over the past decade as the audit culture has infiltrated more and more of academic life. However, what we are witnessing is an unprecedented intensification of previous tendencies - and it is worth reminding ourselves that this intensification of internal regulation of academic staff is taking place even as their managers demand less external regulation of their own activities.

The key performance indicators that inform management decisions are proxies for academic activities. They distort them by converting teaching into an instrumental activity, or by shortening the time frames for research, yet they are self-reproducing because they are convenient and accessible as management devices. Demonstrating their distortion of academic values requires the independence of mind that the new academic culture undermines.

There is nothing insincere about the declarations of senior managers that they are concerned to provide environments in which the best academics can do their best work. However, what is meant by "best" is now aligned with performance indicators that are themselves embedded in the professional practices of managers, not those of academics.

This was also the striking conclusion of a recent report by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Academic Leadership: Changing Conceptions, Identities and Experiences in UK Higher Education. It is a conclusion that university managers seem unwilling to acknowledge.

So the "price of avoiding the market" is not the freedom of academics: it is the freedom of managers. Academic freedom and the pursuit of the academic vocation is something else - and it is not ensured by the market, nor is it defended by our vice-chancellors or managers.

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