Bureaucracy has blossomed in universities in recent decades. This development is usually referred to as “managerialism”, and its main manifestation is the increasing attempts to control the activities of academics by means of management techniques. Intellectually speaking it is a movement far outside academia and affecting all aspects of the public service, usually referred to as the New Public Management or NPM. (See: Top scholars should lead research universities.)

The same developments are also described by some as corporatisation or as treating universities as if they were businesses. There is much truth in this, but it is also misleading. Some aspects of the process involve demands properly addressed to both public and private concerns (such as that their books balance, and their employees each do their share of work). In other respects universities are indistinguishable from private entities anyway (as where they supply education or other specialist services on market terms). In yet other aspects, the management techniques now being introduced were indeed developed in the world of private business. However, despite all of this, the fundamental fact remains that public universities do not live in a market world – the only buyer they have for the bulk of their services is the government, and there is no “market” in any genuine sense. While the supply of these services is often dressed up in market terms, the reality is a command economy: the government decides how much money is available and to which institutions it is to be allocated; the “contract” under which the money arrives is entirely at the government’s whim. It makes no sense at all, therefore, to talk of the government’s “treating universities as if they were businesses”, a feat which could only be achieved by privatisation or something similarly radical. Talk of “marketisation” must mean something else.

Nonetheless, there is a clear link between the new management techniques and neoclassical economic theory – unsurprisingly so, as this theory permeates all modern politics in relation to public finance. The classic defences of the modern public university all argue that universities are of benefit to society at large, far beyond any private benefit to the individuals who actually receive the education. The argument is that leaving university education to the market sells the rest of society short: an educated citizenry is good for everyone. Translated into neoclassical terminology, this becomes an argument that universities are a public good, which cannot be secured by a free market and so much be paid for from public taxation. However it is not at all obvious, as a matter of economic theory, that this is the case: an obvious counter-view is that the benefits are primarily private, university education benefitting the person educated, and research benefitting the researcher. To many economists, therefore, this looks like the classic case where different people value certain activities differently (some people value universities and what they do, others do not), and so the matter should be resolved by market mechanisms. The universities’ argument that they are different and should not be judged by market standards is seen simply as the special pleading that we should expect in such a case, and no more worthy than special pleading from any other source. (See Education is not a Hamburger.)

So while there is a clear link to market-based thinking, the problem is a deeper one than that. The problem is a pervasive governmental scepticism about the value of universities and what they do, relative to the amounts of money universities are asking for. The money given to universities is still substantial, but we are on a downward wave, where the arguments that justified (historically) high levels of funding now seem less persuasive. The new managerialism, therefore, involves an increasing level of control, combining both a wish to drive down costs, and an increased level of questioning about the purpose of the expenditure. The logical end-point of the process is clear: if government sees no value in what universities do, then public subsidy should be zero. Those who wish to teach a particular subject would be told that they must persuade consumers of the worth of this, and must compete for the consumers’ money along with every other supplier in the economy. To that extent, therefore, it makes sense to say that there is a wish to “treat universities like businesses”. But we are very far from that stage: if the current cut-backs seem very significant, it is because we have just emerged from a period where universities have been treated generously. It is not so much exposure to the market that threatens universities, as exposure to the judgment of non-academics everywhere, which has many aspects, of which market choice is only one.

The problem is therefore not, strictly speaking, a new one. Academics have always been aware that not everyone appreciates what they do, or thinks it worth the money that it costs; and it has always only been possible to buy time and space to think by performing some service or other for the powers that be. (Indeed some – though hardly all – academics even see undergraduate teaching in that light: as the grunt work they have to do in return for being allowed to carry out their true vocations.) But while the problem is perennial, it has really only been in its modern form for perhaps a century-and-a-half, with the rise of the modern research university. (While modern universities make much of their famous researchers of previous centuries, such as Cambridge’s harking back to Newton and Darwin, in fact then universities did little to promote research, and were at best a haven from the real world, of which the occasional genius took temporary advantage.) It from the 19th century onwards that we see the emergence of a justification for significant public investment in universities. The case was been put in slightly different ways, by Humboldt, Newman and (into the 20th century) Robbins. But the case put by Robbins was seen as flawed by many at the time he made it, and no successor has yet emerged. No-one knows, for now, how to make the case with such persuasive force. (See:  Robbins’s foregone conclusion)

