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Are you reconceptualising?

December 8th, 2007 · 10 Comments

The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) last week had a headline “Staff loyalty key to Hefce report”.

Staff loyalty is something I’m interested in, so I read on eagerly.

The article was about report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). It came from their Leadership, Governance and Management Strategic Advisory Committee (dated 2-3 July 2007). [Download the report: Word format]

Well there is the first cringe already. Whenever you see the word ‘leadership’ you can bet that it means that you are going to be lectured on how to do your job by somebody who has never done it themselves. (probably somebody suffering from Siegfried delusions -in the words of Ernest Newman. an overgrown boy scout).

No disappointment on that score. This particular sermon is being delivered not by a successful researcher. Not even by an unsuccessful researcher who has been moved up to manage the successful ones. It is being given by Ed Smith, Global Chief Operating Officer and Strategy Leader for Assurance, PricewaterhouseCoopers.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, remember, has not been entirely free of accounting scandals (and BBC report).

Their web site says of Ed Smith:

“He is a leading advocate of, and external speaker on People management in organisations, in particular diversity and work/life having led PwC’s own enlightenment in this area “

“PwC’s own enlightenment” ? Cringe!. Who writes this stuff, one wonders,


Here are the main points.

“3. There are high level activities to be undertaken of reconceptualising the university and rethinking the business model.”

Reconceptualise? Is it a condition of essential condition of working for PricewaterhouseCoopers to be unable to write plain English?

More to the point, one would be interested to know what concept of a university he has in mind? The statement as it stands has roughly zero content.

“4. To implement the outcome of this rethinking, there will need to be significant culture change. HEIs’ staff will need to be more aware of and aligned to the strategic needs of the HEI.

Academics’ goals are often related to their discipline rather than their institution and they will need to develop institutional loyalties in addition to discipline loyalties. Corporate planning processes will need to be communicated more effectively for those processes to be more successful. “

This statement fails to make the important distinction between the Institution itself, and the people who, for the time being, are running it (see Letters). The first thought that comes to mind after reading this is that it is a statement that is likely to have exactly the opposite effect from that intended by the writer. The more statements like this that come from on high, the less inclined people are to feel allegiance to the institution that issues them, or, to be more precise, the people who are running the institution for the time being.


Respect has to be earned.

“5. HE staff can find themselves uncertain about their role, typically
because it has never been fully made clear. Research has often become too prominent as an indicator of performance, because it has been measured in the RAE, and other activity has not been equally recognised and rewarded. “

Aha, now does that mean that our role is not to do research and teaching after all? Perhaps it has now been redefined somehow? Perhaps our role now is to waste time on sham consultations, read reams of world-class policy bollocks, and do what one is told by some official in HR? I don’t think so. The second sentence has some justice, but I guess Mr Smith has not had to suffer floods of contradictory instructions from the endlessly-multiplying ‘managers’.

One day a ‘manager’ says we must all publish three papers a year, and they must all be in the same handful of journals (though there has not, as far as I know, been
the sort of crude bullying about this at UCL that I have heard about in, say Imperial and a few other places). Furthermore we mustn’t collaborate with anyone in the same place because the same paper must not appear to the RAE to come from two groups.


The next day we will be told that the entire place must be turned upside down because of the absolute necessity for collaborations. Of course the measures that are proposed never have the slightest effect on collaboration, because they come from people who talk about it, not from people who do it.


And the next day we are told by a third person that all of the above is secondary and that teaching matters more than anything else.


Of course all these contradictory instructions do nothing but prevent us doing the research and teaching that we had supposed to be our job.

“7. HEIs will need to develop their business process and become more efficient, so that they can re-invest. The Committee advises that HEIs should not be afraid of the language and culture of business. “


The language of business, at least of the sort that now permeates universities, is usually both vacuous and pretentious. The culture of business is what produces BSc degrees in anti-science (not to mention accounting scandals).


The use of the word “afraid” in this context is sheer overweening arrogance. I have spent a lifetime trying to express complicated ideas in simple language. That seems to me to be as desirable in real science as it is in my attempts to improve public understanding of science. The aim of managers seems often to be to express
simple ideas in complicated language. I’m never quite sure whether the reason for this is illiteracy. or a conscious effort to disguise the emptiness of the ideas. A bit of both, I expect.


