Tag Archives: managerialism

Space for Academic Freedom

Yesterday I was invited by the International Conference for Asian Sudies to particpate in one of their daily panels called Academic Freedom Space. The title of the panel was: Implications of neoliberal-inspired policies for knowledge creation and education. More conferences should do this, especially as we watch the threats to academic freedom mount across the globe. Below is my contribution to open up the discussion.

As institutions of higher education have been privatised, financialised, marketized, neoliberal policies have seen all decisions being handed over to the market. Neoliberalism has unfolded in lockstep with managerialism, and this has been the case in the UK from a much earlier period than may other countries. Since 1992, in universities, democratic, participatory governance by academics through senate committees has been superseded by managerial practices of top-down authoritarian and remote decision making. It has led to an epidemic of bullying – officially prohibited by institutional policies, but (as with Governor Cuomo of New York) concealed, defended and normalised by a cadre of complicit underlings. The tolerance and defence of bullies in universities derives legitimacy from those who believe that authoritarianism is a leaner, more efficient mode of governance. There are parallels in current debates in the West about the burdens levied on the economy by the numerous and cumbersome steps required by consensus. In the US, we are beginning to see the championing of Victor Orban by those on the right who see virtue in his form of post-democratic government which cements its appeal with anti-feminist, homophobic and racist messages.

This deterioration has been mirrored in universities where we see the faculty being subjugated by spurious disciplinary procedures and the prohibition (both formal and implicit) of trade union activities. Actual faculty democracy and discussion are replaced by sham ‘consultations’ repurposed as relay stations for on-the-hoof policy making in the name of ‘agility’.

In some countries, universities are subject to state control, but in many more, autonomy is granted in name only. In 2015, the Japanese government required universities to reform and divert resources away from arts and humanities towards sciences. Brazil, Turkey and Hong Kong have seen the state extend its control into university curriculum, freedom of expression and suppression of dissent. In Greece, a special police force has been assigned to universities to surveil and counter left wing activism. A more propagandist approach was taken by the Trump administration in the US with its war on wokeness and campaign against critical race studies. This has been emulated in Australia and Great Britain, driven by an anti-intellectual media. In the UK, legislation regarding academic freedom has been amended to apply only to those interventions from academics which are judged to be within their area of expertise. Who makes that judgement? Not academics, but their managers. A Regulatory Regime (see August 9th blog) has required universities in the UK to refocus on those areas judged to be of service to the economy. And in contravention of the evidence of graduate employment, this is spelled out as being science and technology subjects, acronym STEM.

Marketisation of the higher education system in the UK has led universities to construct students as customers, degrees as products and staff as overheads. Academic disciplines which can be made to appeal to 18 years olds will thrive, while those which cannot, will be rapidly dispatched, regardless of the value of research or other societal contribution. Staff can only redeem their indentured servitude if they bring in external income in the form of research grants or industry contracts which themselves are subject to government prioritising of economically valuable areas. Now that publishing our own work has to be paid for by article processing charges (APCs), it is more and more likely that only the favoured subjects will be supported by universities. These are structural constraints which have a heavy impact on academic freedom.

The neoliberal agenda and managerialism have led to an emphasis on calculability. Staff are subject to performance management mechanisms in the form of research metrics: number of publications, citations, journal impact factors, H-index- academics may be confronted with these metrics in an annual review and found wanting. The value of their teaching is now to be assessed by a measure of what their graduates earn, relative to graduates of the same discipline at other universities, or graduates of other disciplines at the same university. There are so many ways to fail, and so many metrics to optimise. And just to make things interesting, they change all the time. One year it is student satisfaction which is the criterion for comparison; the next it is drop-out rates; the next it is employment in highly-skilled professions. Who would risk placing curiosity or freedom of enquiry at the top of their personal priority list?

Universities have become much more authoritarian institutions and concerned with preserving reputation at all costs, less any perceived scandal interfere with student recruitment. Even when we point out racism, sexism and homophobia on campus, we may be shunned by university leaders who prefer to genuflect before the government’s obsession with campus politics, ‘wokeness’ and policies regulating student and staff expression of critical opinion.

There are some indicators that this autocratic tendency has accelerated since the pandemic and there is now an urgent need to resist its spread.

At the University of Leicester, scholars of critical management studies have been selected for redundancy on the basis of titles of their journal articles, or sometimes just the titles of the journals themselves. This is the most egregious example of ideological cleansing and a breach of academic freedom by a UK university. But there are other ‘softer’ examples, particularly of university management teams anticipating a future in which the arts and humanities may lose funding and instead, as per the preference signalled by government, are re-orienting their universities towards science, engineering and medicine (Aston, London South Bank).

Let us now turn to the attack on academic tenure, which is surely the mainstay of academic freedom. The UK allowed this to be stripped from universities in the early 1980s. Other countries such as the US have merely supplanted tenure track posts with precarious ones. And now, some mainly Republican-voting states are introducing post-tenure review (established in Wisconsin, under consideration in Georgia). Given the threats levelled, especially at public institutions, this can only be read as a deliberate attack on autonomy and academic freedom to pursue topics which the government finds disturbing or inconvenient.

Just as Orban’s and Bolsonaro’s first targets were gender studies lest women lose sight of what these governments see as their role in society, these have also often been the first targets in universities and in government expressions of dissatisfaction with higher education. They are swiftly followed by incursions into social science and arts and humanities departments. In the UK, the axe has fallen on large numbers of modern language departments and these subjects are now the preserve of highly selective universities, and increasingly of private high schools.

In the UK, you have even this limited degree of academic freedom, only if you check off all of these:

  • Have a permanent post
  • Teach on courses which attract increasing numbers of students
  • Teach on courses that students find satisfying, straightforward and which lead to identifiable career paths
  • Research in a popular area which the government prioritises for grant funding
  • Stay within that area
  • Be successful in the term of metricised success determined by your university

Academic freedom is not a restricted commodity. It is not on ration. It is the entitlement of all academics for the very good reason that it is a pre-requisite for democracy and free enquiry. We cannot all be superscholars, but we all need to take our teaching in new and different directions. Without time and freedom, we cannot even do that.

It is essential to organise to fight back against the diminishing of academic freedom and to defend critical scholarship wherever that is represented across the range of subjects. Unless academics are free to follow their curiosity and open themselves to interrogation and critique, the well-funded haters and the authoritarians can continue to destabilise democracy itself.

Academic Irregularities AT 100

This 100th post for Academic Irregularities has been a difficult piece to write, and I’m not sure whether it is a celebratory piece or a summary of the blog I have been writing over the last six years. I think back to what urged me to start it. Primarily, it was a rage at what Derek Sayer has called the ‘insult’ of the REF, and feeling obliged to take refuge in Thomas Docherty’s clandestine university. It was increasing alarm that workers in universities were being forced to abandon their values, their curiosity-led research and instead allow their careers and academic worth to be defined by criteria that might have emerged from a management consultancy.

In terms of inspiration, I owe much to some early pathfinders: Thomas Docherty, Derek Sayer, Dorothy Bishop, Eva Bendix-Petersen, Bronwen Davies, Kate Bowles, Richard Hall, Helen Sauntson and too many others to mention. Despite ‘leaving’ academia, my academic network has continued to flourish, and I feel more fully connected than ever before. I’d like to offer thanks to Ernesto Priego and Fanis Missirlis who have cheered just about everything I have written. You have a special place in my affections.

