A campus divided against itself cannot stand

15 November 2023      Kate Ayres, College Accountant

The following blog has been written by Kate Ayres, College Accountant, St John's College, Durham University.

In the UK, for the academic year 2021/22 there were 285 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) who submitted to the HESA return. The purpose of an HEI, or more specifically a university, has often come into question, which Collini summarised in 2012 as universities being either useful or useless (Collini, What are Universities for?, 2012, p24). Recent reviews of Higher Education have seen a push towards the ‘useful’ agenda, for example the use of a degree both to an individual and to society is often cited. However, with the recent discussions around AI changing the landscape of work not only by reducing the number of jobs available but also lowering the salaries of those jobs remaining, there is need for the utility of a degree to be reconsidered.

Utility is often quantified by numbers of students in graduate jobs and/or salary during a period after graduating simply because this can be quantified. Another example of quantification is The Browne Review which states that a university degree has a return on investment of 400% (Browne Review, 2010, p3). However, the longer-term view of the utility of a degree is, in fact, very broad but to date has been unquantifiable. This is examined by Davis and Hersh in unpicking the utility of mathematics.

Through examination of the applicability of maths to everyday situations, it soon becomes clear that the need for understanding and using maths is all around us, daily and that utility means different things to different people depending on their need (Davis & Hersh, The Mathematical Experience, 1981, p79). This is called the ‘common utility’, i.e. the use of the knowledge of maths to the “person in the street” (Davis & Hersh, The Mathematical Experience, 1981, p83). This concept of common utility could also be easily applied to many other disciplines. Expanding on their ideas in their next book Descartes Dream: The World According to Mathematics, Davis and Hersh go on to conclude that a philosophical education is more useful than a practical one.

Whatever your view is, this difference in opinion of utility is a debate that persists, and the continued lack of consensus is causing collateral damage on campuses across the country. Beyond the high-level philosophical and political debate about the utility of a degree, day-to-day the debate is often reflected within the universities where it manifests as a conflict or cultural clash between academic staff (taking a longer-term view to the benefits of a university degree) and professional services staff (taking a more utilitarian view). However, these two different camps must collaborate in order to run a university, but the cultural differences can lead to a situation of stalemate. With different driving forces at play on each side of the debate an organisation becomes slow to change. In Organisational Ecology theory this slowness is known as organisational inertia and is made up of several layers. When inertia is present within an organisation it increases the chances of organisational mortality (there are a couple of exceptions to this detailed later). Therefore, inertia needs to be kept at a low level in order to increase the chance of organisational survival. This article aims to outline the complexities of organisational inertia and potential solutions to the problem.

What is inertia and what effect does it have on an organisation’s survival?

Organisational inertia is the reluctance of an organisation to let go of their ways of working which, when first implemented, put them on the path to success. This reluctance to let go brings about a slowness of the organisation to move forward, to compromise, to adapt, to change. This is the viewpoint of most academics.

Inertia can be damaging for an organisation because the lack of adaptation to an external environment means an organisation can become less relevant to its audience. This decreases demand for an organisation and their offerings and therefore increases the chances of an organisation failing.

Change is happening at universities and usually it is a slow process unless, as with covid, environmental factors forced rapid change such as adapting to online teaching and learning. Older organisations are slower to change but the slower to change an organisation is, the more collateral damage is caused. This organisational friction causes deterioration in routine processes and procedures leaving the organisation adrift from the quality and relevance a modern audience requires.

However, some universities still thrive despite being weighed down heavily with inertia. The oldest universities in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge, thanks to their large endowments and strong international reputation, manage to supress the negative effects of inertia and continue to thrive. From an Organisational Ecology point of view, a large endowment, for as long as it is in existence can reduce mortality hazard, i.e. the chance of an organisation dying or shutting down (Hannan, Polos & Carroll, Logics of Organization theory: audiences, codes and ecologies, 2012, p 151).  However, these organisations, are few and far between which means that for most universities inertia is something that needs to be minimised in order for them to flourish.

