University Change in Ireland: Understanding the ‘What’, the ‘Why’ and the
Over the past decade, universities in Ireland have been implementing large-scale
institutional change designed to allow them better cope with the multitude of
pressures increasingly evident in the higher education sector there. Changes have
been taking place, for example, in approaches to institutional management and
leadership practices and in decision-making structures. However, despite the rapid
pace of change taking place in Irish universities, there has been a considerable dearth
of research there resulting in a lack of any real insight into how the higher education
landscape may be changing from a grassroots faculty perspective.
This article
presents the findings of a case study conducted in the School of Business at
University College Dublin (UCD). The article reports on the kinds of institutional
changes that have taken place (the ‘what’); the impetus for these changes (the ‘why’);
and the top-down manner in which many of these changes were implemented and the
ways in which faculty have responded to them (the ‘how’). The article concludes by
suggesting the importance of understanding the possible implications of faculty
responses to change for their institutional loyalty and commitment and suggests some
areas for further research.
Change, faculty, top-down, Ireland, response, management
Change is not new to higher education institutions (HEIs), however, what sets the
current era apart from previous periods of change is its scale and complexity. HEIs
are expected to respond to a multitude of pressures (Kezar et al., 2011) and many of
the resulting changes being witnessed pose a real challenge to institutions and to the
life and work of faculty.
Such pressures include globalisation, changing
demographics, increasing competition, declining State funding and the pursuit of
greater efficiency and accountability.
Much of the recent debate in the higher
education (HE) field has been around the management and leadership practices of
universities (see Deem, 2007) and changes taking place in governance arrangements
(see Maassen, 2009). Debates on the adoption of New Public Management (NPM)
(see Meek et al., 2010), the changing roles of the Vice-Chancellor, Pro-ViceChancellor and Dean (see Smith and Adams, 2008; de Boer and Goedegebuure, 2009)
and the centralisation of both power (see Clancy, 2007) and decision-making in
universities (see Shattock, 2013) have also featured prominently.
Overall, the
presence of a ‘more muscular management style’ has been suggested (Anderson,
2008: 251).
Over the past decade, HEIs in the Republic of Ireland have been undergoing
considerable change (see Breatnach, 2007; Bruce, 2006; Hedley, 2010). Despite this,
there has been a considerable dearth of research on the manner in which institutional
change is being implemented and on how faculty are responding to change. This
article presents the findings of a case study conducted at University College Dublin
(UCD), the largest of the seven Irish universities. UCD has been at the forefront in
implementing large-scale institutional change in Ireland, with a particularly intense
period of change taking place between 2004 and 2010. The research explored faculty
perspectives on the nature of the changes being witnessed (the ‘what’); the drivers of
change (the ‘why’); the experience of faculty regarding the change implementation
process and their responses to the change programme itself (the ‘how’). Before
discussing both the research methodology and findings, a brief overview of recent
debates on the changing HE management landscape is presented.
The changing HE landscape: organisational re-structuring, managerialism and
leadership practices in HEIs
There has been much debate on the organisational restructuring of universities, with
Shattock (2013) highlighting the top-down imposition of restructuring and the
superficial nature of consultation with faculty on this issue. He refers to:
…the mania for restructuring much of which has been stimulated by the
arrival of a new vice-chancellor or by the belief of an existing vice-chancellor
that only restructuring would sweep away obstacles to meeting the centre’s
strategic objectives (p.231).
Yet, it has been suggested that to be a leading international university, a HEI needs to
change its organisational structures (Taylor, 2006) and Wilson (2001) draws attention
to the proliferation of management layers, with the management structures of HEIs
becoming more hierarchical and defined in nature. However, in research conducted
in four UK universities, the need to reduce bureaucracy and improve administration
was highlighted, thus necessitating a reduction in the levels of management (Taylor,
Faculties and departments have generally become administrative and
organisational units (Gibbons et al, 1994), with increasing emphasis being placed on
the department as the main unit of organisation (Taylor, 2006).
There has also been a growing concern for management and leadership within HE
(Deem, 2007) with varying views as to the merits or otherwise of changing
institutional practices in this regard. While the demands on the managers and leaders
of HEIs have never been greater (McCaffery, 2010), university leadership remains
somewhat under-researched (Brown and Denton, 2009).
It has, however, been
suggested that the success of universities depends on solid management practices and
effective leadership (Taylor et al., 2008). While HEIs tend to be conservative in
nature (Taylor, 2006), the gauntlet laid down for HE leaders is to become ‘less
fearful, less resistant, and more responsive’ to change (Vest, 1997: p.54). A critical
function of university senior management teams is one of ‘orchestration’ of change
(Wallace, 2003: p.24) and, indeed, the role played by the ‘centre’ of a HEI in acting
as a catalyst for change has been noted (Goldspink, 2007).
