It is time to close the management/staff divide

UK university leaders might be bullish on the subject of institutional failure but the divide between managers and staff needs serious redress

January 17, 2019
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A couple of weeks ago, in this column, I suggested that the various challenges and changes facing higher education in England would require some hard and unavoidable choices.

The point was swiftly underlined by the now unshackled ex-universities minister Sam Gyimah, who said last week that “if the Augar review [of higher education funding] is consistent with the leaks so far, then we are looking at massive self-harm”.

The point I made was that a fee cut of the order being discussed, which at face value would take £3 billion in funding out of universities each year, would precipitate a domino effect of cuts, with massive retrenchment from non-core activities.

Others, more cynical than I, offered an alternative path: “My concern is that they retrench massively from their core activities and keep non-core, as it’s an easier sell,” tweeted one academic.

“You really think estate investments are going to go *before* staff cuts?” tweeted another.

“Quite simply, it will mean starting to ditch undergraduates, as they become too expensive to teach. Which is a really dark place for a university to be,” replied a third.

But what do those in charge of our universities think the future – both immediate and longer term – holds for their institutions, and in particular their financial sustainability?

This week, we publish the results of the 10th annual survey of UK vice-chancellors conducted by PA Consulting, which confirms some of the anxieties one would expect, but also highlights a surprising bullishness in other areas, such as the likelihood of institutional failure.

More likely than institutions going to the wall, many believe, is a period of mergers and recalibration, with a sense that the Office for Students’ noisy insistence that no institutional bail-outs would be forthcoming was not the end of the story.

That is not to suggest that the university leaders surveyed are blasé about the threats. One warns that the possibility of a substantial fee cut was already resulting in “increased risk aversion and lack of innovation, leading to widespread retrenchment and downsizing”.

Another of the major concerns is “antagonistic relations between leadership teams and their staff”, something that Times Higher Education has tracked assiduously as they have deteriorated in recent years.

As the comments posted on Twitter in response to my earlier column demonstrate, cynicism and mistrust about the choices managers make are now widespread – indeed, on social media it is pretty much the default position.

This is driven by all sorts of things but at least in part by the high levels of professional insecurity and the unmanageable workloads that many university staff now perceive to be their lot.

In our news pages this week, we report on another knock-on effect of this, with a new study showing that large proportions of UK academics continue to work when sick.

We have all done it, so we all know how this plays out. As it happens, I had a terrible cold last week, and as the virus worked itself up to a crescendo, I struggled into work. By lunchtime I knew it was a mistake and went home, and spent the next 36 hours in bed.

This did the trick, and as you read these words I am in Qatar at THE ’s Emerging Economies Summit, spreading understanding among universities (I hope) rather than the cold virus.

Without rest and recuperation, I doubt I would have been able to do my job properly, and I hope the team back in London have not succumbed thanks to the morning I spent sneezing at my desk.

Presenteeism is, one suspects, largely self-driven. No one is suggesting that managers are visiting flu-ridden scholars at their bedside and ordering them back to campus.

But this is a symptom rather than the underlying malaise. If large proportions of staff feel unable to stay in bed when they are sick, that reflects an unhealthy workplace and work culture, and is something that individuals and institutions should seek to remedy.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com 

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Time to treat the malaise

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Reader's comments (1)

The trouble is both the managers and the increasing bureaucracy that surround them. Academics are fed up with ever increasing workloads that is caused by managers that do not know what they are doing and then the ever increasing amount of bureaucrats who are really not adding any real value added and may even be having a negative impact with excessive meetings and extra bureacratic work being forced onto the academics. We have the REF, TEF and now the KEF and this costing a small fortune but creating a nightmare bureaucratic quagmmire that is actaully leading to less time to devote to research and teaching. In other words they are actually making things worse not better.

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