Late-starter academics like me are held back by clunky, opaque systems

It is compromising to instruct business students on the best ways of doing things but not to experience them in situ, says a lecturer and former CEO

January 31, 2023
Source: Alamy

Having entered higher education at the age of 57, I’ve interacted with three universities over the intervening two years, moving steadily down the food chain.

In my former life, I was a CEO and then chair, but I was done with the isolation of the non-executive life. I come from a family of educators, and I believe teaching to be good work.

I have enjoyed encountering knowledgeable and committed academics, as well as wonderful admin, IT, library and catering staff. At their best, universities are communities of meaning and purpose, and it is a privilege to be part of them.

But I bombed in my first role as a programme director in a small, specialist university. I found the process for academic improvement labyrinthine and a sense of collaboration hard to cultivate. You are there to put together a coherent programme, but the forces tend towards fragmented, poorly marketed offerings that are difficult for students to navigate via separate, inconsistent systems for admissions, payment and academic support. In the end, I couldn’t defend the programme, even though I did get it externally validated.

Friends at other universities told me to “care less” about the “organisational” bits that don’t work. “Just go in and teach,” they said. But I find that hard: it is compromising to instruct business students on the best ways of doing things but not to experience them in situ.

In my lectures, I still refer sometimes to the rather ancient McKinsey’s 7-S framework, which says that seven areas of operation, all conveniently beginning with S, need to align for an organisation to work. One of those is strategy. This is about an analytic narrative, choices, risk management and the evolution of a differentiated but adaptive market position. But when I asked one of “my” vice-chancellors what they wanted from the business school, they said, in effect, “a can-do attitude towards student number expansion”. This is the working out of an aspiration, not a strategy.

A university’s strategy matters because it filters down even to marginal part-timers like me. I am now a visiting lecturer in one specialist and one middle-ranking university, the latter reliant on international and vocational students. I have found ways to get foreign students with barely any spoken English to present in class, first allowing them to work in their own language if they are lucky enough to be in a group. But while chasing overseas numbers may seem the only “strategy” in uncertain recruitment markets, it is a likely cul-de-sac, defined by declining standards and vulnerable to certain political narratives.

Another of McKinsey’s seven S’s is systems. How do universities work their key processes?

I am pretty simplistic here. As a part-time contractor and a customer of the various internal services, I want templates – I’d even accept the term “pack”, but that’s not very HE – named and dated, containing the essentials to work the IT and marking systems. I’d title it “Good looks like this. Please do it.” Great videos and guidance documents are buried in the websites, but I have little time to find them. All staff would benefit from making discovery easier.

Newcomers like me would also welcome crystal-clear advice on teaching well. Is there an implicit view that spelling this out (the nuts and bolts, not Bloom’s Taxonomy) encroaches on academic freedom? That is wrong. Good systems, uniformly delivered, are key to academic excellence.

The related key process is feedback: to whom am I accountable, and how is my performance measured? Business schools teach the increasing importance of transparency and accountability in the commercial world; it is ironic that our own workplaces sometimes lack job plans and don’t monitor outcomes or behaviour (the latter painfully important in universities).

Why might performance not be managed? It could be that the university’s underlying values are freedom and individuality, not balanced by accountability and control. Shared values are at the centre the McKinsey graphic, from which all else flows. But while most universities come up with lists of key words and commitments, I need the values translated into what I should expect to experience and do. Please can I get paid once a year to attend an event that is inspirational, honest and focused on enacting those lovely abstract nouns on the website?

Finally to another S that wasn’t included in McKinsey’s list: sustainability. All educating institutions surely embrace the shared value of enabling their graduates to make an impact on the global crises of our time, whatever their field. This puts brackets around all business assumptions and models (much though I might retain a place in my teaching heart for the original seven S’s). There should be no lingering affection for business models, textbooks or gurus whose wisdom does not support this value.

I’d love to believe that universities will scoop up experienced people like me to help equip resilient, informed and skilled global citizens. But they should make it possible for us to do our best job. I still have perhaps 10 years more work left in me, and I still care enough. But I could offer even more if I didn’t have to spend so much time making up for universities’ C-minuses in the seven S’s.

The author is a visiting lecturer at two UK universities.


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Reader's comments (7)

Well, I feel your pain but it is not like this hasn't been pointed out before. Universities do not utilise the skills of their faculty and never will (I have not seen them do so in 30 years across three continents and many schools). Systems, HR and Strategy are never informed by the business school. Legal matters never discussed with the law school. IT issues (for which universities are legendary) are never going to be addressed by recourse to the expertise in the computer science department. Look at the architecture, engineering, well being, and you name it. This really reflects the fact that universities view academics as 'staff' (btw a term I never heard used until I went to Australia and the UK as US schools do not call academics 'staff') not 'resources' and few, if any, senior 'academic' managers have any formal management training and don't want to be caught out not being capable in their roles. I had a colleague in Australia who found that the only way he could get the university to pay attention was to assign his MBA students to do a comprehensive audit of the school's management. While the administration thanked the students, it told him never to pull that stunt again. Most of us learn that "you can't fight city hall".
I too am a late-entry academic but find the environment far more congenial than those encountered in previous jobs (commercial software development, consultancy, and teaching in FE). I can now bring my ideas to fruition and do things the way I think they should be done... a couple of weeks after starting I asked my line manager if I would receive any direction as to what I should be doing and he said "You seem to be doing fine already" and that has continued. Countless times I've been about to say/do something and paused, worrying if I was overstepping the mark. Then do it... and promptly get congratulated for my initiative or thanked for stepping up to sort [whatever] out.
You are extremely lucky. Most academics are in this fortunate position.
Meant to say most academics (young or advanced) are not in a position to have their ideas appreciated. Their ideas are usually shot down in meetings or via email/msTeams and that is the end of it. Only a brave soul will try to resurrect their ideas of how things might be done differently.
Thank you for this article and this has been precisely my experience too. Being an academic is my second career, so to speak. I have been working at a business school as a full-time academic for ten years now. I had high hopes and a lot of enthusiasm, which I was able to sustain for a great number of years. However, by now the “system” and the dysfunctionality of UK HE as well as the lack of respect for academics as professionals has depleted my energy to the point that I do not really care about the organisation anymore. I do “my thing” while keeping the institutional wolves at bay and that is it. Keeps me sane. Luckily, I am settled and old enough and do not need another fast-tracked career (so the usual carrots and sticks offered by university management do not work for me). Call that “quite quitting” if you like, I call it self-preservation and self-care. Life is too short. I pity the young and hopeful academics just joining UK universities, though. They are trapped in the academic version of the neoliberal rat race while facing a Byzantine bureaucracy with often Stalinist management styles (a bit of hyperbole thrown in for fun). As a result, imho, destructive self-exploitation and burn-out, obsessive and hypercompetitive behaviour, and narcissism and sociopathy are rampant in academia but encouraged and rewarded as virtuous traits by the system (truly a déformation professionnelle). The compensation they get for the suffering is meagre at best. Moving into academia in the UK is actually increasingly only worthwhile when you are of independent means. Sounds very sad and bleak, and it is.
#6 An Academic Somewhere - Hard relate. Sadly, I feel the same way and so do a lot of my peers (also at a UK university business school)


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