This article is more than 6 years old

Time for a review of university management and governance?

With university governance and leadership firmly in the firing line, Tom Bailey looks at the government-backed reforms that led to the current state of affairs.
This article is more than 6 years old

Tom is a Strategic Manager at Imperial College London

There is widespread academic, student, government and press dissatisfaction with English HE, including management and governance. In a recent blog, Mark Leach and Charles Heymann set out their agenda of change for moving UK HE on from its current malaise.

They recommended a number of changes to how universities are managed and governed: opening up remuneration bodies; joint democratic participation in leadership and management; employee ownership; and the establishment of cooperative social enterprises.

Sonia Sodha’s recent leader for the Observer was another example, with Sonia arguing ‘that there is something amiss in the way of our universities are run’ and calling for ‘universities to reform university governance and embrace radical financial transparency’. Given the recent calls for change, I looked back at the origins of the current model of UK HE management and governance. The radical reform agenda being proposed for the UK HE sector is, I think unlikely to materialise, at least under the current government.

Back to Jarratt

The fundamentals of the status quo of UK university management and governance are rooted in the reforms that followed from the last major review of them, the 1985 Jarratt Report. That report – described by Paul Greatrix a few years ago on Wonkhe – was written by a committee appointed in April 1984 to “examine whether management structures and systems were effective in ensuring that decisions are fully informed, that optimum value is obtained from the use of resources, that policy objectives are clear, and that accountabilities are clear and monitored.” Nominally a creation of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (Universities UK’s predecessor), it was established under government pressure, and the panel included Robin Ibbs, a banker who was Thatcher’s adviser on government efficiency.

The review took place in the context of considerable cross-party political concern about how universities were run, allocated funding and made decisions. In 1981, the Thatcher government imposed cuts of around 17% across the HE system. The Jarratt report summarised the then widespread political view that faced by the deep 1981 cuts, “the management structure of some universities found difficulty in responding except by a policy which was a mixture of ‘equal misery’ and ‘random misery’.” The report criticised the “tradition of self-government” for being “used to delay or block difficult but necessary decisions”, arguing that universities had to “have the necessary structure to effect adequate rates of change and the will to produce it”. It warned of the “costs both in money and of time involved in maintaining elaborate committee systems”, a frustration that Wonkhe readers may sympathise with.

Less “random misery”

The Jarratt report recommended a “much more active role” for university councils and argued that “the tradition of Vice-Chancellors being scholars first and acting as a chairman of the Senate carrying out its will, rather than leading it strongly, is changing.” It spoke of “the shift to the style of chief executive, bearing the responsibility for leadership and more effective management of the institution” as “emerging and… likely to be all the more necessary for the future.”

The recommendations were not implemented immediately. Instead, in an act of considerable defiance/naivety unimaginable of HEFCE or OFS, the University Grants Committee (UGC) sent universities a circular in July 1985 which set out the Jarratt Report’s recommendations before stating that the UGC had “not yet discussed the Jarratt report in detail or come to any general conclusions on its recommendations.” Hardly a clear call for action, and not a regulatory choice missed by those in power: a Treasury civil servant wrote to the Department for Education and Science, complaining that “there was little in the circular to suggest that ‘none’ would be an unacceptable response” to the Jarratt report, and asked “is there not a case for trying to give the universities a rather stronger stimulus to address the Jarratt recommendations, with an indication that results are expected?”

The government subsequently threatened further cuts – in a repeat of 1981 – unless HE reforms were implemented, including the proposed Jarratt reforms. A second, more instructive, circular was sent by UGC, and in 1987 the Secretary of State could be told that the overwhelming majority of institutions had implemented the changes. Academic committees saw their wings clipped – instead, there was the emergence of elements that remain recognisable in the system we have today: stronger central management, KPIs, strategic plans, powerful councils and vice chancellors acting as chief executives.

A different sector?

The current government is unlikely to impose major reform to HE management and governance, given its own confused stance on higher education. This government in particular and the political right more broadly is regularly contorted on the status quo. The government opens the doors to new, for-profit providers and praises competition, but then recoils at universities either operating like businesses or responding to the new market pressures, whether that is by increasing spending on marketing, charging £9k fees across the board or escalating senior management pay.