While the leaders of HEIs have traditionally been part-time (Hellstrom, 2004), a new
kind of leader has been emerging, with Parker (2011) noting the re-definition of vicechancellors as chief executive officers. The Vice-Chancellor’s role has come to
increasingly be seen as that of ‘a strategic director and change agent, obliged to
reinvent the university, its management structures, its internal culture, and sometimes
its core business’ (Marginson, 2000: p.30). Vice-Chancellors act as ‘initiators’ of the
wider HE mission, as ‘mediators’ between global, national and local forces, and as
‘managers’ of their own institutions (Bargh et al, 2000: p.1). An increasing focus on
the management team is evident in many countries, with considerable growth in the
number of pro-vice-chancellors positions (see Shepherd, 2012) and a general
expansion of university management teams (see Middlehurst, 2013). The role of
Dean has also expanded to incorporate greater management responsibilities, with
Deans now seen as middle managers who report to the university executive (Parker,
It has been argued elsewhere in the literature that the traditional academic leadership
of institutions is being replaced by a more managerial-oriented culture (Cowen,
Clark (1998) suggests that institutions need to develop a ‘strengthened
steering core’, that is, mechanisms to facilitate the steering of an institution’s
activities and to allow for a combination of strategic capability and centralised
decision-making, alongside a collegial approach. While in many countries faculty
have previously played a role in shaping institutional decision-making and
governance, the removal of collegial decision-making has become evident according
to some commentators (Amaral et al., 2012; Dowling-Hetherington, 2013).
The adoption of New Public Management (NPM) practices has also become pervasive
(Meek et al., 2010) and this serves to absorb elements of the market and the
competitive environment into institutions (Zambeta, 2005).
There is now an
increasing expectation that HEIs should operate like a business (Newman and
Potoenik, 2011) and NPM suggests a greater emphasis on performance (Olssen and
Peters, 2005). It has been argued that managerialism and the adoption of private
sector management practices is now one of the most prevalent changes in HE in
recent years (Goldspink, 2007; Lee, 2004). In general, the business techniques being
adopted by HEIs include the monitoring and measurement of performance (Morley,
1997), risk management (Tahar et al., 2011) and strategic planning (Lee, 2004).
Indeed, Newman et al. (2010) note the importance of developing a clear institutional
strategy and a plan to realise that strategy.
In the Irish context, the growth of
managerialism has been noted with Sterling suggesting that much of the recent
discussion there has drawn attention to the rejection of collaborative decision-making
by ‘top-down management’ (2010: 13).
Faculty responses to organisational change
While scrutiny of the changing management and leadership practices of universities is
very much warranted, an appreciation of how employees evaluate change and the
obstacles to successful change implementation from a people management
perspective is useful. Two kinds of evaluations of change are generally undertaken
by employees (Woodward and Hendry, 2004: p.158):
A primary appraisal: What will I gain? What will I lose? What are the
potential benefits or harm to me? Is what is happening irrelevant, can I ignore
it?; a secondary appraisal asks: What can I do to overcome or prevent the
negative effects? What can I do to improve my prospects for benefiting from
change? What coping options might be worth adopting? What are the likely
consequences? Will I accomplish what I want to achieve?
The work of Kotter and Schlesinger (2008) on understanding how employees resist
change is particularly useful. They cite reasons for resistance such as self-interest and
the fear of losing something of value, a concern on the part of the individual that they
will be unable to acquire the skills needed to cope with the new situation, a low level
of tolerance for change generally, a lack of understanding of what the change will
involve and the different perspectives of the instigators and ‘recipients’ of change
regarding its costs and the benefits. Employees may resist change that they expect
will negatively impact on their own self-interest or job status and their experience of
the working environment (Van Dijk and Van Dick, 2009). The authors refer to this as
‘person-oriented resistance to change’ (p.144) and it may result from an individual’s
view of their place in the organisation and their perception of a risk to their work
identity and status.
While faculty may be concerned about the nature of the many changes taking place
across the HE sector, the manner in which change is being implemented can often be
a source of tension also. It has been argued that while a top-down approach to change
fails to attract adequate support and ownership, a bottom-up approach is even less
effective (Fullan, 2007). However, of particular concern is the unreceptive response
of faculty to change introduced in a top-down manner and this may reflect their
substantial investment in the development of their expertise and body of knowledge
over time (Becher and Kogan, 1992). The Universities UK (2010) report suggests
that the different responses of faculty to change can be explained by factors including,
‘differences in status within academic and institutional hierarchies, in the
characteristics of different disciplines and between generations’ (p.37).
diverging views on the impact of change on faculty are evident, including suggestions
that faculty have become ‘disenfranchised’ (Holley and Oliver, 2000: p.11) and
disconnected (Coaldrake and Stedman, 1999).
While faculty may be able to somewhat detach themselves from institutional change
(Watty et al., 2008), a greater understanding of the means by which such detachment
might occur is needed.
