Another world's words

Is the use of corporate jargon a surprise, asks Keir Thorpe, when university managers are made to feel so insecure?

January 10, 2013

Down the centuries, academics have been renowned for employing jargon that outsiders find impenetrable. Yet many academics react with contempt when university administrators employ their own version of obscure group-speak.

Such language was referred to recently in Times Higher Education as “corporate gobbledegook”, and a prize was awarded for what was judged the worst example. This was a passage about organisational effectiveness that read: “We can reframe the way we define it, so that it’s not viewed as simply foregrounding cost savings, but instead a much more complex interplay of influences and drivers that facilitate opportunities for enhancing the ways in which we manage movement.”

Research that I carried out several years ago at The Open University highlighted the fact that many administrative and academic-related staff felt they were looked down upon by academics. This sense of inferiority suggests one reason for the rise of “corporate-speak” in universities since the 1980s. As institutions become increasingly complex, student requirements more diverse and administrative and academic-related roles more professionalised, a desire arises among administrators, who do not wish to feel that they are second-class citizens, for higher status.

Efforts to foster a more collegial attitude can be seen as making trouble, so those feeling disrespected take a little revenge by seeking to unsettle academics with their command of the latest language of “go-ahead” organisations.

Much of the jargon regarded as corporate emerged from areas of business organisations that in the past may have similarly felt disparaged, such as human resources and staff development. Again, by using a language that outsiders find difficult to access, staff in those departments hoped to make themselves appear valuable.

A broader reason for using such jargon comes from the feeling within many universities that they have to apologise to the wider world for their very existence. Anti-intellectualism in the UK is promoted across a range of media. Reading local employers’ views of universities, I have often been stunned by the negativity. From such commentary you would believe that universities produce nothing but graduates who lack basic social skills, an appreciation of financial issues and, above all, any grasp of “the real world”. I have heard colleagues apologise for their university’s impact on local traffic even though it is the area’s largest employer; would a company feel the same need to apologise for the number of people leaving a large factory at the end of a shift?

Thus it is unsurprising that in seeking to justify the existence of any particular university, staff employ the latest terms coined by the corporate world, as when they speak of trying to establish a “niche” for their “brands”.

Academic colleagues can also fall prey to this tendency as they climb through the ranks. There is no guarantee that a good academic will make a good administrator, yet often administration and management become the heart of their role. They increasingly feel like fish out of water, mixing far more with administrators than with fellow scholars. Seeking to allay their unease in such company, they naturally adopt the language of those around them to gain acceptance.

Being the public face of a university, vice-chancellors are at the forefront of presenting the case for their institutions’ value. Consequently, it is not surprising that they are the authors of some of the most contorted corporate-speak - particularly in documents they expect to be read by people outside their institution. Few feel that they are in a sufficiently strong position in the face of criticism from business leaders and politicians to be themselves in their public language.

As a result, they do not challenge the “emperor’s new clothes” of corporate language no matter who among their colleagues, students and, above all, detractors chuckles with disdain. It can be embarrassing, but the rank and file might want to ask themselves what they would do in the same position.

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