The blog has broadly covered policy, organisational and funding changes in higher education in the UK since 2015, from a critical perspective. Issues have ranged over managerialism, research and teaching evaluation, metrics, performance management, casualisation and precarity in academic careers, academic freedom, academic capitalism, stress and mental health, culture wars, the Covid pandemic and the future of universities.

But the underlying theme has been the marketisation of higher education and a system struggling with government interference and insecure funding whose priorities have been distorted by league tables and rankings. As a result, universities have been drawn into a web of unintended consequences of competition. Whereas 15 years ago, universities were striving for uniqueness in their research and teaching, now they are afraid to do anything their ‘competitors’ are not doing. Indeed, the Business School at the University of Leicester has explicitly informed staff that they wish to rebalance their research towards the mainstream.

The reach of metrics into our professional lives has been felt by all who labour in academia. Researchers are now judged by grant capture, the rank of journals they publish in, citations, H-index, and of course, the perceived status of their employer institution. Some universities have started to require a record of grant capture as proof of active researcher status. Although the University of Liverpool is signatory to the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment, colleagues in Life Sciences have seen this measure imposed as the selection criterion for redundancy – a clear violation of the principle of DORA.

Excessive metric surveillance continues to drain the self-esteem of academics in their teaching role where they are subject to student evaluations which can sometimes deliver unfiltered racist and sexist comments. The value of their teaching is further called into question by government and media if their graduates do not attain salary levels which trigger repayment of student loans, currently set at £27, 295. These two arbitrary measures currently form part of the institutional TEF grading. Meanwhile, we are moving closer to a situation whereby the value of a university course will be assessed on students’ ability to secure highly-skilled professional employment on graduation

There is an agenda here and the government has been largely successful in propounding a myth that only science courses are of value.  Summer 2020 saw the government launch a pandemic Restructuring Regime which incentivises universities to re-focus on scientific research and ‘a much greater reorientation towards the needs of the local and regional economy’. This may soon be reinforced with a tuition fee cut (with no replacement funding) for arts and humanities.

This steer has led to a chain reaction of universities cancelling recruitment to a raft of arts and humanities courses, especially modern languages, English (applications are down, but still the 4th most popular UCAS choice), history and archaeology. In this scheme, some universities seem keen to rebrand themselves as Australian-style universities of technology. Aston University and London South Bank University launched their new branding with a webinar on the themes of a Truly Modern Technical Education and stating that the role of universities is to promote UK economic progress and competitiveness. Aston and LSBU have chosen what they hope is a survival strategy that will increase enrolment, funding and perhaps government preferment. They intend that their reputations will not be based on rankings and research council funding; instead, they will now define themselves by validation from business and employers and by success in impact and translational work. And in binning modern languages courses, they show all the signs of being willing to follow government direction, even to the extent of employing the think tank allegedly associated with friends of Dominic Cummings.

Marketisation has taken universities into some strange places and encounters with contradictions. Let’s return for a moment to the metric of graduate salaries or LEO – Long term Educational Outcomes. We don’t need the Telegraph to tell us that graduates of law, business and computing are likely to earn above-average salaries. However, it is also apparent that graduates from these same subjects at different universities have very different outcomes. As David Kernohan points out, when making these globalising statements, no account is taken of prior attainment, subject of study, socio-economic background, sex, and region of residence, and LEO scores disperse in keeping with these characteristics.

David Kernohan has made another data set accessible which contains a few surprises, especially for the STEM-or-bust brigade. Using HESA and Unistats (now Discover Uni) data of progression and graduate salary to give a grade out of 10, each university course can be ranked.    LLB law course scores range from 9.6 to 3.8. Business studies has an even wider range from 10 to 0.45. General computer studies courses earn scores from 10 to 2.25. A lot of variability, then. Meanwhile most standard history courses have scores which cluster around 7-8 as do courses in English and Modern languages. It is a myth, then, that science courses are the sole gateway to prosperity and professional success, but it is a powerful and pervasive one.

The pattern is repeated for individual institutions. If you imagine your future is secure if you graduate from a Russell Group university, you may be disappointed. Undergraduate courses at Newcastle University have scores from 9.5 to 4.0 with the lowest scoring courses being engineering and physics. At York St John University, scores show a strong plateau above 7 with the lowest score at 6 – a similar profile to its Russell Group neighbour, the University of York.

Nevertheless, the message from government conveyed by education minister Gavin Williamson is that some students graduate with ‘nothing but a mountain of debt’. A number of university managers have chosen to genuflect before the veiled threats of funding cuts and have engaged in anticipatory redundancies in subjects they imagine will expose them to disapproval. At each, the presenting justification is that these courses do not lead to good outcomes. As the assault on the arts and humanities gathers pace, it seems to lend permission for closures at more and more institutions. It doesn’t seem to matter how much evidence, such as the data set above, is laid before them. The power of myth continues to supersede reality.

At the University of Leicester, the reason for latest round of redundancies may reveal ideological bias and a distrust of critical thinkers. In the Business School, academics have been targeted because of their apparent affiliation with critical management studies. Sometimes this has been determined on the basis of journals in which work has been published. At other universities, critical race studies and gender studies are at risk. One wonders if the threat to history courses has been generated by government disapproval of any critical engagement with history which might challenge the preferred narrative of a benign and virtuous British Empire. If this is the beginning of the Orbanisation of the UK academy, hostility towards these subjects can be traced at universities as diverse as Cambridge and Chester.

What we are seeing is actually a war on accountability. Just as well-regarded scholars are being exiled from universities through targeted redundancies, there is also a more furtive undermining of regulations and procedures. In universities where managers have chosen to poison industrial relations by refusing to back down on redundancies, there has been industrial action including strikes and marking boycotts. At the universities of Liverpool and Leicester a large number of external examiners have resigned meaning that marks and degree classifications cannot be confirmed. This has not deterred managers at Liverpool from assuring students that marks missing because of the boycott will be manufactured by algorithm and that degrees will be awarded. Liverpool students have reacted by posting the university’s assessment regulations on Twitter and asking the administration to abide by them. The failure of the management’s strategy is painfully evident in the howls of protest from students today (5th July 2020) as the university has released, and then taken down, their marks.

There is also a parallel attack on quality and standards in universities. Despite the international reputation of UK degrees, the new holy grail for higher education capitalists is the unbundling of modules so that students can pick and mix their way to a ‘stackable’ degree from a variety of institutions. Having spent my career being required to account for the coherence of content and learning outcomes, the progression between levels and modules, ‘signposts to success’, assessment and feedback criteria etc., I wonder how the quality and reliability of these degrees can be established.

We are indeed entering a Trumpian vision of deregulation in which all norms are discarded, and evidence is dismissed. Paul Krugman charges that in some institutions, actual expertise is a disqualification for administrative office and, instead, ‘preference is given to the incompetent’. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny; the fish rots from the head – choose your analogy, but government sets the tone for leadership elsewhere, even in universities.

A pertinent example was reported on Twitter yesterday by @plashingvole who was being subjected to a staff development workshop on neuro-linguistic programming. He has blogged about this previously in 2017. NLP is nothing but pseudoscience dressed up as empowerment and it  has been massively debunked, but all to no avail at Vole’s seat of learning.