While in business, employees may adopt a variety of
strategies for coping with change, including denial, avoidance and proactive type
approaches (see Woodward and Hendry, 2004), debate in the HE field provides
relatively little insight into how faculty responses to change are borne out in practice.
The exception to this is the study conducted by Trowler (1998) on the response of
faculty to curriculum change (see Figure 1). Trowler identifies four categories of
responses to change and he suggests that: these are not necessarily mutually
exclusive; faculty may move from one of these categories to another throughout their
career; and may use one particular response strategy in one area and a different
response strategy in another area. Trowler’s model serves as a useful approach for
understanding the possible ways in which faculty may, in general, respond to change.
Figure 1 Response of Faculty to Change
Work around
Status Quo
Or change policy
Source: Trowler (1998). Reprinted by permission of Taylor and Francis Ltd
(http://www.informaworld.com). © Society for Research into Higher Education
Sinking tends to capture those who have, for example, become increasingly
disillusioned as a result of increasing work intensification, student numbers and
declining resources. Faculty in this response category display feelings of discontent,
while broadly accepting the status quo.
In the case of curriculum and credit
framework changes as reported in Trowler’s study, this sinking effect was more
evident as a result of increasing administration demands and workloads around
Coping strategies reported by Trowler included, for example, the
recycling of teaching materials from previous years, increasing the level of difficulty
of assessment to counteract increasing student numbers, quickly discarding
communications and memos received, avoiding meetings and declining requests to
become involved in additional projects. Faculty in this response category display
clear feelings of discontent while attempting to either change policy or adapt to it.
Faculty in the policy reconstruction response category are, however, content to adapt
to, or change, policy. Faculty re-interpret institutional policies and alter the delivery
of the policy on the ground, whilst still delivering on the overall aims of the policy
(examples cited by Trowler include the development of learning outcomes that were
presented in very broad terms to avoid any restriction in the approach to teaching and
assessment; and the opening up of elective modules to students from particular
disciplines and not to all students). Finally, swimming occurs where faculty exhibit
positive responses to change and are content to accept the status quo and are thriving
in the changed environment (in the case of Trowler’s study, for example, the credit
structure allowed faculty to offer programmes with a more flexible approach to
delivery and also provided them with the opportunity to develop new niche study
programmes that attracted more students).
Besides the above response strategies adopted by faculty, greater scrutiny and
understanding of the wider institutional impact of these strategies is necessary. In
particular, the long-term implications of response patterns to change with respect to
faculty commitment, loyalty and goodwill towards the institution warrants
consideration. The seminal work of Hirschman (1970) and his exit, voice and loyalty
model is useful in explaining how employees may respond to dissatisfaction and
adverse conditions at work. If the employee does not expect the situation or working
environment to improve, he/she may choose to exit the organisation. Alternatively,
employees may actively attempt to improve the situation at hand through voice
mechanisms. Employees may, instead, exhibit loyalty towards the organisation which
Hirschman describes as ‘that special attachment’ one has to the organisation (p.77)
and that leads one to remain with it in the hope that the situation will improve.
Rusbult et al (1982) have put forward a fourth response category, neglect, where
employees accept that the situation will not improve and they reduce the level of
effort expended at work, perhaps, by spending less time there.
While employee commitment can manifest itself in many forms (see Meyer and
Herscovitch, 2001), human resource management (HRM) literature draws attention to
the relationship between HRM practices and employee commitment to the
organisation (see, for example, Conway and Monks, 2008; McClean and Collins,
2011). Smeenk et al. (2006) suggest that HRM practices that are high-commitment in
nature positively influence the performance of the organisation through the
willingness of employees to exercise greater effort. Yet, despite the importance of
high levels of organisational commitment in the context of efforts to achieve high
quality performance outcomes for organisations (see Peters and Waterman, 1982), the
declining level of commitment being exhibited by faculty towards the institution and
its goals has been noted (Winter et al., 2000).
Case study: UCD and the change programme
Background and overview of the change programme
The origins of UCD can be traced back to the Catholic University of Ireland, founded
in 1854, and it is the largest Irish university with over 25,000 students. During the
1990s, while demand for places continued to exceed supply, the university
experienced declining first preference course choices among school leavers.
Alongside reduced State funding for HE and greater competition between institutions,
weaknesses in the university’s governance, decision-making and resource allocation
processes became apparent.
Furthermore, the complex university structure was
highlighted (eleven faculties and eighty-nine departments) and this resulted in
duplicative functions, an absence of accountability and transparency in decisionmaking and limited opportunities for inter-disciplinary collaboration.
In 2004, a new university President was appointed following, for the first time, a
search and selection process. This appointment represented a turning point in the
university’s history and since then it has undergone a sustained period of institutional
Soon after the President’s appointment, a strategic planning dialogue
commenced and this suggested the need to align the structures and activities of the
university with its overall vision and strategy. One of the most significant changes to
emerge was the re-structuring of the university and the creation of five Colleges and
thirty-four Schools. At the heart of the institutional change programme was a desire
to become a research-intensive university and to encourage interdisciplinary research.
