Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Rosemary Deem and Rachel Johnson (2003) 'Risking the University? Learning to be a Manager-Academic in UK Universities'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 3, <>

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Received: 26/6/2003      Accepted: 15/8/2003      Published: 31/08/2003


The paper explores the extent to which Heads of Department and Pro-Vice Chancellors, or manager-academics, in UK universities are aware of and prepared for the so-called 'risk society'. It draws on a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council concerned with the management of UK universities and the extent of permeation within universities of recent ideologies about new practices for managing public services. Recent debates in social theory about the concept of a risk society and risk cultures, and how these might be applied to higher education, are considered. Key features of a rapidly changing environment for the conduct and management of academic work are also outlined. The focus and methodology of the ESRC research project are explained. Interview data from Head of Department and Pro-Vice Chancellors are then used to illustrate a range of responses to notions of risk made by manager-academics. Finally, the paper examines how the learning of manager-academics could be better supported, in order that post-holders can acquire the flexibility and reflexivity which living in a risk society and culture seems to demand.

Academic Work; Academics; Change; Informal Learning; Management; Risk-cultures; Risk-society; Universities


In this paper we explore the extent to which manager-academics [1] in UK universities are prepared for, and cope with a world of contemporary risks and uncertainty, or what might be described as 'risking the university'. We draw on a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council concerned with 'new managerialism' and the management of UK universities. Key features of a rapidly changing environment for the conduct and management of academic work in a risk society are outlined, as is the alternative idea of risk cultures. We also describe the focus and methodology of the ESRC research project that provided the empirical data on which the paper is based. We then examine the responses of manager-academics interviewed in the ESRC research in the light of theoretical debates about risk and risk societies and also explore their accounts of how they learnt about management. We suggest that the training manager-academics receive is often more attuned to past institutional structures than to innovation, new cultures, risk-seeking and risk-transforming. We suggest ways of improving their preparation.

Risk Societies and Higher Education

A number of social theorists argue that we now live in a risk society, beset with the possibility of a range of unpredictable and large scale political, environmental, health, social and economic risks (Beck 1992; Giddens 1994; Adam, Beck et al. 2000; Van Loon 2002) disrupting everyday life. This risk society, apparently the outcome of the effects of intensive, world-wide, relatively-unregulated capitalist activity, is claimed to have replaced the class society and is characterised by a greater future-orientation than previously (Beck 1992; Adam, Beck et al. 2000). Furthermore, it is argued that risk is itself a prominent driver of social change. In risk societies, risk is conceptualised and experienced by individuals as well as by institutions and the powers of effective intervention in risks by the nation-state diminish.

Beck points out that the shift from industrial to risk society is not a desired or intentional change. It coincides with shifts away from a welfare state, individualisation, detachment from collectivities and the enhanced significance of the market as a central feature of people's lives (Beck, Giddens et al. 1994). At the same time, it is claimed that there is more awareness of uncertainty and risk, and greater emphasis on the management of risk at all levels, with an enhanced role for experts in assessing and dealing with risks (Giddens 1994). Yet risk is also a 'cognitive and social construct' (Beck, Giddens et al. 1994, p 6 ), not just (as the fashion for risk assessment in organisations suggests) a scientific calculation. Thus individuals are expected to draw on their own biographies and backgrounds more than previously (Lash and Urry 1994) in dealing with risks. This state of affairs is also argued by some writers, including Beck and Giddens, to require greater individual reflexivity, as traditional responses to risk become outdated, dysfunctional or inappropriate (Lupton 1999). However, it is not necessarily the case that societies have become more risk-laden, rather that they are perceived as such. This perception may produce certain kinds of responses: 'As risk becomes omni-present, there are only three possible responses: denial, apathy or transformation' (Van Loon 2002) p 1.

Some theorists also suggest that in contemporary societies, institutional structures are increasingly being replaced by flows of information and communication (Castells 1996). Indeed Lash argues that such flows may mean that the notion of risk society is itself outdated, as it tends to focus on social institutional, normative and hierarchical orderings, rather than cultural values, in what he describes as fluid and disordered sociations. Lash (2000) further claims that whilst Beck and Giddens have examined how more reflexive democratic institutions can deal with risks, they have failed to look sufficiently at cultures of risk outside this context. He writes: 'The sort of sociations that make up the critical risk cultures of reflexive modernity are not normative but value groupings that operate in the margins, in the third space, the boundary that separates private and public life ... they are characteristically risk cultures in that there is a chronic uncertainty, a continual questioning, an openness to innovation built into them' (Lash 2000 p. 60). Lash contends that risk-takers will be increasingly replaced by risk-makers, engaged in innovation but operating outside conventional institution and structures.