So while the university system is at a very high ebb indeed, nonetheless the system feels to most of those involved in its operations as a sinking ship. Government seems every year less willing to fund it, and is ever more questioning and intrusive in its approach. This truly is a battle for public opinion. Every piece of public evidence that universities serve a purpose (by curing disease or by helping people to find good jobs) helps their cause; every indication that they do not (by engaging in apparently mad and wasteful research) hinders it. The stereotypes of academics do not help: whether “university types” are cloistered and unworldly, or bitchy and obsessed with infighting, or aging ingrate campus radicals who demand the end of capitalism but also have tenure, none sound like worthy recipients of public money. This has led many to characterise the modern university as one riven by suspicion, doubt and lack of purpose – a “postmodern university” or (in Bill Readings’s famous phrase) “the university in ruins”, uneasily looking for a purpose in the shattered remnants of earlier justifications for their existence. (For a summary of Readings’s famous book see here.) While not everyone feels it is as bad as that, nonetheless the repeated questioning of what universities are for does not make for a comfortable existence. (On popular attitudes to universities see Deconstructing the ubiquitous university.)

While governments are very far (yet) from saying that universities serve no purpose that cannot be achieved through the market, nonetheless their accounts of what universities are for are several steps removed from what universities in fact do, and so often suggest programmes for reform rather than support, however they are phrased.

  • There is open public support for useful research, which usually means work in certain aspects of applied science and medicine but leaves out the rest, whether into the fundamentals of science or into the humanities. (Some argue that this is not really support for research at all; the value of university researchers to society is precisely that the immediate value of a project is not usually obvious to anyone but the researcher.) The debate here has hardly begun; and there is no rule of logic suggesting that advanced research must be carried out in universities as opposed to anywhere else. (See: What are universities for?)
  • There is also considerable public support for (though also opposition to) using universities to address social inequality. If the route to a good job is a university degree, then fairness demands that all should have a fair chance of gaining such a degree. While such arguments are vital, and while they are often used as part of an argument for increased university funding, their ultimate tendency is not to benefit universities but to make them a battleground between left and right. If we care about social justice (and we should), then we should argue about access to university; but to suggest that a social equitable university is any better or worse for teaching and research sounds like a confusion of thought. These are different issues.

All of this suggests – and here managerialism comes to the fore again – that governments will become more selective in what they will fund. It is not simply that government insists that the overall cost of universities should go down, it also begins to take a view on which topics deserve cash and which do not. While the general public cannot really be said to have a clear view of what deserves funding, nonetheless some subjects feel extremely exposed.

  • On the Arts side, the arguments over Media Studies are one example, showing the crudity of the arguments used; commentators have not allowed their lack of knowledge of what the subject involves to inhibit them from condemning it. But this ignorance cuts both ways: not every Shakespeare play is a work of genius, but you would not guess this from public debates on what is valuable in literature.
  • Some of the sciences too may feel in a weak position. Biologists have reason to feel threatened by religion-based attacks – unfairly so, because those who believe in a literal (biblical or koranic) creation should be taking on modern Cosmology as well, but they rarely do. High-energy physicists too often feel vulnerable, given that the physics community has recently staked so much of its reputation on the development of string theory, with little to show for it despite decades of effort.

Within the universities, these arguments are of course divisive, as are the increasing attempts to compare disciplines and institutions to see which is “better”. In such a world (to paraphrase Gore Vidal) no-one can really be said to have succeeded unless there are others who have failed. In this sense, universities have a need to blur public knowledge of them, so that they make one big target, which is better than allowing different aspects of universities to be picked off one by one. This is not in itself freedom from control, but it is a good start.

Increasing public scrutiny of universities therefore has generated a pervasive scepticism of what universities do, which is increasingly manifested in more intrusive and bureaucratic management. The expertise and specialism of academics puts up major barriers between university academics and those who would control them; “managerialism” is about attempts to break down those barriers.

