05 April 2008

Loyalty to corporation, services to customers

By Alexandre Borovik

HEFCE wants from staff loyalty. From an article by John Gill in THES, 30 Nov 2007:

A report from the Leadership, Governance and Management Strategic Committee of the Higher Education Funding Council for England says that the sector is "on the cusp of substantial and complex change" and calls for staff to adopt new attitudes.

It says: "Staff will need to be more aware of and aligned to the strategic needs of the higher education institution.

Academics' goals are often related to their discipline rather than their institution, and they will need to develop institutional loyalties in addition to discipline loyalties."

It also warns universities not to be "afraid" of the language and culture of business, and says that managerial leadership is not valued or rewarded highly enough.

So, the new corporate mentality of universities make them love loyalty and demand loyalty from their staff.

But it is widely accepted that a person's answers to the question "What you do not like?" provide more insights into his/her personality than answers to a positively charged question "What do you like?" Let us apply the same approach to universities and see what they do not like.

A case study is provided by the Leeds Metropolitan University's programme document "Leeds Met ACTS: Attitude, Character & Talents" for its new staff performance development system, see Leeds Met ACTs Source Booklet. Staff attitudes are divided in two groups: More Effective Behaviours and Less Effective Behaviours. It is the Less Effective Behaviours list that is interesting. A few gems:

Does not accept the concept of "customer" or "service user"
Does not demonstrate respect for rules, regulations and procedures
Does not prepare written or verbal communication effectively for meetings and other interactions
Does not engage with the Vision & Character of Leeds Met
Does not volunteer new ideas/suggestions for improvement
Sceptical about change – lets negative reaction to change affect morale of self and others
Fails to explain the need/reasons for change
Talks negatively about others and the university
Uses learning and development opportunities purely for own self development or recognition

We see the prominent role of the concept of "customer" or "service user". It is another key buzzword; I feel that it is directly linked to the loyalty issue.

Indeed, Lewis Elton's brief letter to THES ("Client not customer", 25 November 2005) contains a remarkably precise formulation:

Students are neither customers ("persons who buy"), nor consumers ("persons who purchase goods or services") - they are clients ("persons who seek the advice of a professional man or woman"). [...] (All quotes are from the Collins English Dictionary.)

If we accept that students are clients who seek the advice of a professional man or woman, we instantly recognise that the relations between a client and a professional are regulated by professional codices controlled by a wider professional community. You cannot just come to a solicitor, hand her money and dictate what she has to do for you -- a solicitor's primary responsibility is compliance with the law and extensive professional regulations. Similarly, you cannot come to GP and demand a prescription -- it is a doctor's duty to decide what is best for you on the basis of his experience and, again, norms of his profession.

In my humble opinion, only loyalty to their disciplines and their communities makes academics what they are. In the present disputes about the future of academia, we have to insist that we are professionals, that only the peer review and peer control of professional communities ensures both rigour of research and high standards of education -- and, of course, we have to insist that students are our clients. Moreover, it is crucial for survival of universities that some of our students become our disciples and absorb the ethics norms of our communities.

HEFCE wants to de-professionalise university staff by cutting their connections to professional communities and professional networks.

It could be part of a wider picture: anecdotal evidence suggests an increasingly hostile stance of the Government towards learned societies. But this is a serious issue which has to be properly discussed on its own.

Disclaimer. Should I remind you that my views are mine alone and not those of my employer, or of any professional organisation, or anyone else, for that matter?

Alexandre Borovik (Mathematics, Manchester)
Reposted from his blog Managerialism in Academia