Where do academics fit into this world of anticipated risks, risk societies and cultures and new sociations? As an occupational group they are effectively autonomous professionals who tend to work in secluded settings away from more worldly concerns, in an environment where disciplinary and subject department allegiances are all-important to occupational identities (Smyth 1995; Cuthbert 1996; Henkel 2000; Becher and Trowler 2001). It could be argued that academic disciplines have elements of the flows of information cultures that Lash notes (Lash 2000), although disciplinary cultures are more ordered and more tied to public life (Becher and Trowler 2001) than Lash's definition would allow. Furthermore some academics may seek to deny risk or are apathetic towards risks, especially those outside their area of expertise. But paradoxically since as Giddens notes, the role of experts in risk societies is enhanced (Giddens 1994), academics are increasingly called upon by the media for expert comment in times of war, economic decline or rise of particular diseases. Academics cannot escape the risk society any more than anyone else. They have long dealt with risks and uncertainties in research, as Brew notes, since 'Academic research occupies contested space' (Brew 2001). Additionally, western societies are increasingly posing questions over the purpose of publicly funded universities as such funding becomes scarcer (Barnett 1999; Delanty 2001). There are also a variety of agencies seeking control of research agendas, high public interest in research areas such as medicine and bio-science, new technologies affecting the speed and process of research and intellectual crises about the nature of knowledge. Research often involves not just risk-taking but Lash's notion of risk-making (Lash 2000). Even in teaching, outcomes in terms of student learning are often not predictable, even if current quality assurance rhetoric suggests otherwise, yet risk-making and innovation is not always encouraged in teaching (Hannan and Silver 2000).

Furthermore, new risks are also being encountered in higher education. In the UK, academics and their institutions have been significantly affected since the mid-1980s by the growth of an audit culture concerned with ensuring that they are publicly accountable for the alleged quality of their in research and teaching (Power 1997; Shore and Wright 1999; Strathern 2000; Morley 2003). Audit cultures place high emphasis on short-term measurement of output (eg student learning immediately after a course, an article just written) rather than long term evaluation of processes or impact. The risks of performance perceived to be poor can affect identities, careers, departmental survival and institutional fortunes. The search for fresh funding resources by universities (Slaughter and Leslie 1997; Clark 1998; Marginson and Considine 2000) brings academics face-to-face with the potential of non-academic risks (war, disease, economic recession) disrupting the certainties of their world. Indeed in the contemporary world, the very notion of a university may be at risk (Readings 1996; Delanty 2001), as other organisations seek to displace or usurp the knowledge creation and transmission roles of universities. UK universities are becoming more entrepreneurial, seeking funding for applied research, setting up spin-off companies, recruiting international students and taking teaching programmes to other countries. Conventional academic departmental boundaries are no longer able to contain all these elements (Slaughter and Leslie 1997; Marginson and Considine 2000) and are being replaced or supplemented by more flexible organisational forms on the margins of universities, where decisions can be made quickly in response to market needs for research and teaching. Indeed, some entrepreneurially-minded academics, whom Slaughter and Leslie (1997) describe as academic capitalists, are developing networks which sit between their academic institutions and their private lives in the way that Lash describes as being characteristic of risk cultures (Lash 2000).

The idea of the academic capitalist originates from comparative research on academics in the US, Canada, Australia and UK (Slaughter and Leslie 1997) and applies to a minority of academics who have become highly-oriented towards finance-driven activities like consultancy or spin-off companies. Such forms of sociation are quite different from conventional academic work, because of their interdisciplinarity and flexibility, as well as their market and future-orientation. At the same time, along with other public service work (Exworthy and Halford 1999; Webb 1999; Whitehead and Moodley 1999) the context of all academic work and how it is managed is changing. There is a desire on behalf of government for more regulation and control, the antithesis of fluid, value-based cultures of risk.

In the UK, until the 1980s, the external environment for higher education was regarded as fairly predictable (Parry 2001a). There was a loosely defined consensus between universities and the state about funding and the role of universities as educators of elites and pursuers of research and knowledge. Thereafter, as universities began to expand and diversify their student intake, public funding became more contentious and as regular research and teaching audits were introduced, the environment became more uncertain (Shattock 1999; Kogan and Hanney 2000). Some universities began to operate with a much stronger entrepreneurial emphasis (Slaughter and Leslie 1997; Clark 1998; Gray 1999) and a greater stress on management (Smith and Webster 1997; Jary and Parker 1998; Miller 1998; Robins and Webster 2002). Conceptions of what counts as knowledge began to shift (Gibbons, Limgoges et al. 1994; Barnett 2003). Nevertheless, recent research suggests that the core foundations of professional academic identities in research, subject discipline and teaching remain strong (Henkel 2000). This counters the arguments of others who suggest that academic work has become proletarianised or routinised (Halsey 1992; Winter 1995). However it does not explain why some academics are drawn to entrepreneurial activities or wish to replace research, teaching and academic politics, including sponsorship of other academics' careers (Bourdieu 1988), with academic networking, as current research on the London School of Economics suggests (Osborne 2003).

