Thursday, 16 August 2012


Clearing is here now, and Jessica Guiver’s blog about targets – and what happens if you miss them – has got me thinking about this issue. A recruitment target is a number: it seems clear, precise and very measurable; but in fact a recruitment target is also a cultural artifact that can only be understood correctly in a particular context. Let me explain what I mean.

Broadly there are two approaches to targets. Some Vice Chancellors I have worked with in the past have seen targets as an essentially rhetorical device. Their role is to encourage the troops to try even harder and therefore it isn’t important that they can necessarily be achieved. It may even be detrimental to the intended incentive effect. Dull number crunchers like me tend to see targets as part of a rational planning apparatus in which we work out a budget and resource model robustly based on a realistic target number. Now whilst these approaches to targets can be contrasted in principle, in practice they are continually held in tension. Even the coldest technocrat does not actively wish to discourage recruitment. Perhaps there are some VCs out there so ardent for growth that they genuinely don’t care if the students all wind up in one department whilst the budget to teach them is in another, but they assuredly employ many people – both academic staff and accountants – who do.

This brings out the second point. Although targets might in principle be set by a single person (and when I was a Head of Planning I worked hard to assert that the person in question was me), they are used and understood by a community. This is a bureaucratic institution, so not all the members of the community have equal consideration given to their views, but many are in a position of some influence. If the targets set by the VC are too high to carry conviction to the chief management accountant, he or she may start using different means to estimate income, or place very large contingencies in place to cover under-recruitment. Perhaps academic departments find that no-one ever meets their targets, yet this never seems to have financial consequences. Suppose that there is a downturn in certain overseas markets: a target is going to be missed, but who owns it? The international office and the academic departments are likely to contest this issue and the matter may come down to which heads of department have the most prestige in the institution, rather than any facts of the case.

The targets are used in different ways at different times, and the same person may seek to present the same target in a different light later on. A Dean of Faculty with stretching targets will use them to press for resources when budgets are set (‘I need to be able to teach all these students’). Later, when targets have been missed, the same individual may take a different view to try to fend off adverse budget consequences (‘these targets were never realistic’).

A war story of mine which I will include here because I am fond of it and this is my blog relates to Level Zero programmes. For readers in grander institutions which don’t have these, they are four-year versions of standard UG degree programmes where the first year is below degree level, and essentially remedial. Entrants to these programmes typically have very few UCAS tariff points and my former institution decided at a high level to move away from them for league table reasons. My view was that this decision was wrong both on its own merits (the extra UCAS tariff points wouldn’t actually have been enough to move us up the table), on revenue grounds (with a limit on recruitment, why substitute 3-year programmes for 4-year programmes?) and because it undermined our WP mission. When I came to discuss targets with the Deans they were each easily persuaded that moving numbers from Year 0 to Year 1 was too much of a risk to their budget at a time when demand might be weak. So you see even the planners themselves undermine the inter-relationship between plan, strategy and targets when it suits them to do so.

So conclusion one: If Jessica misses her target, the consequences will depend on the culture and internal politics of her institution, and particularly on how well regarded the director of internationalisation is.

Conclusion two takes us back to the Student Number Control. The SNC is a number: it seems clear, precise and very measurable. But unlike the targets in institutions, there is no tension here between different ways of interpreting it. The SNC means what HEFCE’s Analytical Services Group say it means, and they are the acme of the rational technocrats.

I have been critical in the past of managers who have failed to navigate these waters successfully, and fallen into over-recruitment as a consequence. This post maybe helps to explain how such errors are possible, but I hope it won’t be taken to condone. Someone once said that to understand all is to forgive all, but it wasn't me.

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