When I asked HR why they were training managers to use NLP during organisational change they said ‘the academic research may say it doesn’t work but we think it does’. Interesting way to approach working at an actual university. [@plashingvole 4/7/2020]

Just where do you go in the face of this?  It is disturbing to find so much naivety and gullibility among university managers – and so little shame – and you can see exactly why they would be unsettled by sound scholarship in critical management studies, or evidence of declining mental health among academics, or problems of bias with module evaluation questionnaires. Perhaps we need to accept that accountability is for little people; it only works top down, and when convenient.

Richard Hall writes of the ‘hopeless university’. I share his pessimism and the fear that there is now a crisis of legitimation in universities. What kind of knowledge is defensible? Knowledge which will sell. But there are signs that such cynicism is beginning to wear on academics who try to adhere to a different set of values. There is a credibility gap for universities from both within and without.

One of the things to emerge from the pandemic is the demise of the fiction that universities can be market-led and customer-focussed. The hypocrisy and gaslighting they have faced has incubated a generation of students who understand the ways in which universities have sought to exploit them and the money that rides in with them. They understand how the workings of institutional sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia structure their experience of being a student at university. The HE marketeers like to see universities portrayed as transactional service providers, but universities cannot be run like consultancies. They are not designed for short-term commissions. Their purpose is to develop and facilitate the growth of knowledge, wherever that leads. Universities will remake themselves because that is what they have done for a thousand years. Their survival will be achieved through the diligence and imaginations of those who study and work in them. The future of scholarship and learning will require a new commitment towards trust, democracy, accountability, humanity and academic freedom, but there are scant signs of that just yet.

PDR in the Disneyfied university

There was a story recently about George Washington University, Washington, DC, and its requirement for senior staff to attend sessions in corporate culture provided at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, by the Disney Institute, the specialist leadership consultancy arm of the Disney corporation. Apparently, the Disney consultants had told managers that there was an absence of culture at the university.

I doubt they found an absence of culture at GWU, rather, the management consultants were keen to promote a change of culture. Academics, of course, have plenty of culture, from a regard for aesthetics, ethics and a common respect for academic values like the pursuit of truth, knowledge and academic freedom. But what they don’t appreciate in large measure is corporate culture. This will need to be imposed. GWU should have forsaken Mickey Mouse in Florida and instead crossed the Atlantic to embrace the full Cruella de Vil experience in the management suites of British universities. Here they could have learned from 30 years of colonizing UK academics within the corporate enclosure.

At GWU, faculty were encouraged to attend the training event. In the UK, participation in corporate culture is inescapable. One prerequisite, of course, is to accept that the university is a corporation. Among managers and human resources, you rarely find the word ‘university’ uttered; for them, it is a ‘business’. The second stage of the project is to engineer the forcible citation of corporate discourse by academics in order to enforce compliance and banish autonomous academic identities. Just as in a Disney film, resemblance to reality is not a requirement.

I offer one example from around 2014. Along with other professors, readers and principal lecturers, I was asked to act as appraiser to more junior colleagues. It didn’t seem to matter that none of us had line management responsibilities nor any ability to affect the opportunities for advancement of those colleagues.

My investiture into the managerial tier took place via a day’s training event entitled ‘Personal Development Review (PDR) Training for Managers’, led by members of the staff development section. The obvious contradiction, that none of the trainees was actually a manager, was pointed out by a colleague. This apparent disqualification was ignored by the facilitators, but it was just the first of the fictions we were invited to inhabit as the internal coherence of the management’s imaginary world dissembled under the force of our critique.

Cascading of the Strategic Plan

It turned out I had a bit of a head start on my fellow learners as my research interest was in university managerial discourse and particularly strategic plans. I had collected and absorbed most of them for the book I was co-authoring, Academic Irregularities. According to the university’s policy, the rationale of PDR was to make sure that all employees’ objectives were in alignment with the university’s strategic plan, and that, consequently, those strategic priorities should cascade down into the objectives delivered by schools, teams and individuals. However, when I asked the other participants, the trainers themselves, the head of department and the dean who were observing the training, if any of them could outline the priorities of the current strategic plan, none could. It looked as if, even at the outset, the system was doomed to fail on fundamental principles.

Not a good start, you’d think. But even this slam dunk was waved away as inadmissible by the trainers and managers even as the participants questioned the scheme’s viability. At this point I read from the policy document which warned, ‘PDR which is ineffective will lack credibility and is damaging to the institution’. Then we were really off to the races.

Imaginary ‘teams’

Next to receive scrutiny were the assumptions around ‘teams,’ an organizing unit preferred by the university over traditional departments. As academics, we saw teams as administrative units but, in all other ways, they were considered superfluous to the ways we conducted our work. They were often comprised of people who were not actually working together in terms of teaching or research. So, to a large extent, the ostensive teams of the school were managerial fictions, and it was hard to see how these imaginary units could have objectives. There were other teams, however, which had formed organically in pursuit of teaching or research collaboration, often organised across disciplines, institutions and even international boundaries. How could our contribution to these endeavours be evaluated, we asked?

SMART objectives

When conducting a PDR, we were told, we should set objectives for our appraisees which were SMART. The first four occupied us for quite some time: Specific, Measurable, Achievable/ Realistic. All were problematic.

Specific – Imagine, I volunteered, your appraisee pledges to write a book which subsequently turns into a series of articles, or vice versa. Or, I may promise to work on diversifying assessment methods, and then the next curriculum review reverses that policy and instead requires a focus on fewer methods (this had happened). Will we be judged to have failed? The very nature of academic work accentuates the unplanned, the unanticipated, the unknown. Requiring specifics ensures that the process becomes an exercise in offering up the tokenistic, already-completed specific task, and is hardly a forcing ground for ‘stretching’.

Measurable – Quantitative or qualitative? If the latter, what methods of evaluation are used? How can we measure work which may extend outside of the university? Even if the measures are quantitative, we all know that the criteria for performance shift frequently: publications: quality, impact, citations; grant capture; external recognition. Trying to keep up with vacillating parameters of academic performance measurement is rather like trying to apprehend a desert mirage. The trainers brightened at the prospect of being able to offer a solution, and we were directed to the university’s Competency Framework. Competencies are described as “a set of behaviour patterns or characteristics which distinguish high performers from average or poor performers in a given role”. I pointed out that this offered little delicacy of scale for distinguishing between levels. The academic role requires a range of disparate competencies: teaching, research, social acumen, leadership, administrative efficiency, pastoral caring, knowledge of the university, careers guidance, fundraising, to name just a few ‘key skills.’ Who is to say my hard-won certificate in Gold Standard Customer Service should be eclipsed by the publication of a prize-winning monograph?

Achievable/Realistic ­– The university had been an early adopter of workload models and we were still being persuaded of their infallibility. It was already apparent that the model underestimated the hours for every single category of the academic workload, and so inevitably provided a poor basis for realistic objective setting or evaluation. When asked to give an example of a SMART objective for an L/SL under my line management, I offered the task of fitting in all your meetings, report writing, emails, exam boards, open days, curriculum development and PDR within the allocation for academic management and administration, for which a token 40 hours were allocated, up to a maximum of 175 hours. The rather flushed facilitator expressed concern that this was probably not an achievable objective. I responded that such a model was going to result in very exhausted, disenchanted, brittle and demotivated lecturers who are unlikely to convey a sense of purposeful aspiration to a PDR reviewee. When there is a dysfunctional workload model which has unattainable objectives sutured into its design, the only thing ‘stretched’ will be their goodwill and mental health.

