By Charles Owen
I am one of the people quoted by John Gill in his THES article on 30 November 2007. He asked me specifically about two passages from a HEFCE Board Paper:
'To implement the outcome of this rethinking, there will need to be significant culture change. HEIs' staff will need to be more aware of and aligned to the strategic needs of the HEI. Academics' goals are often related to their discipline rather than their institution and they will need to develop institutional loyalties in addition to discipline loyalties. Corporate planning processes will need to be communicated more effectively for those processes to be more successful.'
'HEIs will need to develop their business process and become more efficient, so that they can re-invest. The Committee advises that HEIs should not be afraid of the language and culture of business.'
A precis of my comments to Mr Gill is:
"In a sense they are right, there is a big culture clash between the language of business and the way most academics view their lives.
"But as to the thesis we shouldn't be afraid of that language, that's highly presumptuous; many people dislike it but that's a quite different matter because it's often hollow and has all sorts of presuppositions built into it that we academics don't accept.
"There are big problems with language and communication within Higher Education institutions, but the language of business has colonised universities in an unacceptable and divisive way.
"The use of the word loyalty is corporate speak. Very few of us went into academic life to be loyal to a particular institution, and that is as it should be.
"We recognise that if the institution succeeds then everyone gains, but our primary duty is to our students and our discipline."
It is thus with some interest that I read the guidance in Leeds Met ACTs Source Booklet, referred to in Alexandre Borovik's last contribution to this blog. It confirms that I am just the sort of person they wouldn't want.
I am a linguist, and my concern is that the discourse of marketisation is interfering with independent thought and obfuscating serious issues of educational policy. But in this message I particularly want to consider the democracy challenge posed in an earlier comment by Frankie:
"I think it is crucial that there is discussion on the connection between the expansion of the undergraduate body at universities in the last 20 years and the marketisation of the same institutions.
"Another related point is about whether the desire to contest the university as yet another wealth creation unit in society highlights a marked lack of concern for the real proletariat who have long had to suffer working in purely wealth creation units."
I am not the first to note that it is an error to suppose that recent trends in marketisation amount to democratisation. There is much evidence to the contrary, and university management discourse is part of that evidence.
Consider a term such as 'stakeholders'. This is the kind of word which permeates university management discourse and you might think it has a democratic ring to it. I certainly had no trouble finding it in the section of the Leeds Met document entitled "More Effective Behaviours". These behaviours (note the use of the plural to garnish the word with spurious technical status) are categorised under headings such as "Working co-operatively with others" and "Building meaningful relationships and networks". A senior employee, must, under the first of these be:
"Able to pull various stakeholders together to agree course of action and achieve goals."
and under the second must:
"Build rapport by displaying empathy, tact and diplomacy with internal colleagues and external stakeholders."
My question is: 'Does the embellishment of common-sense and decency with pseudo-technical management mumbo-jumbo represent a great stride forward in university governance since the 1970s?' I doubt it.
From a practical point of view, "stakeholders" may now be so deep-rooted in our discourse (not in mine actually) that it is pointless to complain, but don't delude yourselves that these shadowy flag-carriers of democracy truly represent the great British public. Rather, they are a sharp-suited, self-interested sub-set thereof.
The irony is that this sub-set excludes some of the very people it ought to include - my office cleaner for example. In a society which believed in the universal social importance of universities, instead of focussing primarily on 'wealth creation', this man would be a stakeholder because he needs his grand-daughter to be taught punctuation by a well-trained English graduate so that she can in her turn go on to study English if that's want she wants. But in our society, stakeholders are primarily wealth-controllers, i.e. politicians, employers, funding bodies (preferably foreign governments) students with money "to invest in their futures" and parents of same. Who is more likely to serve the interests of the proletariat (as Frankie puts it)? Someone who can pull stakeholders together or someone with an interest in their academic discipline and a commitment to teach it to all-comers?
Corporate discourse, as it has colonised higher education, with its "stakeholder relations managers", "best practice implementation", "policy roll-outs", "light touch reviews", "effective and efficient strategy development" - indeed the whole dreary and deceptive lexicon - tacitly excludes the very people it pretends to include, and alienates many whose inboxes are poisoned with it daily. In this way it is far more hypocritical than the specialist jargons of academic disciplines, which do not claim to be instantly or easily accessible but, unlike corporate discourse, must continually undergo the rigours of critical analysis in order to survive.
Department of English
University of Birmingham
08 April 2008
By Charles Owen
Posted by Editors at 9:08 pm