AUA Conference: AUA finds that going forward, we should take the jargon offline

April 16, 2009

The absurdities of the jargon and "management-speak" in higher education were exposed in a light-hearted session at the Association of University Administrators (AUA) annual conference.

Words such as "silo" and "stakeholder" as well as phrases including "going forward" and "take this offline" were held up for ridicule as participants revealed their pet hates and discussed the jargon they found themselves using.

One delegate, from the University of Portsmouth, identified three different jargon-based "languages", which she said existed and operated alongside each other.

They are: the language of a specific area of expertise; the language of each individual institution; and the language of the higher education sector in general.

She warned fellow administrators that this growing use of jargon "turns jobbing academics off".

A delegate from a new university who agreed with this assessment said that the jargon-heavy tone of the language used at her institution had been set by the vice-chancellor, who had entered higher education from a business background.

"At new universities, people don't always have the self-confidence ... they probably would at Cambridge or Oxford to turn around and say, this is nonsense," she said.

"Once that cycle has been set in motion, it is very difficult to break - at my university, I am not sure it is possible any more."

There was a consensus among those taking part in the session last week that administrators were more likely to use jargon than academics.

A delegate from the University of Northampton said that when two IT and library teams merged recently, they discovered that they could hardly understand one another, so divorced had their work vocabularies become from each other's - and plain English.

The session was led by Jon Renyard, director of academic services at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth, who said there were various reasons why people "jargonised" in higher education.

"Some people do it not to be clever but to look clever, some do it to be deliberately obscure, and at other times it is a form of shorthand," he said.


To illustrate how counterproductive jargon can be, Jon Renyard, director of academic services at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth, quoted an extract from a university document.

It described "an autonomous authority with a democratic mandate who are endeavouring to engage users to enhance their functionality using good practice to leverage holistic governance in order to pass on your core principles downstream".

Mr Renyard said: "I've just noticed this sort of thing getting increasingly common in higher education. That sentence doesn't mean anything. I don't think the words 'leverage holistic governance' should ever be put together."

One of the delegates at the session put it more pithily: "Whoever wrote that should be taken out and shot."

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