What do we conclude from this?

The interesting thing about this document is that it is written by a businessman but appears to me to ignore two basic business principles that can be put in perfectly simple language.

(1) Supply and demand. There will always be an endless supply of managers and pensioned-off researchers who are willing to accept professorial salaries for producing reams of policy bollocks. There isn’t even much shortage of people who can do a tolerable job of teaching at least at first or second year level. The really scarce people are the top flight original researchers, the ones who will make a difference to the future. It follows that these people have enormous power (though often they are too busy to use it). If the place that they works adopts the culture of managerialism, they will just leave Highly original minds have a low tolerance for policy bollocks. Of course this is a slow process. It might take a decade or more to destroy a good research outfit in this way, and by the time managers notice the consequences of their actions it would already be too late. It is much easier to destroy than to build.


(2) The value of brand names . This is where it gets personal, though I imagine many other people have had similar experiences in recent years. The Pharmacology Department at UCL has had a distinguished history for 100 years. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been at meetings and heard people say “gosh you are from Pharmacology at UCL -that’s impressive”. People in the department got a glow from comments like that. That is what generated loyalty to the department and to the College that houses it. Now we are told that we are to be part of an over sized monstrosity called the “Research department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology”. That really trips off the tongue, right? One can’t imagine something with an utterly unmemorable name like that ever getting an international reputation. In any case, I expect that another policy wonk will come along and change the name again in 5 year’s time,

How does this sort of vandalism happen? I guess one reason is that the sort of people who get to be managers just aren’t sufficiently in contact with science to be aware of the reputation that we used to have. They seem to be unaware that the reputation of an institution is no more than the sum of the reputations of the researchers and teachers who work in it (not the administrators). And if a department has a few good people in it over a long period, the department as a whole contributes too. The College reputation barely exists in isolation, just the sume of individuals. Take an example. At UCL we have an excellent department of German, a department that contributes to the reputation of UCL. But of course not one pharmacologist in a million has heard of it, just as I imagine not one German historian in a million has heard of our (late) pharmacology department.

Let’s get a few things clear.

  • The job of universities is to do teaching and research.
  • The teaching is enormously important but the external reputation of the establishment will inevitably depend almost entirely on its research.
  • The success of the place therefore depends entirely on the people who do the research and teaching. Everybody else, from junior technician to vice chancellor is there only to support them.
  • The people who do the research and teaching are the only ones who know how to make a success of those jobs The HR department, for example, know nothing about either either teaching or research. How could they? They have never done either. Their job is to make sure people get paid, not to bully and harass the people doing the real work of the university.
  • The aims of business are, in some ways, precisely the opposite of those of universities. Business aims to sell things. Spin and mendacious advertising are an accepted part of the game. The tendency for them to become part of the game in universities too can do nothing but harm. Are universities mean to admire the mentality that gave rise to Enron and Worldcom?
  • Remember the words of Robert May (President of the Royal Society, 2000 – 2005).

    “A rather different issue that has emerged during the Blair decade is the tendency to invite people from the world of business to advise on the management of universities, or to head them. Given that UK universities still stand significantly higher on international league tables than does most of the UK business sector, this seems odd.”

On ‘leadership’ and ‘vision’.

The two most overworked words in management-speak remind me inexorably of the rhetoric used by those who advocated the merger of UCL and Imperial. And of two comments that appeared in the financial (not the academic) press after the attempt crumbled.


Lessons of a failed merger (Matthew Lynn, Bloomberg News. 20-Nov-02). “: [get the pdf].

“Unfortunately for Sykes, the professors of Imperial and University College London were smarter than the last recipients of his strategic wisdom, the shareholders in the formerly independent drug companies Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham.



The biggest universities in the world are clearly not the best. So why do some British universities think that mergers will make them world class? (John Kay, 21-Nov-02 Financial Times).

” The same empty phrases that were used in the 1990s to justify corporate mergers are today used to justify university mergers – the aspiration to be a “global player”, the need to achieve “critical mass”. But greater size is always the aspiration of those with no better strategic vision.”



