University management: four archetypes
15 October 2012, by Dr Geoff Sharrock
Geoff Sharrock is Program Director of the Master of Tertiary Education Management program at the LH Martin Institute, University of Melbourne.
In many advanced economies, universities inhabit an increasingly diverse and competitive mixed economy. According to Education at a Glance in 2011, across OECD countries, from 1995 to 2008 the average public share of spending on tertiary education fell from 77 to 69 per cent; and from 2000 to 2008, private spending grew by 117 per cent, four times faster than public spending.
Australian public universities have run ahead of this trend. The transition here has been rapid: from a small-scale, domestically-focused, publicly funded higher education sector to a mass-scale, globally-oriented mixed economy tertiary sector. Universities no longer enjoy the oligopoly of the 1970s, with its avuncular mix of funded growth, low competitive pressure and loose performance expectations.
Instead they rely on a wider range of clients and sponsors to finance a wider range of projects; face more open competition from private, vocational, online and overseas-based providers; and depend more than ever on contracts and alliances with public and private sector partners to lower their provision costs, extend their reach, and amplify their impact.
So the university’s eternal strategic dilemma - infinite mission, finite means – has become more complex. In any university, at almost any level, four elements demand constant attention:
- Programs – the array of projects in student learning, research and third stream work that an academic enterprise exists to pursue
- People – the various groups who support and deliver academic programs and related functions
- Systems – the authority structures, technologies, policies and procedures that enable people to manage programs and support functions effectively
- Strategy –plans to develop and maintain the capabilities needed to sustain the whole enterprise: its programs, people and systems.
The resulting complexities can be seen in any university’s strategic plan, as its leaders seek to tell a compelling story that traverses four separate domains:
- 'A Professional Community’ (with its own culture, aims and values)
- ‘Creative Engagement’ (to pursue new projects in learning, discovery and innovation)
- ‘System Integrity’ (with consistent approaches to governance, quality and standards)
- ‘A Sustainable Enterprise’ (with clear plans to build and manage resources and capability).
One factor that makes university management difficult is that implicit in each of these four domains is a different conception of the role that a leader or manager should play. In fact, four archetypes of ‘university management’ can be identified (see chart) each with its virtues and each implying a kind of recipe for success.
The styles of managing best suited to the Professional Community and Creative Engagement domains are the most familiar and well accepted in scholarly communities. These may be dominant in a relatively small, stable and well-funded institution. But for large complex enterprises in a dynamic mixed economy, they soon find their limits. In Australia they have been supplemented by new styles of managing, to meet new risks and complexities emerging in the Sustainable Enterprise and System Integrity zones.
Scholarly debates about ‘collegiality’ versus ‘managerialism’ don’t offer much help to practitioners. University managers today have to blend and balance quite different roles, as they work across all four domains: to acquire and invest resources, attract and develop people, get projects off the ground, keep programs and budgets on track, plan for and adjust to new situations, and design the enterprise conditions for future success.
Definitions of ‘good management’ will vary accordingly: in one domain this means being collegial above all; in another, engaged; in a third, strategic; and in a fourth, systematic. Technically, the list of tasks is endless. The honest answer to most questions about what a good university manager ought to do will be: “It depends, it depends, it depends...”
Adapted from ‘Four management agendas for Australian universities’, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, June 2012.