Courage and integrity in UK academia

I thought I would start 2017 with some higher education news which has cheered me over the past few weeks. It is not often I offer a shoutout to particular universities or vice-chancellors, but there are two which seem to merit honourable mentions.

Firstly, Birmingham City University appears to be resisting the trend towards course offerings which are exclusively vocational. The new BA (Hons.) Black Studies looks very likely to transform the intellectual climate at the university, but also across the sector. We see the closure of too many university courses which foster real fearless critical thinking, and so to see modules like Black Political Activism, Black Feminism, and Power and Inequality and others which set out to challenge racism and interrogate intersectionality is really gratifying. It is a courageous riposte to the constant condemnation of courses which invite students to challenge prevailing power structures. And it stands in clear defiance of the prospect of being monstered by the Daily Mail, hostile generally to universities, but particularly to new scholarly formations which could disturb the complacency of their predominantly white readership.

Another new project at Birmingham City University is the launch on 26th January 2017 of the Centre for Brexit Studies. The website will reflect both Leave and Remain perspectives, and aims to ‘further enhance understanding of the consequences of the UK withdrawing from the European Union (EU)’. It also promises events and resources which will be accessible to local businesses and to civic society. Furthermore, knowing the turgid bureaucracy of university research and curriculum committees, I can only marvel at and admire the speed with which BCU has brought together researchers on a key emerging issue in such a timely manner. This is probably what other vice-chancellors imagine when they evoke that familiar conceit ‘fleetness of foot’. Both of the new BCU ventures embody exactly what a civic university should be doing: facilitating and developing the research ambitions of its academics, opening up  the debates, and harnessing that scholarship in the service of the local and global community.

My other garland is destined for Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex. Yesterday (17th January 2017) saw the publication of a report whose conclusions found that the university failed in its duty of care towards a student who was assaulted and left unconscious by a member of academic staff with whom she was in a relationship. It was Professor Tickell’s first act in post to order an independent review of the incident, and he has faithfully tweeted each press report of the outcome. More importantly he has apologised to the victim of the attack.

On the one hand, the report signals an indictment of the university which, it appears, interviewed only the assailant before assuring themselves he need not be suspended from duty. On the other hand, an admission of fault over an incident of such consequence to the university’s reputation is almost unprecedented. We live in an era when most universities would hasten to bury bad news, at all costs. Thank you, Adam Tickell, for restoring my faith in the integrity of (some) universities.

Answers to the Vice Chancellors’ Annual Quiz 2016

Happy New Year. Here are the answers to the 25 questions I posted on 13th December. Nobody attempted all of them, so the prize remains unclaimed. I will, though, offer a commendation to Michael Carley – clearly a promising VC-fancier.

Which vice-chancellor, principal or provost (and one ex):

