There are big differences in management practices in UK universities, notably in how well they manage the recruitment, retention and promotion of staff. This has a significant impact on outcomes: better-managed departments have better performance in terms of both research quality and student satisfaction.


These are among the findings of a study to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Economic Journal. The research team – John McCormack and Professors Carol Propper and Sarah Smith – examine the relationship between universities'' research and teaching performance and tried-and-tested measures of the quality of management both at the department level and within their central administrations. The results show that:


· Departments that are better managed have better performance in terms of research, student satisfaction and a wider set of metrics. The better the management, the better the outcomes.


· Use of incentives – the freedom to attract, retain and reward good performers – is the key area of management practices that matter for both research and teaching outcomes. Monitoring and targets are much less important in explaining the performance of universities.


· It is the quality of recruitment, retention and promotion practices at the department level that matters most for performance. It makes no difference whether management is good or bad in the human resources department of the same university.


· University management is relatively decentralised compared with many other kinds of organisation, including multi-plant manufacturing firms and hospitals. One department within a university can have good management practices while another scores poorly.


· There are big differences in management practices between older, research-intensive universities and newer, more teaching-oriented universities. The ''Russell Group'' universities score highest on measures of the quality of management. Next comes a group of other older universities, followed by the former polytechnics and then other new universities.


· While there are differences in resources across the four different types of universities, the results on management and performance cannot be explained by the level of resources.


· Management matters in the same way in universities that focus on teaching and educating local students as it does in research-intensive universities. Good practice in recruitment, retention and promotion improves rankings for universities that were former FE and HE colleges just as much as for Russell Group universities.


Co-author Professor Carol Propper of the University of Bristol and Imperial College Business School comments:


''The commonly held view is that managing academics is like herding cats: difficult and ultimately pointless. Our research suggests quite the opposite: good management makes a real difference to both research and teaching.


''Universities are complex organisations, many of them running spin-off businesses, large science labs and even hospitals. Improving their performance is imperative, so getting it right with respect to staff matters.''


To conduct their study, the researchers use a measure of management quality that has been applied to over 10,000 organisations in manufacturing, retail, hospitals, schools, social care and elsewhere.


They use the assessment tool to interview around 250 heads of departments in Business, Computer Science, Psychology and English departments in over 100 universities in the UK. They complement this with interviews with the heads of human resources departments to measure the quality of management at the level of universities'' central administrations.


The survey covers management practices with respect to research and teaching processes, monitoring (performance measurement), targets and use of incentives (recruitment, retention, promotion etc).


The researchers look at variation in management scores across and within universities and then examine the relationship with externally validated measures of research and teaching.


For an overall ranking, they use the Complete University Guide, an independent guide that students, parents and the universities themselves use to compare the relative performance of UK universities.


They also examine research performance (as measured by the ranking achieved by each department in the government''s 2008 ''research assessment exercise'') and a ranking of student satisfaction – the National Student Survey.


Professor Carol Propper adds:


''Higher education is a strategically important sector for the UK economy – so the performance of universities, in both research and teaching, really matters.


''While the research and teaching roles of universities are often thought of as being in tension, our findings suggest otherwise.''


''Herding Cats? Management and University Performance'' by John McCormack, Carol Propper and Sarah Smith will be published in the Economic Journal, and is currently available free online. John McCormack is in the management department at the University of Bristol. Carol Propper is at Imperial College Business School and the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) at the University of Bristol. Sarah Smith is at CMPO at the University of Bristol.


The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the UK''s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. The ESRC supports independent, high quality research that has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. Its total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million; and at any one time, it supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.


Media Coverage

Herding Cats? Management and university performance Vox, 7 November 2013

La première priorité française, c''est une école plus efficace Les Echos, 12 November 2013

Does University Management Matter? Guardian Higher Education Network Blog, 12 November 2013