Blog post

Universities are going on strike - blame the managers.

Staff at 74 British universities are currently on strike, their third major round of industrial action since 2018. Often cited in discussions of changes to universities since the early 1980s are market pressure. Yet, by invoking market pressures, we too often take the responsibility away from the managers who make decisions. It's not markets, it is the managers who fuel this crisis.

Ian Lovering, Sahil Jai Dutta, Samuel Knafo29 February 2020

Universities are going on strike - blame the managers.

University staff and their senior managers don’t agree on much. But one thing both decry is the ‘marketisation’ of British higher education. Eroding pay and conditions, spiralling student debt, and the precarity of university finances are castigated by managers and staff alike as consequences of marketisation. But this muddies the direct responsibility senior managers hold in creating today’s crisis of higher education.

The pressures universities face have been magnified by seniors managers. There are no shareholders hungry for dividends. Instead, the ‘necessities’ senior managers bemoan have largely come from the way they have used the changing structure of higher education to empower and enrich themselves, while shunting the costs onto everyone else.

As university staff take strike action this month, recognising this is crucial. Because while the language of markets has loomed large, in practice it is government and the managers that took control.

The origins of this trend go back to the early 1980s. Prior to this, universities were managed largely autonomously from central government. Though they were financed centrally through maintenance and fee grants, the main body which managed these flows was the University Grants Committee (UGC), dominated by academics. Within universities, academics also enjoyed great autonomy. Democratic structures were organised around senates, a governance body meant to represent the different stakeholders of the university.

This began to change with the arrival of the Thatcher government which planned 17% budget cuts in 1981. Yet, the government had no proper inroad into universities to administer these cuts and was forced to rely on academics within the UGC.

This experience was frustrating for a government wanting to discipline the sector and drove it to find new ways to intervene into universities. What began with efforts at budgetary reduction would gradually transform into a radical restructuring of universities. Instead of subjecting universities to the logic of the market, however, we ended up with the opposite: government became increasingly involved in all aspects of university life, multiplying the assessments in an ongoing attempt to dictate priorities to the sector.

Yet the key to this process was the fact that university management exploited this situation to seize the initiative. Initially concerned by the lack of transparency in the way UGC had allocated the cuts in the early 1980s, universities called for a greater formalisation in the way budgets were allocated. This would ultimately lead to what would become the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), a vast operation to assess the quality of research, and a first push to the now ubiquitous performance evaluations that dominate higher education.

Driving this was a broader attempt to give greater rein to managers to reshape the sector. The 1985 Jarratt Report was launched by senior staff in the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (the forerunner to today’s employer organisation Universities UK). Facing a tighter financial environment after the 1981 cuts, the report argued the solution was to move away from ‘consensus’ administrative approaches to a more forthright ‘executive’ model.

As part of this shift, the report advocated for a new form of leadership in universities. Vice-Chancellors were previously mostly working academics seconded onto administrative tasks. Jarratt argued such a model was no longer tenable. Universities needed greater strategic thinking and executive discretion. They needed managers.

A set of budgetary planning procedures including activity-based costing for each department morphed into a culture of endless audit. The question of how to improve teaching and research became determined by criteria of performance management rather than academic experience.

The full impact of this managerial takeover was then unleashed in the last decade with the change to university funding. The introduction and subsequent explosion of tuition fees, combined with a lift on student number caps, was meant to drive choice and competition in higher education. The subsequent market was supposedly meant to drive up quality.

But there was no market in higher education. Universities never competed on price. Instead, the managerial class used this as an opportunity for their own empowerment and expansion. They hired consultants to help tap global capital markets to fund a student accommodation boom. The accommodation sector today stands at £5.4 billion. They launched speculative and risky overseas campuses to tap international student revenues. The University of Reading’s Malaysia campus, for example, resulted in a £27 million loss in 2017/2018.

In a sense, such expansions worked. From 2008–18, HE institutions’ (HEIs) income increased by 63%. In the process, however, the sector was plagued by indebtedness and a deteriorating student experience. HE debt tripled from £4.1bn in 2010 to £12bn in 2018, as managers borrowed to fuel growth while students became ever more indebted to pay increased fees.

Every step of the way, managers ramped up their own remuneration. The average Vice-Chancellor pay now stands at over £280,000. Meanwhile, the sector as a whole is less stable, with increasing numbers reporting being in deficit.

This managerial takeover has been partly concealed by the rhetoric around the marketisation of higher education. The drastic budget cuts have shifted the burden onto students to fund universities. Rather than marketization, however, the competition that shapes universities is mostly born out of various planning exercises that do more to empower managers than to make universities more efficient or effective.

The proliferation of league tables is a key example. League tables are commonly read as a market-proxy for student consumers. Yet they are more relevant in the ways they have been encouraged and used by managers as leverage in their plans.

Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, who created the first Research Excellence Evaluation, criticised the growth of performance evaluation criteria and rankings. He argued vice-chancellors have used them more as a ‘useful means to get rid of people’, by providing a means to peer into all aspects of academic life, than for assessing research quality. Moreover, as measures of performance, the pressure of metrics and assessments has only encouraged gaming of the system with universities attempting to window dress their activities, as reflected in the recent concerns over grade inflation.

More and more energy is now devoted to winning the league tables battles, instead of providing better education. This managerial tax on higher education has meant a proliferation of cadres administering the ever growing paper work. It means that academics themselves spend a vast proportion of their time managing rather than teaching or researching. It has also fuelled the inroads of consultants who extract resources from universities in return for providing justifications for higher managerial pay. As a result, students find themselves in larger and larger classes with less contact time.

We are left with a sector forged on a split between an elite Russell Group and the rest, and inequities of class, gender, and race in student outcomes reinforced. All the while the professional expertise of academic and administrative staff that do the actual work of higher education has been attacked.

With universities in their third major round of industrial action since 2018, there must be clarity over the coordinates of political action. By invoking market pressures, we too often deresponsibilise the managers who make decisions. The university has to be reclaimed from management, and accountability directed upwards not downwards. From that base the funding model must be shifted away from private student fees to a sector defined by comprehensive universities. There has never been a market to blame, it is the managers who fuelled this crisis.