One explanation for this change in emphasis might lie in the fact that all UK universities are now encouraged, following various initiatives including a government white paper early in 2003, to engage in technology transfer, whilst at the same time, definitions of universities are widening (Department for Education and Skills 2003), allowing corporate alternatives to universities to develop. Risk is also omnipresent in the cash-strapped UK higher education institution. Political, religious or economic crises such as the 2003 war on Iraq can easily alter the volatile demand for higher education in western countries from a mobile international student population. Such students who pay high fees to study in the UK may be particularly likely to demand value for money and seek litigation if failure is encountered. Innovation in teaching is risky and can prove unpopular with both staff and students (Hannan and Silver 2000). So called' failure' in research, which might be related to a lack of a long track-record in research (especially in the former polytechnics which have only been eligible to receive research funding since 1992), an absence of externally funded research, research which does not fit with that done by the rest of a department (Lucas 2001) or research which is not considered by institutional managers or external auditors to be of national or international quality, may affect future funding (Mace 2000; Harley 2002). Indeed some departments which did badly in the 2001 UK Research Assessment Exercise (which purports to assess the quality of research and publications by academic subject/discipline about every five years, with money allocated according to the quality grades awarded) are being closed, such as the Department of Cultural Studies and Sociology at Birmingham University, despite acclaimed excellence in teaching. Before we go on to examine how manager-academics have responded to these changes in their environment and how risk society/risk culture theories might be applied to them, there follows a brief description of the project from which our data are derived.

The ESRC New Managerialism Research Project

The data in this paper are drawn from a two year Economic and Social Research Council funded study (grant no R000237661) carried out by a research team based at Lancaster University[2]-. The project examined the extent to which 'new managerialism' had permeated the management of UK universities (Deem, Fulton et al. 2001). 'New managerialism' refers to a set of reforms in the management and organisation of publicly funded services instigated by many western governments over the past two decades (Exworthy and Halford 1999). Theorists have noted that there are several manifestations of its organisational existence. Three dimensions of new managerialism particularly informed the research. First, there was an interest in the kinds of strategic narratives (Barry and Elmes 1997) used by manager-academics to persuade academics to change their attitudes and practices in ways more consistent with quasi-market oriented service provision and value-for-money criteria. The term manager-academics is used to refer to the positions held by academics acting as Heads of Department, Deans, Pro/Deputy Vice-Chancellors or Vice-Chancellors/Principals and is not intended to refer to their own identities, which as will become evident later, do not necessarily accord with such descriptors. Second, the project sought information on distinctive organisational forms, mechanisms and cultures associated with 'new managerialist' narratives of change which might have begun to emerge in higher education and how these could be utilised by manager-academics. Third, there was a focus on the kinds of control technologies (Clarke and Newman 1997) used by manager-academics in their work. Traditionally, universities have relied heavily on peer-control and other forms of collegiality in conducting their research and teaching (McNay 1995; Dearlove 1997) but these may be judged inadequate for running large complex organisations.

The research was conducted in three phases. Phase one used twelve focus group discussions with academics, manager-academics and administrators from a range of professional associations or learned societies to explore what was happening to the current management of UK higher education. In phase two, 137 semi-structured interviews were conducted with Heads of Department (HoDs), Deans, Pro-Vice Chancellors (PVCs) and Vice-Chancellors (VCs) at 16 pre-1992 and post-1992 UK universities (the latter were formerly polytechnics which gained university status in 1992). The sampling strategy included both women and men respondents from a rane of subject disciplines in each institution. Refusals to participate were rare. The interviews covered careers; selection mechanisms for management posts; training and support; work-life and home-life; management practices and routines; views about change; work anxieties and pleasures; and, attitudes towards institutional management and organisation. We probed thoughts on recent developments in the external environment of UK universities, and issues related to management and gender processes. In phase three, four institutions were chosen for more detailed case studies, based on their size, type (pre or post-92 institution), location, number of site(s) and teaching/research emphases. We collected and analysed documentation: mission statements, operating statements, corporate plans, UK Quality Assurance Agency reports on teaching inspections and university annual reports. We conducted observation in different locations including meetings, and interviewed groups of university staff, from secretaries to technicians, and also students (Union sabbatical officers). The intention was to compare their perceptions of what was happening to the management of their organisations with those of manager-academics already interviewed (Deem 2003b).

Manager-academics and Risks

In this section we apply social theories about risk to the work of manager-academics. As noted earlier, the use of the term manager-academic refers to the particular roles undertaken by the academics concerned rather than being an attribution of individual identity. Some UK academics in management roles do not regard themselves as managers per se. Unlike in many other occupations, academics occupying managerial roles do not necessarily cease their previous work activities. Especially at HoD and Dean level, such individuals continue to research and teach, albeit sometimes less than before. In our research, although two-thirds of our interviewees said that they could be described as managers, most were at pains to point out that they regarded themselves first and foremost as academics. In universities in existence before 1992, the date when former polytechnics were awarded university status, the majority of manager-academics below the level of Vice Chancellor (academic heads of universities) occupy their managerial roles only temporarily. So managerial identities, if they exist, are often temporary and secondary to other occupational identities. This is less so in the ex-polytechnics where there are more permanent management positions and formal career-paths for manager-academics.