Two letters

These two responses appeared in THES the following week (Dec 7th), from opposite ends of the age spectrum. Notice that the younger one does not dare to give a name. I don’t blame him or her. That is the rule rather than the exception, when people feel intimidated. Exactly the same thing happened when the crazy “vision” of merging Imperial and UCL was on the cards. Anyone with half a brain could see it was nuts (with the exception of the senior management team at the time), but not everyone dared to say so.

Loyalty, but not blind allegiance 1


Research associate, Russell Group university

Published: 07 December 2007


Loyalty cuts both ways (“Staff loyalty key to Hefce report”, November 30).

Look at contract research staff such as myself who are forced to seek employment in other institutions and environments.


I cannot say that I have had an experience in my institution that inspires anything like loyalty. People there want it to go only one way. When are we going to get loyalty from our employing institutions rather than being treated as disposable drones?



Research associate, Russell Group university.




Loyalty, but not blind allegiance 3


Geoffrey Alderman
Published: 07 December 2007




Many years ago, it fell to me to chair Higher Education Funding Council for England teaching-quality inspections of academic departments.
At one such event, the head of department confided to me and my team that he and his team completely disagreed with the strategic direction in which their vice-chancellor was taking them and were doing all they could to undermine it, in the interests of the discipline they taught.



We agreed, and gave the department top marks.



Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history Buckingham University.


Postscript

How very nice to get an endorsement from a Nobel prizewinner. Why, I wonder, was he not asked for his opinion about how to get good science. Perhaps PricewaterhouseCooper know better

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Tags: Academia · Anti-science · Big Pharma · business · corporate · corruption · Politicians · PR · science · spin · trust · Universities

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 michaelkenward // Dec 14, 2007 at 12:07

    This is just a sign of how far behind the times the academic world is. The business world long ago rumbled the management bollocks of the PricewaterhouseCoopers variety. These parasites then moved on to screw up government, hence those massive bills for consultants.

    Having fleeced the rest of the “establishment,” the consultants have now descended on the universities. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

    Then again, the academics, for they usually are academics, who rise up to the top of the heap and end up running Research Councils certainly need some training in how to manage. Then they might not make the monumental cock ups of the type that have just clobbered STFC.

    Any academic who wants to gain insights into the world of business gibberish of the sort touted by the consultants should read Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times every Monday.

  • 2 David Colquhoun // Dec 14, 2007 at 12:20

    Very nice to get such a response from someone who is more into the business side than I.

    Certainly it has been my impression that universities tend to pick up fads from the business world well after the time real businesses have decided they don’t work. I recall a conversation about the ‘Chicago model’ which was being advocated by a rather senior person a decade after business had dropped it.

    Lucy Kellaway can be terrific too. I loved this comment of hers (from Financial Times, 27 February, 2006)

    Why academics make an unfit subject for management

    “academics, especially good ones, make employees from hell.”

    “They are very clever. This is not an advantage in most institutions as it means that they can think for themselves. (They may not actually be that clever, but they think they are – which may be worse.)”

  • 3 lsnduck // Dec 14, 2007 at 12:24

    Professor Colquhoun,

    I absolutely agree with your fundamental points:

    The job of universities is to do teaching and research.
    Everybody else, from junior technician to vice chancellor is there only to support them.

    I am an administrator in a 1994 Group HEI, and I share your values entirely. However, please be careful not to denigrate your support staff. Although this article doesn’t do so, I too frequently come across research and teaching academics in the press and in my institution who treat us as worms, and as an irritant. We are here to support you in fulfilling the main roles of a university, but if we weren’t, then you wouldn’t be able to find the time to do that research or to teach the students (there is a lot of pointless beurocracy that could be done away with, but there is also a certain amount of important paper-shifting that needs to be done).

    Yes, there a great many managers and consultants and hand-wavey types who make absurd policy decisions with little understanding of the context. I raile against them every day here (I am a dogs-body, and have little influence over anything). There are also a lot of us who work hard doing important support jobs.

    We don’t like being treated like worthless idiots any more than you like being bullied by stupid managers.

    Universities are vitally important institutions in many ways. The different groups involved (including students) should work together, not abuse each other as seems to be fashion amongst all of those groups.

