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Is there something rotten in this state of Denmark? Reflections on change and the human side of the HE enterprise

Robin Middlehurst examines the structural and human impact of change in higher education, and asks how future changes can benefit staff, students, and wider society.

Robin Middlehurst is a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe and a former Professor of Higher Education at Kingston University.

Attempting to assess the scale and impact of change in higher education over time, and to guess at the direction of travel for the future from today’s perspective, is a tricky business. Management consultants’ predictions suggest major turbulence ahead: HE faces “a perfect storm”, a “fundamental transformation”, an “impending avalanche”.

Wider changes are also forecast to be cataclysmic: the Fourth Industrial Revolution, global demographic shifts, the impacts of climate change, and so on. Expanding the higher education system, stimulating demand and increasing competition between institutions (all with funding implications) stem from planned and unplanned policy changes initiated 30 years ago. Other developments like Brexit and the rise of populism appear to be issues of the moment, but if analysed more thoroughly, reveal deeper historical and socio-cultural roots.

Evolution or revolution?

Separating evolutionary from revolutionary change to the HE system is important not only for analysis, but also for preparation, planning and action. The 20th century French historian, Ferdinand Braudel presented a geological, three-layered view of historical time: a long, and very slowly evolving environmental time (the longue durée); the medium time of economies, societies, and cultures; and the short time of discrete events (histoire événementielle). Human experience, Braudel suggests, is registered on all three “clocks”, with speed-ups and delays, revealed through a wide range and variety of physical, mental, cultural and social traces.

Policy changes – as well as wider economic, technological and social changes over three decades – have had a range of structural and organisational consequences for the HE system. As well as waves of new universities (the former polytechnics in 1992 and the “new-new” universities post-2004 in England), there have been mergers and widespread “restructuring” within institutions. At an organisational level in the majority of UK institutions, management and governance arrangements have shifted from collegial systems of academic governance to corporate-style executive management.

The Jarratt report in 1985 might have been a signal for such changes, but wider and deeper political ideologies have been more influential over time. These include the adoption of neoliberal principles in relation to the delivery of public services in the UK (and US), the idea that higher education institutions should be run like corporate businesses, and the philosophy that higher education should operate as a market where customers are always right and customer choices, infinite. The arguments in favour of these political and policy directions are couched in terms of multi-level benefits: to tax-payers through efficiency in the use and deployment of resources; to customers and stakeholders through enhancements to educational quality; to UK PLC through research performance improvements (at the expense of international competitors); and to all students in terms of a great university experience, high grades, excellent employment, big salaries.

From system to human scale

Policy and political developments as well as their structural and organisational consequences have been, and continue to be, widely researched and discussed. Less attention, perhaps, has been given to the human impact of changes over time. Media and other analyses of recent events – the bitter pensions dispute, the crisis at the Open University and vice chancellor’s resignation, the issue of free speech and legitimate or illegitimate protest, the gender pay gap – have all prompted a reflection on the consequences of change (and sometimes the lack of it) for people as individuals and groups.

Media focus on the level of senior staff salaries – and gulf between the financial rewards at “the top” compared to those at other staff levels – also raises significant and important questions about the quality and integrity of governance and leadership in higher education, both in individual institutions and collectively through representative bodies. With regard to the collective leadership of universities, it is noteworthy that despite a change in name (from the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals to Universities UK) the organisation remains a membership club for vice chancellors rather than a truly representative body.

The rise of “mission groups” with sectional interests points to the difficulty – if not unwillingness or inability – of UUK to represent all institutions and the full community of universities (not to mention all higher education). The collective body representing ‘governance’ of the HE sector, or a large part of it, the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) is also not representative; its members are the chairs of boards of governors or councils. Nonetheless, policy and regulatory bodies seek to have HE policy implemented and institutions held to account, relying on leaders and governing bodies to deliver those promised benefits. The underpinning philosophies of leadership and governance at the system level appear as top-down, command-and-control (or even master-servant). Unfortunately, these can be mirrored at institutional level where they are often (and not unjustifiably) reviled as “managerialism”. To add to this, leadership is being characterised in public discourse as greedy, arrogant and self-interested, whether warranted in that specific case or not.

At the coal face

There are many pointers to the emotional and behavioural impacts of change on groups of people. Within the higher education workforce there is uncertainty, worry, hurt, and the placards of strikers point to deeper anger, distrust and betrayal. There is also a reported public loss of trust in higher education, politically focused around issues of free speech, value-for-money, and vice chancellors’ pay (with echoes of betrayal of public service principles, public values and ethical standards).

More broadly, the authority and evidence of experts is questioned and ‘elites’ are decried and denigrated. Universities are home to experts, institutions are required to pursue excellence and produce evidence, and graduates are expected to become part of various social and economic elites, so how does all this make people feel? Upset, dislocated, alienated – or proud and determined to resist and counter such beliefs? Either way, there is potential for polarisation of perspectives and positions. Fuelled by social media, emotions can erupt in ferocious outbursts or hate-speak between academics, and between groups of students with different beliefs, experiences and identities in a larger and more diverse higher education system.