Beck suggests that typical organisational forms in both industrial and risk societies are often inflexible and not well suited to dealing with uncertainty (Beck 1992; Beck, Giddens et al. 1994). Our data suggest this may be so in the universities studied, with much effort apparently expended on increasing the predictability of employees' actions and scrutinising performance (Cowen 1996; Morley 2001), rather than encouraging risk or innovation, though clearly much of the former is externally imposed as part of an audit culture in publicly-funded organisations (Power 1997). As Smith notes in his analysis of US universities' cultures, performance-management often places limits on academic activity without any gain in innovation or growth in research and teaching (Smith 2000). Indeed, risk-taking and making (eg speculative academic appointments or introducing experimental forms of teaching without extensive bureaucratic approval) did not seem institutionally encouraged in the universities studied. But paradoxically, technical-rational risk-management procedures appeared to be an increasing concern, as much in respect of regular Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) outcomes or teaching quality assessment scores (until recently subject departments were inspected by peer teams and given a numerical score for the quality of their teaching), as in connection with financial ventures or collapse of overseas markets. Maybe UK universities have yet to move from notions of encountering the risk society to embracing risk cultures, even though risking the university, whether through lack of research funding or failures in student- recruitment is now commonplace.

Responses to the notion of risk by the manager-academics we interviewed were complex and sometimes ambivalent, with considerable evidence of risk- avoidance (though risk-denial was less apparent). Whilst the changes to the environment for higher education such as audit cultures (Power 1997) were much mentioned as contributing to a degree of perceived uncertainty about the future of academic work and universities, reference to other dimensions of risk-taking or risk-making were less widespread. For example, there was little apparent emphasis on the threat of student litigation in the accounts manager-academics gave about students (Johnson and Deem 2003), though there is some evidence that the risk of litigation by students is increasing (Middlemiss 2000). The predominance of risk-avoidance is probably not unrelated to interviewees' biographies, which, as Lash suggests (Lash 2000), are a major resource for contemporary social actors. Relatively few had a background in industry or commerce. Most had spent their careers in an educational environment or in other public service, with senior levels of management often reached in late-career. The implications of the latter can include the possibility, for example, that the challenges of new technologies (Reed and Deem 2002; Robins and Webster 2002) are not always well understood by senior manager-academics. The argument that structures are being replaced by information and communication flows was one suggested by only by a handful of information technology specialists. Yet the speeding up of action made possible by new information technologies (which, as in email, by virtue of their immediacy, decrease the time spent on reflection and thought before decisions are taken) and the emphasis on surveillance of performance, are amongst the key characteristics of the risk society (Van Loon 2002). Such changes are widespread in most contemporary universities. But perhaps some of the potential of new technologies has yet to be realised in academe (Robins and Webster 2002).

Little pre-management training of any kind, never mind that relating to attributes needed to live in a risk society, had been offered to the manager-academics interviewed. Less than one-third of our 137 respondents had been offered any sustained training, although a larger proportion had been on one-day courses about topics such as finance or personnel matters. Nevertheless, many felt that their previous experiences of teaching or organising courses, and running research groups, had provided an important foundation for their current roles. This may have been influenced by the predominant view that being a manager was not an all-encompassing identity, being an academic was. Most thought that they had learned about management informally, often by interaction with others in similar posts at the same or different universities, thus acquiring the tacit knowledge that is also important in how businesses succeed (Archibugi and Lundvall 2001). There was considerable evidence of retrospective organizational sense-making (Weick 1995; Watson and Watson 1999; Weick 2000) amongst our respondents about why they had entered management and about how they had learnt to manage. Self-reflexivity was considered very important by some, a mind-set argued to be indicative of the conditions of contemporary existence in a post-traditional risk society (Giddens 1991; Beck, Giddens et al. 1994; Giddens 1994). However, both informal and formal learning seemed to centre on generic skills, traditional procedures and immediate concerns, with orientation to future challenges seldom included. The notion of practical management strategies (Townley 2003) seemed much to the fore than any understanding of management theories.

The higher education literature describes new responses at institutional and individual level to altered cultural and resource environments (Slaughter and Leslie 1997; Clark 1998; Prichard 1998; Marginson and Considine 2000; Prichard 2000). These and related management changes are sometimes argued to be necessary to the survival of public-funded institutions, with globalising factors and the growth of the knowledge economy (Gibbons, Limgoges et al. 1994; Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff 1997; Sadlak 1998; Scott 1998) picked out as key influences in the transition from introspective to outward-looking, entrepreneurial institutions. In these circumstances, maintaining academic success can involve substantial innovation, risk and uncertainty, and it might be expected that these would be evident in our interview data, which included academic in universities near the top of national league tables for both research and teaching. Yet few respondents felt that their institution or themselves had sufficient current capacity to deal with the nature and speed of change. Risks and uncertainties provided stresses that might fracture the fragile security they experienced. Though many of our interviewees emphasised the importance of trying to bring about cultural change in university staff because of the unpredictable nature of their current world, universities are not well set- up to deal with risky activities or to undertake dramatic risk-transformations:
It's been the policy of the University not to take risks, as with most universities. Now, that's in direct contradiction to the concept of income generation [which] by its very nature, has certain risk elements to it ... You may see other Heads here pulling out of external income. Those that have tried it, and where there have been one or two problems and they have got really 'sent down' for it and the dogs have gone in, it has upset people and they simply turned round this year and said, "No more" ... Now, if you don't accept risk, then let's shut shop and say what we are is a business of pure education and we're not involving ourselves with external clients. If we are going to ... [accept risk], we have to have an element of risk strategy that goes with it, providing that the risk strategy ... doesn't expose the university to a financial problem. ... I think that that culture hasn't yet happened (HoD Applied Science post-1992)

