The risks of Soviet-style managerialism in UK universities

Craig Brandist on the proletarianisation of a profession and how it leads to behaviours that could hobble higher education

May 5, 2016
Otto illustration (5 May 2016)
Source: Otto

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.

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Reader's comments (7)

Well, sorry to have to disagree again, but I find very little in the described situation to be similar to Stalinist USSR. I assume that the author is trying to simply use a more offensive metaphor in order to catch the attention of the reader. Unfortunately, this makes his argument look rather silly and amateurish. The main points raised in the article have precious little to do with the educational systems of totalitarian socialism: "performance management regimes", chasing "extrinsic metrics of research value", "students in serious debt", "ever more inventive ways to cheat", treating “students as customers”, ensuring “that key targets are met”, “micromanagement”, “subordination of professional values to the accumulation of capital”, etc. The author also admits that UK academics "do not face routine censorship and repression for voicing critical views". So what exactly is Stalinist in the UK system? The author simply found the corresponding Russian terms to well-known practices all over the world since the dawn of civilization. To anyone remotely familiar with the state of affairs across the English-speaking world would have recognized similarities not with the USSR of the 1930s but with the USA of the 1990s - 2000s. Stalinist Russia neoliberal? Really? One more point: Apart from Lysenko, as a rule, totalitarian regimes are no less creative and productive in the area of the physical and life sciences where political ideology and censorship play hardly any role. In contrast, the “self-referential, quasi-religious system of imperatives” (in line with the ideology “du jour”) is the hallmark of work in the humanities/social sciences not only under totalitarian regimes but to a large extent also under “democratic” forms of governance. Finally, I doubt that the author did not notice the fact that the UK system is moving forward in the direction of the US, not backwards towards the past which does not exist anywhere anymore. I assume that he chose to ignore this fact because it does not fit his main thesis (that UK universities are in trouble). If market-driven, neoliberal policies at US universities make them the best in the world, why not follow their example?
I agree with the author that there are certain parallels between UK today and late USSR. As a person who has been working in both countries (and in several other countries as well) I can *feel* some Soviet-style things in UK. I can not go into details because my HR also would advise not to be specific :) Of course, all comments by "American in Europe" are also true, but still, overall I do feel that UK's university system is somewhat similar to the one in USSR. I am not saying it is bad, just confirming that it *feels* like in USSR. I did not get such a feeling neither in USA nor in continental Europe.
Hardly surprising it feels like the USSR when UK universities are governed by a command economy through a set of centralised proxy metrics unlike anything the 'best in the world' US universities like Harvard or Princeton, with their huge endowments, have to endure. There are no signs of UK universities having anything similar to this autonomy or endowments. The truth is that there are crucial continuities between neoliberalism and Stalinism that are far more fundamental than the specific ideology they promote. The USSR strove to subordinate all state institutions to the accumulation of capital in order to compete, primarily militarily, with the 'West'. Neoliberalism primarily seems to refashion the state to serve capital accumulation more directly in order to raise 'competitiveness'. Of course there are differences, but the continuities are at least as significant. I think anyone who has worked in UK universities for any length of time would recognise that the patterns of behaviour described have intensified along with the increased bureaucratic pressure rather than having been present since the 'dawn of civilization', which is surely an untenable position for anyone supposedly invoking the lessons of history.
Just as a minor point: "We are encouraged to treat students as customers" It's not that we are encouraged, it's that legally they *are* consumers as per existing laws (around supply of services, unfair contractual terms and the more recent CRA). We might dislike this but this is the reality. (note - me mentioning this shouldn't be taken as me supporting this). (Which is a seperate
Brandist is absolutely right and this is an excellent and brave piece. American in Europe seems to suffer from an inability to appreciate irony; the point is not that neoliberalism is somehow the same as Soviet managerialism; it is rather to point up the irony that neoliberalism may have brought about a situation that produces miserable Soviet-style managerial outcomes. Others, like Chris Lorenz, have made a similar argument. Personally, I would put rather less emphasis on neoliberal principles, and a bit more on their misapplication by people from a social science background with little or no historical awareness (or what I would call institutional wisdom) and perhaps a predisposition to the illusory certainties of metrics. But that's just me. The important point is that academic freedom is being seriously eroded by the application of heavy-handed managerialism, whose procedures and processes often need only to be clearly described for their absurdities to be shown for what they are.
Nah, nothing like the USSR.... ...from the THS, October 30, 2014 Huddersfield staff development may be like the Gulag, but it gets results. Deputy vice-chancellor Peter Slee describes the demanding approach that has led to rising standards.
I am afraid that American in Europe has lost sight of what goes on now in US state universities, where censorship is standard (it is also all too common in certain private un diversities, especially those with a clear religious identity, look at the Laetare medal protests at Notre Dame.) The state of Wisconsin has abolished tenure, following a UK model, the state of Illinois has imposed mandatory budget cuts on all staff salaries. The list could go on, and of course in Texas and Georgia state legislatures have awarded students the right to bring concealed guns to their classes. In the USSR that, at least, was not tolerated.

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