Are ‘critters’ taking over your university management?

It may be because it’s August, but I am feeling a little more optimistic about the future of university management.

The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) is a company which runs training programs for university senior managers, and aspirants to those roles. Their website states that, “The Leadership Foundation is committed to developing and improving the management and leadership skills of existing and future leaders of higher education”.

I ‘m ready to confess a skeptical, though ghoulish, fascination with higher education management, but I don’t usually get warm, fuzzy feelings when reading material on strategic management, succession planning and governance reviews. But that is changing; more recently on the LFHE website, there seem to have been contributions from ‘critters’, that is advocates of critical management approaches. On the CMS portal (highly recommended) we find that approach portrayed as:

“a largely left-wing and theoretically informed approach to management and organisation studies. It challenges the prevailing conventional understanding of management and organisations. CMS provides a platform for debating radical alternatives whilst interrogating the established relations of power, control, domination and ideology as well as the relations among organisations, society and people”.

Critical Management Studies arose in the 1990s and 2000s. Butler and Spoelstra (2014: 540), citing Fournier and Grey (2000:17) characterize critical management studies approaches as exhibiting:

  • an ethos of non-performativity, rejecting the usual work of improving efficiency and effectiveness of an organisation, but instead exploring issues of power, control and inequality at work,
  • an ethos of denaturalization: critical scholars do not accept management knowledge at face value but actively seek to expose – and challenge – its ideological underpinnings,
  • an ethos of reflexivity: critical scholars tend to reflect on their epistemological, ontological and methodological assumptions far more explicitly than their non-critical (especially positivist) counterparts who may practise an ethos of scientific disinterestedness.

There have been a few recently- commissioned reports for the LFHE that, while I don’t think I’m quite ready to say that they tick all the boxes, I do detect sympathetic echoes of the values stated above. Take, for instance, a report on the future of performance management (Franco-Santos, M., Rivera, P. and Bourne, M. 2014.) The report distinguishes between stewardship and agency approaches to performance management, and urges universities to consider a more flexible application of these. Stewardship approaches “focus on long-term outcomes through people’s knowledge and values, autonomy and shared leadership within a high trust environment”. By contrast, “agency approaches focus on short-term results or outputs through greater monitoring and control”. The authors find that institutions with a mission that is focused on “long-term and highly complex goals, which are difficult or very costly to measure (e.g., research excellence, contribution to society)” are more likely to benefit from incorporating a stewardship approach to performance management. I can probably guess which model seems more familiar to most academics, for whom autonomy, shared leadership and high trust working environments reside in the folklore of a previous generation.

The next piece which cheered me was pitched as a ‘stimulus paper’ by Richard Bolden, Sandra Jones, Heather Davis and Paul Gentle, “Developing and sustaining shared leadership in higher education”. I hope to read the entire report next week when I’m on proper holiday, but the executive summary drew my interest.

“Within higher education, shared leadership offers a compelling alternative to the discourse of managerialism (based on principles of new public management), which has become increasingly prevalent within the sector. In a context where many are sceptical of traditional influence and authority, it has been suggested that shared leadership may offer a means of reconnecting academics with a sense of collegiality, citizenship and community”.

There are those of us who are more used to expecting university senior managers to be among the more insistent adherents of command-and-control managerialism.  However, even within that grouping, there may be a growing appetite for the kind of reflexivity and exploration of power and control that underpin critical approaches to management. Janet Beer, the newly appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, bemoans a masculinist narrative of heroism in the job descriptions and ethos of vice-chancellors (Morgan 2015) . She accuses universities of overlooking other attributes which also sustain good leadership, such as ‘consensus-building and collaborative and partnership working at all levels. Job specifications, she continued, can often emphasise qualities that aren’t necessarily about leadership in a well-balanced way’. Similarly, Keith Burnett of Sheffield University signaled a desire to loosen the thumbscrews a little: “Great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends upon it. It demands the unshackled possibility to question and seek knowledge wherever it is to be found, and to convey this to students without fear of intervention or sanction by the state. A value that is globally understood to be a prerequisite for scholarship”.

It is a little premature to predict the overthrow of New Public Management, and, as George Eliot taught us “signs are small, measurable things; interpretations are illimitable”. But let’s hope this heralds a new, critical ‘direction of travel’ for the LFHE. I’ll certainly keep on checking the website.


Bolden, R., Jones, S., Davis, H and Gentle, P. 2015. ,  Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, London.

Burnett, K. 2015. Want to raise the quality of teaching? Begin with academic freedom. Times Higher.  August 3rd.

Butler, Nick and Spoelstra, Sverre. 2014. The regime of excellence and the erosion of ethos in critical management studies. British Journal of Management, Vol. 25, 538–550.

Critical Management Studies portal:

Fournier, V. and Grey, C. 2000. ‘At the critical moment: conditions and prospects for critical management studies’, Human Relations, 53, pp. 7–32.

Franco-Santos, M., Rivera, P. and Bourne, M. 2014. Performance Management in UK Higher Education Institutions. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, London.

Leadership Foundation for Higher Education:

Morgan, J. 2015. Janet Beer on leadership diversity: don’t hold out for a hero. Times Higher. March 12th.


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