Managerialism manifests itself in various ways. Summing them up is not easy. At root seems to be a number of assumptions about the way in which universities should act and how they can justify themselves to others. Yet (as Bill Readings pointed out) most are easily exposed as vacuous or question-begging. Demands that universities be “efficient” and “accountable” are actually meaningless until it is made clear what “efficiency” and “accountability” are being taken to mean; and the continual demand that universities demonstrate “excellence” similarly conceals more than it reveals, as we cannot say whether something is “excellent” until we know what it is for. This “discourse of excellence” therefore conceals more than it reveals, and what it conceals is often a set of assumptions more suited to business than to universities. Those promoting managerialist reforms often assume that students are “customers” who take a rational economic choice about what to study, and that different universities are “in competition” with one another. There seems to be substantial pressure on universities to state and re-state what they actually do: so “mission statements” for universities and for the units within them proliferate, most of which are either high-flown nonsense or statements of the obvious – or rather, of what would be obvious if the value of universities to society were accepted and uncontroversial. There is also a pervasive assumption of the virtues of tight central control: that any activity that is unmonitored should be presumed illegitimate; that every academic and administrative unit needs close scrutiny (an assumption rarely applied to senor management, however); and that no-one will do their jobs unless there is a comprehensive stick-and-carrot regime in place to make them (despite the clearest evidence to the contrary).

All of these assumptions can be challenged when they raise themselves overtly, but somehow they come back again and again despite this. Particular manifestations of this managerialism are:

  • Mechanisms of control: Clear chain of command. Traditionally loose allocations of responsibility are increasingly replaced with line management. Academics who would previously have enjoyed a high degree of autonomy (within implicitly understood limits) now find themselves having to take orders from above, orders perhaps given by a non-academic manager. The more democratic aspects of university governance are being suppressed. This has also entailed an increasing tier of managers, and reduced job status for academics: tenure is harder to get, and means less once reached; casual work and temporary contracts seem to be on the rise. The more senior academics are increasingly having to act as academic managers, a role for which they are not necessarily trained or suited.
  • Mechanisms of control: Financial responsibilities and controls. The job of managing academic units within the university has grown more complex, with more accounting data available and more activities costed. These financial systems cannot be seen simply as neutrally providing information: there is a politics around who has access to what data (it is impossible to be a voice in policy debates if you do not even know what the argument is about), and accounting structures often reflect decisions already made (particular activities are assigned an exaggerated value in an attempt to encourage them). Any attempt to measure work performance or productivity creates incentives (as there is likely to be a reward for apparently improved output), and not all of these effects are good. There are also a determined effort to identify legal risks and to forestall litigation; the effects of this vary, though some of them seem to be good (for example, a wish to avoid legal actions may encourage steps to prevent bullying).
  • Mechanisms of control: evaluation and accreditation. Good performance is not assumed to be the norm, nor is it inferred from lack of complaints. Academic units and their members are in effect kept under permanent review, with a tightening-up of traditional occasions of scrutiny (promotions and job appointments are now very bureaucratic affairs) and the introduction of new mechanisms (personal career evaluations; quality reviews of various sorts, whether reviews of teaching or of research or both). Efforts to improve the quality of teaching are now being absorbed (some would say hijacked) into a drive to make academics obtain teaching qualifications. Some of this is imposed by law (the national evaluation regimes do much to set the tone of each nation’s universities) and some is not (it would be a bold university management that ignored the international rankings, though no law is broken by so doing). That these mechanisms have an effect on behaviour cannot be doubted. What that effect is, whether it is good, and whether better regimes are available, are all matters of much debate, especially in relation to research quality. (See: If not quality assurance, then what?; Managerialism and Evaluation in Higher Education; Research Selectivity, Managerialism, and the Academic Labor Process.)
  • Mechanisms of control: Demand of loyalty. Less tangible but nonetheless to some eyes increasingly glaring are attempts by some universities to control the public profile of their staff, particularly if they become involved in publicly controversial issues (whether because the issues have personal relevance or simply because the staffers wish to contribute to national debate). This cuts deeply into traditional notions of academic freedom, which would hold that universities are not diminished by controversy and are considerably harmed by curtailing it. This is a basic fault-line between managers and academics: managers owe their loyalty to their employer, whereas academics tend to owe it to their discipline, or to The Truth.
  • Market orientation: students as customers. Treating students as customers of the university, who will demand a “student experience” of high quality, is fundamentally different from the more traditional nation that students attend university to receive an education. It is probably a mistake to defend either extreme of this particular debate. It would indeed be disgraceful if courses were organised solely around pleasing the majority of students on them, and those courses would quickly degenerate into undemanding entertainments which leave their students with a warm glow but little else. But equally, an approach which ignored student wishes and refused to consult at all with its audience is hard to defend; such a course may accidentally satisfy some students, but this is not a matter that should be left to chance. In driving a middle course, it is important to realise that the wilder excesses of the “market” approach derive from a deep scepticism as to the value of a university education: and student choice is inevitably the criterion, if no other conception of the course’s value is proposed and defended. This means that teachers must not simply decide how they will teach, but must be ambassadors for the value of their approach. As to student opinion, this should certainly be ascertained and listened to (though the limits of what teachers can learn from this are obvious); but always giving the students what they say they want is not a workable strategy, and will not even make the students happy. As for the repeated claim that we should be “teaching our students how to think”, this is a worthy aim, though a rather lofty one, which requires a great deal more than sloganising if it is to be taken seriously.
  • Market orientation: research. There is increasing pressure on universities to exploit opportunities to earn money, especially by producing research for paying clients. Indeed, this has been proposed as potentially the core source of funding in many cases: the “entrepreneurial University”. If successful, this would do much to liberate the university from government control, but many would say it would simply be changing one master for another. The literature and polemic on “the corporate university”, which would be somewhat better off but entirely beholden to corporate interests, is extensive. (See for example: Towards the Entrepreneurial University?; University, Inc.)

