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Failing to Learn from Edinburgh’s experience

August 17th, 2007 · 1 Comment

This post is nerdy university politics stuff, but it matters a lot to some of us.

I have always been impressed by the lack of interest that management theorists, and education theorists, show in subjecting their ideas to empirical tests. Edinburgh University was one of the first to go down the path down which other places (including UCL) are now heading like so many lemmings.

Edinburgh abolished their departments in 2002, and, in 2005 they conducted a review of what had ensued, The responses make interesting reading (not least because much of what they say is remarkably similar to points that I have made again and again, to no effect).

Sadly, I have only just come across these documents. I wonder if our own managers have read them?

Let’s start with quotations from the university’s 2005 review document

“In 2002 the University made some radical changes to its structures. It abolished its previous structure of Faculties and Departments for academic purposes and Faculty Groups and Planning Units for planning and resourcing, and replaced these with a single integrated structure consisting of three Colleges and 21 Schools. Previous arrangements for electing Heads of Department and Deans were replaced by competitive appointment to the new management positions, after external advertisement for Heads of College.”

. . .

The Review Group found, from the evidence provided and gathered, that the implementation of a new organisational structure in 2002 had been strategically astute, leading to clear benefits to the institution as a whole.

. . .

This is not to say that feedback provided by colleagues to the Review was wholly positive

That last quotation must rank as as the understatement of the decade. You can read the responses at http://www.aaps.ed.ac.uk/restreview/responses/. Here are some quotations from them,

Professor R G M Morris, FRS, School of Biomedical & Clinical Laboratory Sciences

Like the Principal, I also think there are merits in the new arrangements that have already and will continue to yield benefits.

However, I think we should also have the courage and self-confidence to recognise a major downside. As I write, Harvard University is in uproar about some reported comments of their President, Larry Summers, about the paucity of women in science.

It would never happen at Edinburgh because – bluntly – we have become comatose. Perhaps I am not in the right place, but no one seems to discuss openly about anything that really matters to the University. We simply keep our heads down and try to get on with our teaching and research. Perhaps that is a good thing, and the debate at Harvard is but “hot air” when everyone would be better spending time in the lab or the library. But ‘m not sure. For there is a confidence and elan about the Harvard academic staff that, presently, seems to have been lost in Edinburgh – a loss that has coincided with the introduction of the Schools.

This loss is particularly reflected in the very few responses you have received to date to this circular. It is as if no one cares. And that, frankly, is deeply worrying. In the old rough and tumble of the ostensibly “inefficient”  Departmental system, we would have regular staff meetings and actually debate things – and we did this because the voice of everyone in a Department mattered. We had postdoctoral staff and postgraduate students at our staff meetings – their voice mattered too and we listened to what they had to say. It feels to me that this overt recognition of the value of the academic community in Edinburgh is no longer the case. The School of which I am now a member has had two meetings in three years, and with so many people present in a large lecture theatre, the atmosphere was not conducive to discussion and debate.

In conclusion, Edinburgh University is at risk of becoming a place where bland, respectable comment replaces genuine debate. I am wary of this absence, because I am deeply distrustful of the credibility of anyone unprepared to debate openly and honestly. The senior management may, of course, be so busy juggling their managerial role with continuing academic life that they are unaware of this developing problem. Surely the business model can work hand-in-hand with a managerial framework that supports genuine intellectual debate?

Richard Morris, D.Phil., F.R.S.
Professor of Neuroscience
Division of Neuroscience
School of Biomedical & Clinical Laboratory Sciences

Dr Ian Astley, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

I hardly know where to start with all this. It is abundantly clear, both from my own meditations and from discussions with colleagues — academic colleagues — that the recent changes to the university’s structure have been a radical contravention of everything which a university should stand for. Real opportunities for debate and democratic determination have been stifled, all in the service of a dogma of efficiency which it is impossible to describe or account for.

Professor Alan Murray, School of Engineering and Electronics, 4/02/05

One aspect of the old system that has, sadly, been largely lost, particularly in areas where modestly-sized departments have been merged in to larger schools, is the feeling of community and common purpose across research and teaching activities. The replacement of Departments by Research Institutes (and I am head of one) has not created new communities of the same nature and size. One particularly unfortunate result of this change has been the effective marginalisation of colleagues whose primary focus is on teaching and support of teaching activities.

Alan Murray
Professor Alan F. Murray,
Head of the Institute for Integrated Micro and Nano Systems,
School of Engineering and Electronics,

Dr Don Glass, School of Engineering & Electronics, 14/02/05

The restructuring has transformed the University into a rather top-down structure with a much smaller number of much larger administrative units.

The Research Institutes do not yet provide the sense of identity, cohesion and support that the old departments (whatever their failings) did. The Heads of Institute have done their best but are hampered by the physical dispersion of their staff and by restricted budgets.

Academic staff in particular, and technical and clerical staff to a lesser degree, feel that they are much less in control of their lives than was previously the case. This leads to stress and poor morale.