A re-structuring of the university’s management and governance processes took place
with the aim of enabling it to respond to an increasingly competitive sector in a more
flexible and efficient manner. The re-structuring included the appointment of a senior
management team, including full-time Vice-Presidents and the establishment of new
degree programme governance and academic policy development processes. These
kinds of changes closely reflect Shattock’s (2013) view that such restructuring is
often instigated following the appointment of a new vice-chancellor.
A new resource allocation model was implemented resulting in a change in the
manner in which funding would be allocated to individual Schools. Such funding
would now take account of student numbers, research output and the alignment of
School activities with the university’s strategic priorities.
The university also
reformed the curriculum and modularised all degree programmes. In reforming the
curriculum, the university formalised its approach to the documentation surrounding
modules (e.g. module content, learning outcomes and assessment strategies) and
created new information technology systems for use by faculty in capturing
information on modules.
In addition, a number of significant changes were introduced in the School of
Business (the focus for this case study). The Dean had previously been elected by
faculty, however, this changed in 2005 with the appointment of an Executive Dean
following a search and selection process. The School also became the main unit for
research activity, teaching provision, resource allocation and the management of
academic staff (the Department had been the main unit prior to the change
programme). The university re-structuring abolished Departments (with statutory
powers) and replaced them with Subject Areas (with no statutory powers). The
changes made to School decision-making processes were particularly significant. The
abolition of faculty meetings where tenured staff played a central role in a
participative decision-making process was a particularly contentious issue. These
meetings were replaced with ‘town-hall’ type meetings that are largely used to
disseminate information on School developments and activities (see DowlingHetherington, 2013). A senior management team and an Executive Committee were
also established to take responsibility for the School’s overall strategic direction,
management and operations.
These changes represented a move to enhance the
School’s ability to more efficiently manage its affairs and decision-making processes.
Research methodology
Research approach: A case study was undertaken to examine how, and to what
extent, the changes introduced at UCD impacted upon faculty at the School of
Business, one of the largest Schools in the university. While UCD was not unique in
the challenges it was confronting, it was unique in the Irish HE landscape regarding
the magnitude of the imposed institutional changes and the speed with which they
were introduced.
While the re-structuring element of the university’s change
programme impacted on faculty to varying degrees, the School of Business was
largely unique in that it appointed an ‘Executive’ Dean for the first time in 2005.
The research was designed to investigate the impact of institutional change on
traditional notions of academic life and work within the School and examined how
change was manifesting itself in five areas: university structures and management
practices; the involvement of faculty in decision-making; collegiality; the role of the
academic; and academic freedom.
The data reported here focuses only on the
perspectives of faculty on the changes implemented and the impetus for these, the
change management process and how faculty have responded. The research covered
the five-year period since the President’s appointment in 2004, with data collection
taking place throughout 2009. Elements of the university’s change programme were
implemented throughout this five-year period (for example, the university restructuring was implemented in 2005, modularisation of degree programmes in 2005
and 2006, the development of research productivity criteria at School level in 2007,
the implementation of a performance management and development system in 2008
and the implementation of a School workload model in 2010). The intensity and
ongoing nature of the change programme and its impact on many aspects of the life
and work of the academic helped to minimise the possibility of memory errors on the
part of the research participants.
Data collection and analysis: At the research design stage, sixty-three full-time
permanent faculty were employed within the School (seventeen females and forty-six
males), of which twenty-eight were interviewed (four females and twenty-four males)
between June and September 2009. While a range of factors might have been used to
select the research participants (including length of service and gender), it was
considered more important to select faculty from each of the six academic subject
areas in proportion to their size and only those who were employed at the outset of the
change programme in 2004. Research participants chosen were also spread across all
lecturer and professorial ranks and across both academic and manager-academic
groups. These factors allowed for the emergence of an adequate ‘voice’ across all
faculty and a mix of early, mid-career and late-career stage faculty (the average length
of service of those interviewed was nineteen years). Table 1 provides a summary of
the faculty that participated in the research.
Table 1. Interviews
FACULTY (A1 – A19):
- Accountancy
- Banking and Finance
- Industrial Relations/Human Resources
- Management
- Management Information Systems
- Marketing
Head of Subject Area (H1 – H5)
Directors (D1 – D3)
Dean/Head of School (S1)
Subject Areas
Research Participants
College Lecturer
Senior Lecturer
Associate Professor
The same interview questions were used for all research participants and this allowed
for the data gathered to be compared across participants. One might generally expect
that manager-academics may potentially be more supportive of a chosen institutional
change strategy compared to other faculty. However, in the case of the Heads of
Subject Areas, the removal of their decision-making power with the abolition of
Departments under the old university structure might lead us to question this
assumption of support in the case of the UCD change programme.