Personal reflection

At the end of the session, I and several others had reached the conclusion that this PDR model would continue to fail. It was designed to addresses concerns held two decades ago about lack of accountability in universities which have been addressed by the proliferation of tools for monitoring the performance of academics: the National Student Survey, module evaluations, the Research Excellence Framework, internal and external quality audits, and even the hourly ‘tenko’ imposed by the estates office. It was both redundant and ridiculous. It did not meet academics’ realities nor their desires for development opportunities: time to research and develop teaching and opportunities for collaboration and networking.

The training protocol required that the trainee engage with a process of post-event reflection. This I dutifully did, sharing the account above with my manager, staff development and human resources in the hope of promoting dialogue, as requested. There were complaints from the staff development facilitators to my head of department. I had prepared for and fully engaged with the session, but my real crime was that I had exposed the pretence and corporate posturing of the neoliberal university-as-business. I had refused to assimilate to the managerial culture and this was seen as insubordination.

I’m not, generally, opposed to performance review. I have blogged previously about performance monitoring systems hereand here. But at a bare minimum it needs to be developmental, rather than judgmental, and it needs to reflect the experiences and values which obtain in academic workplaces. If it doesn’t, then we might as well all take off for our seminar in Disneyland….or maybe that should be Banksy’s Dismaland. http://dismaland.co.uk/

 

Brexit – is this Schrödinger’s neoliberalism?

The day after what the BBC has been calling a seismic event is bound to feel rather numbing. The prospect of leaving the EU is disorienting and scary precisely because no manifesto, no roadmap has ever been presented by the quitters. Everybody is wondering what it will mean for them, and there is no guidance. We’re used to getting that much within minutes after the Chancellor’s budget statements. But today, we’re all feeling bewildered about jobs, mortgages, pensions, the NHS, tax, bendy bananas, and all the rest.

Twitter was filled with people saying how their timeline had not prepared them for this. Like me, many were connected to other left-leaning, progressive internationalists, and so had felt entitled to discount what they regarded as the kneejerk xenophobia of the uninformed. I howled in sympathy with my learned friend @Plashingvole who is profoundly immersed in the tolerant embrace of British cultural history. He cites the legacy of Paine, Wollstonecraft, Rowan Williams, Chartists, Suffragists….and the Ramblers’ Association. What, eh? Somebody forgot to tell my sister’s bloke about that. But when your whole being is infused with that radical legacy, it is hard to wonder how it could be so convincingly rejected by the majority of the nation.

However, I ended this memorable day with a renewed respect for democracy and the important lessons it teaches us.  The workers of the north east and Wales have been told for the last 40 years that their skills are out of date, their industries uncompetitive and their productivity lacking. They were the first canaries down the disused mine of neoliberalism.  How long can working people absorb austerity, unemployment, being told they need to change and be flexible….and still never be better off? The EU has meant that my class has accrued a degree of job security through transnational mobility, but that has not been extended to the steel worker in Redcar. We can point to many waystations on the road to Labour allowing its working class constituency to be displaced by a liberal elite. Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson were ‘relaxed’ about wealth accumulation (i.e. upward distribution of capital). Gordon Brown chose to paint Gillian Duffy in Rochdale as an irrational bigot. In the last election, Labour, led by Ed Milliband, shimmied rather uncomfortably around the issue of immigration, and horrified the liberal middle class voter in the process.

And so the referendum result came as a surprise to a party which saw itself as having a working class base, but broad appeal. The surprise was that the vote was divided along lines of class, privilege and education. As many commentators have pointed out, a referendum doesn’t allow for nuance and negotiation. It draws a binary divide and you are compelled to vote for one side or the other. It also captures one instant in a decision-making process and makes it a defining moment. Well, now the victims of the neoliberal constructed recession have told national and global elites to get stuffed, and they’ll take their chances with a different way – any way. We have Schrödinger’s neoliberalism – it has been both rejected but guaranteed at the same time.

Some among the national elite in government and the media rail against the rejection of ‘experts’, even though they have had a hand in undermining their claims to authority. But university leaders need not feel blameless in this. I marvel at the hypocrisy of vice-chancellors who seek to marginalise critical voices in their own universities, and then wonder why the debate has not been carried by the weight of public intellectuals.  Public intellectuals should play a role in informing opinion, but very often they come from those departments now on the danger list in many universities because they don’t bring in huge amounts of money in research grants. So when your VC emails out their post-referendum statement, ask them – where is your affirmation of academic freedom? Where is your continuing and unfettered support for history, cultural studies, literature, social sciences, politics, philosophy, international relations, modern languages?  These are the incubators of critique and framers of arguments in these crucial debates.  But when you try and subdue a university into a controversy-free, ‘managed’ zone, if you silence the radical voice, then don’t ask why the intellectuals suddenly find themselves ostracized.

Despite what has happened, I remain optimistic because these events tend to trigger moments of ‘grand narrative’.  On the one hand we can see Donald Trump, who embodies that resistance to traditional elites, surfing in on the Brexit wave. On a more hopeful front, we can envisage that this narrative of defiance and empowerment might be directed, not just against symbolic national elites, but also at authority in other locations. Perhaps this is a time for those of us who work in universities to challenge the corporate managerialists who have seized hold of universities and subverted their purpose. At the moment, if you are in arts and humanities in a university, you probably feel a bit like voters in Scotland – as if you are held in thrall by a self-interested and bungling regime which acts against your interests and values.

So it’s a big vote of thanks to academics at the University of Aberdeen and Newcastle University who are already making progress with their campaigns to take back the university for its academic citizenry. How long do you feel like being treated to the Neoliberal University bait and switch? 40 years? Time to start acting against those structures of power which have worked against fundamental academic values of education, trust, community and academic freedom. Below are the core principles from the draft manifesto of the ‘Reclaiming Our University’ group at Aberdeen:

  • To create an environment for free, open-minded and unprejudiced debate, which stands out as a beacon of wisdom, tolerance and humanity.
  • To defend our freedom to undertake research and teaching in the pursuit of truth, against the constraints, both internal and external to the institution, which threaten to curtail it.
  • To restore the trust that underpins both professionalism and collegiality, by removing those systems of line and performance management, and of surveillance, which lead to its erosion.
  • To bring together research and teaching as complementary aspects of an education that carries a responsibility of care.
  • To restore the governance of the university, and control over its affairs, to the community of staff, students and alumni to which it rightfully belongs.

Join the conversation, and organise against attacks on academic freedom and the collegiality of the university. Comments on this blog will be copied to the Aberdeen group’s site.

Raising the Bar: The Metric Tide That Sinks All Boats

Liz Morrish writes: A longer post than usual, but very relevant if your working life in academia is governed by the insanity of metrics – grant income, PhD students, impact, REf 4* ‘outputs’. You know it is insanity, so read on…..

James Wilsdon may as well not have inveighed against the ‘metric tide’, and Jo Johnson could have saved printers’ ink asking vice-chancellors not to waste academics’ time, and students’ fee money by operating multiple ‘mock’ REFs (BIS Green Paper November 2015 Chapter 2, para 7).

