Balancing the deck

From ‘personality’ vice chancellors, to faltering governance structures, senior leadership teams in universities have plenty of internal challenges. However, balancing the team based on an honest appraisal of strengths and weaknesses will likely provide a solid foundation to build on.

The challenges facing universities in the UK are increasingly well-understood and need not be laboured here – but are existing university management structures fit for purpose, given the demands of a highly complicated and volatile landscape?

If you buy the argument that university managers are ‘not up to the job’ it is not hard to find examples of HEIs which have evolved in an historically cash rich environment; with limited pressure to compete for students and whose status is as much a consequence of academic standing rather than business and organisational acumen.

It is also easy to find governance structures and a cultural tendency for debate to be favoured over hard decision-making. Experience shows there are plenty of HEIs that are in the upper quartile of the key rankings that carry these features (and sometimes, unfortunately the associated hubris) that can ill afford to continue operating in this way.

An alternative view is that such criticisms are overblown caricatures. Universities have always been autonomous organisations with a distinctively federated system of governance and decision-making reflective of their mission, ethos and character. They are learning to evolve as does any organisation operating in a regulated environment.

Following that argument, the idea that HEIs are run by ‘out of touch’ academics is a nonsense, and it’s inevitable that different HEIs are responding at different speeds and with differing levels of effectiveness.

Play the cards you are dealt

What really matters is how individual institutions deal with their own situation – ‘playing with the cards that you are dealt’. UK HEIs are a heterogeneous community; the massification of provision has seen to that. We don’t have a sector, we have an HE system, populated by diverse institutions that are simultaneously competing and collaborating whilst seeking to carve out a distinctive mission. And certainly one, if not the defining strengths (and certainly when compared to that of any other nation) of UK HE is very richness of this diversity.

But how effective are the responses being adopted by individual institutions? One of the key issues that shapes the answer to this question is the utility (for which read: effectiveness) or otherwise of the institution’s governance structures and the personal style of the vice chancellor.

The fires of managerialism

There is a common perception that the need to react and indeed be ever more proactive feeds the fires of ‘managerialism’ within institutions – that it drives unwarranted centralisation, eroding in the process one of the key defining virtues of UK HE; that of academic self governance, associated consensual decision making and the culture that goes with it. Choose any edition of THE, turn to the back page, and you can enjoy the latest satirical reflections on just that theme.

Striking a balance

How institutions address and balance personal and collective accountability matters a great deal in the emerging new landscape. In some universities we see the rise of the ‘personality’ vice chancellor whose visibility, media pro-activity and personal levels of PR are designed to shine a light on the achievements of their institution.

In others we see tensions arise as governing bodies seek to exert increased levels of oversight over all aspects of the university’s ‘business’, including those core activities of learning, teaching and research.

The greater appetite of commercially experienced non-executive members of boards and courts to challenge the direction set by university executives is an under-reported development in what for many HEIs has historically been a staid relationship. Born out of non-exec’s own experiences in the commercial world (and not least the failures of corporate governance in the financial services sector), I suspect we will see a lot more of this in the future. Given how high the stakes are for individual universities and the collective system, these questions should dominate the sector’s own internal policy thinking over the next few years.

What is clear is that no single element in isolation – or single leader – can ensure success without a senior team working in close collaboration. Being open to argument but also clearly focused on delivery when it matters and taking personal and collective responsibility for doing so. Not just playing the cards you are dealt, but making sure you’ve got a balanced deck. How healthy is your senior team?

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