Managerial Empowerment

Bernard Porter

I took early retirement from my last university job about a dozen years ago. One of my reasons was the way in which my post as head of the history department had become ‘managerialised’. I had mercifully forgotten the horrors of this until I recently stumbled on a copy of one of my memos to my colleagues. Here it is. (I’m not sure of the date.)

I list below the words, phrases and acronyms that cause me difficulty in the Agenda for the 11 September meeting and its attachments. Some of them I think I understand, but I'm not sure; others I thought I understood but can't make sense of them in the present contexts; the rest – the majority – simply baffle me.

Monthly supplier statements; infotype; drilling down, and drill-down functionality; human resources processes; cost centres vs. profit centres; funds reservations; controlling module; principal investigator; distribution/assessment cycle; materials management modules; standard hierarchy within SAP; master data Cost Element (budgethead) level; CO module; petty cash control account; dunning procedures; Transfer's accrual's and reconciliation's [it’s the inverted commas that have me puzzled]; value/quality contracts; storage location on the system; account assignment; physical inventory checking list; text description; issue unit/order unit; deletion (archiving) material records; interface [in various contexts]; output routing; standard texts; SSU web based salary costing system; planning functionality; the level Travel Equipment Salaries Consumables; activity planning [footnote explanation of this is unenlightening]; stored rates; HR/Cost centre/Project interface; profile payments; milestones and milestone bills; basic project templates; submission of formal start date; data fields; salaries segment; HR/project link; sold-to-party; sales order/billing plan; 'go live'; SAP requisition prior to it's conversion [inverted comma again]; 'Info Record'; Referencing an existing system requisition; line item; price comparison report; salaries cycle run; summarisation report [footnote unhelpful]; history [in this context!]; data partly defaulted; vacancy authorisation process; recruitment module implemented; employee self-service; sub-set of fixed term contracts; flagging input of non-taxable fees to Payroll by dynamic event; mgt info; user information needs; selection or reporting parameters; gap analysis; bespoke developments/requirements; Dev Trust position; org unit; end user; resource allocation model; time series analyses; time and funding splits; audit/notification tool; financial awareness training; and (acronyms): HESA, SAP, MIGs, FST, OSR, BACS, CHAPS, GAYE, PA, PD, PI, WBS, ESG, FSST.

Am I the only one among us to be experiencing something akin to panic at the prospect of trying to master all this? I'm sure I could do so, but it would take a very great amount of time and training in financial and management systems.

Surely this is all MAD? How much work are all these systems going to save us ultimately? Is that anything like commensurate with the time we shall have lost in trying to understand them? Is it really worth the University's while to divert its 'line managers' into this sort of task, to the detriment of the teaching, research and ordinary human management which used to be our traditional roles, are the ones we are trained for and skilled at, and whose performance the University will be ultimately judged on?

The last straw for me came when the vice-chancellor decided he was going to abolish the safety checks on electrical equipment formerly done by qualified electricians, and put on training courses for heads of department to do them instead. He called it ‘empowerment’. That’s when I decided to go.


  • 7 November 2012 at 4:11pm
    davidwlkr0 says:
    Sadly, this litany of complaint has all the characteristics of the genre of 'academic hurt' - a subjective, unquantified cry, which might sit well in a literary journal but is unlikely to (re)shape policy.
    If universities are as managerialist as BP says, why do they have a general reputation for administrative inefficiency? To answer that, we'd need some figures, comparing staff and office costs against some benchmark. We'd also need (BP and his colleagues tend to blench) some intellectually robust statement about what it is universities do so we could at least see the relationship between their costs and their output. If that's deemed unacceptable (because what universities do is ineffable), you've lost at once lost the argument. The 'life of mind' may be hard to quantify, but it's surely not incapable of rigorous description.
    And so on: BP and his like need to get their act together and instead of bleating get together a sustained critique - of vicecancellarial ineptitude, inflated costs or whatever the thrust of the complaint might be...because it's not clear just what his problem is. And that muddiness of argument about the institutions they inhabit is both a reflection on academics and part of the reason they are in a predicament.

    • 8 November 2012 at 12:46pm
      Robert Hanks says: @ davidwlkr0
      "If universities are as managerialist as BP says, why do they have a general reputation for administrative inefficiency?"

      You're assuming that managerialism = greater efficiency? Seriously?

  • 7 November 2012 at 5:39pm
    R I Moore says:
    Sadly, this arrogant and blustering response has all the hallmarks of the managerial complacency of which BP complains. It is perfectly clear what his problem was: the proliferation of meaningless jargon in place of clear, and therefore effective communication. The solution is equally clear: to insist that people in responsible positions learn and use the English language. In our dreams.

    No doubt some intellectually robust and rigorous critique lies behind the assertion that universities have a general (and by implication justified) reputation for administrative inefficiency. If so growing managerialism has not diminished it. There's a surprise. What they do, or at any rate should do is simple enough: teaching and research. Hard to get the managerial head round that I know. But success in both has been regularly measured for many years by a variety of international comparisons, all of which show that British universities offer remarkably good value for money. Regrettably none of these, so far as I know, has measured the relationship between performance in these respects and the number of administrative staff employed or the proportion of the salary bill they consume. Maybe the sustained critique recommended by davidwlkro might start there.

  • 7 November 2012 at 7:53pm
    streetsj says:
    Was the VC being witty/ironic when he referred to "empowerment"? It made me smile.