It is time for a critical conversation to take place about the use and abuse of metrics. In July 2015, Hefce published The Metric Tide, the report of a review body chaired by James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex.

Despite the report’s chilling preface, announcing a “new barbarity” in our universities, we continue to witness the misuse of metrics as a tool of management in UK higher education. “Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods”, wrote Wilsdon. Universities should proceed with caution, then, lest metrics should spread like a digital Himalayan Balsam and undermine the ethical architecture of universities.

It is ironic, but perhaps fortunate, that students find universities a very different experience than the academic staff who labour in them. For students, the intrusive scrutiny of metrics can at least claim to betoken a therapeutic and supportive institution. Generally speaking, the student ‘dashboard’ does not harbour the disciplinary function of its academic equivalent. 

For academic staff, audit has become a central organizing principle of life in universities (Strathern 2003). Our working lives are structured around the requirement to undergo ‘rituals of verification’ (Power 1997), and there are as many anticipatory audits as there are demands for post-hoc justification. Such is their prevalence that the behaviour of academics has been transformed so that they are interpolated primarily as auditees (Petersen and Davies 2010). Benchmarks, metrics and dashboards are examples of calculative practices (Shore and Wright 2015), used, apparently, to measure and improve the productivity of academics. This imposes a rationality whereby we face a future of ‘algorithmic regulation’ (Morozov 2014), and regimes in which employees are hierarchized according to metrics. University policy documents endeavour to justify these practices as essential, and even empowering to academics.

I have blogged previously about the difference between stewardship and agency approaches to performance management, citing a report from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (Franco-Santos et al. 2014).

Stewardship approaches frame a long term direction of travel which relies on individuals exercising autonomy, while agency approaches address short term goals via monitoring and tight control. While UK universities seem beholden to the short-term, agency approach, stewardship approaches are favoured by Umran Inan, President of Koc University in Turkey. He writes that “that any attempt to pass down norms or procedures” from on high is antithetical to creativity, and that universities must instead “allow unusual [and] inconsistent things to happen” (Parr 2014). At Koc, quality of scholarship is allowed to flourish and internal evaluations take place every five years. By comparison, in the UK, we are in danger of allowing academic freedom and creativity to founder under the distorting constraints of audit.

I am not fond of sports metaphors, but many vice-chancellors are. I understand that what has made the New Zealand All Blacks a great team is a sense that there is a long-term investment in each player’s development, rather than the England team’s reliance on a permanent sense of insecurity and enforced competition for their place on the team.

Raising the Bar is a sports metaphor that will be familiar to academics at Newcastle University, as they have become one of the latest universities to publish their expectations for research performance. All of this was initiated by managerial anxiety, amidst chatter about so-called ‘bottom Russellers,’ that Newcastle has been “lacking in competitiveness compared to other Russell Group institutions”. The Vice-Chancellor, Chris Brink stated in a ‘town hall meeting’ in November 2015 that Newcastle had lacked 4*-ness in the last REF, and that an institutional goal was to be in the top half of the Russell Group. This can be attributed purely to league table-induced status anxiety. But I do wonder when, exactly, did academia become a combat zone? Probably it was at the same time they started awarding stars, like US Army generals. When did the amount of grant money eclipse the actual content of the research? But Raising the Bar is a coercively innocent phrase. It conveniently conceals all the judgement, hostility, pain and pressure that we know will follow it. Academic endeavour is not something that can just be improved by order. Research functions within a context, an ethos and a dynamic.

Now that I have built a reputation for busting managerial myths about performance management, kind Twitterati send me their universities’ policy documents. As a linguist, I feast upon their discursively encoded ideologies. As a human being, a scholar and a friend of many victims, I weep at the cost for these individuals, but also for the future of universities.

This is my analysis of the document (see below): Newcastle University, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Research and Innovation Performance Expectations.

First of all, we find that these are expectations, not objectives, not targets, not goals. Expectations are much more finite and concrete, and do not permit that worrying prospect of slippage.

[T]he expectations on research active staff – so by definition if you do not meet them you are not research active, despite any other evidence to the contrary.

This document is focussed on research performance…..as this will determine our ranking in the next REF. And the key to this, we learn, will be increasing the number of 4* outputs. The parameters of ‘performance’ are drawn so rigidly, and amount solely to ‘being REF-able’.  This circumscribes any kind of professional autonomy, or even what should count as academic labour, guaranteeing that much of what academics do will be rendered invisible. What of the early career researcher, or graduate student celebrating their first scholarly publication? This will probably not be a 4*, and any pleasure or sense of fulfilment will be subdued.  How can any of us take pleasure in our work under these conditions?

 [W]e have largely relied on REF 2014 entry as a proxy for reaching the minimum expectations for research outputs. How is this possible? How would a local assessor know if an individual’s outputs were scored as the quoted minimum 3*? Individual REF scores are categorically not available; they have been destroyed (REF FAQ).

A criterion for a chair is: aspires to be in the Top quartile in UoA for income, or aspiring to 4* – how can everyone be in the top quartile? With success rates as low as 12%, then that is an expectation you will probably not meet. And how do you indicate aspiration, if you fall short? Are we now to be judged on the breadth of our imaginations?

Newcastle University is not alone in planning to audit their academic staff on attainment of quantifiable targets, with some, like grant capture, quite outside their control. Nor is the misery confined to the Russell Group; Newcastle joins a long list which now amounts to one in six UK universities, according to the Times Higher: Queens University Belfast, Imperial, Queen Mary University of London, Abertay University, Plymouth University, Robert Gordon University and the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, East Anglia, Glasgow, Greenwich and Leeds.

If targets are unattainable, this leads to unmanageable levels of stress. This is objective setting 101. Employers have a legal obligation to conduct risk assessments and prevent known causes of stress. “Employers are only in breach of their duty if they have failed to take reasonable steps in the circumstances to prevent the stress”. Notice the word is ‘prevent,’ not alleviate stress. It is not helpful to offer mindfulness workshops, nor aromatherapy. The workplace should be managed in accordance with the law and decent moral conduct.

Of course, Chris Brink alluded to the fact that academics would be ‘supported’ in reaching the new bar; however the inevitable monitoring, reporting and surveillance will only serve to amplify the pressure of the audit. If we need evidence that targets and performance management cause insupportable stress, we should remember the tragic case of Stefan Grimm who took his own life after being threatened with performance management procedures at Imperial College. The coroner found Stefan’s death to be ‘needless’  and Imperial College said that ‘wider lessons’ would be learned. It is now very clear that the nation’s vice-chancellors have been unwilling to face the facts. There is systematic, mass victimization of UK academics.

And it is not confined to the UK; recent research from Australia on the impact of aggressive performance management on early career researchers (Petersen 2016 forthcoming) indicates that stress starts to manifest itself quickly, and has a negative impact on work. Many ECRs “struggled to articulate the value and worth of their work outside the productivity discourse” (2016:12). The constraints of metrics cause the content of the research to change, and researchers attempt to mirror what is ‘hot’ – likely to get funding under shifting priorities of research councils. And I have observed as well that we all tend to discount even solid scholarship – edited volumes or book reviews – if they are not REF-able. And in the same way we will learn to discount any work which is not judged – even by non-expert assessors – as worthy of a 3* or 4* ranking. As Petersen says of her informants, “they and the substance of their work become easier to control”.