Neither UK higher education funding bodies nor the Government encourages universities to take risks and both seek financial and other controls over what are only partially publicly-funded institutions (Parry 2001a). This emphasis on control was evident in the 2003 White Paper on the Future of Higher Education in England (Department for Education and Skills 2003), which suggested introducing yet more bureaucratic restrictions, such as a regulator to control participation in higher education for disadvantaged social groups. Yet UK universities are also subjected to criticism for not embracing new technologies and global student markets (Middlehurst 2000). Meanwhile, the public funding environment changes each year and student recruitment is highly volatile; this situation leaves universities with no other choice but to take risks of various kinds, whether cultural or economic. The quasi-market conditions of different academic disciplines also affect exposure to risk, with those in the sciences tending to be more cavalier about money than academics in arts and humanities. In the latter, small amounts of money have greater relative implications for departments, and public funding per student has been in rapid decline:
It's quite interesting the way in which different people manage budgets... There's £8,500,000 so I'm only interested to the nearest 1% or so roughly, because as I was saying to someone this morning, 100k at any one time in the budget is noise ... you don't know precisely what the income levels are at any one time, and there's risk on how people default on their debts to you ...So you can't manage it more closer than that ... But I know some Deans do, they get worried: 'What's this £400 been spent on?', and of course eventually they find out that it was valid anyway, so why bother? (Dean, Engineering, post 1992)

Our data then reveal a varied response to dealing with risk and uncertainty but one in which risk-avoidance was more of a feature than risk-taking. Different kinds of anticipated risks were found at institutional, department and faculty level, reflecting both devolution of financial resources and the scale of operation with which the manager-academic dealt. Thus a VC might talk of trying to change a whole institution, whereas a HoD contemplates cultural and economic risks at a more micro level:
I find (the attempt to become a top research institution) very exciting. I don't like the personal side of it, because in all change there are losers, and a lot of people will have lost in this, ... and I hate causing distress but ... one puts the wider picture forward in a way. (VC, pre-1992)
My line ... has always been to attempt to have a fairly light hand on the rein and to get people to do things and more or less to leave them to it. Sometimes they fall flat on their faces of course. (HoD Arts/Humanities, pre-1992)

It appeared that HoD respondents trusted their colleagues more than senior manager-academics trusted HoDs. Despite devolved budgets, HoDs were usually required to obtain permission from their Dean or a committee for new projects or appointments. Lack of trust, and a desire to ensure that risks are managed and uncertainty eliminated, have been identified as major reasons for lack of academic innovation in US universities (Smith 2000). Risking the university is a step too far for many higher education institutions. Our data suggest that concealing risk-taking (sometimes relating to actions taken by the institution but not yet public knowledge) from other staff is also a concern for manager-academics. This is not Lash's new world of non-organisational sociations and risk cultures; rather it can be isolating for those concerned:
I didn't actually tell them everything about what was going on [about staffing] because I thought it would be disruptive...,they didn't need to know on a day-to-day basis ... because it would have interfered with their work, and I didn't want to do that ... they might have thought ,well I might be better off in some other institution. So I decided not to tell them everything (HoD Arts/Humanities, pre-1992)

Although almost all those interviewed claimed attempts to implement cultural change, a major feature of ideologies of new managerialism (Du Gay and Salaman 1992; Clarke and Newman 1997), a large number of respondents did not see themselves as risk-takers/makers, especially those from pre-1992 institutions. Disciplinary differences were also apparent, with scientists, engineers, computer scientists and those in business schools more economic risk-oriented (though not necessarily more culture-risk oriented). Those whose careers had brought them into contact with risk and uncertainty outside higher education - typically in commerce or industry - also claimed more confidence in their responses to the current risk environment.

Women respondents appeared more cautious in their approaches to risks involving cultural change and money than men and it is worth examining why this caution appeared to exist. Theoretical debates on risk societies say relatively little about the salience of gender except in relation to intimacy and the domestic environment (Giddens 1992; Adam, Beck et al. 2000). Yet our data indicate that women and men may have different experiences of the same university and that women manager-academics often perceive themselves to be judged against different criteria to their male colleagues (Deem 2003a). This is comparable with findings of research on the experiences of women working in other large private-sector and public organisations (Halford, Savage et al. 1997; Wajcman 1998; Maddock 1999). It is therefore quite possible that women who take risks may be judged more unfavourably than men taking similar risks, and may therefore choose not to be judged that way, though the organisational context is also relevant (Deem, Ozga et al. 2000; Rutherford 2001). This not untypical woman interviewee recognises that she has a role to play in stimulating change, and yet feels that risk-taking in general is not for her:
I'm not an entrepreneur, not much of a risk-taker, so I'm never going to be someone taking, making, the big change. More just trying to improve and approach things in different ways, those kind of changes, rather than the dramatic. (HoD, Health, pre-1992)

Our data suggest that the types of individual and organisational behaviours implicated in the 'entrepreneurial' university as described by Clark and others may be atypical within the UK (Clark 1998). Indeed some other analyses indicate that risk-takers may be concentrated in organisational units outside conventional departments (Slaughter and Leslie 1997; Marginson and Considine 2000), perhaps forming new kinds of risk cultures or sociations (Lash 2000). We did not interview those working in such groups as we concentrated on mainstream academic units: departments/schools and faculties. But how do manager-academics themselves learn to be reflexive, to anticipate, confront and take or avoid risks? Are they overtly exposed to ideas about risk cultures in their preparation?

