Peter Scott: 'Productivity has improved in higher education faster than in schools or hospitals'

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The Independent Online

Are universities badly managed? A lot of people seem to think the answer is "yes". The Treasury, as the self-appointed advocate of modernisation, thinks vice-chancellors and other senior managers are amateur and ineffective. Many of their own academic colleagues see them as over-paid and out of touch.

Are universities badly managed? A lot of people seem to think the answer is "yes". The Treasury, as the self-appointed advocate of modernisation, thinks vice-chancellors and other senior managers are amateur and ineffective. Many of their own academic colleagues see them as over-paid and out of touch.

Both are a little bit right - but mainly wrong. Critics in the Treasury should remember the remarkable productivity gains made by universities - 25 per cent or more over the past decade. They should reflect that these gains have not been produced by new labour-saving technology, but by people working harder. That is the reality on which they should concentrate, not their fading memories of donnish insouciance at Oxford or Cambridge (where else?) in the 1950s or 1960s.

Of course, universities can only claim retrospective credit for these "efficiency gains". They had no choice because public expenditure on higher education was cut year on year. Nevertheless, productivity has improved in higher education - and it has done so far faster than it has in schools or in hospitals, where there has been slow, or no, progress towards greater efficiency. And this has all been achieved without politically embarrassing institutional closures and mergers (perhaps there should have been some?), and against a background of galloping research productivity and increasing teaching quality.

In fact, higher education is possibly the one example where substantial efficiencies have been made in the public sector without running down public services. Why are we not given more credit?

One reason, I suspect, is those fading memories of Oxbridge which have engendered in the "official mind" a curious combination of anti-elitism ("what did dons do - apart from worry about the college wine cellar?") and superiority ("these 'other' universities can never be as good as Oxbridge"). Oxbridge-phobia/philia explains a lot.

A second reason, perversely, is that for some, the universities' success in becoming so much more productive without damaging quality is simply evidence of how inefficient they were in the first place. The conclusion such people reach is that the limits of efficiency have not yet been reached. They will only want to stop when the pips actually squeak.

But a third reason is that, on the whole, universities have been reluctant to buy into the modernisation ideology that now has Whitehall in an almost Soviet-style grip - although, in practice, they are thoroughly modern institutions. After all, the future is, literally, our business. They do not easily talk the language of Accenture - the thrusting non-word Andersen Consulting has just adopted as its new brand. As a result, they can easily be stigmatised as fuddy-duddy.

This means that accusations of rampant managerialism in universities are wide of the mark. Of course, vice-chancellors and their kin have gone along with these productivity gains - and so must expect some back-wash from harassed staff with students queuing at their doors and mounds of examination scripts on their desks. They do occasionally have a go at Accenture-speak, trying desperately to purge their speech of all irony - and, although they would not fool a proper Accenture-ist for a moment, they may frighten the horses - or, rather, their jumpy/grumpy colleagues.

So we are faced with a paradox. Most universities are well managed - because they have to be. They avoid alarming lurches into financial deficit (and the few that do not at least know they have a deficit - mostly). Student records are better kept than patient records. (Anyone who disputes this has not been to their GP or local out-patients recently.) Staff under-performance is curbed, although often by peer pressures rather than cumbersome appraisal systems. Performance-related pay is just as widespread as in... well, as in Whitehall.

However, the feeling persists that, in some vague way, universities are off-message. Their tolerance of managerialist nonsense is limited - as it surely should be in institutions dedicated to truth-telling, whether in terms of critical teaching or disinterested research. Most people in universities, including vice-chancellors, instinctively regard institutional "cultures" as more important than managerial "structures". The former evolve, create; the latter ossify, restrict.

Interestingly, these principles of self-organisation and collegiality rather than hierarchical structure and accountability are increasingly attractive to 21st-century enterprises of all kinds. They have glimpsed the key connection between the ability to envision and the capacity to innovate, which has always been part of the life-world of the university.

Indeed, to be fair to Accenture, I suspect this is precisely what their consultants often recommend to their corporate clients.

The writer is Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University

education@independent.co.uk

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