A plea for a change of heads
Sandra Grey, TEU National President
As a union activist I understand that management of tertiary education
institutions is necessary, but I want to be clear ‘managerialism’ is not.
Stuart McCutcheon, the vice chancellor of the University of Auckland,
used a Universities NZ column to assert that managerial control of
tertiary institutions was necessary for them to remain viable.
He sang the praises of managerialism without defining it and concluded by
saying “… 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.”
The institutions McCutcheon is pointing the finger at are the ITPs
currently struggling financially. What he fails to tell the readers is that
ITPs are being run using the managerial techniques dominant at his
All of our tertiary education institutions over the last three decades have
been increasingly managed in a ‘competitive and business-like fashion’ with
‘expert managers’ seeking to ‘efficiently use resources’ (particularly
staff). The result has been a rise in the numbers of senior managers, an
increase in the decisions they make, and a decrease in staff collegiality.
The managerialism that has been foisted upon staff by senior leaders isn’t
saving universities. The reason universities are doing okay in the current
environment is that they are larger institutions and have bigger asset
bases than ITPs. This means universities can smooth out the rise and fall
of students more easily, particularly with constant rounds of staff
So what is managerialism. Simply put it is a system where management
knowledge and power is held in ‘experts’, depriving all other owners of
This trend has been seen around the world John Smyth, author of “The Toxic University: Zombie Leadership, Academic Rock Stars and
Neoliberal Ideology” notes: “sadly the forces of neoliberalism that would have us believe that
universities ought to operate like profit-making businesses – engaged in
cutthroat competition, run as ruthless corporations, where the market is
the arbiter and regulator of all things – has become the prevailing norm in
McCutcheon says there are safe guards to ensure managerial power doesn’t go
unchecked. University councils have staff, students, alumni, Māori and
ministerial representatives, “but only one ‘manager’—the Vice-Chancellor.”
And councils must seek the views of the Academic Board—a large group of
staff and students—before making a decision on any academic matter; and a
very high degree of consultation.
But these safeguards to managerial excess are not working.
We know because New Zealand’s tertiary education institutions do more
poorly than many other work places when it comes to job satisfaction, one
of the markers of good management.
A Statistics New Zealand’s Survey of Working Life found that 85 percent of all employed people were “satisfied” or “very
satisfied” with their main jobs. In contrast tertiary education staff are
less satisfied than most New Zealanders with their job. An AUT study of the sector in 2013 showed only 55 percent of the over 2700 respondents were satisfied
to some degree with their job as a whole.
The staff satisfaction surveys run by the employers in the tertiary
education sector regularly show the same dissatisfaction and concerns about
the lack of staff voice in decision-making.
Managerialism has led to a growing gulf between academics and academic managers. TEU commissioned research also highlights concerns about managerialism in
tertiary education. As one survey respondent noted: “There is an
impermeable layer of management which has developed in the last decade
which is generally focused on meeting governmental (e.g. TEC) requirements
at the expense of quality teaching and research.”
Added to staff dissatisfaction, managerialism leads to a range of perverse
Greg Dawes a professor of philosophy points out that the ‘managerial’ model has led to corruption in our institutions. One example from Dawes: “Given the prevailing managerial culture, staff
know their jobs are on the line if their departments or programmes fail to
attract enough students. So when they are advising students, they have a
clear conflict of interests.
I would argue the reason is that managerialism is not the right approach to
running a university or a business.
Is there a better way?
Distributed power and high engagement models are much more effective ways
of getting the best out of staff. So it’s time our managers recognised that
there are many ways to run tertiary education, but that the experiment of
managerialism which centres power in a few ‘experts’ is not one of them.