  1. Raised the bar for academic staff….and then lowered it again? [Chris Brink, Newcastle University]
  2. Rejected government calls for universities to sponsor schools, saying it would be ‘a distraction from our core mission’? [Louise Richardson, University of Oxford]
  3. Told a meeting of ECRs “we have no security to offer you. It is so easy for us to replace you”? [Michael Arthur, UCL]
  4. Criticised university leaders for being too wedded to outdated notions of the heroic in leadership, and acting like Zeus not Athena? [Janet Beer, University of Liverpool]
  5. Caused controversy by saying “society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian”. [Patrick Johnston, Queen’s University Belfast]
  6. Reportedly added £2 worth of biscuits to a £20,000 expenses bill? [Dame Glynis Breakwell, University of Bath]
  7. Lost a no-confidence vote by staff after unpopular cost-cutting measures. [David Bell, University of Reading, or Peter Horrocks, Open University]
  8. Was knighted in 2016? [Sir Paul Curran, City University London]
  9. Did the mannequin challenge at the graduation ceremony? [Jane Harrington, University of the West of England]
  10. Said “great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends on it”? [Sir Keith Burnett, University of Sheffield]
  11. Has been appointed Chair of the TEF? [Chris Husbands, Sheffield Hallam University]
  12. Said the TEF is ‘a further safeguard for students, one that has now been largely accepted by the sector’? [Edward Peck, Nottingham Trent University]
  13. Does the open day talk for the mathematics course at their university? [Alistair Fitt, Oxford Brookes University]
  14. Said Brexit is “the catalyst we all need”? [Sir David Greenaway, University of Nottingham]
  15. Was the most recent VC to appear on Desert Island Discs? [Louise Richardson, University of Oxford]
  16. Is the UK’s longest-serving VC? [John Cater, Edge Hill University]
  17. Heads the league table for spending on air fares among VCs in Wales? [Colin Riordan, Cardiff University]
  18. Born in Germany, moved to Ireland, back to Germany, back to Ireland, to England, back to Ireland and now in Scotland. Best known for his report on governance in Scottish HE. [Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, Robert Gordon University]
  19. Is the most highly ranked VC on the Wonkhe HE Power List 2016? [Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, University of Cambridge]
  20. Said, “Professors are really like small business owners”? [Alice Gast, Imperial College]
  21. Dressed up as Bonnie Tyler for a charity fund raiser? [Dominic Shellard, De Montfort University]
  22. Used to be a van driver, and once crowd surfed among his students? [Nick Petford, University of Northampton]
  23. Was reportedly once housed in a homeless hostel? [Mary Stuart, University of Lincoln]
  24. Spent £95,000 on a set of ceremonial chairs? [Wendy Purcell, Ex-VC Plymouth University]
  25. The answer is Professor Sir Steve Smith, University of Exeter. Suggested questions in comments please. [Disappointingly, there were no suggested questions. But just who is that Santa sipping a marguerita in the photo above?]

More next year, so be good in 2017, vice-chancellors. Be very good.

The Vice Chancellors’ Annual Quiz 2016

They are the captains of our ‘industry’, and often pilloried for being overpaid, detached, authoritarian, rent-seeking and reluctant to take a stand in defence of universities in a time of crisis. Some of these views have even been reflected in my own postings on this blog. However, in the season of goodwill, I hope a more nuanced picture of the nation’s vice chancellors will emerge from the answers to these questions.  We see VCs’ altruistic (or publicity-seeking) side in charitable stunts. There is the ability to negotiate and reconsider in the face of opposition to a policy. It is clear that not all of them come from a privileged background. One consistently offers staunch defence of academic freedom, and among them, they embrace a variety of views on models of university leadership, the TEF and Brexit.

Answers in the comments section please. The last 5 are old news. Results will be posted after the New Year. Anyone getting all 25 correct will receive a signed copy of my co-authored book on managerial discourse (forthcoming 2018 !!).

Which vice-chancellor, principal or provost (and one ex):

  1.  Raised the bar for academic staff….and then lowered it again?
  2. Rejected government calls for universities to sponsor schools, saying it would be ‘a distraction from our core mission’?
  3. Told a meeting of ECRs “we have no security to offer you. It is so easy for us to replace you”?
  4. Criticised university leaders for being too wedded to outdated notions of the heroic in leadership and acting like Zeus not Athena?
  5. Caused controversy by saying “society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian”.
  6. Added £2 worth of biscuits to a £20,000 expenses bill?
  7. Lost a no-confidence vote by staff after unpopular cost-cutting measures.
  8. Was knighted in 2016?
  9. Did the mannequin challenge at the graduation ceremony?
  10. Said “great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends on it”?
  11. Has been appointed Chair of the TEF?
  12. Said the TEF is ‘a further safeguard for students, one that has now been largely accepted by the sector’?
  13. Does the open day talk for the mathematics course at their university?
  14. Said Brexit is “the catalyst we all need”?
  15. Was the most recent VC to appear on Desert Island Discs?
  16. Is the UK’s longest-serving VC?
  17. Heads the league table for spending on air fares among VCs in Wales?
  18. Born in Germany, moved to Ireland, back to Germany, back to Ireland, to England, back to Ireland and now in Scotland. Best known for his report on governance in Scottish HE.
  19. Is the most highly ranked VC on the Wonkhe HE Power List 2016
  20. Said, “Professors are really like small business owners”?
  21. Dressed up as Bonnie Tyler for a charity fund raiser?
  22. Used to be a van driver and once crowd surfed among his students?
  23. Was once housed in a homeless hostel?
  24. Spent £95,000 on a set of ceremonial chairs?
  25. The answer is Professor Sir Steve Smith, University of Exeter. Suggested questions in comments please.