The data gathered during the research was analysed on a thematic basis, with careful
attention paid to identifying, not only the typicality of the research findings, but also
the variety of viewpoints (sometimes diverging) that emerged. While the interviews
conducted did not explicitly seek to elicit specific examples from faculty of their
responses to change based on Trowler’s (1998) four categories of responses, the
transcripts were reviewed for evidence of the four categories of faculty response.
Ethical Considerations: Careful attention was paid to the researcher’s ethical
responsibilities, including the need to secure the informed consent of participants, the
right of informants to withdraw from the research and to report data in an anonymous
and confidential manner. As noted in Table 1, each informant was given a label (e.g.
A5) and it was not, therefore, possible to individually identify informants (with the
sole exception of the Head of School who gave written consent for his job title to used
when attributing comments to him). An explanation of the purpose of the research
was provided to each informant and each was asked to sign an informed consent form
acknowledging that he/she understood each of the ethical issues outlined above and
that he/she was agreeable to the interview being recorded.
Results and Discussion
The case study findings are presented in three sections: ‘what’ changes have faculty
witnessed); ‘why’ were the changes introduced; and ‘how’ the changes were
implemented and the pattern of responses evident.
The views of faculty on the ‘what’ of the change programme
The first area of significant university-level change reported by faculty was the
development of a ‘more hierarchical form of management structure’ (A5) and the redefinition of the role of both President and Dean.
It was suggested that ‘the
philosophical approach is definitely more managerial within the university’ (H4).
These changes are very much in line with Anderson’s (2008) assertion that a more
deliberate and strengthened management style is now evident in HE. Furthermore,
the move away from the election of university presidents towards an appointment
process in many European countries has been noted (Sursock et al., 2010). At UCD,
the change in the process for appointing a President in 2004 signalled a turning point
in providing a stimulus for university change and since this appointment, ‘greater
clarity around the sense of ambition for the institution’ (D2) and a stronger ‘sense of
strategy’ (H1) has been evident. The establishment of a strengthened university
management structure, including the appointment of full-time Vice-Presidents, was
also noted. This re-structuring element of the change programme lends support to
Shattock’s suggestion that this kind of change often occurs following the appointment
of a new vice-chancellor as a means of helping the institution more easily address its
strategic objectives (2013).
The appointment of an Executive Dean was also seen as ‘a critical turning point’ for
the School (A18) and it was widely accepted that this had ‘completely changed
everything’ (D3) and that ‘the biggest single change has been the whole notion of
governance and executive-style management’ (A19). Yet, H1 suggested that such an
appointment was ‘absolutely the right thing to do’.
The changes that the new
appointment process signalled included the ‘formalisation of the role of the Dean’
(A4) and a greater ability on the part of the Dean to ‘take the lead in driving a
strategy’ (S1). It has also created a ‘whole new managerial mood’ (A1) where more
centralised decision-making power resides with the Executive Dean ‘without the
political baggage that goes with an election process’ (H2).
The diffusion of power across an institution is generally inherent in a collegial
management approach (Ackroyd and Ackroyd, 1999). However, those interviewed
highlighted the appointments of the new President and Executive Dean and the
consequences of these for the re-positioning of power away from faculty. They
highlighted the increasing dissipation of power away from academics and subject
areas and the centralisation and ‘acquisition of power by the President’ (D3). This
dissipation of power was facilitated by the organisational re-structuring and abolition
of autonomous Departments and their replacement with Subject Areas with very little
real power. Departments had previously been able to ‘arrange their own affairs as
they saw fit’ (A3). Not only were resource allocations made directly to Departments,
but more importantly, considerable decision-making authority had resided within
them. The ‘Head of Department really had a lot of power’ (H2) and was seen as a
‘figurehead’ (A11). Re-structuring resulted in the centralisation of decision-making
authority at School level and a reduction in the autonomy, ‘power’ (A12) and
decision-making authority of Subject Area Heads.
The second area of significant change identified by faculty and that they report had
negatively impacted upon them was the bureaucratisation of various aspects of the
university’s operations. Indeed, the increasing amount of time being devoted by
faculty to administration has become the focus of debate and this has been termed
‘administrative fallout’ in the context of credit approaches to the curriculum (Trowler,
1998: 36). Bureaucratisation at UCD occurred following the establishment of new
roles, such as Vice-Principals for Teaching and Learning and the processes introduced
around module descriptors and grade approvals following the modularisation of the
There was some consensus among faculty that the technological
infrastructure introduced to facilitate a modular environment did impact upon them,
particularly in terms of the ‘regulations and compliance’ requirements around the
teaching, learning and assessment process (H3). One academic commented on ‘the
horrible tools that go with that – Gradebook, module descriptors, the whole GPA
process and all that’ (H3).
