Leader: Waging a one-sided culture war

Despite their anti-managerial sabre-rattling, most academics know modernisation is inevitable

February 21, 2008

If C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis were alive today, the scientist and the literary critic would undoubtedly have reconciled their differences over the "two cultures" and buried the hatchet in the back of a university marketing director. Whatever fissures exist in higher education, none is as deep as the chasm dividing academics from administrators. These are the new "two cultures".

Physicists, psychologists and philosophers can unite in disdain at talk of "strategic overviews", "institutional rebranding" and "the customer base". Professional administrators, for their part, may feel there are better ways to run a department than relying on the next Buggins. They have, after all, streamlined the timetable, rationalised the estate, instituted correct hiring procedures, provided edible catering, cut the deficit and costed a strategic plan to take the institution up to 2015 and beyond. The university is bigger, better and solvent. It has regularly replanted flowerbeds. What more do academics want? The answer seems to be their ball back, please.

As far as culture wars go, this is a decidedly one-sided affair. Most barbs have been fired by academics. Perhaps professional administrators are too professional to indulge in public criticism. Perhaps they don't realise that one can be as rude as one likes, as long as the odium is properly referenced. And from their point of view, the inmates are still in charge - academics hold the great offices of state. Or perhaps they had assumed everyone was on the same side. Most likely they are silent because they are not the ones who feel threatened.

Academic unease centres on three things. The first is the language and attitude of the "new managerialism", as those in the few senior common rooms not yet dismantled by open-planners call it. Targets, strategic goals, mission statements: the lingo is bad enough, but the idea that there is a hierarchy of functions and objectives correlating to market-driven imperatives is worse. It confuses the means of efficiency with its end. For many academics, universities have learnt the talk of business and ended up walking the walk.

Those convinced that UK higher education is going to hell in a sponsored handcart do not have to imagine it: they can see it in operation across the Atlantic. That is the second reason for their unease: inevitability. If it happens there, it will happen here. In America, administrators rather than faculty appear to run the show. They have enormous power, massive budgets, huge salaries and vast armies of personnel who not only run the place but control admissions and have been known to dictate course content. Dammit, they have even made it to president.

American universities are also rather successful, which is the final reason for disquiet. Is academic animus towards administrators fuelled by the suspicion that they and their professional, business-friendly ways are necessary as well as inevitable? That the old, collegiate, fraternal and fusty way of doing things won't build a science park, provide the office with up-to-date equipment, eject the departmental misanthrope whose halitosis is the only thing freely shared with colleagues? And wasn't that old, consensual, cloistered way of doing things open to abuse, faintly misogynist and often unaccountable?

None of this is to suggest that corporate crap isn't habitually offloaded on all-too-suspecting academics. Scholarship should not be reduced to ticked boxes and performance targets. And Bernadettes have visions; vice-chancellors have plans. But for all their shiny new ways, no UK university is about to trade in its commitment to expand and disseminate knowledge for the profit motive. Most staff in both cultures realise that universities are unique. The barbarians may be at the gates, but they're not marauding through Senate House.

gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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