Soviet administrators

May 14, 2015

Rob Briner’s article on the misapplication of private sector human resources techniques in universities lucidly characterises the regime of micromanagement and constant monitoring (bordering on bullying) of academics that is now deeply entrenched in so many UK universities (“Own-goal setting”, Opinion, 7 May). Yet complaints by academics are haughtily dismissed as “fear of accountability” or met with the insidious response, “If you are doing your job properly, what are you afraid of?”

It is ironic that while successive governments have created a free market between universities, the managerialist regime inside many universities is worryingly similar to aspects of the Soviet Union: a plethora of five-year plans, innumerable targets, constant monitoring exercises, audits and inspections, and an ever-expanding cadre of bureaucratic functionaries to enforce this insanity.

Moreover, failure to achieve a target is always blamed on an individual or a department, never on the unrealistic or unattainable character of the target itself. The system is treated as infallible, so any “failings” must reside with the staff, who thus need even closer monitoring or more rigorous training courses.

To give one example, many universities now specify a response rate for how many students complete the annual National Student Survey – and if this figure is not reached, academic staff and departments are berated by university managers.

Yet beyond exhorting students to complete the NSS, academics cannot control how many (or how few) students actually do so; it is out of our hands, yet we are held responsible.

The consequence is that academics – for the sake of their sanity and self-esteem – are mentally disengaging and paying lip service to the deluge of targets and performance indicators that are imposed on them each year.

If I apply for a research grant (which I don’t even want or need but must apply for to meet a target) and don’t get it, I am not going to think “I must be useless”, even though the managerial response will be that my application or research must be somehow deficient.


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