The last two significant developments at university level were the increasing
emphasis on research output and the implementation of the faculty promotions
scheme. Greater prominence was given to setting more ambitious targets for research
output. In comparison to many of the other changes implemented, the changes to the
promotions scheme were warmly welcomed by faculty. Two critical weaknesses
were evident in the old promotions system – (i) it was subject to ‘political waves’
(H3) and ‘far too much influence by certain people’ (A11) and (ii) it lacked clarity on
the promotions benchmarks which ‘was a real source of frustration’ (A9). The new
system ‘did de-politicise’ promotions (H3) and provided much greater clarity in the
benchmarks to be achieved. Chen et al. (2010) outline the intrinsic (e.g. personal
satisfaction) and extrinsic (e.g. promotion) rewards that accrue to faculty from their
research activities and they draw attention to some studies that suggest that the
research output requirements for promotions purposes have increased.
The new
promotions system at UCD has served to reinforce the university’s goal of becoming
a research-intensive institution as it instils in faculty an understanding that ‘to be
promoted you’ve got to publish papers, you’ve got to do research’ (A1). At UCD, A3
suggested that the new system may not, however, have ‘brought notable pressure on
academics’ to change what they were doing’:
…….the career-oriented academics who want to get ahead understand that the
promotions system has clear criteria and, therefore, things that are congruent
with those criteria they engage in……things that are not congruent with those,
they don’t (A14).
The views of faculty on the ‘why’ of the change programme
In examining the impetus for the university’s change programme, many of the driving
forces cited by faculty reflect the HE and public sector ‘mantras of efficiency and
effectiveness’ highlighted by Parker (2011: p.440). The changing set of national
priorities were acknowledged by some faculty and they reported on a number of
external pressures for change that had become evident, particularly the need to have
‘a more efficient public sector which would be done by showing that there are less
units’ (A10). With respect to universities themselves, the need to be ‘more efficient
and give more value for money’ (A1) and to have a more ‘modern organisation’ (A9)
was noted. A3 acknowledged that:
…….there was an increasing view that universities were an important part of
the industrial infrastructure of a country and government began to view
universities as being instruments of economic policy and to get an alignment
of what the departments and the government bodies wanted universities to
achieve – that was only ever going to happen if they had a very, very strong
centralised decision-making system in universities………
Faculty accepted the broad underlying reasons for change with A2 suggesting that it
‘should have happened a long, long time ago’.
It was acknowledged that the
university had been like a ‘sleeping giant’ (A1) that was ‘under-performing’ (S1) and
the change programme had ‘shaken us out of a comfortable complacency’ (A3). A9
noted that the university structures, which had been in place since its foundation, were
‘fairly old-fashioned’, with A17 suggesting that these structures had ‘been stretched
because of bigger staff, bigger student numbers’. Prior to the change programme, the
capacity of the university to engage in strategic planning was compromised by the
ability of university constituents to ‘block progress on various issues’ (A9) and this is
best illustrated in the following quotation:
………the previous system was prone to endless debate and blocking and a
sort of slow response to the change and that, perhaps, a faster chain of
command was needed. I think that the feeling was that things should be done
quickly and that too much talking about it would actually slow it down (A6).
Indeed, the slow pace of decision-making in collegial institutions has been the subject
of much discussion in the literature (see Sharma, 2009). The move away from a staff
consultation approach has been seen as a prerequisite for a more efficient institutional
decision-making system (Martin, 1999).
The views of faculty on the ‘how’ of the change programme
The question of ‘how’ calls for examination of two issues: how the changes were
introduced and how faculty responded. While faculty were involved in the decision
to move towards an Executive Dean, they reported very little consultation with, or
involvement of, faculty during the implementation of the wider university change
programme. Some research participants suggested that only ‘selected academics were
involved’ (A19) to ‘lend colour, cosmetic support’ to the change initiatives (H2).
There was a view among many faculty that while feedback was ‘solicited’ (A10), a
‘veneer of involvement’ existed (A6), the outcome of which was that ‘they were not
really listened to’ (A17). There was a sense that the outcome of the change process
was ‘pretty much pre-determined’ (D1) and that ‘the process had probably moved
forward quite a bit before the academics were consulted’ (A4). Yet, one faculty
member indicated that he had as much involvement as he wanted to have. While
much of the literature advocates the desire for faculty involvement in, and
consultation during, institutional change, there is little commentary in the field on the
preference some faculty may have for not being involved in a change process. While
it was noted that change was ‘driven very much from the top’ (A1), it was
acknowledged by A6 that ‘when you need big change, you need to put someone in
there who can make the tough decisions’. Some views were expressed by those
interviewed that ‘it would certainly never have happened had it been from the bottom
up’ or where consensus was sought (D1) as ‘it’s difficult to take everybody’s view on
board’ (A8). The finding lends some support to Fullan’s (2007) assertion that a
bottom-up approach to change may be even less effective than a top-down approach.
