The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities

Chapter Three

The Role of Academic Heads of Departments

3.1 The Changing Role of Academic Heads of Department

The changes in higher education referred to in Chapter Two are profoundly affecting the role and function of the academic Head of Department (HoD). Halsey and Trow (1971) argued that the role of the HoD was to provide academic leadership to his or her colleagues and that, functionally, the HoD was responsible for managing the budget and syllabus, defending and promoting the department, and giving research guidance to younger colleagues (Halsey and Trow, 1971). But, according to Halsey and Trow, these latter duties, which may be onerous, should not "distract him from his central interests" (p. 376). These "central interests" can be taken to mean teaching and research. However, even here, it is clear from the work of Startup (1976), Becher (1989a) and Becher and Kogan (1992) that what matters above all else is the research status of the HoDs because, traditionally, academic HoDs have not been elected or appointed to the office primarily on the basis of their ability to administrate, manage, or teach but on their research standing. As Becher shows in his study of academic departmental cultures, Academic Tribes and Territories (1992), academics have been judged almost exclusively by their success in research: "Credit is earned through the publication of one's research findings; excellence in teaching counts for little towards recognition by established colleagues in the same field" (p. 53). This has had significant consequences for the role of the HoD. HoDs have owed their authority to their status as academic leaders in their chosen field, and, customarily, the emphasis has been on a light management steering of the department to allow other academics in the department the intellectual freedom and autonomy to effectively pursue their own academic and research ends. As Handy suggests in Understanding Organizations (1993):

The stereotype of the professor is of a person-oriented man operating in a role culture. He does what he has to, teaches what he must, in order to retain his position in that organization. But essentially he regards the organization as a base on which he can build his own career, carry out his own interests, all of which may indirectly add interest to the organization although that would not be the point in doing them. (Handy, 1985, p.196)

In recent years it is has become clear that the primacy of this perception of the senior academic and the role of the HoD has been challenged. Financial, government and institutional pressures have all made the position much more demanding, requiring HoDs to have a much greater ability to manage effectively. One reason for this change, according to Tapper & Slater (1995) and Brennan & Shah (1994), is the desire of the government to make higher education more accountable. Partly, this has been due to government scepticism in the early 1980's about the prevailing collegial culture within universities and the extent to which it prevented them from being run as effectively as they could be. Given that universities are often organisations with huge turnovers running into many millions, the government, suspicious of any 'not-for-profit' organization, felt that universities needed to be reformed. It was a choice, to use Weber's words from another context, "...between bureaucracy and dilettantism in the field of administration" (Weber, 1989, p.17).

Aware of the government's concerns, the CVCP and the then funding councils commissioned reports such as that by Jarratt with a view to improving the accountability of universities. Jarrratt found that "...planning and resource allocation tend to be incremental rather than dynamic" (Jarratt,1985, p.22). This it blamed upon:

... the strong forces within each university. These include large and powerful academic departments together with individual academics who sometimes see their academic discipline as more important than the long-term well-being of the university which houses them. We stress that in our view universities are first and foremost corporate enterprises to which subsidiary units and individual academics are responsible and accountable. Failure to recognise this will weaken the institution and undermine its long-term viability. (Jarratt, 1985, p. 22)

This threat to the traditional authority and power of academic departments was crucially backed up by a recommendation that academic HoDs should be appointed or elected on grounds other than expertise in research:

Ideally the individual should be both a manager and an academic leader. However, the most eminent and able academic, as judged by the standards of research or teaching, is not always the person most fitted to manage a department. We take the view that it is preferable to retain the two functions in one person. In circumstances where this is impracticable, we believe the Head of Department must possess the requisite managerial capabilities and that he should be encouraged to delegate some part of the responsibility for academic leadership to others. (Jarratt, 1985, p.28)

The conditions under which teaching and research are conducted have also come under scrutiny. Academic departments are for the first time being audited on the quality of their teaching, while research has been monitored through a series of research assessment exercises designed to reward departments for the quality of their research output. Furthermore, research is increasingly being funded by the research councils on the basis of the contribution which the research is likely to make to the satisfaction of national needs. Essentially, this has meant that, increasingly, research funding is likely to be allocated in accordance with the perceived economic needs of the country. Concurrently, the Office of Science and Technology has been moved into the Department of Trade and Industry and the Departments of Education and Employment have been merged.

In the light of persistent demands for efficiency gains institutions themselves have also increased pressure on HoDs to become more managerial. With the increased devolution of resources and responsibility for research and teaching performance, institutions have demanded that departmental resources are managed more effectively. The University of Brighton, for example, suggests that "Heads of Departments are responsible for both academic leadership and efficient management of their departments, and have clearly defined responsibilities for staff management and staff development" (HEQC,1993, appendix) while Heads of Department at Aston University "are responsible for the day-to-day operation of their departments or divisions, for academic and financial planning and for the implementation of University policy in the department" (HEQC,1994, appendix).

All of these pressures have inevitably led to changes in the role and function of academic HoDs. Mathias (1991), commenting on a conference held at Southampton University, found that HoDs there felt that "...what was seemingly once a position of pre-eminence and leadership in scholarship - an almost monarchic role - has now become more that of a harassed line manager, financial opportunist and public relations executive" (p. 65). Gmelch & Burns (1994) in the United States and Middlehurst (1994a) in the United Kingdom found that, having to work long hours, HoDs are suffering from stress and ill-health. Brook & Davies (1994) and Al-Karni (1995) have also found that the rapid pace of change in universities has left HoDs uncertain as to what their role is and where they fit into the institutional structure.

3.2. Preparing Heads of Department for Change

Outside the United Kingdom a number of studies have addressed ways of assisting HoDs to prepare themselves for the changes in role and function referred to above. In the United States Falk (1979), Bennett (1982, 1983), Bennett & Fuguli (1990) and Tucker (1993) have described the roles that HoDs may fill and their attendant responsibilities. In Canada, Thibault (1989), at the University of Quebec, examined the various training programmes that have been run to train HoDs to meet some of the challenges they face. In Australia, Moses (1985), Moses & Roe (1989, 1990) and McDonald & Boud (1989) have considered the training needs of HoDs. In the United Kingdom, Startup (1976) and Middlehurst (1994) have gone some way towards outlining the portfolio of responsibilities that HoDs may have, while Warner & Leonard (1992), Warner & Crosthwaite (1995), and Brew (1995) have been responsible for various commentaries in support of income generation, staff management, and staff development.

What is clear from all this is, as Davies suggests, that there is a need for the "...systematic training of Heads in managerial areas to supplement their existing expertise in academic fields" (Davies, 1995, p.131). Eley, summarising the results of a management training survey of heads of university departments, however, concluded: "As the demands of the HoDs' role increase, together with the enhanced ambiguity of the job, it is difficult to envisage how HoDs can play a satisfying, rewarding and truly effective part in the management of universities." (Eley, 1994, p.22). There is also a recognition that HoDs need greater management information support from the university administration. Lockwood and Davies, for example, argued that "all departments, academic and administrative, have an information-handling function; a policy needs to be established at a university-wide level to control the inevitable development of information-handling systems and this has to be done soon" (Lockwood and Davies, 1985, p. 279).

Front PageContentsChapter 4

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