The Teaching Organisation has worked well at the strategic level (compliance with the requirements of the Curriculum Project, for example) and at the most basic level of timetabling, classroom allocation, collection of completed coursework, recording of marks etc. However, the diversity of the engineering disciplines and the curriculum requirements of the professional institutions have meant that accreditation, curriculum development and the allocation of teaching duties have fallen to the Heads of Discipline. These individuals have no budget at their disposal, no formal authority, no clerical or other support, no formal reward and little recognition. It is surprising that anyone can be found to take on the job.

Heads of School are expected to act as Line Managers for units containing in most cases over 100 academic and support staff. In industry or the civil service, this would be regarded as ludicrously burdensome, and I am at a loss to understand why the university feels that it can expect this level of output from its senior staff.

Improvement of the dissemination of information to ordinary members of staff would improve morale. In the old days, heads of department would ensure that their staff were kept abreast of developments: this does not happen to the same extent now. Equally, inclusion of more staff at an earlier stage in decision-making would not merely improve acceptance of change but would also possibly deliver better thought-out policy My suggestion would be to recognise the Disciplines as bodies responsible for professional representation, curriculum development and accreditation. They would provide a ‘home’ for staff excluded from the Research Institutes.

Professor Andrew Barker, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 14/02/05

You write:

‘The process has been generally been well received and, as Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Timothy O’Shea points out, “has aroused interest (and even emulation) in other institutions”.’

And in so doing you simply add to the disenchantment which, as you must surely know, has followed upheavals of the last couple of years. Could you not have initiated the debate without such self-congratulatory spin?

At the same time as there have been gains, there have also been losses. Above all, and one hears the complaint time and again, it is felt that restructuring has led to a diminished sense of belonging to an academic community. The abolition of the democratic faculty structure has fuelled a feeling of disempowerment and atomisation which does not help morale at a time when colleagues are assailed by new developments on all sides

What is needed, I feel, is a movement to re-engage colleagues with the
university: to let them feel that it is indeed ‘their’ university, that they are not merely a workforce which is expected to respond to a series of diktats from above. At a quite mundane level, provision of common room facilities (so spectacularly absent for those working in the George Square area) would enable us to re-establish contact with colleagues from other disciplines.

Professor Charles Warlow, Professor of Medical Neurology, Molecular and Clinical Medicine, 14/02/05

I start from the position that the structure of a University should enable academics to do research and teach, and have time to think and write which are so important in both.

Clinical academics like myself are -for better or worse – often rather disconnected from the rest of their Universities, partly because we often work way from the centre of the University, partly because we don’t think in terms (or now semesters), and partly because we have patient care concerns. Nonetheless it is good to feel part of and supported by an institution which facilitates and nurtures our research and teaching. I did feel this, when I was in a group then called a Department of Clinical Neurosciences which was part of a faculty then called Medicine, all of which I could naturally relate to and which mapped on to my clinical work and teaching. But now we have Divisions (in my case more or less the same as the old Department), Centres and Schools -two extra layers of management between us in the trenches and the College (was faculty) and Head of College (was Dean). And we do not seem to have any ‘faculty’ meetings any more, one of the very few opportunities to meet up with colleagues from not just my own hospital but with others across town (the Royal Infirmary, Royal Edinburgh Hospital etc). It as an irony that as we have moved to Colleges we have become less ‘collegiate’.

For me there has not only been a loss of collegiality, and so opportunity for cross fertilisation between medical disciplines, but there has been no advantage in terms of teaching or research. As far as teaching goes, the Divisional, Centre and School structure seems to be all about research with an eye on the RAE – not teaching. And it is particularly inappropriate to exclude researchers from Centres, these people may well be struggling and so in need of support. The notion that the new administrative structure encourages inter-disciplinarity – in medical research at least – is just not true.

I cannot see any efficiency gains from where I sit. Personally, I feel more disconnected from the Heads of this and that than ever I did before (but I certainly do not envy them their task, far more complicated, bureaucratic and time consuming than ever it was when I was Head of Clinical Neurosciences)

Sadly however, although I once felt a sense of belonging and so loyalty to the University as a collegiate bunch of academics, in it for teaching and research, this is not so much how I feel now that it seems more of an impersonal business hierarchy.

Professor Jean Duffy, Professor John Renwick, Mr Philip Bennett, Dr Véronique Desnain, Dr Marion Schmid, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 17/02/05

The new structures were originally presented to us, at the open meeting held by Stewart Sutherland, as a means of streamlining and reducing bureaucracy. Yet, the restructuring has involved the interposition of an extra administrative layer, the creation of a substantial number of administrative posts, including new senior management posts and a labyrinthine bureaucracy.

In an earlier exchange with Senior Vice-Principal Anderson regarding space matters, he commented that it is ‘virtually impossible to work out in any realistic way what the net cost [of the restructuring] (and the medium-term benefit) has been’. We find this extraordinary: any organisation employing a large workforce (in this case, 6,800 and Edinburgh’s third biggest employer, according to the web site) and with responsibility for the education of over 20,000 students and large amounts of taxpayers’ money ought to be able work out such sums.