  • 8 November 2012 at 8:26am
    R Jay says:
    University administration seems to have been demonised by academics to no end. There may be more jargons than necessary in some areas, but think about the offices academics sit in; think about the reams of paper they print on; think about the electronic journals at their fingertips. These things don't just exist. They need to be managed. They are there to facilitate research and teaching.

    The real problem is why academics are asked to 'manage' non-academic aspects in the first place. It puzzles me. But I suspect that it's some academics' ambitious idea to 'empower' themselves.

    And the real problem is that because many academic heads are so uninterested and inept in management that their poor performance is having negative impacts on the efficiency of universities.

  • 8 November 2012 at 10:10am
    ander says:
    A little investigation would would have revealed that the administration of prof. Porter's university got infiltraded by an alumnus of a Master of Business Administration programme. These consumate yes-men specialize in the sort of ghastly lingo he quotes. Fluency in this horror is prerequisite to the upward mobility in the corporate world and, now it seems, in academia.

  • 8 November 2012 at 11:26am
    Harry Stopes says:
    That was from the agenda of one meeting? Must have been a long meeting.

  • 8 November 2012 at 12:12pm
    Bernard Porter says:
    Some answers. Yes, it was one meeting. Yes, the VC was serious about ‘empowering’. The theory is, I think, that if you have to do something yourself you have more control over it. I must remember that when I’m tempted to buy a new pullover rather than growing my own sheep. Lastly, I’ve never been against university administrators – some have been my best friends. But I preferred it when administration was called that, rather than ‘management’. Just as I preferred staff being called ‘personnel’ rather than ‘human resources’. The new terms give off different vibes entirely. Apart from that, RI Moore’s response to the first pseudonymous comment says it all, I think.

  • 8 November 2012 at 2:22pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    When you're discussing inefficient management, it's a bit much to refer to Bernard Porter as BP.

  • 8 November 2012 at 3:20pm
    David Gordon says:
    Fascinating. Unimportant subjects such as, say, climate change or Latin American "disappearances" (the previous two entries in the LRB blog) get sparse discussion, but touch on the way universities are run, and the comments flutter down like confetti. It shows what really matters to us.

    First, no-one, in any walk of life, should write some of the obscure jargon Bernard Porter quotes. But surely he is overdoing it? "Principal investigator" defines itself quite clearly, and is on the front page of any Research Council grant application form. Similarly "resource allocation model" is quite clear.

    Also, some of the abbreviations do not deserve a complaint. Your tax return will ask you about electronic payments through the BACS and CHAPS systems. HESA are the guys who collect statistics on us, an abbreviation that any head of department could reasonably be expected to know. If the university's computer software was provided by SAP (the most likely of the possible meanings of this acronym) then to write SAP is more sensible than writing "Systemanalyse und Programmentwicklung".

    Second, despite the bricks that have been thrown at davidwlkr0, his (her?) main point is correct. Public money pays for universities, and we have an obligation to explain what we are doing with that money, and to show that we are not wasting it.

    Third, a small point. R I Moore says that universities just do "teaching and research". They do much more. In particular, they provide services. The best example is in medicine, where the staff of a medical faculty provide care for patients, as an essential concomitant of their duties in teaching and research. Clinical services delivered by university staff probably provide about a tenth of all NHS hospital medicine.

  • 8 November 2012 at 3:54pm
    Bernard Porter says:
    Once and for all, none of us is saying that universities don't need administering, or don't have a public duty to be good and efficient. The latter is best achieved however by encouraging academics to do what they're best at, rather than to master skills (and a language) that others are far better at. As I told my VC: I bet Bill Gates doesn't waste the time of his most brilliant programmers by making them check their plugs.

    • 8 November 2012 at 4:30pm
      ander says: @ Bernard Porter
      The aforementioned alumnus should have recognized this as the principle of comparative advantage. Alas.

  • 9 November 2012 at 11:30am
    John Beattie says:
    On its face, 'managerial' means something like "this place needs administrators" with the implication of "better administrators".

    I think this strangeness is resolved if I read 'managerial' as a codeword with the meaning "We want to treat this place as a profit centre".

    Universities are cost centres, not profit centres.

    • 17 November 2012 at 8:58am
      John Cowan says: @ John Beattie
      Insofar as it makes any sense to treat a whole enterprise as any kind of center, which is not much, universities are investment centers, and to be judged on their appropriate use of capital, rather than their costs or profits.

  • 16 November 2012 at 10:42am
    houhynym says:
    You people still in British universities don't know how lucky you are. Back in the USS Oz, we have ultra managerialism, where all quality and all qualities are wholly and exclusively defined by position on a meretricious league table, where "performance" is as adjudicated by little Putins and Putinas occupying DVC(Admin) posts under the spell of half digested neoliberal market worship and short termism, where collegiality is often mentioned in propaganda but never exercised to make any significant decisions, where cronyism is a common basis for appointment to high office and where the separation of fact from opinion as a skill to develop in staff or students alike is seen as dangerously subversive. Some of us stay on because we hope for a dialectical opposition amongst the lumpenprofessoriat to manifest as the above oppressions steadily and irreversibly mount.

    • 17 November 2012 at 10:04pm
      David Gordon says: @ houhynym
      Well, we have had some experience of what might be found in the Oz that houhynym describes. Alan Gilbert ( was imported from Melbourne in 2004 to be the VC of the new University of Manchester. Manchester observed the “economic rationalism” for which Gilbert had become well known in Australia.

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