  • 4 David Colquhoun // Dec 14, 2007 at 13:08

    lsnduck

    I’m delighted that it was clear to you that I was not, for one moment, denigrating helpful adminstrators. The place would fall apart without them. My own department, now deceased, had two of the most helpful and friendly people you could imagine. They knew all the right people in finance, HR, IT etc and could fix almost anything.

    It remains to be seen whether the recent centralisation of power will provide such a good service but I doubt it, because you’ll be dealing with someone in a remote office whom you don’t know, and who doesn’t know you.

  • 5 LondonPete // Dec 16, 2007 at 10:15

    I’m ashamed to see your article in a place where I am accustomed to reading well thought through, factually based material.
    Instead we got the type of unsubstantiated assumptions, gratuitous insults and arrogant superiority more typical of homeopathy.

    Managers and administrators are not supposed or required to know how to do research/teaching (or housebuilding, car manufacture or brain surgery)

    Their job is to organise resources and people to make it possible often despite the ridiculous demands of the practitioners.

    Of course there are good ones and bad ones (we all know thre are no bad teachers), and of course they change their minds from time to time (as opposed to researchers), and of course they make uncomfortable compromises which researchers don’t need to do. And sometimes they even employ outside consultants to demonstrate that their approach has some external validation – completely different to a peer review of course.

    Normally I wouldn’t care about your rather ridiculous rant in favour of special treatment – but its a disgrace to see it in a bad science feed!

  • 6 David Colquhoun // Dec 16, 2007 at 15:06

    Uhuh, that will teach me to be glad that the two other responses from admin/business people were so favourable.

    I hoped that my earlier response, above, would have made it clear that I was not talking about good administrators, or even (most) university people at all, but about the attempt by HEFCE to impose the PricewaterhouseCoopers brand of management gobbledygook on to universities.

    Their language seems to me to have much in common with that of homeopaths actually, pretentious but information-free. with a cavalier disregard for data.

    Imposition of the ethic proposed by Ed Smith on science will result only in bad, even dishonest, science. My interest is in good science. That is why I posted this story.

    But perhaps you should argue this out with Michael Kenward (first comment) who knows a lot more about business than I do.

    By the way, I wasn’t aware of asking for “special treatment”. Perhaps you should explain what you meant?

  • 7 Dr Aust // Dec 16, 2007 at 16:20

    I can only say that my personal experience over two decades has been that for every talented and dedicated University administrator (and I have met some) there is at least one other mediocre timeserver of the type that mostly devote themselves to holding lengthy meeting with each other and drafting 60 page memos that no one will ever read.

    And the graduate-level recruitment high-flyer ones are often far less useful, pound for wage pound, than the long-serving and grossly underpaid senior secretaries with 20 years experience, a species sadly now becoming extinct in Universities.

    Finally, while admin people don’t need to be able to teach or do research, they do need to understand how it works and what its priorities – and those of the front-line Univ staff – are. The fast-track senior admin-of the future types imported via the “worked in unrelated business and have MBA” route are in my experience almost totally unconcerned about this. They may have a role in (e.g.) Estates or trans-Univ service management, but when they are parachuted into faculty-level roles they see their job almost 100% as acting as proxies and PAs for Deans and Pro-Vice Chancellors. As a result of this their knowledge of what anyone else in the organisation does is often sod all.

  • 8 Morals in high places: leadership from Anderson and Chisholm. // Dec 27, 2007 at 15:50

    [...] and even encouraged, not to mention sham consultations and attempts to impose the Wal-Mart values of PricewaterhouseCooper on [...]

  • 9 wackyvorlon // Feb 1, 2008 at 09:53

    Of course, now that you are no longer a part of Pharmocology at UCL, you get to be a part of RDONPAP! Never use a five dollar word when a ten cent one will do, they say.

  • 10 michaelgrayer // Apr 15, 2011 at 23:37

    In any case, I expect that another policy wonk will come along and change the name again in 5 year’s time

    Three-and-a-half years on, I’d like to compliment you on the accuracy of your prophesy.

    OK, so it might have happened a year or two sooner than you’d predicted, but there’s a baffling fad emerging across British universities for renaming every “Department of [x]” to “School of [x]“.

    I’d love to know the reasoning behind that one.

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