Another control technique is to devalue the work of someone who is entirely dedicated to their scholarship, and whose whole identity is enmeshed with their work. Ammunition can easily be found when targets are so numerous and the scope so wide that almost every employee can be found wanting in some dimension. The targets reflect management’s construction of the ideal employee who is ‘compelled never to rest’ (Davies and Petersen 2005: 89). This offers employers the opportunity to apply policies capriciously: poor teaching scores may be overlooked in some cases, but lack of grant income is not. It is a licence for the academically insecure to settle grudges or academic jealousies with their more talented underlings. And so an increasing number of academics are being marched through performance management processes in which their unique contributions are rendered insignificant and their imagined lapses are deemed ‘incapability’. Targets must be attained at each and every period of audit. You may find that international esteem is never arrived at, even though your books – even translations of them – are still on the shelves. Was it achieved and documented in the last six months? That is all that matters. Professorship must be performed in these tightly delimited ways like a horse doing dressage. Threats of demotion are made. It is like rescinding Mark Spitz’s gold medals because he can no longer match Michael Phelps.

I have to question whether these quantifiable targets meet management’s declared aims of encouraging staff retention and offering a structure of support for academics. It is hard to imagine they could work positively in this way when, in some departments, significant numbers of academics are immobilized by emotional and professional breakdown.

In the fictions and contradiction of management Polari, this is returned to the apparently delinquent employee as ‘empowerment’, even as managers arrogate the power to press the detonate button on careers. This mendacious discourse serves to absolve the perpetrators of torture from the shattering incapacitation these procedures invoke.

The Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University portrays the metrics of Raising the Bar as objectivity. It is not, nor is it objective setting; this is objectification. Let us remind ourselves of Martha Nussbaum’s (1995) original seven features of objectification:

  • Instrumentality – to be treated as a tool for man’s purposes. At Newcastle, the function of an academic is to raise the bar, increase grant income and raise the university’s position in the league tables.
  • Denial of autonomy – activity and what counts as work is tightly defined and controlled.
  • Inertness – there are no human agents in the Newcastle documents. Grammatical subjects include ‘this document’, and “this aspect of our academic portfolio”, “a detailed analysis of the results” and “expectations”. There is the passive voice throughout, with just three instances of an unattributed pronoun ‘we’. ‘We’ is an inherently ambiguous pronoun. It can be used either inclusively, or exclusively of the addressee. Looking at the contexts: “we do not expect all staff to have equal strengths”; “we have largely relied on REF 2014”; “We will take early career researcher’ – these usages seem to retain the prerogative of its exclusive attribution.
  • Fungibility – interchangeability with other objects of the same type. How often have you heard managers say “we have an open door policy”? And notice that in HR-speak, there are no people, with contributions to make, there are only ‘roles’, and these can have the status of vacant, or filled.
  • Violability – something that can be broken, violated, smashed into. Many academics are now looking at ruined careers and broken ambitions. We have ensured that an academic career has become unsustainable in the long term.
  • Ownership – something that can be traded or commodified; we now hear about ‘a transfer market’ for ‘4* 4’ professors – professors with four 4* outputs.
  • Denial of subjectivity – your feelings need not be taken into account. Indeed, there is no way of expressing them, as we are forced to account for our work in terms of management-defined metrics. This is known as illocutionary silencing (Meyerhoff 2004).

Does this seem familiar? Objectification is the reality behind what we are supposed to believe is ‘empowerment’, a word now taking that slide into the semantic inversion prefigured by ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’. But generations of women have been persuaded that objectification is empowering, so why not try it out on academics?

This is a job creation scheme for HR as more and more academics will find themselves falling short of ‘Raising the Bar’. If we are lucky, they may embroil universities in grievances and libel suits which will chasten managers’ love of ‘robust’ metrical solutions to problems which do not exist. Vice-chancellors use a dip in metrics, or the effects of incapacitation – ‘falling over’ – in their jargon, as an occasion to axe courses, subject, departments and schools. We are about to enter an era of manufactured instability in universities in both staff turnover and academic offering.  

Metrics, then, are unlikely to offer any of the certainties that their champions have promised, and doubly so because of the sheer irrationality that governs their application. The bar must be raised, and raised again. No-one must slip beneath the bar. There is only the bar, the metric that cannot lie. Except it does. There is always a rush to judgement as metrics occlude any other evidence. This is the weak spot, and one that offers a route to resistance. What about content? What about the imagination, passion and risk-taking that animate research? What about bright people having fortuitous conversations?

There has been a hollowing out of the sense of purpose of universities as power is skewed towards the managerial function. Despite vice-chancellors’ assurances that There is No Alternative, it doesn’t have to be like this, and it is our job to take every opportunity to make this clear. Good work cannot be sustained under these conditions of pressure and surveillance. Academics are not servo systems whose online functioning can be monitored and tweaked in response to new demands. Consider this reality; academics with all their strengths and imperfections are the people who attract students. I gift several Saturdays a year to my institution because, it seems, I am able to persuade students to study there. Nobody ever signed up because of the award-winning Human Resources team, or was swayed by the robustness of the Improving Performance Procedure.

So let’s indeed raise the bar. Let’s raise the bar for decency, humanity, respect and trust. Let’s realise that academic staff do not have either the resources or the capacity to keep expanding their workloads and output every year, and please let’s keep in mind the human consequences of systems that push people above, over and beyond. And let’s return to that meaning of ‘we’ and allow ourselves to feel that it includes everyone who works in a university and not allow it to pertain exclusively to management. I hope that, perhaps, one day, vice-chancellors and their senior management teams will wake up and remember they work for universities; they are not the university.

 Video of talk at Newcastle University 25th November 2015

Newcastle Humanities and Social Sciences RTB doc

 

References

 Davies, B. and Petersen, E.B. 2005. Neo-liberal discourse in the academy: The forestalling of (collective) resistance. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 2 (2): 77-98.

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. 2015.  Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. November 2015. HMSO.  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/474227/BIS-15-623-fulfilling-our-potential-teaching-excellence-social-mobility-and-student-choice.pdf

Franco-Santos, M., Rivera, P. and Bourne, M. 2014. http://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/dinamic-content/news/documents/PerformanceManagementinUKHigherEducationInstitutions.pdf

Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2004. Doing and saying: some words on women’s silence. In R.T. Lakoff. Language and Women’s Place: Text and Commentaries (revised and expanded). M. Bucholtz (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 209-215.

Morozov, E. 2014. To Save Everything, Click Here. Penguin.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1995. Objectification, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24 (4), pp. 249–291.

Parr, Chris. 2014. Young universities’ secrets of success, Times Higher. July 17th.

Power, Michael. 1997. The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.

Petersen, E.B. (forthcoming, 2016) The impact of managerial performance frameworks on research activities among Australian early career researchers, in ed. K. Trimmer Political Pressures on Educational and Social Research. NY: Routledge

Petersen, E.B. and Davies, B. 2010. In/Difference in the neoliberalised university.  Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 3 (2): 92-109.

Shore, C. and Wright, S. 2015. Audit culture revisited. Current Anthropology, 56 (3): 421-444.

Strathern, M. (ed) 2000. Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. London: Routledge.