Ten Myths and a Truth from the TEF: Reading the White Paper

Although the Higher Education and Research Bill is still going through parliamentary scrutiny, the Teaching Excellence Framework is about to be implemented and yet we do not know for certain what its effects will be, or even which institutions will enter into it. On the 2nd of December 2016, the same day as students at Warwick University went into occupation against the TEF , the chair of the TEF, Professor Chris Husbands,  published a blog piece entitled Busting five common myths about the TEF. A welcome addition to the critique, I thought, but I felt as though we were reading different documents.  I have been working on Chapter 2 of the White Paper (TEF) and so I checked some of Jo Johnson’s claims against evidence from some of the other publications I have been reading recently. Concealed within the pages of Jo Johnson’s White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, May 2016,  are quite a few contested propositions and ten more myths which Chris Husbands has overlooked.

We hear much of how political discourse operates in a post-truth culture, but one of the key strategies of persuasion is via presupposition – an statement whose truth is assumed without substantiation. Another trick is to make syntactic linkages between concepts which then acquire the appearance of logical relationship. We find both of these demonstrated in the White Paper.

Below I outline myths (quotations and presuppositions from the White Paper) and responses based on evidence and reason.

Myth 1: There is a problem with ‘lamentable’ teaching quality in universities.

Response: There is no evidence presented to sustain the claim. Use of an inflammatory adjective installs the presupposition.

Myth 2: Students cannot make informed choices….These decisions are significant factors in determining a student’s future life and career success, so it is crucial that they represent sound investments. We need to make sure that students have access to the best possible information to make choices about what they study, and the benefits that they can expect to gain from those choices.

Response: Students have a lot of choice of courses, and they make up their own minds by consulting websites, alternative prospectuses, going to open days. There is even metricised data from Unistats  (comparison site which evaluates NSS scores, employment data and graduate salaries – exactly the innovation Jo Johnson thinks the TEF will deliver) and from league tables.

Nouns like ‘investment’ can also operate as presuppositions as the concept is assumed to be inevitable and universal.  ‘Investment’ is presented in crudely financialised terms as ‘return on investment’ or ROI, which presupposes that students are primarily concerned about future earnings. No evidence is presented to substantiate this, even in the face of students continuing to apply for courses where relatively low salaries are likely upon graduation e.g. nursing, creative arts, education, agriculture. We note that ‘investment’ is a polysemic (multi-meaning) term used to reference the expending of economic capital, and emotional/ intellectual capital by the individual.

Myth 3: Robust, comparable information about the quality of teaching – and the components that contribute to it – is not currently available… That is why this Government will introduce the TEF and for the first time bring sector-wide rigour to the assessment of teaching excellence.

Response: A repetition of the presupposition that students do not already have access to this information. As stated above, it clearly is available. If it is not, why have we been pouring money into QAA, institutional reviews,  Hefce, etc. for all these years, if it has not had the effect of ensuring the quality and reputation of the sector? This architecture of quality assurance, though imperfect, has ensured that the UK is one of the most highly regulated and inspected sectors in the world.

Myth 4: The consumer organisation Which? has found that three in ten students think that the academic experience of higher education is poor value, and the issues raised by students in that research included the amount, and quality, of teaching they received, and the extent to which they are academically challenged.

