And then there were none: employee relations in marketising universities

[Guest post by CYGNA member Olga Kuznetsova. In this post Olga talks about her recently accepted SHE paper about a topic of relevance to all academics: employee relations in marketising universities.]

  • Kuznetsova, O. and Kuznetsov, A. (2019) And then there were none: What a UCU archive tells us about employee relations in marketising universities, Studies in Higher Education, Available online... - Publisher’s version

Our study engages evidence from a University and College Union (UCU) branch archive to explore developments in employee relations (ER) and capture the organisational effects of marketisation of UK universities. Marketisation increasingly transforms universities into hybrid organisations combining different, often conflicting, institutional logics, i.e., core cognitive principles and values that guide people at work. Hybridisation happens because the reaction to the pressures of marketisation by managers and academics is motivated by dissenting frames of reference: market responsiveness versus traditional academic values, respectively (Billis, 2010). We investigate how hybridisation affects ER in British universities by exploring the sources of grievances regarding relational tensions between managers and academics.

Data from a UCU archive led us to conclusion that the aggregate tendency of universities’ organisational practices is rooted not in the market pressures directly but in internal structures and procedures that interpret these pressures: how universities handle ER exacerbates rather than mitigates the challenges associated with the co-existence of the competing institutional logics in academia and therefore fails to resolve the ensuing issues.

Following Emmott (2005), we regard ER as functional if it establishes generalised trust through rules, regulations, agreements, contracts and behaviours, so that internal stakeholders’ interests are represented. The inspected archival documents indicate that academics encounter more red tape, experience closer control and a stronger bureaucratic grip. At the same time, the gains from staff mobilisation, such as additional funding resulting from improved research rankings, unfailingly concentrate at the institutional level and further empower management. We could not find archival evidence indicating attempts to create a mechanism that would help the two institutional logics to connect: despite the appearance of collective administration the management acted with a lack of consensus and minimal consultation. Characteristically, from the early 2000s, university documents labelled ‘university policy’ became more prominent, indicating discernible drive towards standardisation and relations that reduced the employees’ chance to be heard, which negotiations and consultations provided previously. Removing flexibility in ER involving professionals is found to be counterproductive (Salvato and Rerup, 2018). However, the documents reveal increasing inflexibility of ER through attacks on professional discretion, which is supposed to be a space for negotiation and trust. As a result, the competing institutional logics have transformed into conflicting ones accompanied with the entrenchment of managerialism and discounted professional discretion of academics. This fuels low-trust interpersonal attitudes and a conflict ridden, rather than collaborative ER.

One of the paradoxes of HE marketisation is that it has actually led to more red tape and administrative oversight. The ‘HE market’ is a quasi-market run by administrators who assess academic performance and set values ‘as if’ on behalf of the market. Hence, the marketisation of HE happens through the proxy of bureaucratisation at the organisational level. As a self-appointed market representative, management interprets and, through locally constructed rhetoric, presents the market demands to employees as internal rules and the base for ER. Consequently, management gains a more authoritative role in setting values. Employees, in turn, increasingly lose autonomy due to growing pressure for accountability and the diffusion of practices that undercut the peer-assessment principle.

Our evidence depicts ER in crisis: clashing institutional logics create the atmosphere of tension as many academics have a feeling that they are losing out. This situation contradicts the principles of sustainable development, seen in the literature as a path that encourages a non-decreasing stream of any form of shared well-being (Pezzey, 1997). Analysis of the UCU data has convinced us that most tension is created by the demarcation of new borders of the professional discretion for academics and associated freedoms and responsibilities. Our evidence shows that when ER is concerned with values, trust, ethicality, inclusion and engagement, the points of contention are more intense and problematic to resolve. The informal side in ER, such as social practices, organisational culture and discourse provide a necessary compensatory mechanism for the potentially counterproductive stiffness of formal arrangements, but this mechanism may be easily damaged if the foundation of trust is weakened or removed.

ER in its current form lacks the sense of mutual trust that is essential for the sustainability of new working practices. Currently, marketisation empowers management without empowering employees, causing dissatisfaction and compromising their commitment to continuous improvement. We argue for a need of a new benchmark in ER that recognises that non-formalised aspects of contracts are highly influential in work relations. The actual format of this benchmark should be a matter of further investigation, but in our opinion, it is to be based on the principle that in order to pass a sustainability test ER must be more sensitive to the intangible aspects of ER, address the interests of all parties and ensure a ‘critical mass’ of trust. In practice, a sustainability approach would hold the expectations that the guidance for ER is derived from negotiated values.


Billis, D. 2010. Hybrid Organizations and the Third Sector: Challenges for Practice, Theory and Policy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Emmott, M. 2005. What is Employee Relations? Change Agenda. CIPD.

Pezzey, J.C.V. 1997. “Sustainability constraints versus optimality versus intertemporal concern, and axioms versus data.” Land Economics, 73(4): 448-66.

Salvato, C., and C. Rerup 2018. “Routine regulation: Balancing conflicting goals in organizational routines.” Administrative Science Quarterly 63(1): 170–209.

Related blogposts

Drop me a line and have a nice Summer

If you’d like to join the CYGNA network, just drop me an email. This will be my last post before my Summer blogging holiday in July and August. The British summer is too short to spend more time behind your computer than is strictly necessary. Have a great summer all! I'll see you back early September.