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From the Chair: Managerialism and the modern university

27 August 2018 | news

Professor Stuart McCutcheon

There is no doubt that modern universities have, and presumably must have, managers, because they are large and complex organisations. If there was an ‘average’ university in New Zealand it would teach and care for just under 17,000 students, employ 2,700 staff, earn and spend $475 million a year and have responsibility for nearly $1.1 billion of public assets. It would offer a vast array of teaching and research programmes, work with schools and communities to create opportunities for students from underrepresented groups and operate over many physical sites. In short, it would need to be managed—few of us could imagine such a large and complex organisation being run through a self-assembling cooperative.

So perhaps the question should be whether the level of management is excessive, “depriving owners, employees and civil society of all decision-making powers”. In this respect, it seems to me that a number of safeguards are already in place to guard against the excesses that managerialism might entail.

First, while universities have no owners—they are autonomous institutions and “we are all the university” —their stakeholders have strong decision-making powers through representatives elected or appointed to the university Council, its governing body. This body typically includes staff, students, alumni, Māori and the Minister of Education, but only one ‘manager’—the Vice-Chancellor. Among other things, Councils are responsible for hiring and firing the Vice-Chancellors, all of whom (in contrast to most of the staff) are on fixed-term employment contracts.

Second, the Education Act 1989 provides very deliberately for a process in which the Council must seek the views of the Academic Board—a large group of staff and students—before making a decision on any academic matter. This, of course, invites endless debate about precisely what academic matters are, but it is nonetheless a safeguard that one would not typically see in any other large organisation.

And third, universities are characterised by what in the outside world would be considered a very high degree of consultation. This means that a wide variety of views are sought and received—even though some members of the “employee and civil society” group do not consider that they have been adequately heard if they have not been agreed with.

Finally, we might consider the counterfactual: how would these institutions fare if they were not managed carefully, in a situation of volatile student numbers and some of the lowest levels of income per student in the developed world?

Unfortunately, we only have to look at some of the other parts of the tertiary sector to see the answer to that question.