In the context of a study on managerialism, Anderson (2008) notes the absence in the
literature of an understanding of how the opposition of faculty to these kinds of
practices is translated into actual responses on the ground. The case study evidence
suggests that faculty responded to the change programme in a variety of ways. Those
interviewed generally placed faculty in one of two categories. A small minority
embraced the changes (primarily those who had held the role of Dean at some stage
and those early-career academics who joined the university with the intention of
focusing on their research output). One manager-academic, highlighted the existence
of a group of staff ‘who have had some management experience’ in the School and
who were aware of the ‘realities’ of the HE environment and that, generally, this
group were in favour of the changes (D3) (this was the only area where a difference
was evident between the views of faculty and those of manager-academics
interviewed). Also, the above finding relating to early-career stage faculty in some
way supports the Universities UK (2010) finding that generational differences may
help to explain the different ways in which faculty respond to change.
The vast majority of those interviewed, however, suggested that faculty dis-engaged
during the change programme. A3 summed up the reaction of faculty generally:
…….. either people have jumped on board the train and embraced those
changes or they haven’t.
I think, effectively, we have two cohorts of
staff…we have a disaffected group of staff, who don’t, either for philosophical
reasons or due to lack of productivity, don’t like the new system and
unfortunately a proportion of those faculty have disengaged and then we have
a cohort of faculty who in varying degrees have embraced the changes.
The ‘huge loss of morale’ (A17) suffered by faculty was cited as one of the most
significant failures of the change programme. The sentiments voiced by faculty
interviewed largely resemble those contained in the work of Holley and Oliver (2000)
and Coaldrake and Stedman (1999). These included sentiments of ‘discontent’ (A3),
with faculty feeling increasingly ‘disengaged’ (A10, A14, D1 and D2), ‘disconnected’
(A7) and ‘disenfranchised’ (A16 and A17). One faculty member (A18) who was
involved in arguing ‘steadfastly against what was happening’, and who described
himself as feeling ‘deflated, dejected, disinterested, disheartened’ when this argument
was ‘lost’, suggested that ‘people recovered at different speeds’.
Many of the faculty responses evident in the case reflect Trowler’s (1998: 138)
assertion that ‘academics are likely to reflect on their situation, form a view, and then
take action to change it if they consider it necessary’. The non-mutually exclusive
nature of Trowler’s four behavioural responses to change was evident, with some
faculty reporting more than one behavioural response at the same time. Faculty
responses predominantly fall within the coping category, although evidence that
emerged for each of the four behavioural response categories is presented below.
Sinking: Faculty noted that ‘the job has gotten much more intense’ (D2), and ‘those
that are fully embracing all aspects of the job would work longer hours now’ (A3).
Greater time pressures due to tight grading deadlines was noted, with one academic
suggesting that this ‘puts enormous pressure and demands on people, particularly
people teaching large courses’ (H5).
The ‘conflicting, competing, paradoxical
demands’ being placed on academics in terms of the ‘compression of student time’
and the push ‘to have quality performance’, while at the same time, increasing student
numbers and revenue streams were highlighted as a source of increased pressure on
academics (A16).
A number of coping strategies were evident among the research
participants. A13 expressed a view that faculty are now ‘getting on with the job and
minimising contact with students and minimising on the administrative duties’. Many
faculty opted to ‘keep their heads down’ (H5), ‘batten down the hatches’ (A12) and
adopted an individualistic approach by looking after themselves and simply ‘getting
on with the job and just staying out of it’ (A5). This reduced visibility has been noted
as one of the main ‘self-protection’ (A19) mechanisms adopted by faculty. Yet, the
tendency for faculty to be less visible was also noted as a likely outcome of a greater
institutional focus on research output, with A14 commenting that ‘if the atmosphere
isn’t increasing their research productivity and they’re rational, they return to home’.
Thus, the most notable impact of the coping strategies adopted by faculty has been
their diminished visibility and ‘physical presence’ (A14) around the School with
many ‘working behind closed doors’ (A1). A16 commented that he ‘would go long
periods’ without seeing many of his colleagues now, whilst others suggested that
faculty are spending more time working from home. Although requiring further
investigation, a small number of faculty suggested that, perhaps, the positive impact
of this reduced visibility of staff has been an increase in productivity that ‘has
benefited their own careers and their own publication records, and ultimately
benefited the School’s’ (A18), with staff now ‘more focused’ (A1).