Manager-academic Careers and Learning

This section examines the career paths of Pro Vice Chancellors (PVCs) and Heads of Department (HoDs) and their views on the nature and adequacy of the preparation, training and support they experienced in their management roles. The reasons for accepting management positions varied. HoDs' decisions ranged from a sense of reluctant obligation, curiosity or challenge-seeking, through a belief that others would be less able to secure the welfare of a department, to an active choice to further their career development. HoD tenure varies; in the post-1992 institutions they may be appointed to a permanent post whereas in pre-1992 universities HoD and PVC roles are often rotating and for a fixed-term. When appointed, most HoDs have wide experience of teaching and research and some administrative involvement, as these accounts illustrate:
I've come up through the ranks you could say, started off as a trouper lecturer. Got a personal chair ... I didn't really consider myself as managerial potential, I considered myself as a researcher, I was very happy getting on running big programmes, supervising graduate students and postdocs. But I think once you reach the top, and I guess once you get your personal chair, you think, [and] I guess with it being a very, very, competitive university for survival of departments - research funds, FTE's - if the department's not run properly, then you're all in serious trouble. (HoD Science, pre-1992)
I started here as a Lecturer .. and I moved up to be a Senior Lecturer and ... became a Principal Lecturer with responsibility for a combined honours programme ... I became eventually Director of Undergraduate Studies ... I think the opportunity then came to do something I'd never done, which was to actually manage a group of staff - and I thought this was a good career move: the opportunity to do something different and a considerable increase in my salary (HoD Social Science, post-1992)

Pro-Vice Chancellors assist the academic head of their institution and operate at a different organisational level from HoDs, often focusing on a particular portfolio (eg research, or learning and teaching) across the whole institution, rather than being responsible for everything in a single department. PVCs are usually also part of a senior management team (Deem 2003b) and those interviewed often had a fair amount of management experience, an interest in management for its own sake, and more blurred academic/managerial identities:
I came back to head a research group ... then as things went on I eventually became professor and head of the department ... As time progressed it fell to me to be elected to be Dean ... and I discovered that I did get some job satisfaction from the more managerial side of universities... By then, in the sort of mid-50's age-wise, I was beginning to think maybe I'd like to be a Vice-Chancellor of another university. And by that time I'd ceased being Dean and I was then appointed as a Pro Vice-Chancellor. ... In the meantime the creation of the Deputy Vice-Chancellorship (DVC)... offered an opportunity ... That's how I ended up where I am. (DVC pre-1992)

The challenges faced by both HoDs and PVCs often centred on a need for innovation and change in order to maintain or increase both income and external reputation for the quality of their teaching and research but also included concern about the morale and workloads of their staff. However, unlike in their academic work, they could not simply draw on their academic expertise. Furthermore, the time-constraints under which they worked (Deem and Hillyard 2002) did not lend themselves to the kind of reflexivity to which Beck and Giddens refer (Beck 1992; Beck, Giddens et al. 1994). Yet a number of manager-academics did try to focus on dealing with strategies of denial and apathy (Van Loon 2002) towards institutional change which they found in some colleagues and thus tried to move in the direction of attempts at transformation. Such transformations may often be resisted by other staff. Our case study interviews revealed considerable resistance to overt management by academics and support staff (Deem 2003b), particularly since academic-managers were sometimes regarded as very 'amateur' in their approach and not always sufficiently consultative of others.

The devolution of resources, and responsibilities for budget management and financial targets to departments or faculties incurs delegation of risk and uncertainty. We found that HoDs often felt vulnerable. Many wanted the support of colleagues or senior administrative staff but found this difficult because of time-constraints or because confiding in others was itself perceived as risky:
HoD: To get accurate feedback about how you're actually doing is very, very difficult ... If I start saying to the staff, "Well, do you actually agree with what I'm doing?" that shows them that I may have some doubt about it and ... that would down their confidence in my ability to run the School (HoD Social Science, post-1992)

Many of the HoDs felt cut off from colleagues within their departments:
I thought I might feel quite isolated in the department and I do ... It changes your relationship with everybody in quite difficult ways (HoD, Arts/Humanities, pre-1992)

Lack of interaction with peers was a much commented upon in HoDs' accounts of their preparation, training and support. A few drew on experiences outside higher education. Those from Business Schools felt ambivalent about the extent to which their theoretical knowledge of management contributed to their ability to act effectively. We found that manager-academics placed greatest value on learning enhanced by interaction and opportunities for reflection with peers, a situation typical of some other professional occupations too (Becher 1999). That these opportunities appeared to be scarce in the institutions concerned indicates that such learning may not be valued by those responsible for training.

