08 April 2008

The discourse of marketisation

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.

Charles Owen
Department of English
University of Birmingham


Anonymous said...

David Colquhoun has a fantastic article in this week's Times Higher Education Supplement, "When HR gets hold of academe, quackery and gobbledegook run riot". A longer version, "In-human resources, science and pizza" , is available from his website.

Alexandre Borovik said...

I am Russian and know a couple of dozen of (former) Soviet academics now working in British universities. Remarkable how unite we are in our description of professional development activities: politucheba, political training. It is more than obvious for us that HR are attempting to fill in a niche in the society similar to one that, back in the Soviet Union, was occupied by the enterprise/university level tier of Communist Party organisations.

I understand that this sounds bizarre and incredible, and at least one clarifying remark is necessary: do not think that politucheba was aimed at brainwashing -- no-one cared about its efficiency. Also, authorities did not care about learning outcomes, etc. All that was required on part of participants was compliance with the procedure as an expression of loyalty to the system.

Unfortunately, I see the same ritualistic approach in professional development activities in British universities.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of the new management lexicon of higher education and, in particular, the question of "Building meaningful relationships and networks" , I spent a couple of hours this afternoon in an "All EPSRC" meeting in Nottingham where the Chief Executive (David Delpy) told us on no fewer than four occasions during a 45 minute presentation that EPSRC wanted to have "meaningful dialogue with the academic community" and that "consultation" with academics was very important to them.

"Consultation" is of course now used by RCUK in the New Labour sense, i.e. DIUS and the Treasury decide what overall strategy they want RCUK to adopt and tell RCUK to do something about it; RCUK decides to have a consultation on the matter; universities and academics submit their responses to the consultation; RCUK ignores the responses and does what DIUS/the Treasury told it do in the first place.

This was no better demonstrated than by RCUK's "consultation" on incorporating economic impact into the peer review process, carried out in late 2006. RCUK’s own analysis of UK HEI responses on the question of economic impact as a criterion for the assessment of responsive mode proposals is as follows:

“A generally held view was that a formal assessment of potential economic impact should not be part of the funding process for responsive mode proposals as this could lead to the funding of ‘safe’ science proposals with short term benefits. There was a general opinion that peer review for scientific excellence and judgement of economic impact are different activities and should remain separated, with scientific quality remaining the primary criteria for funding. Research projects with short term economic impacts should not influence the funding of highly rated proposals and should not be supported at the expense of long term, fundamental research that is of interest to the nation as a whole.”

So, how did EPSRC respond to this feedback? By specifically incorporating a section on “Economic Impact” into the peer review form, accompanied by the very strong suggestion that panels will also need to compare grant proposals in terms of their economic impact. STFC went one step further and set up an Economic Impact Advisory Board.