August 1, 2013

‘Enemy within’ returns Inglis’ unfriendly fire

Thank you, Fred Inglis, for jolting me out of my false consciousness (“Incinerated by the branding iron”, 18 July). We can all agree that university branding often seems flaky, while managerialism has some deeply counterproductive effects, most alarmingly in attempts to commoditise knowledge and higher learning. But until I read Inglis’ polemic, I had been labouring under the misapprehension that I was part of the solution, not the problem.

Inglis is a bit mean about human resources and public relations people (“gormless”) and senior managers (“mindless”), but they are paragons compared with the miserable species to which I belong, the business and management academic. I am not doing “a proper job”, unlike people teaching, say, physics or Chinese; I am “mendacious” and “slippery”, but also (thank goodness) “sugary”. I speak entirely in the advertising language that twists through the sector like Whorfian knotweed.

To coin a strapline, Fred Said Right!

Inglis is a bit confused about advertising, PR, marketing and branding, not to mention HR and the rest, but these are trivial distinctions: it’s all propaganda, right? And in my experience, university senior managers seldom ask the advice of their own business and management academics, preferring to hire external brand consultants with their bad copywriting and worse advice. But the point is there’s an ideological connection, isn’t there? The mere presence of business and management “studies” among the proper subjects legitimises everything that is bad about university policy. As the enemy within, we shiny suited business studies arseholes need to learn to abandon our marketing-speak to write in a nice neutral way that preserves the timeless scholarly values of truth and impartiality. We need to Write Like Fred! (I’m on a roll here.)

I can see now that my pathetic attempts to instil critical intellectual values into my vocationally minded students might be well-intentioned but are, in fact, merely the projection of my subconscious guilt. I should be teaching them Chinese (never mind that half of them speak it rather well already, it’s a proper subject). My ideas about “critical marketing”, I now understand, are a facet of my neoliberal self-governance, a screen of delusion that hides my own anomie from myself. I have so deeply internalised the ideology of the market that I lack the reflexivity to see myself for what I am: a somnambulant storm trooper of spin, a propagandist of profit, a pedagogue of platitudes.

Thanks Fred. Just one thing: the examples of brand turgidity you rightly ridicule ignore one shining example, the stentorian Vision 2015 from the web pages of the university where you are emeritus, Warwick. Perhaps we can go to re-education camp together?

Chris Hackley
Professor of marketing (speak)
Royal Holloway, University of London

In a reasonable world, Fred Inglis would pay my dry cleaning bill. After all, his article on branding was, I’m sure, designed to cause me and other marketing and communications professionals to spit out our coffee in disbelief.

In a masterclass of academic aloofness, Inglis displays contempt for a number of professional services and fires irrational potshots of codswallop at the “most abominable monster now threatening the intellectual health and the integrity of pure enquiry as well as conscientious teaching”. In his eyes, this monster is not the raft of government-driven changes to the sector but the function within a university that aims to attract students.

Members of professional services invest a huge amount of time and effort to their profession and make a significant contribution to the smooth running and success of our universities. Inglis’ article seems only to highlight the bitter, arrogant and aloof nature of some veteran academics who are struggling to say goodbye to the halcyon days.

Such scholars perceive a threat to their cosy, insular and unaccountable existence and refuse to accept that (whether we like it or not) universities these days have to operate like businesses.

D. J. Black

As first a practitioner and now a lecturer in public relations (for 10 and 16 years respectively), I neither recognise nor accept Fred Inglis’ conflation of my profession with “bad art” and “‘a corruption of consciousness’”. Understood and practised properly, PR has nothing to do with deception of the self or others. Instead of manipulating people’s perceptions to make organisations appear better, it helps management to confront what is wrong with their organisations and to communicate with those who matter in order to change it.

PR is also about politeness in its most important sense of consideration for the expertise and concerns of others. Borrowing a derogatory and inaccurate description from an unrelated field and applying it to an area of study in which many fellow academics are working is neither accurate nor polite.

Mel Powell
Senior lecturer in public relations
Manchester Metropolitan University Business School

I think it is somewhat ironic that as a result of Fred Inglis’ diatribe against “branding”, I now know the names of four, presumably reasonably successful, marketing agencies (should I ever decide I need one). I wonder whether Inglis realised that he might become the unwitting friend of marketing with these examples of “product placement”?

Ken Evans
Exeter, Devon

Input, not imperium

In a recent letter (18 July), I suggested that the Robbins report led to a mistake because the number of UK university places was driven by student demand rather than economic need. Paul Temple responded that determining student places by economic need would be tantamount to adopting “Communist bloc-style manpower planning” (“IQ and class acts”, Letters, 25 July).

