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Towards necessary managerialism?

There has been much debate amongst academics recently on their autonomy and freedom to pursue their research interests in the context of business pressures to deliver certain organisational outcomes. Peter Reilly and Clare Russell from the Institute for Employment Studies, expand.

Changing government funding arrangements may well increase those pressures. Meanwhile, university management is having to consider how it can best align key resources to business objectives. In September, the Scottish Heads of Personnel’s (SHOP) workshop on Academic Productivity and Workforce Planning confronted the role of the academic against this need for careful resource allocation, and the loss of value of the staff student ratio as main determinant of academic workforce productivity given the diversification of academic portfolios.

In business terms is there too much departmental siloism in universities that can no longer be tolerated in the new environment?

In researching current academic workforce planning for this event we discovered that universities seem to be operating both a top down strategic approach and a micro-level analysis of individual workloads. At the strategic level, some university boards are evaluating the costs involved in a particular department or initiative against their contribution to a university’s strategic goals. This enables managers to identify areas or disciplines that: a: are worth expanding for their relatively high strategic value and low cost; b: warrant significant investment because of their considerable strategic value, c: are relatively cheap to exploit, if possessing little strategic value and d: may need to be withdrawn due to their low value and high cost.

Analysis such as this allows informed investment/disinvestment decisions to be made, including where to recruit and where to reduce staff. At the same time, there has been a growing imperative from academics and departments for more equitable workload allocation. Monitoring teaching, research and administrative allocation can help department heads share responsibilities equally and ensure sufficient and manageable workloads. Universities, especially post-92 ones, have developed systems to achieve this, such as the activity analysis spreadsheet used by the University of Salford which assigns credits to specific tasks. Credits are then distributed to each academic based on some assumptions on their teaching or workload.

This is a complex process and its assumptions do not go unchallenged. For example, it is argued that time taken for academic research is not always adequately reflected in numbers of publications, research grants accepted or PhDs supervised. Moreover, it is debatable whether an individual’s research allocation should be determined prospectively or based on the previous year’s outputs. However, the bigger difficultly with this dual planning process is that it may leave a big gap in the operational middle. Whilst the work allocation models can help departments set staffing requirements against defined workloads and strategic positioning can deliver top level direction, do these perspectives meet? Are the broad strategic imperatives in practice sufficiently precise to be translated into a workforce plan and can the work allocation models be used to reassign people as opposed to distribute work? This is a more pressing issue in this period of discontinuous change where planning assumptions (on finance, student numbers, funding, etc) are in flux. One view we heard from an academic registrar was that universities had to move from ‘collegial to a (legitimated) managerial approach’. The speaker was well aware of the negative view academics tend to have of ‘managerialism’ and of HR as agents of the ‘top corridor.’ Nevertheless, the consensus of the SHOP workshop was that there is a need for a more corporate approach to academic productivity that will tend towards greater resourcing flexibility and recognition of the wider range of academic activities beyond the traditional research and teaching. Whilst, these changes can be formally recorded in workforce plans and supported by contractual amendments, the real shift would be cultural. Many institutions lack a managerial culture that truly assesses performance and directs work priorities. Whatever individual discussions do take place, is this debate framed in the context of the needs of the university overall? In business terms is there too much departmental siloism in universities that can no longer be tolerated in the new environment?

It was recognised in the SHOP discussions that managers should be careful in managing change both in how the process is conducted and to avoid a negative impact on academic engagement and performance, reflected in feedback on student experience and research reputation. With few carrots and sticks to drive change, institutions may be better to focus on developing a new psychological contract with academic staff that balances institutional requirements for aligning activity with business need and the staff’s understandable wish for professional autonomy and independence. In these discussions the diversity of academic activity should be acknowledged. They should not be placed within a straightjacket of conformity, allowing the ‘deals’ to be done to reflect the different ways in which staff contribute to organisational success.

Peter Reilly and Clare Russell
Institute for Employment Studies

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