Resistance. Universities are utterly dependent on what the rest of society thinks of them, and major elements in society are by no means convinced of their utility. This is not, however, cause for gloom – it is simply the place from which we must start. It is not really much different from the position of universities in earlier centuries, or indeed from the perennial position of those whose activities are (in a general sense) valued but do not always find an immediate cash buyer for them: musicians, artists, actors, priests, and doctors, to name but a few. The problem has been solved before, and there is no reason to doubt that a solution for a new age will be found.

Externally, there is substantial pressure to reduce costs, which has various effects as discussed. Also, the demands that governments make of universities – to train the workforce and to develop useful technologies – are not a perfect fit in relation to how universities see themselves and hope to evolve. But universities have vast social capital in society generally, and so can resist many pressures. And however much universities may be told to run themselves more “efficiently” and to “compete” with one another, there are always limits to this. Individual academics are remote indeed from politicians and civil servants, and not by nature inclined to fit in with what is being urged; and the power to reward the compliant or successful is extremely limited, as there can only be winners if there are also losers. Rewards for the “best” universities are unaffordable unless there is a willingness to bankrupt the “worst”, which would be very hard to bear politically.

Internally, management techniques derived from private industry can be more openly resisted in academia, where there is less of a willingness to take orders, and a more powerful presumption that any matter can be rationally debated. Universities can and do reorganise themselves or close down loss-making departments, but tenure and intellectual specialism gives the academics a strong stake in the status quo. And again, both the power to reward and the power to punish are severely circumscribed, giving managers few levers to implement their plans. On the Arts/Humanities side, there is a tendency to decry new managerial policies as imposing Science-derived models on other disciplines. There is a limited sense in which this is true (Science is much more oriented towards team-work and much more reliant on grants or contracts for each piece of work, and so fell prey to managerialism rather earlier than other disciplines). But it should be possible to insist on measures appropriate to one’s own discipline, without picking fights with others who are in principle just as opposed to managerialism, and so are potential allies.