Formal training courses tended to be poorly regarded by our respondents. Problems alluded to included an over-generic curriculum and short duration, both common complaints about professional development in a number of occupations (Eraut 2003). It was suggested that too little attention was paid to scenarios or problem-solving, with participants' context often ignored. The generic approach is typical of traditional approaches to management development (Fox 1997). Recently more intensive training for senior managers in UK higher education such as that run by the Higher Education Staff Development Association has tended to move away from generic courses and passive learning towards more interactive learning, from action-learning sets, through 360 degree appraisal (where 'managed' staff provide opinions about their manager) and coaching, emphasising flexibility and self-generated enquiry (Sibbalt 2003). But this active learning was not what most of our respondents had experienced. Indeed many thought that managers were born, not made and saw management as commonsense, that is, drawing on and learning from experience and ideas gleaned from years of reflection on academic work, paralleling Townley's (2003) view about the typical approach of many manager-academics:
Many of the senior professors who I worked with ... had great managerial skills and you know, plain commonsense: how you make things happen, don't get too bogged down in bureaucracy, where there's a will there's a way, you know, those kind of approaches. (PVC, pre-1992)

This emphasis on commonsense is an interesting one, since it often, as here, appears to refer to manager-academics reflecting experientially on their own careers and academic biographies. However, while undoubtedly very valuable to manager-academics, relying heavily on past experience can also be problematic. Living in an uncertain climate in universities implies the likelihood of encountering new risks and risk-taking, so past wisdom may be insufficient. Furthermore, the use of commonsense in relation to management can also imply an over-simplified notion of management and an unreflective approach to tasks, processes and actions. Some scientist manager-academics in particular took evident delight in dismissing the work of management theorists as totally irrelevant to universities, ironically perhaps an extension of the wider dismissal of much social science as commonsense, whilst simultaneously declaring the value of (other) forms of commonsense to managing universities and academic work. Finally commonsense appears to be the opposite of the expert focus that Giddens suggests is characteristic of life in risk societies (Giddens 1994), though if it refers to using past expertise it may not necessarily be so. Undertaking management tasks often involves rapid sets of encounters with new techniques, practices, social relations, cultures and contexts, as well as entry into a new community of practice. Much of this initial experience may be implicit and remain tacit knowledge. Both new roles and rapidly changing higher education contexts can lessen the relative value of previous understandings of the conduct and organisation of academic work and groups. New understandings reflect the new perspectives, cultures, communities and practices that have to be considered in engagement in management activity. Yet, unless concerns about risk-taking and perhaps transforming risks in the context of new audit cultures are subjected to active interpretation by manager-academics and made explicit within their communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991), it is possible that their significance for managing in contemporary higher education remains unrealised.

Towards a New Approach to Manager-academics' Learning

A crucial aspect of the accounts of the manager-academics' interviewed on management and management-learning was the recognition, implicit in their fraught descriptions of the inadequacies of formal training courses:
'activities, tasks, functions and understandings do not exist in isolation; they are part of broader systems of relations in which they have meaning' (Lave and Wenger 1991 p 35).

Many respondents felt they needed, on the one hand, a set of concepts and techniques supplemented by experience (the latter sometimes referred to as commonsense) on which to base action, and on the other hand, different forums through which to exchange views on how application of these worked out in practice. One analysis (Brown, Collins et al. 1989) which might facilitate this, collapses theoretical, practical and social forms of knowledge into a single category called 'tools'. This develops a perspective on learning in which learning is both situated and progressively developed through activity. Brown et al's view suggests that management learning is both a product of, and shaped by the contexts, questions, objects and participants involved in a management activity. Theoretical 'tools' are drawn on, mediated, and exchanged in practice, in conjunction with the tacit, technical, social and contextual 'tools' that are also brought to bear during the activity. This kind of approach develops the reflexivity that researchers argue is characteristic of risk societies. The 'tools' both inform, and are informed by the activity of management itself, so that manager-academics' experiences of management are both subject to, and contribute to, the stock of 'tools' available, and are theoretical, technical, social, contextual and tacit. Such an approach lends itself to sensitising manager-academics to issues about risk and uncertainty and how to balance this with the demands of an audit culture.

The characterisation of management-learning as 'experiential' becomes a meta-narrative within which formal learning and abstract cognitive knowledge is merely one aspect. This conceptualisation of learning relates to the concept of situated learning, where 'knowledge [is] co-produced by the learner and the situation; engagement of the learning in the situation is crucial' (Damarin 1993 p 8). In turn, situated learning relies on two further concepts: legitimate peripheral participation (which effectively means learning by doing and watching), and its location within communities of practice. Learning is seen as a process of increasing levels of engagement within the practices particular to groups and specific contexts: 'learning is taken to be an integral part of generative social practice in the lived-in world ... it implies not only a relation to specific activities, but a relation to social communities - it implies becoming a full participant, a member, a kind of person' (Lave and Wenger 1991 p 34-5). However, if the community of practice is not one in which risk-taking is common, then situated learning may reinforce the status quo. This in turn suggests that universities need to think carefully about the contexts of situated learning and the social groupings to which their manager-academics are exposed. A process of situated learning was certainly reflected in a number of responses but in few instances did it amount to much more than an informal apprenticeship involving immediate more experienced colleagues:
Well I thought I was always very fortunate that I had an apprenticeship as [temporary] head of science, while the incumbent Head was off being Dean... if you felt a bit nervous about something you could always hide behind the fact 'Well I'm not really the head, he's just down the corridor' [laugh]. (DVC, post-1992)

