The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities

Chapter One

Introduction and Background

1.1 Introduction and Background

Academic Heads of Department (HoDs) in higher education institutions (HEIs) are increasingly being expected to assume much greater responsibilities than hitherto for both human resource and financial management in addition to traditional academic concerns, as patterns of university financing and management practices change under pressure from government and funding councils. Innovatory teaching and learning strategies developed in response to increased student numbers and technological developments, on the one hand and, on the other, an increasingly competitive environment for student recruitment and research funding, have helped highlight the need for more sophisticated and co-ordinated "intelligence" about potential markets, competitors, sources of funding and other support, and technological, economic and political developments. Information about and analysis of competing units, funding agencies and opportunities, the preparation and targeted dissemination of briefings on topics of special, current or potential interest and relevance to specific universities, departments or individuals are increasingly seen as vital to the success of both the university as an institution and its constituent parts. Similarly, academic libraries are having to come to terms with alternative means of resource procurement and deployment and have begun, in some cases, to devolve responsibility for decision-making on some aspects of budget allocation and spending and prioritisation to academic departments.

As Allen (1995, p.12) has suggested, the combination of such factors has helped focus attention on the need for institutions to plan strategically for the collection, storage, manipulation and dissemination of their information resources. Allen has argued that the problems experienced by some institutions in implementing and managing efficient and effective management information systems may, at least in part, be attributable to insufficient consideration of what managers in universities actually require from such systems, with, for example, insufficient attention being paid to information that is "external", qualitative or subjective and with solutions to problems of information provision and organisation too often technology- rather than information-led.

1.2. Objectives

While the research reported by Allen is primarily concerned with the formation of Information Systems Strategy (ISS) in British HEIs the research project described in this report is more specifically concerned with the management information needs of senior academic staff, the extent to which such needs are or could be met by other sections or units within universities and with the effectiveness of a critical success factors (CSF) approach to the determination and investigation of these needs. The project described here developed from a pilot study conducted by Pellow & Wilson (1993) within Sheffield University on behalf of a steering group set up to examine how more effective management information systems might be developed in the University. That pilot study attempted to identify and define the management information requirements of twenty academic HoDs in areas critical to the achievement of organisational goals and to explore the relationship between such critical success factors and information needs. It was found that the HoDs interviewed were able to identify their organisational goals, critical success factors and information needs. They ranked the improvement of research performance and provision of high quality teaching as their most important goals and, as critical success factors, identified external factors such as availability of funding for research and students, response to external needs and the policies of external bodies and internal factors such as resource management, course design, student recruitment strategies, exploitation of new technology and teaching and research expertise as important in servicing their organisational goals. The results of the pilot study indicated that HoDs had a wide range of information needs, including competitor intelligence, research funding alternatives and opportunities, potential student needs and student employment needs and the performance and marketing of new courses.

Overall, the results of the pilot study suggested that a more extensive examination of CSFs and related information needs might help provide universities generally with a better understanding of the information needed to support the achievement of their organisational goals and identify areas in which communications between the central university administrative and academic support services, as far as management information provision is concerned, might be improved. It was believed that a broader-based study of the specific needs of HoDs would benefit from the inclusion in such an extended survey of university librarians, senior administrators such as Registrars and Secretaries and Finance Officers, management information officers and the heads or managers of such support services as industrial liaison offices, marketing and public relations offices and student services. It was hoped, in particular, that the findings of such an investigation might contribute to:

i) a better understanding of the developing range of managerial information needs of academic departments in universities;

ii) a clearer picture of the present role of university libraries in the development of campus-wide information systems and the potential for university library involvement in meeting departmental management information needs;

iii) the extension of university administrators' understanding of academic perceptions of critical success factors and the administrative and managerial services needed to ensure their achievement.

