Susan Bassnett: Academics have to juggle too many tasks

Thursday 31 January 2008 01:00

The main headache for university staff these days is a lack of clear priorities. Administrators are pulled in different directions, while academics are called upon to carry out tasks for which they have never been trained and never expected to have to do when they opted for a university life. An academic in an institution with high aspirations is expected to produce quality research, exciting teaching and serious grant applications, while also serving on committees, assisting with fund raising, mentoring or being mentored, and generally making a contribution to the life of the community. It would be tough for anyone to keep so many balls in the air, but what makes it harder is the way that priorities shift.

Research has loomed large on the horizon for the last 18 months in the run-up to the Research Assessment Exercise, but now that all the submissions have gone in, it's time to switch to something else. The next priority could be getting involved in outreach programmes or providing remedial writing courses for international students with poor English or rebranding the institution for marketing purposes. It's unlikely, however, to be about improving teaching or increasing student contact hours.

This absence of clear priorities is frustrating at best, infuriating at worst. It also presents university managers, of which, for my sins, I am one, with particular problems. For the truth is that universities are almost impossible beasts to manage. They are businesses, true, but they are much more than businesses, and the academics who work in them do not all think in businesslike terms. If a university is to work well, there must be some kind of consensus on the part of the whole community, but establishing that consensus is very tricky. Some of the star academics demand to be taken out of teaching to concentrate on their research, which places a greater burden on others. Some people are terrible administrators yet are called upon to administer; some are feeble teachers but excellent in other areas. Very few are all-rounders, when increasingly that is what is needed and what is being demanded. Yet implementing the demands, a task for middle-managers, is close to impossible.

Only the other day I had a conversation with the heads of two different units who were complaining that colleagues were refusing to carry out certain tasks. They were prepared to mark essays and turn up to exam boards, but balked at filling in grant applications or responding to circulars, activities dependent on a sense of collegiality, a concept that used to be prevalent but is rapidly disappearing. Both heads said they were repeatedly asked what the incentive was to take on extra workload, but they didn't have answers. There is precious little money available for large salaries, so promotion is about the only carrot that can be dangled – and the number of promotions is restricted. Universities don't offer much in the way of incentives to persuade people to take on more tasks.

Universities are also unlike businesses in that it is well-nigh impossible to get rid of anyone who does a bad job. We all know cases where performance is abysmal, but you can't compel people to do better unless they decide they want to. Just as there are few carrots, there aren't really any decent sticks either.

The reality is that universities today are hybrids. The old model was based on collegiality, and entailed management through layers of committees, supported by professional administrators. This model is still there to some extent, though now it coexists with a more hard-nosed business model of top-down management by a small, powerful team. These two systems can be in conflict, resulting in confusion all round. The trend now is towards a more commercial model of management, with income generation a key objective, either from overseas student fees or private sources, and with government funding so low and so many institutions sailing close to the wind, collegiality seems pretty antiquated in this harsher climate.

But the bottom line is that universities depend on the good will of academics, and the success of an institution is determined by its reputation for research and teaching, which means that academics are vitally important. If they don't buy into the system, then whatever model is in place won't work. A university is a community first, a business second. The success and prosperity of universities depends on striking a cunning balance between giving people incentives and telling them to shape up, between older ideas of collegiality and new goal-directed thinking. We need a new model of university management for the 21st century and we aren't anywhere near one yet.

The writer is a pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University

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