Don't underestimate managers' ability to treat you as an idiot

January 30, 2004

Frank Furedi takes a Savage's-eye view of staff development.

Increasingly, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World provides the script for the ambitious university manager. Communication is framed by meaningless rhetoric that is designed to confuse the institutional practices that the academic is meant to live by. Most of us know that university manager-speak uses words with meanings that are far from clear.

I am not just thinking of aims and objectives, quality assurance or learning outcomes. Virtually every term transmitted through the university bureaucratic machine sets out to obscure its real intent. Take "staff development". There was a time when I assumed staff development meant... well, staff development. I thought it had something to do with providing lecturers with an opportunity to develop intellectually to become better academics - catching up with developments in a subject, learning a language or acquiring a working knowledge of new methodological innovations. Think again. Staff development has become one of those mandatory bureaucratic rituals few academics dare opt out of, which suggests that the outcome universities have in mind is not a more sophisticated grasp of your subject.

In recent years, many academics have discovered that attending staff development courses has assumed the character of a contractual obligation. Checking out how many of these courses you have attended is often part of the appraisal process. Along with outlining your publications, grant applications and conference papers, you have to provide evidence that you have been a busy staff-development course attender. And if you think that you have better things to do than spend an afternoon getting blackboard training - think again. As the University of Brighton's staff development website indicates: "The university has the right to expect that each member of staff as part of the individual's contractual obligation will develop his/her competencies and capability, which are aligned to the university's strategy as it may be operationalised at faculty, departmental, school, section, team or individual level." Quite a mouthful, but the message is clear. Attendance will be policed. Brighton requires that "each member of staff keeps a record of staff development activity, which is monitored and evaluated in collaboration with the line manager".

A review of British university staff development programmes indicates that their objective is to ensure that staff are fully socialised into accepting the bizarre managerial ethos that prevails on campuses. "Staff development exists to maximise the potential of each individual to support the university in achieving its strategic goals," declares the human resource home page of Brunel University. Clearly, this is not a statement celebrating the individual's potential to develop, but an attempt to ensure that employees know the institution's line. The University of Leicester's declaration on this subject is no less subtle: "One of the main responsibilities of the university's Staff Development Centre is to provide a central programme of developmental activities for all categories of staff to support developments and the university's institutional plan." One of the main aims of staff development at the University of Sheffield is "to enable the university to improve its institutional performance". It can be argued that there is nothing objectionable about mobilising staff to promote the corporate plans of a university. But why call it staff development? Why pretend that these initiatives are for the benefit of staff?

Some colleagues will say: "So what? Why should one more meaningless activity make any difference?" But staff development is more than just an empty ritual like the filling-out of a template of learning objectives.

Increasingly, such courses seek to shape our personality. More staff development programmes are oriented towards what is euphemistically characterised as "personal development". At Loughborough University, personal development courses deal with topics such as "assertiveness, financial advice, meditation, relaxation, etc". The learning outcome of one assertive communication course at a leading university is to gain the ability to "differentiate between different types of behaviour". Aside from its patronising assumption that staff cannot do this already, the training course is wholly objectionable because it seeks to impose an insidious form of emotional conformism. At least in the old days, the military had no inhibitions about letting everyone know that soldiers were not expected to think for themselves. University bureaucrats prefer to hide behind the Kafkaesque language of staff development when they transmit the same message to human resources.

At the University of Nottingham, staff are offered a course patronisingly titled "Looking after yourself". Participants are told that they will have an opportunity to "recognise the importance of good nutrition and exercise". They will also learn to "identify a range of techniques for reducing the effects of stress and increasing self-esteem". Thankfully, it will also "plan ways of improving their personal image". At Cambridge University, a course "Navigator: A programme for men" is "designed for those who wish to progress to develop themselves", while its "Springboard: A women's development programme" aims "to value what you have got going for you and build on your strengths". Cambridge also runs "Assertiveness in action". The objective of this course is to allow yourself "to find out how you see yourself in relation to others". Or at least to see yourself through the eyes of your trainer. Courses designed to manage our self-image prey on individual insecurities as a means of managing the way we work.

Take the Orwellian-sounding course on mind mapping offered by one university. Mind mapping is one of those techniques that usually appeals to people who are avid readers of How to Win Friends and Influence People .

Tony Buzan, its inventor, asserts that it is a "powerful graphic technique that provides a universal key to unlock the potential of the brain". I am always suspicious of anyone claiming to hold a universal key to anything. I certainly do not trust anyone who thinks there is a key that will unlock the potential of my brain.

Huxley would certainly get a kick out of reading a typical university staff-development handbook. Or maybe he ghosted all these suspiciously similar-sounding texts? You will recall the conversation in Brave New World between the Controller and the Savage, where the former states that "we've sacrificed the high art" and have "feelies and the scent organ instead".

The Savage replies: "But they don't mean anything" and adds "they're told by an idiot". Instead of feelies, we have courses designed to "value what you have going for you". Never underestimate the capacity of the university system to treat its staff as if they are idiots.

Frank Furedi is professor in sociology at the University of Kent. His book Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Anxious Age is published by Routledge.

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