The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities

Chapter Two

Models of University Organisation

2.1. From the 'Platonic Academy' to the 'Commercial Mall'

With the remarkable changes in their function and structure which universities have undergone in recent years Newman's nineteenth-century liberal ideal of the university as a civilising force, embodied in his series of lectures on The Idea of A University (Newman, 1935) has given way to the idea that universities are "environment-serving" (M. Allen, 1988, p.25). They no longer seem 'elitist' institutions charged with the transfer of the values of rationality and intellectual rigour between generations but organisations allocated the role of meeting the needs of a mass audience in a modern industrial economy. This transformation from 'Platonic Academy' to the more urbanised and commercial 'Mall' has profoundly effected the way that recent observers have characterised universities.

Fierce resistance to these changes in purpose and role has come from critics like Halsey (1995) and Eustace (1994) who are keen that universities should continue to be regarded as collegial associations of academics who work together for their mutual benefit. Invariably, such critics believe that the sources of power and authority within this collegial ideal are largely dependent on the degrees of expert power possessed and exercised by individuals or groups within the collective. Ultimately, this produces a system which puts a premium on rational persuasion as a method of influencing others while at the same time affording individuals a great deal of personal autonomy and intellectual freedom. This traditional perception has looked increasingly worn. Mass education, changing student perceptions, and falling resources in real and cash terms, have all made it difficult for academics to avoid the feeling that they are working on a production line. The opening-up of the academic heart-lands, teaching and research, to external scrutiny has profoundly affected the notion that academics have control over what they teach and research. Thus, while the notion of collegiality may continue to exist in the minds of academics, it would be naïve to suggest that it is the principal explanation of or rationale for organisation within universities.

Mass education, external assessment and the state's insistence on greater financial accountability have also led to an increase in the power and authority of central administrations in universities. Increased state surveillance of higher education has also meant that universities have had to rationalise their administrative structures. It may, therefore, be tempting to consider universities as increasingly bureaucratic organisations; it certainly seems clear that management structures in universities have become much more hierarchical in nature, with virtually all universities now having a senior management team with responsibility for both strategic and tactical planning. In many cases this has led in turn to a diminution of the role and authority of academic committees and thus a lessening of the influence which individual academics and departments can bring to bear on decision- and policy-making.

It would, however, be misleading to describe universities as principally bureaucratic organisations. Academics still are largely responsible for academic decisions within universities; the recent trend towards devolution of resource management responsibilities to departmental level has, if anything, seemed to give more management autonomy to academics. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the universities have themselves become more bureaucratic as a matter of management policy and attitudes; much of the bureaucratic pressure does not originate from within universities but from the state's demands for accountability and financial probity.

Becher and Kogan (1992) have tried to combine the ideas of collegiality and bureaucracy to describe the organisation of universities in their study, Process and Structure in Higher Education (1992). Drawing on Becher's work (1989a, 1989b, 1990) on cultures within academic departments, they attempt to show that there are numerous normative influences on what they regard as the four basic structures within universities: the individual; the basic unit (the department); the institution; and the central authority (the State)). Thus, at departmental level, great stress is placed upon "maintaining, and indeed promoting, its (i.e. the department's) own distinctive disciplinary or subject values" (Becher & Kogan 1992, p.12). Departments also see the importance of meeting external needs: "[they] respond to peer-group norms associated with their disciplines" (Becher and Kogan, 1992, p.142). On the other hand, Becher and Kogan recognise that the operative mode, both internally and externally, affects the four constituent parts of university organisations. Hence, in a rather dialectical fashion, they demonstrate that the actions of the State over recent times have had a dramatic effect upon the internal and external normative and operational modes of the individual academic, the basic unit and the institution.

Such an approach is a means of analysing changes in the processes and structures of higher education. Becher and Kogan are able to demonstrate that the centre of influence has moved away from individual academics and basic units to central authorities such as the funding councils and the central management of institutions. This shift, it is argued, has seriously impaired the mission of universities. They note, for example, that there " the deep-seated belief among academics that worthwhile intellectual activity cannot survive in a context in which outside demands begin to exercise a dominating influence over choice and action" (Becher and Kogan, 1992, p.101). This top-down revolution has not only impacted upon the individual and the basic unit. The institution, under pressure for increased efficiency and effectiveness, has, in effect, changed its internal structure. External pressures have created a system in which the central authority has strengthened the operational hand of the university's administration "at the expense of the senior academics and the academically led committee systems" (Becher and Kogan, 1992, p.47). What Becher and Kogan portray is, in essence, the growth of bureaucracy at the expense, fundamentally, of the collegial atmosphere that they believe provides much of the backdrop for quality teaching and research.

2.2 The Entrepreneurial and Adaptive University (EAU)

However, while Becher and Kogan's exposition and critique of the changing nature of universities is useful in explaining what has happened to universities from outside, it is less successful at describing the internal structures and functions of universities. A more technological and commercially driven perspective on universities is to see it in terms of what Davies (1987) describes as the Entrepreneurial and Adaptive University (EAU). An EAU is analogous to a Darwinian success story: an organism that can adapt to changing circumstances and thereby prosper. In other words, the university becomes a series of autonomous departments or franchises which use the university as a holding company, drawing on its name and status. In return, the university is able to top-slice some funds for services that are communal, such as the library and computing services. To some extent, of course, this has already happened in universities. Departments in many universities have been and are being given responsibility for their resources and told that their future well-being will depend primarily on their entrepreneurial abilities. Also, as research funds have become more difficult to find, departments have been forced to become more aggressive in marketing their consultancy or research skills. But, while universities may have some of these characteristics already, the EAU is still, for many of them, a concept for the future. Many departments and many universities, including some of those surveyed in the project described in this report, are simply not geared up either normatively or operationally in the way suggested.

