University managerialism: another narrative

One of the most common critiques these days of university life as presented by academics is that of ‘managerialism’. As far back as 2001 an article in Times Higher Education described it as follows:

‘”New managerialism” usually refers to practices commonplace in the private sector, particularly the imposition of a powerful management body that overrides professional skills and knowledge. It keeps discipline under tight control and is driven by efficiency, external accountability and monitoring, and an emphasis on standards.’

A frequent complaint amongst academics is that a new managerial class has taken control of the levers of decision-making in universities and is introducing private sector methods that disregard academic traditions and collegiality and which prioritise financial outturns over intellectual excellence and integrity. In addition this class of managers is said too have bureaucratised academic life, while avoiding accountability for these actions.

There can be little doubt that universities are today more bureaucratic places than they once were, and that a process of ‘management’ has emerged that would have seemed alien not so long ago. Rosemary Deem, who first produced an academic analysis of the phenomenon, wrote in 1998:

‘Until quite recently, the notion that the activities and cultures of universities either required managing or were, in any meaningful sense, ‘managed’, would have been regarded as heretical. Universities were perceived as communities of scholars researching and teaching together in collegial ways; those running universities were regarded as academic leaders rather than as managers or chief executives. However, as the higher education sector in the United Kingdom has grown in extent, it is also increasingly being required to justify the expenditure of public funds and to demonstrate ‘value for money’. Those who run universities are expected to ensure that such value is provided and their role as academic leaders is being subsumed by a greater concern with the overt management of sites, finance, staff, students, teaching and research.’

While the charge of managerialism may have some truth in it, the suggestion (if it were made) that this is the doing of a new managerial class intent on subverting the original academic mission is not really fair. Management systems in universities are not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a much wider movement that has included quality assurance systems, research assessment and greater financial accountability of universities. Some of these developments were entirely desirable, or at least can be justified easily enough. The problem is that they have taken what was or should have been the academic mission of finding and disseminating knowledge – i.e. content – and downgraded it, now taking second place to process. It is all to do with the desire to inject more accountability into higher education, a move made difficult by the fact that what higher education does intellectually is not easily measured. So other things were found that were capable of measurement, and in this way the system bureaucratised. And then of course the bureaucracy had to be managed.

Resolving all this is not at all easy. It is not possible, realistically, to roll back the last decade or two, and to be fair it probably isn’t desirable either. Universities back then were on the whole educators of the elite, with little inclination to justify what they were doing to anyone else. That’s no longer acceptable in today’s society. But rather than come up with ways of explaining and accounting for its actions and practices, the academy let external stakeholders lay down the rules, and this turned into what we have now got.

Not all of it is bad. Universities are much more cost effective than they used to be, have more professional support services, provide more serious back-up for students, manage their facilities more efficiently, engage more purposefully with the community. Where it is not so good is in the bureaucratisation of scholarship, and the inadequacy of inclusive decision-making. This is what we now need to get right. So to those academics who seem intent on suggesting that it’s all the fault of a managerial class, I would argue that the time is right to work with university leaderships to see how the academy can make its case effectively to a general public that wants more accountability, while preserving the best of the academic tradition. It shouldn’t be beyond us to achieve this.

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7 Comments on “University managerialism: another narrative”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    “Accountability” is a scam, another name for the takeover of the university by business interests. Ask yourself: what interest does the taxpayer have in the study of courtly love poetry or modal logic or the history of the Han Dynasty? “My money is paying for WHA?!” Accountability is a euphemism for gutting the university of everything that is not immediately cost effective in the myopic view of a public and politicians who know almost nothing.

    Uneducated people, by definition, don’t see or understand what education is. Where they are making the decisions about what it will be in the future, they will ensure only the perpetuation of their own ignorance.

    • Ernie, whatever view you may have of ‘uneducated people’, the taxpayer absolutely has a right to demand accountability for the expenditure of public money. Even if we did not believe that, our rejection would cut no ice. It simply isn’t a viable response to tell the government to push off. What we need to do is to create a model of accountability that does not subvert the academy’s mission.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Well, then, say goodbye to any discipline within the university that doesn’t have an immediate cash payoff for the public. That is what “accountability” implies.

        • Regina Says:

          I agree. While quality assurance is the fussy but tame house cat, ‘accountability’ is the hydra-headed monster prowling at the door of new managerialism. Feed one hungry mouth, and two more come snarling in return, never to be satisfied.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        And if you think I’m exaggerating, read this.

        “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,”
        Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. . . . Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

        That’s the Governor of Florida talking. Only fools and mountebanks don’t see (or pretend not to see) where this is going.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    Not sure what you mean exactly by ‘another narrative’ in the title, is your historical reading of the advent of managerialism a new narrative of events? Are you proposing a (new) narrative with regards to a new type of managerialism?

    Personally, I would agree with regards to the need to put forward ‘another narrative’ or to use a more appropriate, old fashion term another *ideology*. The distinction is not pedantic, not surprisingly in fact most studies devoted to (new) managerialism define it as an ideology. Paul Trowler, drawing on the literature and primary data from two research and evaluation projects based at Lancaster University, identifies new managerialism as fundamentally ideological in nature; (ii) positions the very significant role of discourse in articulating and sustaining ideologies; (iii) asks whether new managerialist ideology and discourse have become hegemonic in UK higher education, exploring the reasons for any dominance they have achieved; and (iv) concludes (rather too optimistically to my mind) with the observation that UK higher education has not been ‘captured’ by this ideology despite its apparent prevalence.
    (See UK Higher Education: Captured by New Managerialist Ideology?

    Also an interesting read is ‘Academic Tribes and Territories
    Intellectual enquiry and the culture of disciplines in education’ which shows how the pursuit of managerialism’s three key aims (economy, efficiency and effectiveness) has had a substantial, often painful, impact on academic communities. Academics have found themselves ‘overextended, underfocused, overstressed, underfunded’ in the words of one North American university
    principal (Vest 1995). The study concludes by inviting today’s HE policy makers and those HE managers impelled by managerialist ideology to read Raymond Callahan’s (‘Education and the Cult of Efficiency’ 1962) historical account of the ‘cult of efficiency’ in the early years of this century in the USA for some still valid insights. (

  3. Al Says:

    Why is the time right now?
    Do you refer to Ireland, Scotland? Europe? world wide?
    Altogether at the same time or seperate?
    Are you getting close to running for president of Ireland with statements like these?

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