1.3. Sampling Options

It was initially intended to develop a sample of approximately forty British universities, with twenty of these from the former polytechnic sector and twenty from older universities. These were to be further stratified into three size groups according to student numbers. It was envisaged that within universities individual academic departments could be stratified according to a number of characteristics:

i) the discipline or subject covered;

ii) the size of the department in staff and/or student numbers;

iii) the proportion of postgraduate students to undergraduate students;

iv) the research - rating gained in the most recent research assessment exercise

The pilot study had found that the broad disciplinary group (science, social sciences, arts and medicine), the proportion of undergraduate students, and the research rating were most likely to reveal variations in goals and CSFs.

On the basis of these proposals a working sample was developed. Using data supplied electronically in spreadsheet form from the Department for Education (as it then was), the University Statistical Record (1994) and the Universities Funding Council (1992) a sample based on the academic year 1992-1993 was constructed. This year was chosen because of the difficulty in obtaining reliable data for later years for all universities and, more importantly, because it was possible to tie in student numbers for that year with the ratings gained in the 1992 research assessment exercise. It was also decided to exclude a number of institutions from the sample. Thus, the University of Sheffield and some specialised institutions such as Cranfield, Manchester and London Business schools were left out. So, too, were collegial institutions such as the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London and the University of Wales as these institutions are sufficiently organisationally different from more unitary institutions to be outside the remit of the project. Finally, Scottish and Irish universities were also excluded because of time and funding constraints.

This left sixty-three English institutions, of which twenty-eight were older universities and thirty-five from the former polytechnic sector. These were ordered according to student numbers. Superficially, this might seem a comparatively easy task; however, with the changing mix of full-time, part-time and short-course students, it remains difficult to achieve a clear and consistent interpretation of the numbers of students in universities in any one academic year. Hence, given the variety of measures available, it seemed more appropriate to use the figures for part-time and full-time students together, since these figures, rather than full-time numbers alone, perhaps give a clearer indication of the pressures faced by universities.

Once an appropriate set of figures was decided upon, the institutions were stratified by student numbers. They were further delineated by analysing the mean and median for the population. Both the mean and median came out at approximately 9000 students. Furthermore, as the standard deviation was 3000 students, it was possible to stratify the institutions into four groups:

i) >12000 (n=11: 5 universities and 6 former polytechnics);

ii) >9000 <12000 (n=21: 6 universities and 15 former polytechnics);

iii) >6000 <9000 (n=17: 9 universities and 8 former polytechnics);

iv) <6000 (n=14: 8 universities and 6 former polytechnics).

From these, a sample of thirty-eight universities, based on history, size, geographic location, and to include universities with medical departments, was selected. However, once this sample of thirty-eight, stratified into groups of eight, fourteen, nine, and seven, was constructed, it became clear that the original proposal of having a sample of approximately forty universities would prove extremely difficult to prosecute, given the limited time and funds available to the project. Moreover, as the focus of the project was to be on HoDs rather than universities per se, it was decided that there were more advantages to be derived from visiting as many HoDs as possible in a smaller sample of universities rather than a more limited number of HoDs in a larger sample of universities.

Thus, a smaller sample of sixteen universities, based upon the above stratification and ordered according to Sumsion's (1994) typology, was constructed. This ranged institutions into one large university with a large student population, three institutions that had gained their charter prior to the Robbins-inspired expansion of the 1960's, three universities that came into being as a direct result of this expansion, and nine post-1992 institutions. The Vice-Chancellors of all sixteen universities were invited in writing to co-operate with the project. Of the original sixteen, thirteen agreed to take part while the remaining three felt that existing pressures on their time and resources made it impossible for them to become involved. Replacements for these three, drawn from suitable candidates in the population, were identified and contacted and subsequently agreed to take part in the project.

