What’s so special about running a university?

Paul Temple

Is the management of universities much different to the management of other sorts of big, complex organisations? In my new book, The Hallmark University (IOE Press), I argue that it is (or should be) recognisably different – although the best-run commercial organisations have many things in common with the best-run universities. Accounts of what it’s like working at Google sound a lot like working in a university.

The Institute of Education’s lengthy process of moving towards a merger with University College London (UCL) provides a case in point. It is hard to believe that discussions and consultations would have gone on for so long (two years this September, and counting) in any other type of organisation, public or private. Compare this, for instance, with the tight and precise timescales for takeovers or mergers of listed companies laid down in the Takeover Panel Code (PDF).

You may or may not think that a merger between the Institute and UCL is a good idea, but you can hardly claim that it’s been rushed through at breakneck speed by senior management. Why is this important? In part, it’s because of where knowledge is to be found in the organisation. In universities, the knowledge needed to run the teaching and research enterprise is in the middle and lower layers – universities are what the literature calls bottom-heavy organisations. The key subject knowledges aren’t at the top: the people there are selected on different grounds.

There are many implications in this for the way that universities should be run, and involving ordinary workers in strategic decision-making is one of them. As the American management writer Gary Hamel observes, “in a high-trust, low-fear organisation, employees don’t need a lot of oversight – they need to be mentored and supported, rather than bossed around.” That’s what should happen in good university departments.

Regrettably, I think, some English universities are responding to the more market-based higher education landscape that has emerged over the last few years by creating (probably inadvertently) low-trust, high-fear organisations, with a lot of bossing-around (and firing) of both academic and professional staff. Research, soon to be published, which I’ve carried out with Professor Claire Callender and Dr Natasha Kersh from the Institute, and Lyn Grove from the LSE, shows how some universities are (over-)reacting to the idea of “the student as customer”, stimulated by the new student fee regime, by imposing top-down, strongly centralised, target-oriented cultures because of a sense that they need to be seen to respond to student demands in order to maintain their positions in the marketplace. This won’t end well.

Instead, universities (especially big ones) need to be kept feeling small, with flat hierarchies and what our colleague Professor Michael Shattock calls “a tight turning circle” – that is, the ability to respond quickly to new opportunities or threats. Structures matter here: they need to be decentralised enough to respond to personal circumstances (whether of staff or students) and not to be shackled by bureaucratic rules created merely to ensure uniformity. Different academic departments should be able to meet students’ needs in different ways. People instead need to be trusted to make sensible decisions, which they’re more likely to do if they feel ownership of whatever the problem is, rather than seeing it as just another problem to be decided by central rules.


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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education, Leadership and management

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UCL Institute of Education

This blog was written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), for anyone interested in current issues in education and related social sciences.
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