The inertia, or lack of willingness for an organisation to adapt to its changing environment, is the result of the collective voice held by the organisation’s decision-makers (senior leadership teams and councils). The inertia is complex and caused by layers of cultural background, organisational rules and a history of decision making (path dependence) and these, combine to form a tangled web which proves very hard to unpick. However, starting at the individual-level and working upwards, the compound effect of personal experience, organisational experience, organisational regulations and environment can be un-picked, which could provide clarity for a way forward to reduce cultural tension and inertia therefore increasing a university’s chance of survival.

Layer one: Individual Culture

All members of the organisation have differing personal experiences and come from differing cultural, geographic and political backgrounds which affects their personalities, their values and core beliefs. Although we all try, no one can be truly objective as this personal mindset which is unconsciously brought to the table at meetings, will affect decision making. Although recent work on unconscious bias has helped bring these ideas to the fore, there is still work to be done.

Age of staff is an important factor for universities too and staff, with the key decision-makers being at a point closer to retirement. This means that the experience a senior manager might have had as a junior academic is likely the best part of 40 years beforehand, and the sector has changed hugely in that time. Their experience and understanding of the ground-level mechanisms of HE have therefore gradually fallen out of alignment with the contemporary environment, but nonetheless these are used as their personal reference for decision making. We all struggle to adapt as we age and may become set in our ways, which leads to inertia in both personal and public life. Added to this, according to research by HEPI, VCs are now staying in their roles for 8 years on average, compared to a senior manager in the NHS of 3 years. Although this could be seen as a positive for stability, the gap between a VC or senior leader and their environment will only grow over time.

In HEIs there are many and varied individual cultures brought through an international staffing body and gender is also an issue that I discuss later. However, in addition, universities attract a particular kind of mind, the absent-minded professors. Neurodivergent people have often found themselves comfortable at universities where their eccentricities are accepted as the norm in return for their ability to see things differently and their superpowered minds. However, if left undiagnosed, this can lead to challenges for individuals (both neurodivergent and neurotypical) as a key aspect of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is the inability to recognise another person’s point of view (theory of mind). While these days there is awareness and help for those with neurodiversity, for many generations this was not understood or available. This can lead to many senior academics, promoted into senior management jobs with a lack of ability to understand another person’s viewpoint, further enhancing a cultural gap.

Layer two: Organisational Culture

On top of personal backgrounds, the organisational culture adds another level of complication. An organisation’s culture consists of informal codes, processes and rules which affect how the place runs. It is formed, not by written documents, but by tacit knowledge, internal politics and gossip. In addition, stories handed down in person by colleagues through the grapevine play a role. It is very hard to influence this area of culture and is often cited as one of the biggest challenges in change (Hodges, Understanding Organisational Change, 2016, p35) and, if the grapevine is conveying negative information, it adds to the inertia.

Secondly, the traditional management hierarchy often seen within an HEI (permanent senior male staff; junior fixed-term contract female staff) paves the way for gender-based inequalities, the foundations for gender-based inequalities, which is prevalent in HEIs. The impact of these imbalances results in a slowing down of productivity and a lowering of the quality of the working environment. In academic circles, academic privilege works in a similar way – if you don’t have a PhD you’re opinion isn’t valid.

Finally, organisational culture is tied up with organisational identity. Organisations may take pride in the size of their company, they may have money tied up in buildings, and in the UK in particular, just like with the domestic housing market, owning buildings is culturally important and establishes people and organisations as having “made it”. However, owning fixed assets locks up cash and reduces organisational agility as you can’t sell property quickly when cash is needed. In addition, the estate of many older UK universities is crumbling and backlog maintenance is crippling the cashflow, jeopardising the organisation’s profits and chance of survival. Although many HEIs are now moving to off-balance sheet financing which removes the financial burden and risk of owning and upkeeping buildings and estate.  Most estates are still owned by HEIs adding to the effects of inertia.


Layer Three: Architecture

The cultural background of both employees and an organisation are yet further reinforced by the architectural aspects of an organisation which adds more to the inertia and widens the cultural gap between key decision-makers.

An organisation’s architecture is the formal rules, regulations, statutes and processes which govern how it operates. These are often formal documents, written down and approved by committees. Some of these will be very old and ancient universities in particular will have very old statutes which are still upheld in a modern world. However, the need for data reporting as prescribed by the Office for Students gives equal validity to the modern/economic-benefit/private-view of a university and which is at odds with the traditional views, thus reinforcing both sides of the cultural gap between academics and professional services staff.