Wilsdon, J., et al. (2015). The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4929.1363

Cheering the Change Champions

I really did enjoy an article in the Times Higher 1st October 2015. Steve Olivier, a deputy vice-chancellor at Abertay University, offers advice on How to Manage Rapid Change.

Although nowhere near as eminent as a deputy vice-chancellor, I am also a change champion, I have, over the last few years, presented myself for as many management training programs as I can endure. Operating rather like a resistance worker, I attend, take notes and then work with the tools of critical discourse analysis to uncover the discourses, power relations, metaphors and assumptions that are embedded in these programs. I work with a colleague, Helen Sauntson, and this analysis owes much to her expertise.

Change is one of those managerial ‘hooray words’ and, indeed, Olivier reassures us that ‘change initiatives are well-intentioned’. He then announces a litany of fifteen changes that he and the senior management team have introduced in ‘just 18 months’. Ho-hum. I wouldn’t mind betting most academics have undergone something very similar in the last three years. I could certainly check off half of Olivier’s list. Better than that, I am now looking forward to the fifth iteration of the semesters to year-long back-and-forth in my career. At Abertay, we learn that “No initiative could proceed without our first agreeing to no more than 10 principles to guide it”. That was the part I didn’t entirely recognise. Ten? Crikey, I’d be happy with one. If we can flip-flop so many times, how can we be asked to believe in any underlying principles? I am not so much a change champion as a change veteran. Change is a kind of dysfunctional academic circadian rhythm designed to make sure no process ever fully cements itself. The only response it evokes in me is resignation and thoughts of all the productive work about to be erased while I Do, I Undo and I Redo – in the way of the Louise Bourgeois sculptures.

So what do the documents of managerial training schemes reveal? Firstly, the constant references to ‘change management’ presuppose that change is something that must be managed and cannot simply be allowed to occur organically or naturally. This helps to create a discourse of change as something which must be ‘controlled’ by those in powerful positions within an institution (referred to in training documents as ‘change leaders’, ‘change masters’ and ‘change agents’). It is presented as an indicator of competence, regardless of judgements favouring the status quo, or alternative changes. Resisting change is presented as a ‘negative behaviour’.

Invoking change as a universal good to be embraced, presupposes that there will be resistance and ‘barriers’ to change, and that change is something that will not be wanted by staff working in HEIs. Academics, of course, are often the initiators of change (particularly in their subject areas), but this meaning of change is notably absent from training documents leaving a clear presupposition that change is ‘top-down’ and can only be initiated and directed by those in the most powerful positions within an institution. A discourse is created that any change that is desired by those in less powerful positions must be suppressed and controlled by those higher up.

Parker (2014) documents a convincing case study of change management at its most strident as ‘a project which attempts to ensure that all parts of an organization ‘share’ values. Or, to put it a different way, to ensure that there is no disagreement with the corporate line, and that academics and students know their places and their ‘best interests’’ (2014: 283). Apparent resistance to change was often characterised as a problem of communication (2014: 285), and unhappiness discounted as ‘inevitable in times of rapid change’.

Our documents indicate that managers see all change as revolutionary and self-evidently a good thing, often presented as ‘shaking things up’. However, change is decontextualized from any previous history. Parker comments on the strange process of legitimation: ‘[I]t was necessary to ensure that the past was not available as a valid position from which to criticize the present. In other words, the past needs to be articulated as a problem, as something that needs to be escaped from’ (2014: 287). Resistance from those with institutional memory (who are often in a position to identify the futility of the change, or its circularity) is framed in terms of their self-interest and intransigence. Those who leave are recast as not sharing the vice-chancellor’s vision. The discourse creates binary options of compliance or exit; zero: sum; entrepreneur or whiner hankering for the ‘good old days’. Indeed, as Parker points out, the very fact of staff leaving, retiring or falling ill with stress is often, in this managerial fiction of change, will be defended by the institution as evidence that change is both necessary and effective (2014: 288).

A final strong presupposition underlying the uses and meanings of change in the documents is that all change will ultimately be successful. Despite reservations that covertly may be held, the discourse is relentlessly positive; there are never any ‘problems’, only ‘challenges’, and problems are solved, challenges are overcome, ruthlessly, just like resistance. The ideology created in the text prevents academics from interrogating the legitimacy of change are being imposed – to technology, to working conditions, to ‘performance management’ or to redundancy criteria. One of the absences in the documents is the possibility of academics participating in democratic structures to agree change. Indeed, if resistance fails, and the employee finds themselves stressed or their work impeded by change, then there are institutional means by which the institution attempts to manage the dissatisfied self. Docherty (2014b) writes that “everything, including dissent, is managed and circumscribed to keep existing authority in power. Institutionally, it’s called ‘change management’”.

References

Thomas Docherty (2011). The unseen academy. Times Higher. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=418076&c=2

Parker, Martin. 2014. University, Ltd: Changing a business school. Organization. 21(2) 281–292.

Networking Our Way Through Neoliberal U

A recent post on Stuff About Unis  reminded me of an academic ‘networking’ experience a few years ago. It is always interesting to be an onlooker to the internal workings of another university, as opposed to viewing the public face of an institution at a conference. On this occasion, I was visiting an Australian university which has frequently been cited as a trailblazer for the neoliberal academy. Through a local contact, I managed to secure a place on a staff development workshop, designed to groom mid-career academics in the image of the ideal university employee (Morrissey 2015). Normally, at my own institution, I would have scorned such a workshop, but this was a chance to be a fly on the wall, and to decode the culture of another university’s management.

The presenter was offering the participants the benefit of his experience in effective academic networking and collaboration. The advice he extended seemed to be geared to the rather younger academic than the assembled mid-career constituency rather reluctantly gathered before him, as he revealed that, early on, he had decided to “surround myself with excellence”. How to do this? One brief role play required us to imagine this scenario – you are at a conference and find yourself at lunch standing next to the keynote speaker. What ‘chat up’ line would you use, in order to make yourself memorable to this heavyweight, who might subsequently facilitate your self-promotion strategy? Apparently, the route to advancement is mediated through high quality academic partners who “make you look good”. I listened with my jaw progressively slackening; I had never been exposed before to such shamelessly direct exhortations to actualise self-serving sycophancy.

There was more. Building your network should feature high on your one-page career plan, which should be complemented with evidence of your esteem indicators. Your network should be viewed as an asset, and as essential to your CV as any actual professional accomplishments. However, networking and collaboration were defined in extremely limited ways. Partnerships were only viable if they led to outcomes – publications, grant application etc. There seemed to be no room for conversation, mentoring, interest groups, blogging etc. Instead, you were to be measured by the size and geographical spread of your network, and critically, by the status of its participants.

This presenter viewed networking as purely strategic. On the other hand, for many of us, it is experienced as a series of happy accidents, fortuitous collisions of minds, and sometimes bodies, at conferences. Collaborations are driven as often by personal appeal as they are by pure intellectual attraction. I was startled at the apparent contradiction between the stated aim of the workshop – collaboration – and the rather vulgar focus on individualism which animated this particular model of the developing academic career. I wondered how this sat with the HR representative in charge of the Academic Development program, positioned at the back of the room – how was this aligning with the wider mission of the university which surely is not just a vehicle for furthering the priorities of the individual?

