When I work with people in the higher education sector, one of the most common things I hear is that universities are different from other types of organisation. The purpose is different. The structure is different. The people are different. Standard ideas of what constitutes good management just don’t apply in the higher education setting, people tell me. But I think they do. And now I have evidence.
In Herding Cats? Management and University Performance, published in The Economic Journal, Bristol University researchers John McCormack, Carol Propper and Sarah Smith assess management practices across over a hundred UK universities. This includes things like the monitoring and review of individuals’ performance, the use of meaningful and realistic performance targets, the provision of appropriate incentives for improved performance and the operation of mentoring and continuous improvement processes.
They then compare universities’ management ‘scores’ against their standing in respect of recognised and externally assessed measures of teaching and research performance, such as the Research Assessment Exercise (now the Research Excellence Framework), the National Student Survey and the Complete University Guide league tables. They do this not just at the level of individual institutions, but also for the different academic departments within these institutions.
And what they found will come as a bit of a shock to some people. Because while the researchers identified (unsurprisingly) considerable variation across universities in the nature and extent of management practices adopted, one conclusion was clear. Higher management scores are associated with better performance on externally validated measures of both research and teaching. In short, good management leads to good results. Even in a university. Perhaps they’re not so different after all.
Note: The paper is well worth reading in full, as its findings make a particularly interesting read. For example, the researchers found that departments in older, research intensive
universities score higher on the management scores than departments in newer, more teaching-oriented universities. They also identified that the management practice that is most closely linked to high performance is the judicious use of incentives, meaning the freedom to retain, attract and reward good performers. And they found, perhaps not surprisingly, that the standard of management across departments within the same university can vary quite significantly. All good food for thought…