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Controlling higher education

Are performance management systems effective in higher education?

Systems put in place to measure performance have been shown to be quite effective in influencing how individuals behave and, in consequence, how organisation’s work and the results they achieve. However, the successful use of performance management systems (PMS) is in organisations which have clear, easily recognisable objectives. It is much less clear how performance management systems work in complex organisations with diffuse objectives, such as universities.

The unintended consequences of PMSs are already understood. For example, measuring performance can produce dysfunctional behaviour in that achieving the required outcome can undermine other important areas of an organisation’s work. Moreover, setting targets as part of a PMS runs the risk of manipulation within the recording systems as individuals seek to ensure that required targets are achieved.

In this study, researchers will analyse the operation of PMSs in a complex organisational structure -higher education – and assess, how they work, what effects they have and whether they are effective for the stakeholders involved. The study will also explore how target setting and performance management are related.

What the research means for policy makers and the wider community

Research methods

The study will use a range of qualitative approaches to contrast the intentions signalled in the formal documents and reports relating to the design and implications of PMS with the actual practice of using them. Practice will be explored with those involved through in-depth semi-structured interviews. Organisations approached will include the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) and universities. A theoretical framework for analysing PMSs in the delivery of other public services will be developed.

Further Information: Project Posters

Updated Project Poster 2009

Below is a summary of this project’s provisional findings. It was originally presented as a dissemination poster, which is available here as a pdf document. All figures can be found at the bottom of this poster summary as thumbnails, which one should click to view full-size images. Alternatively, where figures are reffered to in the text, click the linked text for a full-size version.




Systems to measure and manage performance (PMS) have been shown to be quite effective in some cases, particularly in organisations that have clear, easily recognizable objectives. But much less is known about how performance management systems work in complex organisations, such as universities, which produce multiple goods and operate in a world of multiple stakeholders, complex funding flows and often contradictory demands (Figures 1 and 2 illustrate this; Figure 1 maps the flows of Government funding, which, as Figure 2 demonstrates, constitutes more than 60% of total income for HEIs). This research explores how performance management systems play out in such conditions and with what consequences, intended or otherwise.


We aimed to:

» map out performance management systems in the provision of higher education in England and trace their development;

» evaluate the design, implementation and effectiveness of performance management systems in higher education in England;

» provide insights for developing a more general framework for the analysis of PMS design, implementation and evaluation that can inform further studies in other areas of public service delivery.

What We Did

» Instead of a hypothesis-testing approach, we took a critical-discursive approach to investigating the operations of PM systems, combining analysis of documents and unstructured interviews with 50 individuals spanning the entire ‘delivery chain’ (Figure 1), across six different higher education institutions (HEIs) in England in 2005-6.

» In the process we developed a distinction between two basic forms of PM systems, transactional and relational (summarised in Figure 4), and identified the elements of context and culture associated with these different types of PMS (summarised in Figure 3).

Provisional Findings

» We identified a tension between the transactional approach to PMS reflected in the way Treasury public service agreement targets diffused throughout the delivery chain, and the relational approach to PMS taken by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and operating within HEIs.

» We are exploring possible futures for this tension, including the possibility of HEFCE being obliged to shift from a relational to a transactional approach to PMS if HEIs fail to deliver government priorities.

» We expect the distinction we have identified between transactional and relational PM systems to be applicable to other domains of public services.


Click on the figures to enlarge

broadbentfig1.jpg broadbentfig2.jpg broadbentfig3.jpg broadbentfig4.jpg

Other Project Outputs and Related Webpages

Project page on the ESRC Society Today website

Broadbent J.and Laughlin R. (2009) ‘Performance Management Systems: A Conceptual model’, Management Accounting Research, Vol 20 (4) : 283-295

Broadbent J., Gallop C. and Laughlin R. (2010) ‘Analysing Societal Regulatory Control Systems with Specific Reference to Higher Education in England’ Accounting, Auditing and Accountability, Vol 23 (4) : 506-531

Research Team

Jane Broadbent

Jane Broadbent

Jane Broadbent is Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Roehampton University, a member of the Research Board of Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, and Deputy Editor of the journal Public Money and Management


Richard Laughlin

Richard Laughlin

Richard Laughlin is a Professor of Accounting at King’s College, University of London. He has a range of publications in accounting, management, organisation and political refereed journals, books and conference proceedings, most of which are related to methodological issues and to understanding the organisational and human effects of changes in accounting, finance and management systems in organisations and society with particular emphasis on the public sector. He has jointly held two research grants from the ESRC, the most recent being with the Contracts and Competition Initiative, and two from the Nuffield Foundation as well as being co-researcher in the study of the Private Finance Initiative.

Tel: 020 7848 4553