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Rise of the managerial cadre

Robert Welch argues that devolving administrative tasks to academics may be efficient but is damaging to the original purpose of universities.

On the upper storey of the cloister of the Collegium Magus in Cracow, there is a balcony overlooking the quadrangle beneath with its fountain and diagonally-placed squares of black marble.

Leading off this balcony are the treasures of Cracow University, founded in 1364 by Casimir the Great. There are the founding charter; Copernicus's text on the revolution of the planets; and some early Arabic astrolabes. The motto of the university is: Plus Ratio Aut Vis (More reason than force), which says everything that needs to be said about a university. This is what learning is for, the retention of stillness, the keeping open of the possibility for quiet.

Casimir decided to build so that young people, driven by the craving to know, would come and study, and be introduced to the secrets of learning. One of the greatest of these secrets, and it is only known through experience and cannot be communicated abstractly, is that the ardour of the mind as it bends to its tasks of trying to get to the heart of the problem, is conducted in complete and total openness.

There are, in a very real sense, no hierarchies among scholars: all are engaged upon the work in the same mood of fearful and open honesty. Teaching and research, viewed in this way, are one and the same thing. Learning is open-hearted and totally committed study. This kind of study is nothing more or nothing less than research. It is, or should be conducted at all phases of university education. The division between teaching and research is now almost universally accepted, even among academics.

This division is wrong-headed in spite of the protestations of the value-for-money merchants, the research-selectivity apologists, or the quality assessors. We have (almost) completely absorbed this divisive nonsense into our thinking, and it is the cancerous lie that is the root cause of the dismal state of morale among virtually all academic staff in the United Kingdom. Some will put a brave face on it, but patience contrives towards acceptance and consensus, when what is agreed and tolerated is pernicious.

Many university managers work to implement policy among a group of people (academics) who are, and to some degree have to be, lethargic, undynamic, resistant to change. But there is a gap between policy and mission objectives and the academics who are supposed to effect them.

In a complex, late-capitalist economy it seems we need to ensure that resources are carefully managed. So, we need managers. An average university operates with a "central services" budget of say 35 per cent. Look at any university calendar of the 1950s and you will see that the administration was tiny by comparison. It may be that the registrar's office of 1955 was a hugely inefficient operation, but I doubt it.

In a typical "red-brick" university of 1955 the administration comprised 8 per cent of the total staff (I have checked); look at the percentages now. Of course student numbers have vastly increased, but the increase in staffing levels at management level has been much greater, proportionately, than that of all other kinds of staff.

Extra management was needed to manage an expanded university system, but once you create a management cadre it will, inevitably, seek to consolidate itself and expand. And because managers know how to manage (it is what they have been trained for) they expand effectively, at the cost of the other sectors of the system, because, as one is always being told, money is strictly limited and must be managed cost-effectively, so we need more managers. Meanwhile staff-student ratios climb remorselessly, as more and more people are installed in the system to measure efficiency and quality outcomes. In the "traditional" system (vintage 1955) the registrar was accountable to the senate of the university, mostly professors and some lay members. The registrar (now there will be four or five people of this rank) and his colleagues are still in theory accountable to senate, but no one is ever in any real doubt where the power and authority lies - with the managers. They are accountable, not to senate, but, at root, to government and its agencies and councils.

What is missed in all of this is the simple fact: that universities are places of learning, not training; of knowledge, not (however transferable) skills. Nor are they corporations, businesses, or investment opportunities. They could be closer to training institutions, and economic regenerators but for one problem: research, and the view, now less often professed, that the relationship between it and university teaching is ineluctable.

To conduct research, to write, to think carefully, to experiment, to probe, to research, is an utterly absorbing and often fruitless activity. A managerial system cannot really cope with this almost permanent state of intransitivity. Thirty years ago it did not matter, because universities were run by a professoriate, who would mostly be researchers of some achievement, and so would know the patient toil of waiting, from experience.

A managerial cadre cannot understand this vital link between open-hearted thought and the experiences communicated in the lecture theatre. Students do, though, and it is my own experience that the best teachers are also the keenest, readiest, most energetic researchers, and that students clearly recognise this link.

Universities, it was widely-heralded in the 1970s, had to become more accountable, which they did by expanding greatly the numbers of managers and accountants. Managers manage systems, that is, they manage the responsibilities of those in the systems they operate.

In normal operations where managers function they are tested by outcomes: are profits up or down? Simple question, easy answer, clear consequences. In universities the managerial cadre manages those who have the direct responsibility of doing all the work for which universities exist: teaching and research.

The university manager produces nothing; he (or she) does not teach, or research; they manage those who perform these two activities with often little or no understanding of what they involve, nor of how deeply they are interrelated. Not only that, their job is to make academic staff (the workers) accountable to the system they (the managers) implement, and they do this increasingly by devolving most administrative tasks to those who already do all of the teaching and research, and they then measure efficiency as well.

The most perfect illustration of this is the devolution of budgets to faculties and departments. Managers manage, and they go on courses to get them to manage more effectively, and effectiveness means clear definitions of the tasks assigned and transparent (another favourite word) measurements of how they are carried out (performance indicators).

To define tasks clearly and measure outcomes securely you need to delegate. In the academic system the only ones to delegate to are those who already do all the work which gives the managers their raison d'etre: the academic staff. So you delegate to academic staff tasks which they can only ever hope to discharge in a mediocre way: budget management, project planning, economic initiatives, and development strategies.

The greater likelihood is that they will do it badly, because they have not been trained to manage money or unite financial strategy with the long-term needs of research and teaching. Meanwhile in comes a new in-house inspectorate, who ensure that all the rules they have drafted in line with government policy are followed.

So academic staff who manage budgets in the new arrangements have all the danger (in Burke's phrase in Thoughts on the Cause of Our Present Discontents, 1770) and none of the power. The cadre of managers have all the power and none of the danger. A perfect system, but a damaging one.

Robert Welch is professor of English language and literature at the University of Ulster and editor of the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature.

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