Academics enter management with rich experience and expertise in the higher education context; they understand academics as people, their values, norms and aspirations. Beginning manager-academics may have good insights into what will motivate performance and sustain productive relations amongst colleagues. They also have some conception of the systems and processes through which teaching or research is conducted. Their skills in academic planning and administration provide a basic platform from which to conceptualise and implement more sophisticated strategies. As experts within a discrete disciplinary area, they will have experience of the typical battles, interactions and challenges consequent on the relative internal and external profile of their unit and its work, especially if their discipline is one that has recently been exposed to risk. Those that have not had this exposure might benefit from a context in which they can be helped to acquire the reflexivity and fluidity which will enable them to become risk-takers and transformers rather than risk-avoiders but also one which values learning. Strangely some universities seem less keen to foster learning amongst their staff than their students.

In addition, the manager-academics we interviewed mentioned a lack of feedback on levels of success and failure, yet feedback is a key characteristic of developing reflexivity. Finally, manager-academics could be encouraged to view their management role as involving a process of learning that is integral to the search for information, the building of consensus, and the monitoring of others' activity. They might also come to understand the significance of how continuing experimentation and risk-taking is connected to academic innovation, whilst also becoming sceptical of over-rational approaches to risk-management and remaining sensitive to staff fears about change. Learning to cope with risks and uncertainty in higher education through the development of appropriate strategies, whilst also making sense of and living with a technical-rational audit culture is no longer an option for manager-academics, yet the predominant climate which exists in the contemporary UK university seldom reflects such strategies and dilemmas. This is itself perhaps another kind of 'risking the university'.


We have explored views about management learning, uncertainty and risk-taking expressed by a sample of UK manager-academics from sixteen universities, all of whom were interviewed between 1999 and 2000. Though social theorists have been writing about the problems and challenges of living in a risk society for some years, the extent to which our respondents are aware of this seemed minimal in many cases. Our research data certainly confirm the view of social theorists (Giddens 1990; Giddens 1991; Beck 1992; Beck, Giddens et al. 1994) that there is much more emphasis in contemporary societies on individuals rather than collectivities. Despite belonging to common communities of practice, manager-academics' responses to managing in a risky and uncertain environment was often isolated and usually closely connected to their own careers and biographies. Women seemed less likely to take risks than men but this may relate to other aspects of women's experience of organisations and their differential reception by others as managers. Manager-academics from different disciplines also showed a different propensity to take risks, including different kinds of risks. Most universities investigated had attempted to devolve some of the risks of running higher education in an uncertain environment to departmental or faculty level but the effect of this was often to leave HoDs feeling vulnerable rather than empowered risk-takers and risk-transformers.

Less than half the manager-academics we interviewed had received any sustained training for their roles. Furthermore, not only was it rare for any management training to include any distinctive element aimed at living with risk (and certainly little which focused on developing new forms of sociation based on values and risks) but few of the recipients of the training felt that the knod of generic training often offered was very helpful. Aspects most valued were the opportunity to engage in practical tasks, extended courses which allowed reflection and contextualisation, and the chance to meet others in the same role within the same institution or in other universities. We suggest that whilst formal training provision can of course be improved, and could usefully include much more emphasis on issues of risk (going beyond the rational management of risk which is often already included), more attention also needs to be paid to support for informal learning and means for feedback on management activity.

Publicly-funded universities are not well-placed to take risks, especially in the context of continued regulation of their activities by government and funding bodies but uncertainty cannot be avoided in contemporary societies. Instead of risk-avoidance and rational risk-management, perhaps manager-academics would be better prepared to face the future if risk and innovation were openly discussed. Both manager-academics and those responsible for policy on higher education might heed the words of an American sociologist of knowledge seeking a new basis for the development of universities: 'In criticising higher education for its fiscal and organisational intransigence, critics have regularly pointed to the lack of hierarchy, open structure, tolerance, flexibility, and permissive character of the academy. These of course are exactly the same characteristics that the same critics and others often praise when defending markets and a market-philosophy in other spheres. It is specifically such a grounded ... approach that represents the major promise for ... higher education. In contrast, the primitive, pay as you go, cut costs and increase revenue models that are so often proposed represent pitfalls to be avoided' (Smith 2000 p 145).


1 The term manager-academic is used to denote an academic who has taken on a management role within an academic institution, whether this is temporary or permanent.

2 The team consisted of the authors plus Mike Reed, Stephen Watson, Oliver Fulton and Sam Hillyard.


Thanks to the many manager-academics interviewed between 1998 and 2000 for so willingly sharing their experiences with us. We are grateful to other members of our research team - Sam Hillyard, Mike Reed, Oliver Fulton and Stephen Watson - for their input into the project. Thanks also to Cheryl Scott, Heidi Edmundson, Jill Greenwood and Teresa Seed for their work on tape transcription. Helpful comments on the paper were provided by: the audience at the Sunday morning session of 'Cultures of Learning: risks, uncertainty and education' Conference in April 2001 in Bristol; participants in a Graduate School of Education Centre for Management and Policy Studies seminar at the University of Bristol in April 2003, and Kevin Brehony


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