Faculty meetings have been replaced by “plenaries” in which very little, if any, real business is done, no major decisions are ever taken (even in a School which voted to retain decision-making powers), and in which academics are informed about decisions that have been taken elsewhere. The former Faculty of Arts did have the capacity to influence the decisions of Central Management, even if it exercised that power rather too rarely. In the new structures, any power to influence has been effectively diluted, largely because we do not have an equivalent formal assembly designed to encourage or even permit full participatory debate and because the burden of representation falls upon a few individuals. Thus divided, we are much easier to rule, even if that was not the intention.

To be fair to the new Management Team, it did not create the original template for restructuring; as we understand it, it was presented with a fait accompli and a huge task of implementation. No doubt the new structures can be made to work in more user-friendly ways, but the University needs to relearn -and fast – how to listen to its academic staff. This institution has a great many staff who are committed to teaching and to research, who have willingly shouldered heavy administrative burdens often over long periods, and they have to feel that they have a voice.

The good will of academic staff is one of the University’s most precious resources; it is certainly its cheapest: after all, it is that good will which makes so very many individuals start work early, finish late, work every weekend and not take their full annual leave. If the University has common sense, it will invest in it, not exhaust it.

Professor Colin Nicholson, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

In its 2001 Resolution concerning proposed changes to academic management the University Court made its intentions clear. In order to enable the university to respond effectively to the altered economic circumstances in which we must now operate, Court deemed it desirable:

to reorganise the system of academic management in the University “in a way which sustains the teaching and research of the University to the highest standards and which maintains and enhances the quality of the university as an academic community of international standing”.

These sensible priorities were echoed in a Court paper of March 2002 . . .

These intentions have been radically betrayed. In a range of senior voices all across the University, from Kings Buildings to George Square to High School Yards we are hearing the same thing -that an academic community now feels reduced to an atomised and disempowered workforce which is expected to respond to a series of diktats from above.

The expression and experience within and across the academic community, of disaffection, demoralisation, disenfranchisement and alienation that we have been reporting on for several months requires urgent redress.

Dr Sarah Carpenter, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

But for equally practical reasons it actually it seems to have reduced the opportunities for academic co-operation with subject areas beyond the School. As a member of the former Faculty of Arts I encountered regularly colleagues from a range of disciplines across the Faculty, not only in Faculty meetings, but in administrative and other activities from which academic co-operation might flow. There is no longer any forum or space in which I encounter these colleagues.

There is certainly a strong perception among academic staff that the new system is in a phrase many have used “top-heavy”, and in some areas more rather than less cumbersome. In terms of streamlining and simplifying administrative procedure the system is experienced as adding a new layer.

The new structures have not allowed for any forums beyond the School in which staff can express and debate views, and pass them on to those who will make decisions (this is allied to the loss of meeting opportunities).

Probably allied to this is a perception that not only are decisions for implementation handed down from the centre, often by rather tenuous chains of information distribution, but that the university does not recognise or acknowledge the level of effort required to implement them.

Professor Brian Charlesworth, School of Biological Sciences, 04/02/05

I do not regard developments associated with the restructuring at all favourably. This has introduced a far more ‘top-down’ style of management, with over large units whose heads know little of what is going on at the grassroots level. The academic staff are being issued with orders instead of being consulted, and constantly being forced to implement ever more bureaucracy. In the long term, this will lead to creative people leaving the university, and only the mediocrities who are prepared to cringe to the men in suits will remain. I sense that this is already starting to happen.

It seems that little notice was taken of any of these comments. Well well, There’s a surprise.

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Tags: management bollocks · science · Universities

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 nickzi // Sep 7, 2007 at 04:29

    I sympathize with some of the complaints – although I have to say that if anything has lessened my faith in academia, it has been encountering the “scholars” who are supposed to teach and mentor students. Collegiality sounds wonderful – until you realize how depressed, selfish and idle many academics are. After all, what stops them inviting colleagues to go for coffee or lunch? Geeks of the world unite – you have only your lunch hour to lose!
    I also think that we have to realize that “bureaucracy” is not a negative thing per se, rather, it is our failure to develop more effective bureaucracies that is the problem. The lazy intellectual reflex of blaming “bureaucracy” is akin to the conservative claim that “government is bad”. To which the response should be that bad systems are bad systems, but that the answer is a better system, not selfish anarchy.
    I would suggest that the root of the problem is the attempt to remodel the university community along corporate capitalist lines. Capitalism has some virtues – but genuine diversity and freedom to explore intellectual paths are not among them. If the final analysis is a narrow cost-benefit one, you can be sure that “marginal” disciplines will slowly be squeezed out, and that profit will dominate. This applies to scientific research as well – e.g. big pharma has brought some benefits, but has also delayed drugs that were not moneyspinners, or simply failed to investigate them in the first place, or even attempted to deny responsibility when drugs were rushed to market before being properly screened.
    Returning to the university as a whole, meaningful grades and degrees will be eroded, since the “consumer” (not “student”) is paying, and must receive a return on investment. The result is that universities are terrified of damaging their matriculation rates, and the quality of student work that is acceptable will decline to the level that a minimally industrous student is willing to produce, which generates a sort of Gresham’s Law of academic quality i.e. bad degrees drive out good.

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