Response: It is good to see a rare appeal to evidence, but perhaps the wrong conclusions are being drawn by the Which? study. This study by Steven Jones, Steven Courtney and Ruth McGinity proposes another interpretation: “Large fee increases mean that university is bound to be seen as exploitatively expensive by students. This does not mean they are dissatisfied with their courses or teaching quality”. In fact, the NSS scores nationally indicate that students are satisfied with their university experience. Can Jo Johnson make NSS a key metric, and then discount it, all in the same policy document?

Myth 5: Clear priorities of students while at university included: “having more hours of teaching”, “reducing the size of teaching groups” and “better training for lecturers”, but there is little information for prospective students on this in advance.

Response: As this study finds, effective student learning does not always emerge from ‘more contact hours’; in fact independent study is more valuable.   Learning may be the first casualty of a popularity-led evaluation like the NSS/ TEF.

Myth 6: Employers report a growing mismatch between the skills they need and the skills that graduates offer.

Response: A study reported in the Times Higher in 2015 shows that universities are doing a good job in developing the kind of skills which employers find useful and “UK employers are still among the most satisfied with their nation’s higher education system (giving it 7.3 out of 10, compared with a global average of 6.8).”

Myth 7: We need to ensure that our higher education system continues to provide the best possible outcomes. These come from informed choice and competition.

Response: This is a logical non-sequitur, but allows a lazy conflation of several unrelated concepts and assumes causality between them. The White Paper assumes that outcomes = return on investment = graduate salaries, and that these will be consequent upon informed choice and competition. Quality of courses, and choice for students, is more likely to emerge from imaginative cooperation between institutions. This would be an innovation worth pursuing.

This study by David Morris of Wonkhe analyses the government’s Longitudinal Earnings Outcome (LEO) data. There are a number of departures from the outcomes-require-competition myth. Prior attainment, i.e. A Level performance, makes a huge difference to graduate earnings, regardless of subject studied.  This raises a question about ‘learning gain’ – also a concern of the White Paper. I’m sure this will present itself as another cudgel to beat less-favoured universities with. However, Morris’ study also identifies a gender gap and a race gap for earnings, which is far less consonant with a learning gain/ value-added analysis.

Myth 8: By removing student number controls and making it easier for new providers to enter, we will create the conditions that will allow choice and competition to flourish. But what is also needed is the information to allow students to determine where the best teaching can be found.

Response: The answer to quality enhancement, we are expected to believe, is the entry of new providers in order to create ‘competition’. Except the new providers will not be expected to fulfil all the expectations that publically-funded universities are expected to address. As this article makes clear, as new private providers have emerged in strength in South America, especially Argentina and Chile, they have not been engaged in research. This, argues the author – Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela, restricts the number of qualified PhDs who are able to take the higher education system forward.

Myth 9: The Government believes that excellent teaching can occur in many different forms, in a wide variety of institutions, and it is not the intention of the TEF to constrain or prescribe the form that excellence must take. What we expect though, is that excellent teaching, whatever its form, delivers excellent outcomes.

Response: The TEF will have criteria, and metrics, so how can the White Paper say that the form of excellence will not be prescribed or constrained. In fact, that is exactly what will happen as institutions align their priorities precisely to those criteria – which as the statement makes clear, are in any case based on the proxy ‘outcomes’ of NSS scores, retention and most importantly graduate salaries which are high enough to pay back all the money the government has lost in its ill-advised restructuring of HE finance towards what are, in effect, individual student vouchers.

Myth 10: Perhaps the biggest myth of all – as Jones, Courtney and McGinity point out, is Johnson’s claim that the TEF will strengthen the position of students.  It will not – and indeed, the NUS has voted to disengage from TEF. Evidence shows that co-opting students as consumers is damaging to educational experience.