The culture, combined with architecture, determines how an individual and an organisation reacts to its environment but because the background culture is different on different sides of the debate, opinions of how to respond to changes in environment differ too.


The environment in which universities operate has many components (resources) with which they interact. These include political policies, finance (income and/or borrowing), customers, technology, sector regulations and of course various forms of social media. However, each individual on a personal level will have differing reactions to all of these, stemming from their cultural background and the organisation as detailed above.


The result of all these factors is a gap in beliefs between academic and professional services staff that is entrenched. But, it's not the differing points of view that matter, as, after all, that’s what, according to Humboldt a university is for, namely to explore different opinions and nurture independent thinking. It is the lack of clarity over a university’s purpose (which should be unique for each institution) and the utility of a degree that fuels this debate. Therefore, to increase the chances of survival, narrowing that cultural gap between academics and professional service staff is essential and that can be done by clearly defining a university’s purpose and therefore the utility of the qualifications on offer. Clarity of purpose in an HEI and the language used to communicate this comes from the very top, the Government and, as Marginson summaries in his recent article on Wonkhe, the purpose and language are poorly defined.


The solution is not a one-size-fits-all approach and will depend on the financial situation of each university. As per organisational ecology theory, any organisation that was founded in times of low competition, outperform those founded in times of high competition (Le Mens, Hannan, Polos, ‘Founding Conditions, Learning, and Organizational Life Chances: Age Dependence Revisited’, 2011, p 96) and any organisation with a large on-going endowment can out-survive most other organisations within the same ecosystem (org logic book p151). For UK universities, this indicates that places like the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge can continue as they always have done. Take for example, the recommendations made to Oxford University by HEFCE in 2007 to review their governance structure to include a majority of independent members to reduce conflict of interest. In 2023, The University of Oxford has a council of 26 members, 4 of whom are from outside the University and thus still exists in its original (self-governing) form, whereas HEFCE does not.

Those HEIs which are new to the market and have been set-up in the modern age, for example the Dyson Institute (opened in 2017), one would expect, given its financial set up (a subsidiary of Dyson’s main company), to have a more business-focused management culture, driven by numbers and metrics. Organisational Ecology theory would suggest that both academic staff and professional services staff will have been indoctrinated within the organisational culture at the point of founding and will therefore both be on the same page and the cultural clash between staff groups will not be as prevalent.

For those in the middle-zone, i.e. older universities with less financial stability, decisions around operating models need to be made. One way of reducing the cultural gap is by defining a university’s market by working in a market niche. A niche is a smaller subset of a broader market, and an organisation working within the niche is termed a specialist organisation.

Organisational Ecology theory states that specialist organisations outperform generalist organisations even in constantly changing environments due to deeper knowledge of a smaller market area results in a better-quality offering or product. This will help a university to decide who their audience is (who is targeting them) and therefore the purpose of their individual university. Clarity in purpose and market segment will aid communication and therefore reduce cultural clashes and staff will, in effect, be singing from the same hymn sheet. Staff will also need to be given the tools to enable clearer communication and better inter-employee relations: a clear common language to express the university’s identity and goals, and softer skills such as how to compromise, listen and understand.

Concluding thoughts

Fundamentally, while metrics make universities accountable for outcomes and quality and use of funds, these metrics are simultaneously driving away the idea of exchange of cultures, sought by Humboldt. While we seek to teach students to become, as Humboldt would have it world citizens, we are not modelling this behaviour within our employees.

We need to find a way whereby this exchange can happen for staff as well as for students so that peace and justice is restored. This can be done by thinking smaller, taking a smaller bite of the HE apple, defining our niches within the market and working with them, not against them. This more focused view will naturally lead to defining a clearer sense of purpose and setting clearer goals. These, with the aid of clear common language will infiltrate through the staffing body and going some way to lessen the divide, lessen the inertia and increase a university’s chance of survival.

Read more

This site uses cookies and other tracking technologies to assist with navigation and your ability to provide feedback, analyse your use of the site and services and assist with our member communication efforts. Privacy Policy. Accept cookies Cookie Settings