In May 2014, I published an article in Times Higher Education commenting on the parallels between the reforms of UK universities and those in Stalin’s Soviet Union (“A very Stalinist management model”, Opinion, 29 May 2014).
The factors I picked up on included the spread of proxy metrics, the target culture, competition between institutions, the erosion of the autonomy of academic research and professional priorities and imported productivity mechanisms such as performance management regimes – summed up by my institution’s own director of human resources, who had been quoted in a magazine as saying that all academics will be expected to “excel” or will have to “leave the organisation”.
I duly noted the important difference – that academics in the UK, unlike those in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, do not face routine censorship and repression for voicing critical views. But a few days later, I received a formal letter from human resources suggesting that I should desist from publishing such material and instead raise concerns internally.
The irony was evidently lost on HR, but these people generally don’t do irony. It took months of struggling, with the help of regional union officials, first to ensure that no action would be taken against me and then to ensure that no record of censure was held. When our vice-chancellor learned what had happened, he apologised personally, but it is far from certain that all vice-chancellors would have taken this view.
The episode illustrates nicely the tensions that neoliberal reforms of higher education have brought to bear on universities. The contradictions run deep. Defending the university’s corporate brand conflicts with the academic freedom of outspoken critical thinkers who, at the same time, remain central to the value of that brand. Academics are compelled to chase extrinsic metrics of research value, but rhetorical appeals to the intrinsic value of scholarship remain.
The impending teaching excellence framework promises to intensify the problem significantly. We are encouraged to treat students as customers, and they are encouraged to regard themselves as such, but we then require that they attend classes. If I bought a subscription to a gym, but didn’t attend, I would be somewhat bemused if the staff demanded that I explain myself. Moreover, most students are in serious debt and work to try to keep their borrowing under control. Unsurprisingly, they use their intelligence and creativity increasingly to evade the pressures of academic work, including ever more inventive ways to cheat.
The neoliberal rationality permeating universities is to be followed not because there is any evidential base for its success (generally there is none), but because its categories constitute a self-referential, quasi-religious system of imperatives reminiscent of Soviet managerialism. Intellectual labourers are turned into alienated cogs in a bureaucratic machine, killing the very creativity needed to be truly productive.
The encroachment of the managerial logic and mode of evaluation (proxy metrics) into all areas leads to the erosion of fundamental features that escape audit: professional integrity and collegiality. Instead, patterns of instrumental behaviour aimed at absorbing bureaucratic pressure proliferate, along with cynicism and even contempt towards management imperatives.
By 2003, the veteran sovietologist Ron Amann had already noted parallels between the way UK universities are administered and activities that plagued the Soviet command economy. But things have gone much further since his article, “A sovietological view of modern Britain”, was published in The Political Quarterly. Something resembling a game of blind man’s bluff that would have been recognisable to Soviet workers and management alike now takes place on a daily basis.
Senior management intervenes to ensure that key targets are met (podmen in Russian), issuing guidelines and “key performance indicators” to motivate staff (melochnaia opeika: micromanagement). Members of staff respond by ingratiating themselves with their superiors (blat), and cover for each other in order to defend themselves from scrutiny (krugovaia porukha: esprit de corps). Individual staff evaluations, reports to funding bodies and departmental or team reports are routinely padded with superfluous detail to illustrate that objectives have been met and plans have been realised (pripiska). The aim is to dazzle the reader with superficial show (pokazukha) in order to distract attention from failures (ochkovtiratel’stvo: literally eye-wiping, perhaps best rendered as eyewash or camouflage).
Seeking to defend their own patch, petty managers collude with other staff, tactically shifting between shows of deference and making inflated claims about both the achievements and the precariousness of their own units. They may (and increasingly do) engage instead in the bullying of subordinates. Senior managers respond by issuing polemics against tendencies that cannot successfully be combated and issue more targets and apply more of the pressures that perpetuate the cycle.
These are forms of class struggle that emerge from the proletarianisation of a profession in which the subordination of professional values to the accumulation of capital is required at all levels, and where effective collective action proves difficult. In the USSR, they proved sufficient to tie down and demobilise management initiatives, but at the cost of the institutions themselves. It would be a tragedy if this was the fate of universities in the UK.
Craig Brandist is professor of cultural theory and intellectual history at the University of Sheffield.