Apr 26 2016

The Managed University Gets a Failing Grade

Category: EssaysBob Hanke @ 6:02 pm

The Managerial University: Failed Experiment?

by David West

(excerpted from Demos, April 14, 2016)

Recent decades have seen a protracted attack and painstaking demolition of the traditional or ‘old’ university and an associated purging of academics. The rise of managers and ‘managerial’ doctrines were supposed to make universities more efficient and productive, more lean and transparent, and above all, more modern. In practice, managerial reforms have given rise to a range of pathologies and side effects. Bullying is widespread, many staff are unhappy. But the spread of managerialism is also threatening the university’s role as a centre of committed teaching, disinterested scholarship and critical research. Examination of the actual effects – rather than stated aims – of the managerial experiment is long overdue.

The managerial experiment has been inspired by a few guiding ideas but one basic assumption. Just as economics and political science assume that individuals and elected officials or appointed public servants behave as rational self-interested actors, this campaign assumes that university academics are generally out for themselves. According to this view, the old idea of the university as a community of self-governing scholars dedicated to humanist values of truth and learning was all very well in theory but never entirely realistic. Like many publicly-funded organisations, universities invariably fell short in practice. Scholars with guaranteed tenure became lazy. Teachers neglected their students and researchers rested on their laurels. These failings were allowed to persist, according to this story, because self-interested academics were also self-governing. These assumptions set the scene for root-and-branch reform.

In their enthusiasm for the ‘new managerialism’ and the ‘modern university’, however, politicians, bureaucrats and those academics who have hitched their fortunes to the new model seem wilfully blind to the practical results of their reforms. There is some truth in their criticisms of the old idea of the university, but in practice the management of the modern university also leaves too much to be desired. Some of the problems that beset the new model were anticipated by sceptical academics. Their criticisms were dismissed as the products of antiquated thinking and self-interest. What can you expect from academics defending their own privileges?

The theory of the modern university can be reduced to – and in fact amounts to little more than – a relatively simply set of rubrics. At the heart of the new model is the belief in the need for incentives, both positive and negative. The importance of incentives is at the heart of liberal and neoliberal convictions about the virtues of capitalism. Enterprises and workers within them are spurred to industry and innovation by rewards for success and punishment for failure. So academics must also be rewarded for their achievements and punished for their failures.

To read the rest of this essay, click here.



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