All entries for Monday 26 January 2009

January 26, 2009

Quiet Flows the Don: The Radice Critique of Higher Education in the UK

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Hugo Radice has written a fine critique of the management of higher education in the United Kingdom ("Life After Death? The Soviet System in British Higher Education," in The International Journal of Management Concepts and Philosophy 3:2 (2008), pp. 99-120). Radice's case is that British universities work under the same centralized command-and-control regulation as the old Soviet economy, and are subject to the same perverse incentives and the same dysfunctional behaviours that arose as a result: "plan bargaining, endemic shortages, sectoral autarky, and the battle for political control of decision."

I have shared this view since I first came across Radice's paper (and another on similar lines: Ronald Amann "A Sovietological View of Modern Britain," in The Political Quarterly 74:4 (2003), pp. 468-480). Now that Radice's paper has been rightly published in a refereed journal, I find I have somewhat less sympathy for its conclusions than I expected. It hits the right buttons on many core issues. And yet ...

Radice took six years to write and revise his paper. For three of those years, I chaired my department. From my first days in that role, I found that I had an accidental advantage – one of inestimable worth – over other novice chairs: a lifetime of studying Soviet bureaucracy. The aspects of university administration that baffled others seemed natural and obvious to me: the plan bargaining that Radice describes, soft budget constraints, the importance of networks and coalitions, and so on. I felt like a fish in water.

I reminded myself of the things that Stalin thought of as critical to power. At one time Stalin said: "Politics decides everything," so I became a political animal. At another time Stalin said: "Organization decides everything," so I tried to ensure that my department was clearly and well constituted, and then to respect that constitution. On yet another occasion Stalin said: "Cadres decide everything," so I gave almost all of my time to "cadres" – the identification, recruitment, promotion, and retention of academic talent. Stalin never said: "Money decides everything," so I limited  the attention I gave to money. I didn't ignore it, but I tried to ensure that money followed academic priorities, not the other way around.

I recalled what Soviet managers said consistently when asked what was the the most important condition for them to do their jobs: "To have good relations with everyone." No Soviet manager could do their job without cultivating networks of loyalty and influence. They never knew when they would need a friend, or regret having made an unnecessary enemy. I observed how fellow chairs that gave offense or picked gratuitous quarrels with peers and superiors paid a heavy price in their ability to bargain resources for their departments.

I knew Stalin appreciated loyalty, but as a signal of loyalty he also valued the ability to speak truth to power. Showing loyalty to a university that had already employed me for three decades was not a difficulty, but I also tried to tell the truth to my leaders. I cultivated their trust, partly so that my own recommendations would be heard and my own decisions would be respected. I knew that, like Stalin, the vice chancellor could change any decision I made if he wanted to. I also knew that, like Stalin, he had limited attention; he didn't have time to manage my department himself. I wanted him not to want to manage my department; I wanted him to want me to do it, and to leave me to do it. I needed him to trust me, and I carefully monitored the signals of that trust.

I observed the continual battle for resources inside my university. It was a game instantly recognizeable to students of the Soviet economy. There was a centre, hungry for discretionary power over departmental resources; departments were continually working to pool risks and insure themselves against the grabbing hand of the centre. In this context budget constraints were continually negotiated, varied, and renegotiated, so were never hard. Conservatism and short-termism were rife, and intertemporal smoothing nearly impossible. Like the Soviet economy, our system's dysfunctions could be mitigated by intervention from time to time, but fundamental reform was out of the question. Despite the problems, feasible solutions emerged.

There were many times when I didn't know what to do. Sometimes I put myself in the shoes of a party secretary governing an important region of the USSR, or perhaps the director of a big weapons factory in the Urals. What would they do? I did the same; usually, it worked.

Collective responsibility is one of the aspects of the Soviet command system against which its leaders fought a lifelong battle. The excess of collective responsibility in British higher education for teaching and assessment is something that drove me crazy and no doubt will continue to do so. The teaching quality people always go on about collective responsibility as though it is a good thing, a moral value in itself. To me, a little collective responsibility is a necessary evil, required to give some protection to students against sloppy teaching and arbitrary assessment and to shield academics against undue student pressure. But too much of it and no one is responsible; along with responsibility, blame is pooled, and we all end up carrying the can for a few bad citizens that few have the courage to identify and no one can manage because no one person is responsible.

And yet ...

There were some things I knew about the Soviet system, that I found I could not use. I thought of the fear that Stalin inculcated and exploited in those around him. I hoped that my colleagues respected me, but they did not fear me. I did not classify them into enemies and potential enemies (those who were my friends today but might turn against me in future). I did not order them arrested, tortured, and shot, nor did I hold their partners hostage in my Northumbrian Gulag to ensure their loyalty. When they voted me down, I served up my revenge neither hot nor cold but smiled and acknowledged the preference of the majority.

My university did not feel like the Soviet Union! I knew the Soviet Union. I had lived, worked, and breathed in it; my first visit was in 1964; I studied there in the 1970s, and have visited Moscow many times since. After 30 years, I also knew my university. It wasn't the same. But how did it differ?