A truth – a veritable truth: There is of course more to university than financial gain, but the idea that excellent teaching occurs in a vacuum, independent of its impact on students’ future life chances, is not one we can or should accept.

Response:  There is a nice hat tip to other justifications of HE, but immediately we see the counter-narrative remains in place with co-reference of outcomes with financial gain, disguised as ‘life chances’. The presupposition is that the most significant outcome of higher education is employment, but as this study shows, economists have often found that education has benefits for society beyond those of the individual – for example in terms of volunteering, social trust, better citizenship (lower crime).


Whatever does ail the higher education sector in the UK, the TEF spreadsheet will not fix it. Much more likely is that the government will recruit ‘consumer choice’ as a disciplinary tool, overlooking the needs of scholarship, local economies or student interests, and possibly serving as licence for university closure. By allowing this false reasoning to go unopposed, we risk losing quality, opportunity and reputation within the sector. Here is a link to the Convention for Higher Education website which has some key resources for opposing the TEF and the Higher Education and Research Bill. Organise, and support students in their refusal to co-operate with the TEF and NSS as long as it threatens to raise their fees, waste millions of pounds of their ‘investment’, threaten the reputation of their courses and distort the priorities of universities away from good teaching and research.


Parkinson’s Law

If some staff  felt that the appointment of Sir Michael Parkinson as Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University (2008-2014) was an unexpected choice, they may feel vindicated now. Of course in my day you had royalty, and you didn’t have to fear a ‘Ratner moment’  from them. They wouldn’t drop an ill-advised comment which would bring the university into disrepute. And anyway, the ennobled former Tory minister who usually headed the university management would have kept the chancellor well away from any actual students.  When deference to the titled aristocracy collapsed, there emerged rather a vacuum in universities when it came to filling the largely ceremonial role of chancellor.  A number of universities saw the opportunity to indulge their students’ regard for celebrity culture by appointing chancellors who were well enough connected to be able to enliven their graduation ceremonies with a few stars from the world of film, television and sport.

At the time, Parkinson fitted this ideal, and seemed to be an ally, saying, as he stepped down in July 2014, “I was involved a lot with the media courses. When I was doing shows in London, a group of them would come down and spend time with me and watch how it all worked. It was always very refreshing. I’m 79 now and I didn’t go to university. Being with young people has opened my eyes. You forget how ambitious they are and you see yourself in them”

During Parkinson’s tenure these journalism courses, and their students, won several national awards and graduated hundreds of employable students. Indeed, his endorsement still garlands the recruitment website for the NTU broadcast journalism degree: “It is important that those who are choosing to go into the industry are as well prepared and highly skilled as they can be, not only to compete for jobs but also to ensure that the media grows and remains fresh with new ideas brought in by graduates. The Centre for Broadcasting & Journalism at Nottingham Trent University is focused on giving students the best possible start by ensuring that our graduates have all the skills necessary to be at the forefront when it comes to employability.”

You feel for the students as they must now wonder what contempt was suppressed behind the Chancellor’s cap doffing at their degree ceremonies,  because in the Daily Mail on 25th November 2016, under the perennial slur ‘Mickey Mouse media degrees are a waste of time’, Parkinson is quoted in an interview ‘They have them at Nottingham Trent [and] it seems to me that a lot of young people do it as they see it as a way of getting onto shows like I’m A Celebrity. They want to be famous. They are convinced by things like I’m A Celebrity and that is their idea of fame – that instant fame that makes you a hero on the internet”.

The Daily Mail reminds us that the term ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’ was coined by the former Labour Education Minister, Margaret Hodge who felt that some courses failed to serve students in both rigour and employability. Neither of these myths is true.  Media Studies is second only to medicine in employability, though cynics would add that media graduates fall at the bottom end of the salary scale. But then, not all students are motivated by the promise of a high salary, which is just as well, because few graduates of any discipline will receive one. And as for celebrity aspirations, I have to say, I have encountered some strange rationales for going to university (including my own), but being on I’m a Celebrity isn’t one of them. Sure, students are willing to discuss shows such as these, but are also anxious to encounter ways of making sense of their hold over the viewing populace.