At Neoliberal U the individual academic is also responsible for managing their time so that the proliferation of demands must be accommodated unproblematically. In the presenter’s own department, he has forbidden staff to claim they are too busy to take on new projects, organise seminars orwork with new partnerships. The individual should just learn to ‘work smart’. The self-managing academic must become the over-worked academic apparently.

I did come away with some good ideas about networking and collaboration. Go to conferences and talk to people you don’t know, not the other people from your institution. Look for collaborations outside of your own department within your university. However, I was also concerned that institutional impediments to networking were discussed, but I felt they were unlikely to be addressed. University managers have, for some years, sought to dismantle academic culture and sense of community which is seen as threatening to managerialist governmentality. Institutional loyalty is preferred to dangerously off-message subject affiliations, particularly in the ‘critical’ disciplines. Part of the management strategy has been the removal of social spaces where academics might actually mingle and coincidentally realise commonalities and opportunities for research. In a similarly self-defeating vein, REF culture in the UK has, because of research selectivity, and institutional research priorities, set limits on inter-unit collaboration. And so it must be re-built, but in a way which reinforces the neoliberal preoccupation with competition and audit.

Nottingham Uni H Index

The above image shows just how, in the intervening few years, the practice of self-audit has risen to the top of the agenda, particularly in Russell Group Universities. Some academics now include their H-index in their email signature, as some kind of self- nominated esteem indicator. This has led to a crisis of status-consciousness among academics. Rather than telling you what their research is about, they will often regale you with the star ratings of their ‘outputs’ and the impact factor of their target journals.

So I can agree with Stuff About Unis that networking-by-metrics seems artificial, joyless and poisoned. The “light presence of instrumentality”, it seems, is turning out to be a heavier presence than any of us might wish for.

Reference

Morrissey, J (2015) ‘Regimes of Performance: Practices of the Normalised Self in the Neoliberal University’. British Journal Of Sociology Of Education, 36 (4):614-634.

Are ‘critters’ taking over your university management?

It may be because it’s August, but I am feeling a little more optimistic about the future of university management.

The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) is a company which runs training programs for university senior managers, and aspirants to those roles. Their website states that, “The Leadership Foundation is committed to developing and improving the management and leadership skills of existing and future leaders of higher education”.

I ‘m ready to confess a skeptical, though ghoulish, fascination with higher education management, but I don’t usually get warm, fuzzy feelings when reading material on strategic management, succession planning and governance reviews. But that is changing; more recently on the LFHE website, there seem to have been contributions from ‘critters’, that is advocates of critical management approaches. On the CMS portal (highly recommended) we find that approach portrayed as:

“a largely left-wing and theoretically informed approach to management and organisation studies. It challenges the prevailing conventional understanding of management and organisations. CMS provides a platform for debating radical alternatives whilst interrogating the established relations of power, control, domination and ideology as well as the relations among organisations, society and people”.

Critical Management Studies arose in the 1990s and 2000s. Butler and Spoelstra (2014: 540), citing Fournier and Grey (2000:17) characterize critical management studies approaches as exhibiting:

  • an ethos of non-performativity, rejecting the usual work of improving efficiency and effectiveness of an organisation, but instead exploring issues of power, control and inequality at work,
  • an ethos of denaturalization: critical scholars do not accept management knowledge at face value but actively seek to expose – and challenge – its ideological underpinnings,
  • an ethos of reflexivity: critical scholars tend to reflect on their epistemological, ontological and methodological assumptions far more explicitly than their non-critical (especially positivist) counterparts who may practise an ethos of scientific disinterestedness.

There have been a few recently- commissioned reports for the LFHE that, while I don’t think I’m quite ready to say that they tick all the boxes, I do detect sympathetic echoes of the values stated above. Take, for instance, a report on the future of performance management (Franco-Santos, M., Rivera, P. and Bourne, M. 2014.) The report distinguishes between stewardship and agency approaches to performance management, and urges universities to consider a more flexible application of these. Stewardship approaches “focus on long-term outcomes through people’s knowledge and values, autonomy and shared leadership within a high trust environment”. By contrast, “agency approaches focus on short-term results or outputs through greater monitoring and control”. The authors find that institutions with a mission that is focused on “long-term and highly complex goals, which are difficult or very costly to measure (e.g., research excellence, contribution to society)” are more likely to benefit from incorporating a stewardship approach to performance management. I can probably guess which model seems more familiar to most academics, for whom autonomy, shared leadership and high trust working environments reside in the folklore of a previous generation.

The next piece which cheered me was pitched as a ‘stimulus paper’ by Richard Bolden, Sandra Jones, Heather Davis and Paul Gentle, “Developing and sustaining shared leadership in higher education”. I hope to read the entire report next week when I’m on proper holiday, but the executive summary drew my interest.

“Within higher education, shared leadership offers a compelling alternative to the discourse of managerialism (based on principles of new public management), which has become increasingly prevalent within the sector. In a context where many are sceptical of traditional influence and authority, it has been suggested that shared leadership may offer a means of reconnecting academics with a sense of collegiality, citizenship and community”.

There are those of us who are more used to expecting university senior managers to be among the more insistent adherents of command-and-control managerialism.  However, even within that grouping, there may be a growing appetite for the kind of reflexivity and exploration of power and control that underpin critical approaches to management. Janet Beer, the newly appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, bemoans a masculinist narrative of heroism in the job descriptions and ethos of vice-chancellors (Morgan 2015) . She accuses universities of overlooking other attributes which also sustain good leadership, such as ‘consensus-building and collaborative and partnership working at all levels. Job specifications, she continued, can often emphasise qualities that aren’t necessarily about leadership in a well-balanced way’. Similarly, Keith Burnett of Sheffield University signaled a desire to loosen the thumbscrews a little: “Great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends upon it. It demands the unshackled possibility to question and seek knowledge wherever it is to be found, and to convey this to students without fear of intervention or sanction by the state. A value that is globally understood to be a prerequisite for scholarship”.

It is a little premature to predict the overthrow of New Public Management, and, as George Eliot taught us “signs are small, measurable things; interpretations are illimitable”. But let’s hope this heralds a new, critical ‘direction of travel’ for the LFHE. I’ll certainly keep on checking the website.

References

Bolden, R., Jones, S., Davis, H and Gentle, P. 2015. ,  Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, London. https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/sites/default/files/breaking_news_files/developing_and_sustaining_shared_leadership_in_higher_education.pdf

Burnett, K. 2015. Want to raise the quality of teaching? Begin with academic freedom. Times Higher.  August 3rd. https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/blog/want-raise-quality-teaching-begin-academic-freedom#comment-3565

Butler, Nick and Spoelstra, Sverre. 2014. The regime of excellence and the erosion of ethos in critical management studies. British Journal of Management, Vol. 25, 538–550.

Critical Management Studies portal: http://www.criticalmanagement.org/node/2

Fournier, V. and Grey, C. 2000. ‘At the critical moment: conditions and prospects for critical management studies’, Human Relations, 53, pp. 7–32.

Franco-Santos, M., Rivera, P. and Bourne, M. 2014. Performance Management in UK Higher Education Institutions. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, London. http://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/dinamic-content/news/documents/PerformanceManagementinUKHigherEducationInstitutions.pdf

Leadership Foundation for Higher Education: http://www.lfhe.ac.uk/

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