A wake-up call for all

January 28, 2000

Form-filling, auditing ... academics are swamped by bureaucracy. Frank Furedi calls a halt.

Back from a great Christmas holiday. Ready for action. Imagine how my heart sinks when confronted with a pile of evaluation forms. After lunch I spend several hours writing up a submission on one of my modules - part of the preparation for the next quality assurance exercise. Just as I am ready to leave the office a fascinating document on benchmarking in sociology lands on my desk.

For a moment I freeze and ponder - have I been turned into a carpenter or am I still a sociologist?

Welcome to the hard managerialism of Britain's universities.

Since the mid-1980s, a pervasive managerial culture has been imposed upon us. The justification was to promote excellence in teaching and research and to ensure that continually diminishing cash supplies were used effectively. No one could dissent from these aims, but the new managerialism has not succeeded as planned.

Bureaucratisation has not fostered excellence: the university has not become more open, flexible or creative; on the contrary, innovation has been stifled and professional autonomy eroded. Worse still, the pressure to standardise university life has diverted academic time towards an endless round of repetitive paper-work in order to meet the expanding needs of agencies auditing teaching and research.

Academics have little choice but to conform to these demands, regardless of what they believe is in the best interests of their students. Ironically, standardisation has encouraged formulaic teaching, conformity and superficial research. Many of us spend so much energy trying to respond to the demands of the research assessment exercise that we end up researching to order. Academics have responded to the bureaucratic pressure on their time by reducing contact with students.

It is not surprising that an Association of University Teachers survey reported increasing levels of dissatisfaction among university staff. Yet dissident voices are routinely silenced with the accusation that they are out of touch and denounced for clinging to discredited and elitist aims.

In this intimidating climate of bureaucratic conformity, there are few opportunities for considered dissent. That is why we have organised the conference "The Bureaucratisation of the Universities". The aim is to explore the impact on academic life of externally imposed (and largely non-negotiated and unsolicited) agencies and controls, most particularly - and controversially - the Quality Assurance Agency. These agencies have succeeded in creating a situation where British academic life has become more scrutinised, regulated and divided than at any time in its history. One of the contributors to the conference, David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, contends that bureaucracy "has killed the spirit of academics".

Making sense of the transformation of academic life is no simple task. It would be foolish to suggest that successive governments and their auditing agencies actually set out to undermine the standards of British universities. The early pioneers of these policies fervently believed their approach would enhance the reputation of these institutions.

But the interests that favour reform are never straightforward. From the outset, issues about the quality of higher education were confused with quite separate concerns about funding and the exigencies of financial control. Are present policies rooted in a commitment to raising standards, or widening access, or providing university education on the cheap?

The impetus of successive governments to extend access to higher education has been one rationale for national processes of standardisation and assessment, but this process has taken place within an agenda in which the voice of practitioners has been politically ignored.

Like teachers, social workers and doctors, academics have been ideologically recast as generic public sector service workers. They are organised by internal markets and under pressure to promote the managerial rhetoric of "fostering entrepreneurship among students and staff". And as the experience of the National Health Service shows, internal markets have a nasty habit of inspiring divisiveness and reducing the quality of service delivery. Trends in the university sector clearly parallel this process. But whereas the public has rightly become sceptical of the 1980s reform of the NHS, it has little awareness of the destructive consequences of the imposition of hard managerialism on the university sector.

So what can be done?

There is certainly nothing to be gained from sentimental nostalgia for the good old days. But it is time for the academic community to take a lead in a long overdue debate on what universities are for. The quality of higher education can no longer be taken for granted.

Finding a constructive alternative to imposed conformity is essential if the reputation of British universities is to be revived. As academics, we all need a wake-up call.

Frank Furedi is reader in sociology at University of Kent at Canterbury and writes in a personal capacity.

Conference details, tel 012 8816

Has bureaucracy killed the spirit of academics?

Email us at soapbox@thes.co.uk

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