There is another type of media studies degree, though, that vice-chancellors are not so ready to defend, and have been rather fond of closing down. These are degrees which might once have formed a strand in an English degree, but in the 1980s fielded independent degrees housed in departments of cultural studies. These became a home for literary scholars, historians, modern linguists, sociologists, philosophers, ethnographers, social psychologists, and social geographers. To start with it was a peculiarly British development, but quickly attracted a large number of influential scholars from across the globe. Cultural studies was the crucible of critical thought about structures of power, class, gender and race throughout those decades. Building on the work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, the discipline gave birth to a large number of what Americans would call public intellectuals: Stuart Hall, Richard Johnson, Dick Hebdige, Angela McRobbie, Paul Gilroy, Celia Lury, Ien Ang, Meahgan Morris, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, among others.

There has been enormously significant cultural ‘turn’ in the world of humanities scholarship. The discipline offers students a methodology of decoding texts, including visual texts, and the signs, beliefs, myths, narratives, structures and institutions which coalesce into ‘culture’. It has spawned postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, postmodernism, gender and queer theory – all no doubt disapproved of by the Daily Mail, but nevertheless productive paradigms of enquiry. And, yes, all of these have huge ‘impact’. The influence of cultural studies inside and outside the academy is now equalled only by the assaults on its claims to legitimacy.

The University of Birmingham was home to perhaps the most famous and influential research centre, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded by Hoggart in 1964 which was internationally regarded. This deserved reputation did not survive the distortions of the Research Assessment Exercise, and the management closed the Centre in 2002. Supporters felt that it was the centre’s own propensity to critique the structures of power operating throughout the institution within which they sat that was their undoing. Indeed, as a critical scholar I know only too well the penalty of following their lead.

But what is a university without scholars who feel free to be critical of political traditions, or offer new forms of literacy and make way for new paradigms of enquiry? Why is it considered a good thing to produce graduates who can assess the influence of Oliver Cromwell, but not Jamie Oliver? The media produces texts and shapes beliefs, just as the literary canon does, and these require our critical attention. How do we decode their meanings, identify their purpose and their audience? Without these skills, how do we hold the media to account? I’m not suggesting that Media Studies graduates will guarantee the survival of our liberal democracy. Far from it. But protecting that body of knowledge and supporting the current work of scholars will ensure that the media, and perhaps even university chancellors, are held to greater scrutiny. And if we do sacrifice the critical content of media and cultural studies degrees – if we render them mere training courses for the ‘creative industries’, then behold the culture which finds itself unable to distinguish evidence from post-truth politics. We seem to be already there.


I waited a couple of days before writing this. I thought I would give the management of Nottingham Trent University chance to make a ‘robust’ response in defence of its media and journalism degrees. To my knowledge, no such statement has appeared, and I wished to defend my colleagues and their students who do excellent work. NTU management are very sensitive about  reputational damage, so I know they will appreciate me making the effort.

Metaphors we work by

This post has been inspired by a vigorous discussion on Twitter initiated by a question from Jesse Stommell (@jessifer) (6th November) who had been attending the recent #opened16 conference. “How many of us have been told our work doesn’t count as research or scholarship? How many teachers, adjuncts, activists? How many students”? The question raises issues of autonomy, academic judgement, academic freedom – and all the mechanisms of audit and regulation which act to compromise these, making academic work and research a contested area of access and legitimation.

