What’s happening to our universities?

Examining the arguments in Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation

A number of recent articles have discussed the effect of new university management structures on researchers. UK universities have been accused of developing ‘a casual disregard for their staff‘ and making job cuts based on research performance targets.

Are these valid concerns, or overreactions from academia?

Despite the presence of some inspiring leaders and innovative employee wellness schemes, some lecturers in the UK have controversially gone on strike to protest against low pay rises compared to those in higher management. Other UK universities have tried something new and seen benefits to redesigning recruitment, creating more opportunity for staff career progression.

The latest debate issue of Prometheus examines how university management systems have changed, and how this impacts researchers and their work.

The Times Higher Education’s university workplace survey shows that the bulk of staff in UK universities find their work rewarding, but in his proposition paper, Professor Ben R. Martin observes that ‘amongst academics, one senses growing dissatisfaction, disillusion, even despair with life in universities’.

He proposes four main reasons for this trend:

  • top-down university management
  • bureaucratic administrative procedures
  • teaching to a prescribed formula
  • research driven by assessment and performance targets

Professor Martin draws upon a range of examples from across the world to examine these problems, and asks why researchers have not objected to these changes as they were implemented. He considers the metaphor of researchers accepting this change as if they were frogs: drop them into boiling water, and they will jump out; leave them in gently warming water and they will remain until they are eventually boiled.

This scathing proposition is joined by articles written by researchers from institutions around the world.

The feeling is of mutual acceptance: Thomas Docherty discusses the history of the management system, to try and find out who has ‘boiled the frog’. He expresses his concern that universities may become agents of a surveillance state, keeping the title but not the purpose: universities as we know them will become as extinct as the dodo.

Some consider the relevance of the proposition to their own environments at an institutional or national level.

Other articles in the issue debate the proposition that the university system is no longer appropriate. Ken Coates supports the proposal, adding that he believes ‘the point of no return is in the rear-view mirror and no longer lies in front of us’, caused by the attempted alignment of universities with wider political objectives.

This debate is especially relevant at a time when there is global underemployment of university graduates, where some people believe doing a PhD can be a waste of time and there is a growing number of postdocs with few places in academia for them to go.

Discover further debate of these questions in issue 34.1 of Prometheus.


Rosalind Davies is an Editorial Assistant at Taylor & Francis. She holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Birmingham, where she was involved in a range of activities to promote public engagement with research. These included placements with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and the radio show The Naked Scientists, and representing the University in 3 Minute Thesis. She tweets from @RDscience.