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      What's happening to our universities?

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            In recent decades, many universities have been moving in the direction of a more hierarchical and centralised structure, with top-down planning and reduced local autonomy for departments. Yet, the management literature over this period has stressed the numerous benefits of flatter organisational structures, decentralisation and local autonomy for sections or departments. What might explain this paradox? And why have academics remained strangely quiet about this, meekly accepting their fate? This proposition paper critically examines the dangers of centralised top-down management, increasingly bureaucratic procedures, teaching to a prescribed formula, and research driven by assessment and performance targets, illustrating these with a number of specific examples. It discusses a number of possible forces driving these worrying developments, and concludes by asking whether academics may be in danger of suffering the fate of the boiled frog.


            Author and article information

            Pluto Journals
            1 March 2016
            : 34
            : 1 ( doiID: 10.1080/prometheus.34.issue-1 )
            : 7-24
            SPRU — Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex, UK
            © 2016 Pluto Journals

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            Computer science,Arts,Social & Behavioral Sciences,Law,History,Economics


            1. I do not attempt to deal here with another recent and worrying trend in academia, namely concern with ‘micro-aggression’ and ‘safe space’. This has reached such a pitch in many universities that the principle of free speech is in danger of being considerably eroded.

            2. Prominent exceptions include Diefenbach (e.g. 2005) and Ginsberg (2011a, 2011b).

            3. ‘In some [universities], the faculty has already surrendered … This seemed to be the upshot of a conference on academic freedom and shared governance held in 2009 by the American Association of University Professors’ (Ginsberg, 2011a, p.2).

            4. In the case of UK universities, a key event was the Jarratt Report (1985), ‘which foisted on the sector the delusion that factory-floor “performance indicators” are entirely suited to a higher-education setting, and which led to the abolition of academic tenure and the concomitant triumph of managerialism in the academy’ (Alderman, 2009; see also Dearlove, 1997). In the US, a key date was 1996, which saw the publication of Renewing the Academic Presidency: Stronger Leadership for Tougher Times by the Association of Governing Boards. This urged university presidents to ‘resist academia's insatiable appetite for the kind of excessive consultation that can bring an institution to a standstill’ (AGB, 1996, p.21).

            5. Woodward (1958) was another early pioneer, showing that, while mass production might benefit from greater centralisation, successful organisations with batch and customised production generally had a flatter organisational structure with greater dispersion of control.

            6. Organisational psychopaths are defined as individuals ‘with no conscience … who are willing to lie and are able to present an extrovert … charming façade in order to gain managerial promotion via a ruthlessly opportunistic and manipulative approach to career advancement’ (Boddy, 2006, p.1462). A case study of an organisational psychopath in academia can be found in Diefenbach (2013, pp.152-55).

            7. In many universities, there has been an emasculation of university senates or congregations, which have lost authority to university councils or boards. Ginsberg (2011a, p.15) cites many specific examples of this process.

            8. Such initiatives may reflect university management's relentless search for ever greater efficiency. Yet, what looks like greater efficiency to central management almost invariably means more effort for staff lower down the organisation.

            9. A survey of 13,000 principal investigators of federally-funded research projects in the US finds that ‘42% of their research time associated with federally-funded projects was spent on meeting requirements rather than conducting active research’, leaving just 58% for active research (Schneider et al., 2014, p.6). Bozeman (2015, p.11) suggests that a quarter of the tuition fee income for students at US universities may go on ‘regulatory compliance’ (see also Ginsberg, 2011b).

            10. Bozeman (2015) also includes definitions of, and useful distinctions between, the related concepts of bureaucratisation, formalisation and red tape.

            11. Management by email does not yet seem to have been much studied in the management literature; there is certainly no evidence to suggest that it might be effective (see Thomas, 2012).

            12. According to the UK Border Agency (2009, p.21), ‘a Sponsor must report if a student misses 10 expected contacts. For students in schools, Further Education (FE) and English Language Colleges this will normally be where the student has missed two weeks of a course without an appropriate explanation. In the Higher Education (HE) sector, where daily registers are not kept we will accept this reporting where the student has missed 10 expected interactions (e.g. Tutorials, submission of coursework etc.)‘. In other words, universities are not expected to put in place a new system for monitoring attendance at each and every lecture, but merely to report if existing procedures indicate a repeated failure, for example, to submit coursework or attend tutorials.

            13. Prior to that, there had been a Teaching Quality Assessment process to evaluate the teaching of departments in UK universities on the basis of set criteria. However, this proved incredibly burdensome, with many person-months of effort being devoted to producing a roomful of written documentation designed more to impress the visiting assessment team than to actually enhance the quality of the teaching delivered. That assessment scheme was eventually abolished. However, in 2015 the UK Government announced their intention to set up a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Although well intentioned, this will doubtless consume vast amounts of bureaucratic effort and encourage new and elaborate forms of game-playing (particularly if the results are used to set the level of fees that individual institutions can charge) but with relatively little benefit to the actual quality of teaching (see the discussion of the Research Excellence Framework in the following section).

            14. Indeed, the work of interdisciplinary researchers may not even be submitted for assessment, pushing them towards more applied research and consultancy.

            15. As with the original research assessment exercise, the initial beneficial effects of adding impact assessment are likely to be much larger than those achieved in subsequent exercises, as diminishing returns set in.

            16. There is some evidence to suggest that the quotation should actually be attributed to Cameron (1963, p.13).

            17. ‘In recent years, two-thirds of the presidential searches conducted by large [US] universities have been directed by professional head hunters’ (Ginsberg, 2011a, p.5).

            18. In US universities, administrative positions grew 10 times faster than tenured faculty positions between 1993 and 2009 (Campos, 2015). Likewise, in UK universities, the number of managers and non-academic professionals has been growing very much faster than the numbers of academic staff, especially in the leading (Russell Group) universities (Wolf and Jenkins, 2015). Ginsberg (2011a, 2011b) attributes many of the problems in today's universities to the dramatic increase in the proportion of administrators.

            19. Psychologists may have something interesting to contribute here. For instance, it may be that a large proportion of academics is of the obedient personality type, while a minority are opportunistic careerists (and a few even organisational psychopaths). There may also be some schizophrenics who criticise managerialist procedures, only to embrace them on promotion to senior positions.

            20. The fact that a British university professor was recently suspended for ‘sighing’ and ‘making ironic comments’ certainly smacks of Big Brother (Matthews, 2014).


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