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The university leadership challenge – from herding cats to lining up lions

For Paul Greatrix, the more that is asked of universities in terms of regulation, the harder it becomes to maintain the environment that supports academic work.
This article is more than 3 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Animals have regularly played a big part in many different aspects of university life.

This video of cowboys herding cats was from a different age and advertising an IT company (long since absorbed by other companies) and was a staple on the higher education leadership training circuit back in the day (OK, around 2008 to be imprecise):


The context for its use was that one of those phrases you frequently heard about leadership in universities was that managing academics was like herding cats.

I’ve always been unhappy with this suggestion, not just because of the implication that academics were not just cute but a bit dim and wilful but for the way it was often unhelpfully and inappropriately deployed by professional services colleagues when academic staff would not behave as they wished (regardless of the correctness or otherwise of the proposed action). It also invited division between groups of staff, academics and professional services, who are at their best when they are working together for common cause, not mocking each other. Mutual respect rather than name calling please.

This independence of thought and deed displayed by most academics is what makes them exceptionally good at their jobs. Which is why herding them is not only difficult but unwise in terms of creating fantastic education opportunities for students and delivering outstanding research. Rather that freedom to explore, investigate and challenge is fundamental to academic success in both teaching and research. It is why university statutes (see for example these from my University) have clauses which enshrine the rights of academic staff such that they:

shall have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges.

One of the key things university leaders are aiming to do is to provide the resources and the most conducive environment to enable these academic staff to do what they do best for as much time as is feasible.

A question of resources

Although this sounds straightforward it is rather messy. There are fixed points and structures but the balance between the marshalling of activity – within curricula and timetables and in certain spaces – and the provision of resources and time to pursue research – and the autonomy of the academic to do what they see as the right thing highlights the tension at the heart of university leadership

Universities therefore may appear to exist in a state of uneasy equilibrium between semi-anarchy and partial control. Maintaining a balance though is critical – too far one way or other and you risk future success in every aspect of the university’s work. But everything is constantly shifting and this is only the internal landscape – it’s a bit like playing whack-a-mole but on moving ground.

Vice chancellors have an extraordinarily difficult job to do at the best of times but with the current pandemic this has made matters massively challenging indeed. And, as noted here before, everyone across universities is trying to do the right thing. But vice chancellors are not wholly free to do what they wish – the governing body, which determines the VC’s objectives from year to year, will want to be assured the university is operating effectively and efficiently and to ensure (among other things) that their overall financial and stewardship responsibilities are being exercised properly. Governors and vice chancellors have to think beyond survival and consider the university’s success in the long term.

Mission: impossible?

Beyond the institution though if we go up a level we see VCs acting together in mission groups which, although they do represent universities of a similar type, are often more like coalitions of the mildly willing rather than a finely honed team playing as a tightly organised unit. As vice chancellors work within mission groups though they still have to put their institutional interest first (and don’t forget the governing body) on many occasions which often militates against clear collective positions on many issues.

But mission groups are relatively small collections of universities and you can get most of the VCs round one table or on one Zoom call for a meeting. However, when you bring the whole sector together, under the umbrella of Universities UK, it becomes exceptionally difficult to reconcile the divergent interests of very different institutions. Whilst a few genuinely sector-spanning issues such as international staff and student recruitment and visa issues and the current Covid-19 crisis have brought a degree of consensus, these are unusual examples. Even the original sector support package proposal to government was a hard fought compromise within UUK and still individual VCs went out and put their own public spin on it. Likewise even wholly positive stories about universities such as the ‘Made At Uni’ campaign somehow don’t manage to secure the active support of all institutions. This is no criticism of UUK which absolutely doing its best to bring all universities together and to present a united front on many issues but simply a recognition that this is really very difficult to achieve.

UUK is doing a good job in pulling universities together to ensure a common approach to responding to the current pandemic challenge. However, this is very much about supporting a common direction of travel and about universities adopting and adapting shared guidance and dealing in similar ways with directives and guidelines from government and regulators. But, inevitably, every institution is approaching this in their own way.

Keeping it together

I do understand the frustration about universities not acting in a completely co-ordinated sector-wide way on their responses to the pandemic but where we are now is just about as joined up as it gets. The structure of universities and their governing bodies, the operation of university groupings and the nature of the activity all mean that we are going to get commonality at the level of principle but diversity in practice.

Many in government will share this frustration. It is often the case that ministers would very much like to be able to direct university activity in a much more hands on and controlling way. Of course universities are already massively constrained by regulatory frameworks devised by successive governments and, as I have observed here before, it just grows and grows to the point where we are now in a highly over-regulated, disproportionately interventionist and not at all risk-based regulatory environment. The reality of the regulatory regime is that in higher education, over time, there is simply an inexorable growth in the range, impact and cost of regulation on higher education. I have previously produced this really straightforward and very precise (and totally statistically valid) graph to reinforce the point:

A completely made up graph


Every additional regulatory intervention creates new challenges for institutions in responding but also significant additional costs in protecting ourselves from what is often unwarranted external interference. VCs (and Registrars for that matter) are aiming to preserve that wide expanse of savannah where the best education and research happens, they are trying to protect their staff to enable them to deliver their best but also to ensure they are doing what governing bodies want and delivering the university’s strategy in a sustainable way. And all in an ever more regulated environment which means it is more like playing whack-a-mole with a blindfold on a small boat in high seas. The more direction and more constraints which emerge from government and regulators therefore the harder it gets to preserve the conditions for the best academic work and the worse it will be for students’ education and the country’s research output.

Big cats and small ones

All of the massive challenges facing universities right now, financially, regulatory, and pandemically together with the new regulations on student number control and whatever else is coming from the DfE and the OfS will inevitably run the risk of undermining the core strength of universities. Responding to all of this together with coping with the implementation of necessary Coronavirus measures is extraordinarily difficult and the last thing universities want right now therefore is more regulation. However, the strings attached to the latest iteration of the research support package are likely to be considerable for universities – and if we combine that with new guidance on protecting institutions from foreign interference, and some bold new proposals from the Secretary of State for Education to require universities to move to PQA and shift the start of session to January, we suddenly have a potentially significant set of interventions to supplement all the other regulations. Yet more challenges for universities and everyone working in them.

All of this would be hard work at the best of times but it comes at a point where everyone has been working flat out since lockdown and all are now flat out to prepare for the new session within the rapidly evolving government guidance on every aspect of university operations. And all while we are all looking to make major financial savings to survive the economic crisis.

The government research support package is a reasonable and welcome contribution to the financial challenge we are all facing (and underwritten largely by loan rather than grant-based). The big beasts are probably going to accept it, but this is likely to be one of the very few examples of the lions lining up and it takes something rather special from the government ringmaster and some pretty tempting rewards to make it happen.

But then we will be back to reality, the lions will soon move on and the cats will remain unherded. That’s university life in all its rich, diverse, messy and productive glory. Let’s hope the regulation does not continue to expand to constrain it further or both the cats and the lions will struggle.

One response to “The university leadership challenge – from herding cats to lining up lions

  1. This comment is purely made in a personal capacity. In a previous job, I was exasperated by the few academics who wilfully ignored university academic regulations, to the detriment of the students they were teaching or supervising. Isn’t there a duty on everyone to abide by rules that have been agreed for the proper conduct of university business, and to protect student interests? Herd mentality has its uses. Generates a level of immunity even?

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