Thursday 26 March 2015

Who dimmed the university mind?

I’ve always believed that fairy tales have a role in understanding the contemporary world, and therefore of politics.

This sounds a little sceptical or satirical, but I don’t mean it like that. You can use fairy tales as a positive way of extracting the underlying narrative and taking stark reality by surprise, so to speak.

Marina Warner is the great modern interpreter of fairy tales and I’m still reeling from reading her new demolition job on the management of universities in the London Review of Books.

Her devastating indictment was summed up most effectively in this letter she received from a professor who had just resigned from a top UK university:

"Although the department was excellent, it was freighted to breaking point with imperious and ill-conceived demands from much higher up the food chain – from people who don’t teach or do research at all, or if they ever did, think humanities departments should work like science departments …The incessant emphasis was on cash: write grant applications rather than books and articles in order to fund one’s research … accept anyone for study who could pay, unethical as that was especially at postgraduate level, where foreign applicants with very poor English were being invited to spend large sums on degrees … Huge administrative duties were often announced with deadlines for completion only a few days later. We had to spend hours filling in time-and-motion forms to prove we weren’t bunking off when we were supposed to be doing our research and writing during the summer ‘vacation’ … It was like working for a cross between IBM, with vertiginous hierarchies of command, and McDonald’s..." 

The bone-headed distortions of the Research Excellence Framework, the ridiculous managerialism, the gagging clauses in contracts, the embarrassing secrecy about top salaries, the bullying of staff – it all amounts to a disastrous dimming of the university mind.

Marina Warner compares the language of management to the bleak, simplified, meaningless language of Newspeak in 1984:

“As universities are beaten into the shapes dictated by business, language is suborned to its ends. We have a heard the robotic idiom of management, as if a button had activated in a digitally generated voice.”

But there is a problem here, because I don’t think she is right that this has anything to do with austerity, or the politics of the coalition.

In fact, universities are about the only part of the public sector to have enough money. Vince Cable’s much-criticised formula for changing student loans has replaced them with a kind of graduate tax on the better off, combined with higher fees, which has made the universities financially secure for the first time in decades.

It also potentially frees them up from day to day government interference. The decline of arts research money has changed the dynamics, but – let’s be honest – it is the extraordinary waste of so much academic research, with its long, pointlessly expensive glorification of meaningless distinctions, that underpins the economics of this disaster.

No, the growth of corrosive managerialism pre-dates austerity. Nor can you blame business exactly.

The relationship between failed contemporary economics and the tyrannically dimmed thinking of contemporary managerialism is not quite clear – though there is one. Both shake off effective criticism by ignoring it – partly because there seems to be no alternative, partly because status depends on it, and party because of the way this approach has stifled innovation and basic questioning.

It seems pretty secure against ridicule too. What we need is the kind of thinking about alternatives to utilitarian process, and bogus measurement, that is beginning to emerge against failed economics

The same horrors are hollowing out business with its boneheaded KPIs. Just as we need to reinvent universities, we need to start reinventing business as an insurgent, challenging force, capable of driving aside these prehistoric management techniques by sheer effectiveness and boldness.

Once again, the corporate world is being hollowed out by this managerialism.  It is up to small enterprise to shove the old dinosaurs aside.

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