Helen Sauntson (@HelenSauntson) and I have been investigating how discourse constructs notions of what counts as academic labour, and we started by analysing the discourse of university managerial training courses. The choice of managerial, not management, is deliberate. Managerialism offers the sense of management for its own sake, of management as the central and privileged purpose of the university. Managerialism imposes ‘false’ needs (Klikauer 2013) – inconsequential management demands for their own sake – or rather for the purpose of rendering employees subordinate.  The management training courses, and the materials and documents used within them circulate widely in most university environments and their aim is to effect the reconstitution of academic subjectivities as ‘corporatised’. Included in our survey were documents from several universities’ courses: Personal Development Review (PDR) training, a team leadership course for middle managers, and a module on change management. We have carried out an analysis of the key metaphors used throughout the training course documents.

The rationale of PDR is to make sure that all employees’ objectives are in alignment with the university’s Strategic Plan. One of the possible outcomes of the process is that the employee may be recommended for a performance related pay award. It usually lies in tandem with the university’s performance management process, which ostensibly is designed to diagnose under-performance.

The team leadership course was designed to support employees across the university who had line management responsibilities. The course was detailed and drew on theories of management: teams, change, strategy, leadership, values. It was taught in three modules, consisting of two full days of activities, led by a facilitator. The associated learning packs, slides and documents provide the data.

Change Management was a companion module to the team leadership course, and the associated training pack provided the data. This module was aimed at senior university staff who were deemed to be in a position to implement change.


Metaphors are figures of speech. Words or phrases are used non-literally so that the usual literal ones are displaced, temporarily or habitually, in a particular context. Words are employed symbolically in order to activate images, and thereby associated meanings. For example, in the data of the management courses, work is presented using metaphors of sport. The frequent occurrence of such metaphors means that working in a university is constructed as competitive and is never described in any other terms. These metaphors also present a zero-sum scenario of victory or failure. The density of this lexicon is quite extraordinary. Examples include:

  • How do we kick it [change] off?
  • Kotter argues that many change projects fail because victory is declared too early.
  • Quick wins are only the beginning of what needs to be done.
  • ‘…striving to accomplish pre-determined goals or objectives…
  • The use of specific tactics can also smooth the change process.
  • …emphasises the need for keeping in the win-win area.
  • Targets will be set by the line manager and/or the management of the area and must support the goals of the department.
  • Coaching is about helping someone to get the best performance out of themselves – the potential for which was already there. Coaching is about releasing that potential.
  • This simple model takes the three questions of the sports coach

More concerning is the appearance of metaphors of war in relation to performance management.

  • …how to motivate survivors of a savage round of downsizing.
  • When people feel they are under attack, one response is to become defensive. This might result in territory battles
  • I quickly spot, and take advantage of, weaknesses in competitors.
  • Such individuals are not overtly self-protective or inclined to wage turf wars.
  • What might you do to sabotage your own efforts to reach this goal?

Examples such as these fit with a neoliberal conception of universities as competitive, not collaborative, and concerned with dominance. How often have we heard about education and its role in making us ‘internationally competitive’?  The aim is to win, or, even better, to win-win. We notice that a discourse is created in which it is acceptable (or even encouraged and celebrated) to exploit implied ‘weaknesses’ in a competitor or opponent.

As the opportunities for research funding diminish and panic escalates, the metaphors become more alarmingly violent. I have seen one university’s research newsletter which features cartoons and images depicting research as a gruelling, tortuous process. Achieving impact, for example, is illustrated with a mallet poised to crack an egg. The process of peer review is portrayed in a cartoon where a white-coated scientist is set to run a gauntlet of enemies with swords, cudgels, axes, a chainsaw and at the end the grim reaper ready to strike him down. The ‘welcome to the new academic year’ email from one vice chancellor mentioned that they had enjoyed a two-week holiday getting acquainted with a new chainsaw, which they had found ‘therapeutic’. This was taken by the appalled employees to have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. One academic, recently promoted, was told they were on a ‘burning platform’ with a time-limited window before successful progression to the next level would be expected.

The work of academics and their experience with the management and structures of the university is presented as an exercise in mortification of the body and psyche. We are seemingly imprisoned in the logic of these metaphors, with all their neoliberal ideological underpinnings. With repetition, this discourse is normalised and institutionalised as a commendable activity; the danger is that we become desensitized to our own objectification.