There are frameworks that help to explain and understand experiences of change and transition at the psychological and behavioural levels, including the so-called “change curve”, based on Kubler-Ross’s 1960s research on stages of bereavement. The five stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The modern change curve has been adapted and developed over time. In organisational contexts, it is typically framed around a group of emotions identified in three transitional stages: shock and denial; anger and depression; acceptance and integration. Institutions seeking to implement cultural change as part of re-structuring often procure transformational change programmes that aim “to move people through” these stages to a point where the newly-ordered structures are accepted, and new and old cultures integrated.

The change curve may be a useful explanatory tool. However, it doesn’t provide a full picture of the human aspects of change, nor of change in the specific (though not necessarily unique) contexts of higher education today. Deeper impacts are evident in the layers of experience that affect beliefs, values and identities. Further layers of complexity are added when experiences don’t fit with the rhetoric or prevailing narratives (espoused versus actual, where lived experience differs markedly from what is promised and promoted). Such contradictions – things that don’t or can’t work together, don’t add up, or are barriers to progress arising from the hidden rules of the game – make working life hard and unproductive. They can smack of hypocrisy or betrayal of trust. The evidence of contradictions lies everywhere: competition versus collaboration; flat structures versus hierarchies; transparency versus secrecy; cowardice versus courage; and narratives of rationality in the face of apparently irrational – or unacceptable – decisions and behaviours.

Identity, politics

To understand issues of identity, one need only look to academic and professional motivations and aspirations. These include high standards of professionalism, and beliefs about work in universities as a life-vocation to change the world through research and to make a difference to society and individual lives through teaching and the opportunities offered to students. At a collective level and for many within the system, the identity of universities is bound up with particular societal roles and associated rights to institutional autonomy. Academic freedom in teaching and research is also an identity issue, with implications for employment contracts, both actual and psychological. These ideals have fed into governance arrangements (collegial and democratic versions), into regulatory principles (peer review and self-regulation, for example) and more widely into the Nolan Standards of conduct for leadership and governance. But many, if not all, of these ideals are under challenge from inside and outside higher education. Human responses at times of heightened volatility and turbulence include fight or flight, and there is evidence of both at present.

We should not forget that change also has an impact on leaders and managers themselves. While aims and aspirations to reach leadership positions clearly vary, high-minded motivations are evident: being able to deliver positive change and development for individuals and groups, to provide stewardship of people and places, to demonstrate care and concern for the future of an institution while protecting higher education’s wider mission, to make serious and sustained contributions to solving the world’s global problems. As a contributor to senior-level leadership development for many years, I have drawn participants’ attention to “the Futures Project”, a contributory study for the Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership, authored by William Tate and published in 2000. The report offered clear warnings to leaders and managers about what they were likely to face in their future leadership positions. Eighteen years later, this report still speaks directly to the experience of many in senior roles in higher education.

Leading large organisations will become more difficult and burdensome. This will result from growing complexity, excessive data, public expectations, conflicting pressures, social changes, media gaze, criticism, and compliance codes. The inherent attractiveness of leadership in large companies (as well as for holders of public office) may decline as pressures and stresses rise. Pay may compensate.


Almost regardless of how they behave, big corporations, along with government and institutions generally, will lose the public’s respect. Holding large multi-business companies together will become more difficult in the wake of public scepticism and criticism, complexity, regulation and smart competition.

I have painted a gloomy picture of angst arising from changes (and in some cases, lack of change) in higher education over time. But this is only one story and concerns those who feel vulnerable, or are victims, or become cynics through their experiences. There are other hugely positive stories of change in higher education which demonstrate pride, passion, service, success and fulfilment. An evening spent at the now annual THELMA Awards ceremony can be inspirational in seeing the effort and commitment of teams of staff as they compete to be, for example, the Outstanding Student Services Team, Outstanding Library Team or Workplace of the Year. Equally, if one considers the range of public services that higher education delivers on campuses and the dedication of those involved – through hospitals, theatres, museums and community centres – and through student and staff volunteering to multiple deserving causes, there is plenty of cause for pride and celebration. And of course, the UK’s system of higher education has an enviable international reputation at multiple levels.

More than coping

So what is to be done if we want to shift the dial from negative to positive rhetoric and reality, particularly at home, to match and sustain our international reputation?

First, we need to recognise, acknowledge, seek to understand and attend to both positive and negative experiences of change, if institutions and their communities are to prosper (and perform). This includes holding a mirror up to ourselves within the system and listening with due respect to the challenging voices from within and without. Second, we need to focus on our language, behaviours, attitudes and prevailing narratives to address the fractures in the present fabric of the system (particularly in England). Third, we need to think hard about our systems of leadership, management and governance and ask whether they are fit for the future. We have imported structures and underpinning assumptions that in many cases are now outdated. We need to rediscover and renew traditional strengths and embrace new structures that prove valuable in sustaining core purposes. We can draw on the richness of diversity, the power of communities working on shared problems, and the wisdom of crowds.

The immediate future will bring significant new challenges and responsibilities for UK higher education and we will need to harness our collective creativity, energy and passion to build a positive dynamic for current and future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

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