The above findings suggest that: faculty attempted to detach themselves from the
changes taking place around them by adopting a number of practical withdrawal type
strategies (as Watty et al. (2008) contends may be possible); and that responses such
as ‘working behind closed doors’ may be a strategy adopted by some faculty (albeit
not a deliberate one) that helped them to avoid falling into the ‘sinking’ category of
Reconstructing policies: In terms of the regulations and compliance requirements
surrounding modularisation and the need to create written module descriptors on the
new centralised university curriculum management system, a very small number of
faculty reported that they had engaged in a deliberate reconstruction strategy of
submitting very ‘broad’ (D2), and ‘generic’ (A10) descriptors in their ‘vaguest’ form
(A10). In these cases, both the module learning outcomes and the precise nature of
the assessment were written in broad terms and this allowed the faculty member to
retain a greater degree of control and flexibility over their teaching content and
assessment strategies. Anecdotal evidence also appeared to suggest that some faculty
were recording overall module grades in the university’s online results system, rather
than recording grades for each assessment component as per the university’s
requirements (although, the extent of this kind of approach to policy reconstruction
warrants further investigation).
Swimming: The research reported some evidence of a swimming approach adopted
by some faculty. The change programme placed a much greater emphasis on research
and, indeed, this was welcomed by a number of faculty (particularly those at an early
or mid-stage in their academic careers).
Two academics noted that, while their
workload had increased, it represented a career choice, with one suggesting that it was
of their ‘own volition’ (A19). H1 suggested that the institutional vision was ‘broadly
in line with our vision of how things should be which was about being world-class,
about being research driven, about doing great teaching, about not accepting second
Another academic suggested that he would not still be working for the
university had the President not been appointed.
The wider implications of discontent and faculty response patterns to change
It is necessary to consider the wider, and perhaps, more detrimental, long-term
institutional implications of discontent among faculty following a change programme
and how Trowler’s (1998) model may be reconfigured to reflect these wider concerns.
Faculty suggested that what has resulted is ‘the squeezing out of the extra investment
which academics were prepared to put in’ (A19), a loss of institutional goodwill and a
‘lower willingness to do things without clear rewards’ (A10). The view of A17 was
that while ‘there had been an awful lot of goodwill there previously’, it is now ‘more
localised’. D2 noted that the willingness of faculty to contribute to ‘service or
institution building’ has declined, with A18 expressing the view that ‘people are not
as willing to participate in joint efforts for the School’s promotion and development’.
Indeed, some faculty commented on how their ‘sense of wanting to do something for
the institution’ (A17) and their loyalty and commitment to the university have been
damaged as a consequence of the top-down manner in which change was introduced.
This finding supports the assertion made by Winter et al. (2000) regarding the decline
in the level of institutional commitment being exhibited by faculty.
The findings do not suggest, though, that the commitment of faculty to their own
discipline has declined and this, in some way, supports the view that the identity and
loyalty of faculty is firmly embedded within their own department (Waring, 2007),
and, in particular, within their own discipline rather than the wider institution (Clegg,
2003). While Trowler’s (1998) framework is useful in categorising responses to
change, it does not address the possible wider implications of institutional change.
The framework could be more usefully reconfigured to illustrate, not only the four
response strategies, but also how feelings of both content and discontent among
faculty may impact (positively or negatively) on the loyalty, commitment and
goodwill of faculty towards the institution and the discipline (see Figure 2).
Figure 2 Faculty Response Strategies and Their Wider Implications
Reconstructing policies
Response Strategies
Impact of Response
The increasing scale, pace and complexity of change in Irish universities has become
apparent over the last decade. Yet, there is a general dearth of research that provides
any real insight into how the higher education landscape in Ireland may be changing,
particularly from a grassroots faculty perspective.
This article has attempted to
address this gap in research by reporting on a programme of institutional change that
began at the largest Irish university in 2004. Many of the changes reported by faculty
related to the re-structuring of the university and the move towards a much more
managerial approach.
In addition, faculty also recounted evidence of increased
bureaucratisation, a greater focus on research and greater clarity in promotions
benchmarks. A general acceptance of the need for change throughout the university
was evident with faculty sighting the pursuit of greater public sector efficiency as one
of the reasons for change.
In the context of the UCD programme of large-scale institutional change, multiple and
parallel response patterns to change were reported by faculty, with ‘coping’ evident as
the predominant response of faculty. The response patterns included: some who
welcomed the changes, particularly the increasing focus on research; others who
adopted various coping strategies that resulted in faculty effectively withdrawing and
becoming less visible throughout the School; others who dealt with the increasing
documentation and compliance requirements around modules by reconstructing
policy requirements and; others who reported experiencing greater work
intensification and competing demands on their time. While an understanding of the
various response patterns of faculty was necessary, perhaps, of equal importance is
the need to consider the more wide-reaching consequences of these response patterns
for the institutional commitment and loyalty of faculty and the degree of goodwill
they are prepared to exercise for the benefit of the university.
While further
investigation of these possible consequences of a challenging period of institutional
change is important, equally worthy of further research is the extent to which
individual faculty members (and consequently the university and School) may have
benefited (productivity wise) from the withdrawal and ‘working behind closed doors’
strategies adopted by some faculty.
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