The big difference was this: I had no barbed wire. With a few coils around the campus, I could have blocked off the exits. I'd have had to give guns and spotlights to the security staff. If I could have stopped my professors from leaving, I would have been able to do things to them that would lower their welfare, and they would have had to accept it. They would have grumbled, and then conspired against me, and I would have needed a political police within the department to listen, detect, and report it to me. I'd soon put a stop to that. Forced labour would be next. But I had no barbed wire. If they didn't like the pay or conditions on offer, and could do better elsewhere, my colleagues would leave. Other universities that could use their talents more productively would make them a better offer, and I would have to match it or lose them. Without barbed wire, I could not accumulate personal power by treating others badly; I could get my way only through reliance on positive motivations. 

What motivations? Here I had another revelation: if my department was like anything in the Soviet economy, it was like the parts that worked best! There were parts of the Soviet economy that didn't work; there, enterprises padded their costs and met the plan through false accounting and other manipulations. But in other branches, a relatively poor country could set talent to work and achieve great things: the best tank, the first satellite, and so on.

In those branches, what motivated people to put in effort was not cash but an inner drive to achieve something great and thereby win a prize. I had studied Soviet military engineering. The Soviet designers were motivated partly from within (they wanted to get into space) and partly by reputation (they wanted to be first into space). This motivation was extremely powerful; one finding in my work was that these designers implicitly priced the immortal reputation of being the first in the world to invent something at thousands of times their annual salary.

I saw that this also described my colleagues pretty well: each new idea they had, each new finding they reached, each new paper they wrote was like a ticket in a lottery where first prize was immortality. This motivation was also the thing that made them so hard to manage, since a manager could not easily manipulate it. As for cash, it was important mainly that cash did not de-motivate them by making them feel disrespected or undervalued. 

Putting these things together, I saw that what made my department work was competition. There were two markets in which we competed, the market for talent and the market for reputation. In the market for talent, we had to compete to hire great scholars and pay them their worth. To afford that, we had to care about costs and use all our resources productively. In the market for reputation, we were all competing for immortality. My department was competing with other departments in national and international rankings by research quality (approximated, with some error, by the quality of journal acceptances), research influence (approximated, with a variable and unpredictable lag, by citations), research inputs (QR income and competitive grants), teaching quality (approximated, with a wide error, by student evaluations and, with less error but a greater lag, by our graduates' incomes and academic placements), and (in the student market) fee income; but the income side was mainly important to my department in that it would allow us to compete more effectively in the market for talent. And, as individual scholars, we were all competing with each other for immortality (approximated by citations).

It was this competition that aligned everybody's interests. It was't perfect competition; there were clear signs of rent seeking and overinvestment. But we couldn't achieve our plan through false accounting, because we had to meet objective, externally verified criteria of our product quality. We couldn't push up costs all the time, because if we did we would lose competitive advantage to leaner departments. For these reasons, I decided, my university was most certainly not going to repeat the sad history of the Soviet economy.

We were better than that, because we had no choice but to be better.

Radice's model of UK higher education is nearly but not quite mine. In his framework, HEFCE is the funding ministry, the universities are the spending ministries, and departments are enterprises. The targets are set by the RAE and the QAA. The research councils administer the special innovation funds for which ministries and enterprises compete. Some differences are unimportant. The most important one is that university departments are not like the typical Soviet enterprise, but are more like Soviet research institutes and design bureaux. Like their Soviet equivalents they employ a mix of talented people, people that look talented but are not, and people that looked talented once and maybe still have something in them -- or maybe not. Like their Soviet equivalents, they all have a capacity to surprise the world.

Another difference between us might be over the RAE. To Radice, the RAE has us all playing a bureaucratic game. I agree there is an element of that, primarily in deciding whom to submit or exclude. But in three years of trying to recruit world-class scholars from countries that do not have an RAE, my complaints about it have met with little sympathy. Generally, scholars trying to leave Germany, Italy, and Israel, for example, wish that their country had an RAE, and expect it would be easier to stay home if it did. They would tell me that, if the RAE was bad, to have no RAE was worse. The fact is that, beyond deciding participation, there is far less to manipulate in the RAE than in teaching quality, say. And the evidence is that the RAE has been instrumental in a substantial improvement in the international standing of UK research.

Beyond criticism of the RAE, Radice claims that "ultimately teaching quality really is important" but has been bureaucratized without giving it priority. I agree about the bureaucratization; the QAA is a rent-seeking monopolist, not a true regulator. Worse, it has seeded itself into the teaching quality sections of university administrations across the country.

I don't agree about that teaching quality merits higher priority than research. The most important contribution of universities to teaching may be not to what is taught today, nor to how it is taught, but to what will be taught in thirty years' time. What comes out of the best research today will decide how textbooks will be written for the next generation of students. The most important of today's new concepts will be featured in those textbooks, named after their inventors, as the Edgeworth box, the Phillips curve, and Granger causality were in their time.

That's immortality.

Radice took time off from teaching his students to write "Life After Death." Good for him; this paper is important for both scholarship and public policy. If that is right, the education textbooks will soon feature added sections on:

The "Radice Critique" of Higher Education in the UK

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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