It is only too evocative of the disintegration of public discourse in the recent US election. We are now left to contemplate the widespread endorsement of bullying, boastfulness and aggression. On Channel 4 News, reporting on the eve of the election Kylie Morris asked, ‘is this a permanent retreat from civility’? It probably is. Another academic colleague emailed this commentary: “the fact that we are asked/required/disciplined to become ever more the hard, ruthless, competitive, economistic, justice-indifferent, homogenised, torture-normalising/enduring, Embodied Metric while all of this is going on, says just about everything.”


Klikauer, Thomas. 2013. Managerialism. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan.

We’re gonna build a wall; the impossibility of the civic university

My first year as a graduate student coincided with Mrs Thatcher’s first great assault on academic culture in UK universities. There were calls for academics to experience the ‘real world’ of business and industry. This was rather faithfully captured in the David Lodge 1988 satire Nice Work. Academics played along, some rather enjoying sabbaticals and secondments which sidestepped the circadian rhythm of the academic calendar. I remember one of my supervisors returning to campus from such a corporate sojourn and exclaiming in relief at not having to wear a pass or sign in to a laboratory. Universities were seen as freely accessible to all who should wish to wander their halls, libraries and galleries. This was the era of the ‘big civic’ university. The university opened its doors to the city, and the city took pride in its university.

Thirty-five years on and one of the many manifestations of the surveillance culture which operates in UK universities has been the incremental imposition of barriers and swipecards which exclude the non-paying citizenry. This has always irked me. Universities  have sacrificed that sense of spontaneity in favour of number plate recognition, and the HR team safely penned into an impregnable executive suite.

Oddly this fetishisation with security – usually justified with infantilising appeals to protection of vulnerable young people (or technical equipment) – does not obtain in most US universities I have visited. Granted I may be caught in the sights of a sniper rifle or mown down by an armoured car, patrolling courtesy of the 1033 program that transfers surplus military weapons to both city and university police forces, but nevertheless, I can probably browse the bookstore, run the track and blag my way into the swimming pool without arousing too much suspicion.

Richard Hall’s blog 7th November 2016 talks about reasons for his despondency over the future of academia. He laments the closing-down of our wider connections to civil society, by which he means an open and critical engagement with the intellectual concerns of the civitas, but I think we can also mourn this immuring of universities which symbolizes their anti-intellectual and corporatist trajectory.

I share Richard’s despondency at the impossibility of universities as spaces for openness and emancipation. I share his despair at our unwilling co-optation and the obstruction of our pedagogical responsibility to offer something better. Where is the space for the curriculum-as-praxis as a means of negating the basis of domination? he asks. It seems impossible to protect universities as spaces of free enquiry and access.

A post last week by Paul Prinsloo argued that not doing anything can still be a form of activism. There is a recognition that in managerial cultures, those who resist are marginalised, and Richard complains that playing in the margins seems like hopelessness. So I think Richard and I, and everyone else who is feeling defeated by audit culture, surveillance and pedagogical asphyxiation should embrace  Paul’s idea of hospicing which, he writes, “entails accepting the death/decline of a system and accepting that due to various factors, that you cannot directly intervene/act, but you also don’t allow yourself to walk away. In hospicing as activism, you remain involved, caring for a system in decline to the extent that the system allows you to care for it, nothing more, nothing less”. It is not inertness; rather it requires analysis and bearing critical witness. And a great deal of unreciprocated caring.

Paul Prinsloo ends with this moving sentiment. “But activism most probably also requires a letting go, a critical self-knowledge of your own locus of control, and things beyond your locus of control. Activism involves self-care, allowing the community to care for you, to shield you, to hide you, to allow others to speak on your behalf”. At least we can do that for each other. Offer affirmation. Support. The university will survive because we are the university. Pass it on, and don’t build that wall.

Critical university studies, discourse and managerialism