The government wants competition and business efficiency but not high pay; it supports a market for students, but is frustrated at the lack of price differentiation which it looks set to impose after the current review; it calls for students to be at to be at the heart of the system, but does not invite them to sit on the panel of the funding review.

The government wants to have its cake and eat it; it does not have a clear alternative vision for how universities should be run. Whatever its frustrations with vice chancellors, given its wider culture war with academics and students, does the government want democratisation of UK HE? Its actions suggest continuity of reform: the government’s latest announcement, the introduction of a subject level TEF, is yet another attempt to create a regulated market, a further crack at unleashing market forces. The current model of university management and governance may continue to come in for criticism, but I suspect modest changes, focused on senior management pay, are most likely to be imposed by this government.

I think it is unlikely that councils or vice chancellors will give back power voluntarily, or that the Treasury/government would allow unapproved changes to be undertaken by universities themselves to move away from the New Public Management model. The voices calling for reform may yet have their time: a return to the system of the 1980s, with greater control in the hands of academics, students and administrators seems far more plausible under a Corbyn government.

4 responses to “Time for a review of university management and governance?

  1. Thanks- very interesting. It does seem that the current set of ideas have run their course; I wonder whether we’re closer to a tipping point, and to a sudden shift in management styles, than the article suggests. Certainly the current UCU strike has, as one of its root causes, the sense that universities have slipped far too far from academic control.

  2. Hmm- I would argue that the problem is that there is still too much ‘academic’ control in that most senior management teams are still largely academic staff who often are out of touch with how things have changed and rely on their own memories of being a student or a junior member of staff. Too often there is a belief that being ‘business like’ simply involves cutting costs rather than doing what really successful business man, and women, do which is to innovate, inspire and deliver real benefits for their staff and customers’.

    Think HE’s current problems are not about the management structures but the quality of leadership

  3. I think there is “cakeism” on all sides: institutions, govt, academics and students themselves. I think the new settlement which Mark Leach laid out can move the story on. And if that means fewer pointless committee meetings, it’s a win for everyone!

  4. Having experienced university administration pre- and post Jarratt, for me the practical effect was the change from, as the Registrar in 1981 said ‘do nothing without consulting the Senate, even removing the mushroooms from the lawn’ to a much more active role for the local worthies who constituted the Council. Also, the VC, a learned, respected, laid back law professor who was considered as ‘primus inter pares’ retired and was replaced by a rather more dynamic man who was clearly the CEO. A new Jarrattophile Academic Registrar was appointed by him with a clear mandate to managerialism the administration. We could now decide to remove the mushrooms with impunity, unafraid of the protests of the professor of botany. To be fair, the most successful qualified Council member was a local businessman whose opinion was that Jarratt was years out of date. As David notes, being businesslike is not just about cutting costs, etc. This late Council member would have agreed.

    But we were forced to follow the mantra. A combination of the removal of tenure for new appointments and promotions after 1989 and Jarratt sent universities on an increasingly managerial track which has, in my opinion, contributed to the decline of collegiality, of decisions of broadly-based consensus, not necessarily by consensus. If you are not persuaded, see the rows over remuneration committees, pensions, the student contract, and even car parking charges. Of course, never accepting that I was a ‘manager’ in the restricted view of that term was a bit of a struggle, not least for those whose edicts I regularly challenged, and I left U.K. administration at my second university for pastures new in 2002. (Sigh of relief at that establishment…). The countries in which I have worked since then still maintain the academic authority over the mushrooms, and we manage to survive through old-fashioned practices like consultation, debate, bringing in expert opinion. We do not subscribe to the view that academics have nothing much to offer outside their specialisms, while welcoming input from people with different backgrounds.

    But, nostalgia aside, like as I am sure most WonkHE readers are, I remain interested in the topic, and I think a full and informed debate needs to take place within the academic community as to whether we have gone too far with managerialism. Various suggestions, including maybe runnng universities on the John Lewis model, previously touted as something for consideration.

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