There is therefore much that can be done to fight for more traditional concepts of the university, even though those conceptions are not themselves persuasive in political discourse (Bill Reading’s “pragmatism”). Much can be done by simply playing the game, fitting in with managerial assumptions and arguing for improved arrangements within them. Opportunities for consultation should certainly be taken when offered, and used to suggest alternatives. Being seen to engage in the process may well be positive in itself, and to lend more credibility when you disagree on some detailed aspect. The limits of this must however be appreciated: the direction that proposed reforms are taking must be understood as a whole, and if the idea is to produce a system where success can only be achieved by beating down colleagues in “rival” departments, then this should be resisted. By making arguments fitting in with managerialism, we often end up supporting it; if this is not the intention, then other tactics must be used.

The best tactic may therefore consist of turning the tables, deploying managerialist-sounding arguments but avoiding some of the more pernicious assumptions buried in them. Much managerialist jargon is endlessly malleable: talk of “improving efficiency” and “pleasing the customers” does not necessarily lead in any particular direction, but is flexible depending on what the nature of the customers and of efficiency are taken to be. For example:

  • Managerialism tends to assume that a clear chain of command is the most effective way to run an organisation. There is sometimes talk of the merits of devolved authority (usually because senior managers feel overworked, rather than out of a genuine strategic feel for where decisions should be taken), but any gains in that direction are usually clawed back in short order. An effective “managerialist” case for decision-making at lower levels, close to the people and structures actually affected by the decision, can slow this down; the managerialist assumption that management is a skill independent of subject-matter needs to be exposed to the light of day, where it usually withers.
  • Managerialism tends to assume that academic knowledge must be credentialised and certificated: competence will not be acknowledged unless there is an impressive piece of parchment to support it. This can often be fought in its own terms, but is often more usefully turned around: what is the competence of the credentialisers, and why is their judgment to be preferred? If they are “outside experts”, what is their expertise, how were they selected, and what might other such experts say if consulted?
  • Managerialism tends to assume that formal incentives are necessary, and that academics will not perform properly without them. In many contexts this can easily be shown to be untrue: this is not how most academics are motivated, and there is little evidence that formalising such incentives as exist leads to better performance. Further attempts at incentivisation can often be defeated by pointing to already existing incentives (such as the carrot of promotion for impressive research work), casting doubt on the need for more.
  • Managerialism tends to assume that measuring performance is a necessary step, so much so that management sometimes ignore the clearest evidence of good performance where it is informal or does not derive from a standard bureaucratic exercise. It is often useful to stress the “managerialist” reasons against formal measurement and evaluation: that it is expensive and time-consuming at best; that many of the measures used are inherently subjective, no matter how “objective” those making the measurements have tried to be; that the resources consumed in measurement are often taken from the very activity measured (so attempts to “measure” research may lead to poorer research); and attaching any resource implications to the measurement simply gives perverse incentives to distort it.
  • Managerialism tends to place sharp limits on consultation, on the assumption that most of those consulted will engage in knee-jerk opposition; and so new proposals quickly morph into university policy before consultation over their merits has even begun. Attempts to confine the consultation to the detail of how a new policy will be implemented should be countered by discussion of what the policy is supposed to achieve, which in turn can readily be turned into a discussion of whether it should be done at all. Insist on a genuine dialogue.

There is of course a balance of knowledge and ignorance here (knowledge about the detailed workings of senior management is largely confined to that management); but it can be made to work in the academics’ favour. Managers without an academic background will misunderstand much of what they are dealing with, those with such a background will probably be more sympathetic.

On the right occasion, it may be possible to dispense with managerialist assumptions entirely, thereby changing the rules. The universities have considerable cultural capital, which sometimes has to be teased out, but is there nonetheless. Complaints that much of what is studied in universities is “useless” can be shown as the niggardly present-mindedness that it is: it is because much valuable knowledge and technique lacks immediate practical application that it needs to be preserved somewhere for now, and universities are one such place; and given the complexity of modern society, it is entirely possible that extremely useful bodies of scholarship appear to be “useless” to all but those who actually use them. Each academic has to learn to be ambassador for their subject: if you cannot give a coherent answer to “Why should public money be spent on your subject?”, or questions of that sort merely reduce you to inarticulate rage, then cutbacks affecting you are at most a personal inconvenience, not any sort of ground for legitimate complaint. And above all, the unity of academia must be insisted upon: a world where each discipline would have to justify its existence independently would soon lose most of them.

Further reading