2.3. The University as a Cybernetic System

Much the same charge can be levelled at the idea of the university as a cybernetic system. This perception, by Birnbaum (1988, 1989b) in the United States, sees the university as a organic system aware of its needs and, more importantly, able to learn and self-correct itself rather in the way that a thermostat can control the temperature of a room. For this to be so, information and norms of behaviour and practice must be able to pass freely around the system in order that judgements can be made. It is at this point, as with the EAU, that the cybernetic university begins to seem more like a futuristic hope than a current reality. As Baldridge (1971) in the United States and Walford (1987) in the United kingdom have shown, universities are not without their internal interest groups who compete with each other for resources and power. Similarly, March and Cohen (1979) have demonstrated that decision-making within universities is not necessarily characterised by consensus and the optimal use of information. Using the idea of universities as organised anarchies, they contend rather that universities satisfice rather than optimise decision-making. Thus, even in loosely coupled organisations like universities, participants may fail to pass information on or to act on any information which may become available to them..

2.4 Managerialism and Universities as Corporate Systems

The attractiveness of the concept of universities as corporate enterprises may be due at least in part to the changing nature of the state's contract with universities. Previously, as Shattock (1994) suggests, through quinquennial funding and the close relationship between the Treasury and the then funding council, the UGC, the state felt confident that universities were producing students and research that, while not always contributing directly to economic development, were at least perceived to be adding value to the individual and social wealth of the country. By the early 1980s, however, the state had begun to re-define its contract with higher education. Since then, through developing performance indicators, the introduction of external assessment of teaching and research, and changes to the way universities are funded, the state, through the funding councils, has effectively created a managed market in higher education. To a much greater extent than previously, universities must now compete with each other for resources. Moreover, with the emphasis now being on producing students and research with a direct impact on the well-being of the economy, there is greater pressure upon institutions, departments and individual academics to seek funding for their work from the private sector. The intention, what Kogan (1989) terms managerialism, is to move to a system where goals are more effectively monitored and controlled and where the outputs - students and research - are much more directly targeted:

Managerialism in higher education is based on the assumption that the institution and the system to which it becomes subordinate can specify objectives within which those of the basic units can be subsumed. It further assumes that the ability to determine and control the pursuit of objectives can be distributed hierarchically. Its moral justification is that higher education outcomes should or ought to be determined and judged outside itself and in terms of social rather than intellectual need. (Kogan, 1989, p.74)

Not surprisingly, such changes have had a profound effect upon universities. As Port and Burke (1989) suggest, senior managers, if they have not already done so, will have to adopt many corporate practices:

In future we believe that all HEI's [Higher Education Institutions] which wish to develop and prosper will have to adopt the principles of business planning and that those which fail to plan effectively will find themselves vulnerable to external forces which ultimately threaten their survival. (Port and Burke, 1989, p.127)

Effectively, then, as Scott contends, "...we have a cadre of senior managers drawn from both academic and administrative staffs and expertise has to be developed; 'executive' displaces 'administrative' as the dominant ethos" (Scott, 1993, p.8) . As Miller (1995) has shown in his work on Aston University, these senior managers have taken a top-down approach to managing universities. In this model, while much more responsibility has been devolved to departmental level, the senior managers are very conscious of the need to control and monitor resources. So, while HoDs are being increasingly asked to act as line managers, the major portion of their budget, staffing costs, is still being controlled and monitored from the centre. The centre is also becoming much more proactive in distributing funding according to external notions of success. For example, McVicar (1994) has shown that at Portsmouth University, as research earnings from the research assessment exercise are being partially devolved to departments (the centre still continues to top-slice funds), traditional high status departments like Physics have been supplanted by departments like Psychology which earned significantly more in the research assessment exercise. The process has effectively "...challenged the cultural norms within the university" (McVicar, 1994, p.35).

For individual academics, as Middlehurst (1994a) has demonstrated, the move to managerialism has challenged the traditional notions of what academics should be:

Roles have altered: for example, the Head of Department is now viewed (at least from an institutional perspective) as a manager of financial and human resources and individual academics are finding themselves being channelled, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes overtly, in the direction of teaching or research, rather than both. (Middlehurst,1994a, p.190)

Deprived of academic control, faced with external controls on activities, and with their institutions increasingly concerned with controlling their time and output, Halsey (1992, p.13) argues, such changes have reduced them to "a salaried or even piece-work labourer in the service of an expanding middle class of administrators and technologists".

Managerialism seems an irresistible force in universities today. Universities now no longer resemble the collegial/bureaucratic institutions of old. Nor, if only because information is never value-free, do they resemble more cybernetic models. However, as Rear, the deputy chief executive of the University of Northumbria, has argued, universities cannot ignore their corporate nature:

Scarcity of resources and the complexity and rapidly changing nature of the demands made on the institutions now mean that good management requires different structures and styles from those traditionally associated with academic democracy. Universities now must act fast to secure funding; they must also take hard decisions about priorities and take uncomfortable steps to control costs. A university can no longer delay or avoid hard decisions while professors and departments jockey for position in a divided senate. (Rear,1994, p.15)

Front Page Contents Chapter 3

The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities: a Critical Success Factors Approach, by Francis Greene, Brendan Loughridge and Tom Wilson
British Library Research and Development Department Report 6252 1996
Grant no: RDD/G/254