Martin Trow (1926-2007) was a leading American scholar of higher education, probably best known for his work on the development of mass higher education in western countries in the second half of the twentieth century. In one of his many influential studies, he drew a distinction between British universities where what he called “hard managerialism” was to be found, and those where “soft managerialism” applied.
Trow’s hard version “elevates…management to a dominant position in higher education…business models are central to the hard conception.” By contrast, the soft managerialists “still see higher education as an autonomous activity, governed by its own norms and traditions, with a…management still serving functions defined by the
academic community itself.” (Despite being written over 20 years ago, this paper is also well worth reading for its critique of the ideas underlying the assessment of university teaching and research.)
A recent study on which I worked with Clare Callender, Lyn Grove and Natasha Kersh shows, we think, that the divide identified by Trow has widened over the last two decades. Our study suggested that the ways in which universities are responding organisationally to the current higher education landscape – as it is affected by the 2012 tuition fee regime, REF-type emphasis on research, pressure from “alternative providers”, and so on, can be related to their position in the status hierarchy.
These changes to the landscape – notably, the fee regime – are of course new since Trow wrote, but seem to have had the effect of intensifying the hard/soft distinction in institutional management which he identified. There seemed to be an increasing divide between strongly research-intensive institutions (that is, the top end of the Russell Group) and the rest. The differences ran across how top management saw itself in relation to the academic workforce (either collegially, or in straightforward managerial terms); the extent to which both academic and professional staff regarded students as customers in a real, rather than a metaphorical, sense; and the extent to which internal restructurings had taken place to centralise and standardise both teaching operations and professional support.
After we had completed our work, an IFS study (present and past IoE colleagues were co-authors) on the earnings of graduates in England provided further evidence of a deepening institutional divide, with its eye-catching finding that at 23 (un-named) universities, median earnings for male graduates were less than those of non-graduates, while graduates from strongly research-intensive universities were earning the superior graduate incomes that used to be taken for granted. Family social class is heavily implicated – as I think it would have been if our own study had pursued this route.
Of course, I can’t show that our “hard managerialist” universities are among the IFS’s 23 terrible-value-for-money institutions – though I’d guess that they are. But what I do suggest is that these two studies point to a deepening chasm in England between a handful of what we might call traditional universities (although some are of relatively recent origin), operating in essentially collegial organizational modes and producing graduates with good career prospects, and a larger number of universities, operating in managerialist modes, where (for various reasons) most students seem unlikely to go on to well-paid professional careers, yet who have accumulated student debts similar to those of their more fortunate peers.