I am opposed to Communism in the Marxist sense, if not the early Christian one, and to deterministic command economies generally. Such systems fail (as does capitalism) the tests of history and theoretical analysis. We need instead to use modern statistical techniques to influence, to the limited extent possible, a probabilistic economic system. From this perspective I have three points to make in reply to Temple.

First, various stakeholders in higher education should have some economic input without being involved in monolithic planning. The UK would have benefited post-Robbins if employers had been given a greater say in university funding, as the exceptional case of the University of Warwick showed.

Second, less advantaged university applicants have limited access to the information necessary to make well-considered choices. Therefore I doubt whether the average “graduate premium” translates adequately into good value for individual students.

Third (and most importantly), it would indeed be odd if wider access to university caused economic inequality. However, it has been hoped post-Robbins that higher education would act as an antidote to such unfairness. This purpose has not been fulfilled, unsurprisingly given that the root causes of inequality lie outside the academy.

Frederic Stansfield
Canterbury, Kent

R&D freeze cuts no ice

Public investment in UK higher education research is crucial to the academy maintaining its world-class status. As your graph shows (“Who greases the wheels of research? Funding for UK higher education shifts up a gear”, News, 25 July), offering a patina of protection to the science budget or relying on private investment will not allow us to keep pace with competitor countries.

The National Audit Office report from which the graph’s figures are taken says that higher education institutions play an increasingly significant role in terms of research and development. In fact, they contribute  per cent of total R&D spending in the UK, compared with 19 per cent across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The NAO report suggests that the UK cannot rely on business to invest significantly more in research: its expenditure in this area has risen by only 17 per cent since 1995, compared with a 114 per cent increase in research council funding.

While there has been a welcome rise in the UK academy’s R&D spending since 1995, the NAO warns that other nations have increased their investment at a faster rate. The report goes on to suggest that this could reflect the “increasing emphasis that some countries are placing on higher education as a way to rebalance their economies and recover from recession”.

In such a competitive international climate, and at a time when other countries are continuing to prioritise additional funding for research and science, it is not enough for the UK government simply to “protect” the science budget with a continued freeze (which after all is a real-terms cut). We need significant increases in the research budget if we are to maintain our proud international reputation.

Simon Renton
University and College Union

Oxbridge sticks and stones

One usually associates the University of Oxford with rigorous yet polite debate, but “Applied mythology” (11 July), Edward Hicks’ response to my letter on Oxbridge admissions, suggests otherwise.

I presume that he stoops to invective to mask the fact that his counterargument is weak, not to mention laden with clichés and classic straw-man sidetracking. He accuses me of peddling dated “myths” and demands sources, but he provides no data to support his arguments. What would his master’s supervisor make of that?

Contrary to Hicks’ claims, I cannot understand how a streamlined, one-step Oxbridge application process can be seen as anything but encouraging for potential candidates from all backgrounds. He fails to mention that departmental applications have been employed for graduates like himself for many years. If the college choice has little bearing on outcomes for undergraduates, why not go the whole hog and get rid of college-led applications altogether?

I also find it bizarre that Hicks objects to a measure that would cut administration costs and make applications far less confusing for those unfamiliar with the colleges’ many quirks and traditions. Why not hand the entire process over to the academic departments, overseen by a board of undergraduate studies, if “open” applications are already so effective?

I am not peddling “myths”: just look at the most recent admissions data on Oxford’s and Cambridge’s own websites and from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Many colleges are still attracting barely 50 per cent applications from state-funded schools and successful outcomes are significantly lower. Myth? Since when did hobgoblins compile Hesa spreadsheets?

Those who live in ivory towers should not throw sticks and stones. After all, ivory is not only opaque to daylight, it is also brittle and “antiquated”. I find it bewildering that any suggestion of modernising Oxbridge attracts such mindless brickbats from those within and without those hallowed walls. One begins to wonder if a blue-skies institutional mindset addles the mind rather than making it open to rational ideas.

Anthony Rodriguez
Staines, Middlesex

Classical Taylorism

When Laurie Taylor is toppling academe’s totems and fads, it looks easy, but then a little phrase catches the light and you realise that the brilliance is in the detail. His recent throwaway line – “Poppleton’s recent decision to brand itself as the university ‘Where Great Minds Like a Think’” – touched genius (The Poppletonian, 25 July).

John Robinson

Silver lining MacBook

It is indeed a relief that thanks to the use of cloud technology, Ucas is confident that its admissions site will work perfectly on A‑level results day (“Ucas says cloud will keep it safe from results day storm”, News, 25 July). As those of us who rely on computers say frequently, what could possibly go wrong?

Keith Flett

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