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.