The next task was to collect information from the institutions on the numbers of undergraduates, postgraduates and their mix in each department within the institution. It was hoped, as in the pilot project referred to above, to distinguish between departments by their research rating and the proportion of undergraduates in the departments. With this information, it would be possible to stratify departments according to:

i) Group W: research rating 1, 2 or 3, more than 80% undergraduate;

ii) Group X: research rating 4 or 5, more than 80% undergraduate;

iii) Group Y: research rating 1, 2 or 3, less than 80% undergraduate;

iv) Group Z: research rating 4 or 5, less than 80% undergraduate.

Besides this, it was envisaged that Heads of Department in a variety of disciplines would be interviewed in order give the project something akin to a 'virtual university' in which the full range of subjects commonly found in English universities would be represented.

Achieving this, however, proved more problematical than anticipated since it proved difficult to obtain accurate data from the selected universities on the actual numbers of undergraduates and postgraduates specifically within departments. Since universities tend to collect information for courses rather than departments, some universities had problems in generating figures for student numbers in departments. Also, some universities do not have departments. In some of the newer universities and one of the older universities visited, it would be more appropriate to talk of Deans of School than Heads of Departments.

More worrying, however, was the difficulty of accurately tying some individual departments with research ratings gained in the research assessment exercise. Some research centres may, for example, cut across disciplinary boundaries and other departments may be located in two or more of the research assessment areas, thus making it difficult to account fully for departments within the W, X, Y, and Z typology outlined above. Finally, another problem was the impossibility of obtaining student data on departments chosen from medical schools. Here no transparent data appeared to exist to illustrate the particular student load carried by any department within a medical school.

Given these problems, therefore, some caution must be exercised with regard to any emphasis on the proportion of undergraduate to postgraduate students in particular departments. Similarly, while the research assessment ratings data are more robust, it must also be borne in mind that they too may represent a simplification of the complex way in which some departments interact with external auditing agencies. Such difficulties need, however, to be put in perspective. British universities remain remarkable for their diversity. Each, it seems, has its own particular history, mission and status. Inevitably then, it may not be too surprising that the figures for student numbers and, to a lesser extent, the research assessment exercise ratings are not as robust as they might be.

Nevertheless, with the data received from the universities in the sample it was still possible to construct a representative group of academic Heads of Departments (or their equivalents), stratified according to discipline, research assessment rating and ratio of undergraduates to postgraduates in their departments. It was hoped to interview at least three Heads of Departments in each university in order to provide a total sample of forty-eight. Owing to illness or unavailability for other reasons, it was only possible to interview forty-four HoDs. In each of the interviews a semi-structured interview schedule was used (Appendix 1.). The interviews themselves were fairly evenly split between HoDs in the newer universities (24 interviews) and older universities (20 interviews). In terms of discipline, the sample was broken down into: Pure and Applied Sciences (14 interviews), Social Sciences(12 interviews), Arts and Humanities (12 interviews) and Medical Subjects (6 interviews). Stratifying these in another way, according to the W, X, Y, and Z departmental typologies developed in the original pilot study, the interviews were grouped as 18, 11, 9 and 6 respectively.

As for librarians, interviews were conducted with the chief librarian in fifteen of the universities and, in the remaining university, with the deputy librarian owing to the illness of the chief librarian. They were interviewed using a different interview schedule that sought to bring out their role in supplying information to HoDs (Appendix 2). Nineteen university administrators were also interviewed using another semi-structured interview schedule (Appendix 3). The administrators were drawn from a wide variety of posts to reflect the diverse nature of support provided to academic HoDs in the universities. Thus, interviews were conducted with: five senior administrators dealing with management information; three finance officers; three Heads of industrial liaison offices; two Registrars and Secretaries and one Secretary; two Heads of student services; one Head of a careers service; the Head of a science park; and the Head of a marketing and public relations office.

All of the interviews were conducted between the 12 December 1994 and March 24

Front PageContentsChapter 2

The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities: a Critical Success Factors Approach, by Francis Greene, Brendan Loughridge and Tom Wilson
British Library Research and Development Department Report 6252 1996
Grant no: RDD/G/254