Blog confidential: The managerial perspective (part two: a response)

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

April 29, 2010

This week: The managerial perspective (part two: a response)

I feel I must respond to the manager you gave space to in last week's issue (22 April). I am relatively new to academia; I am also young and can be described as apolitical. I should be one of the ideal new wave of academics - willing to be flexible and with a sense that things are stagnant and need changing.

But I do not hold these views. My academic career is only about four years old, but I find new managerial concepts, quality assurance and modernisation problematic.

I come from humble working-class beginnings and was the first in my family to go to university. My father lost his job just as I enrolled. It caused great distress for my family, who wanted me to go, but knew that I had little money.

Since getting this academic post, I have noticed that the regulatory and underpinning concepts that govern our centres of knowledge are under attack from weird types, such as the person who contributed last week. These people live in strange little worlds where learning, ideas, innovation and excitement about discovery have a price and cannot be explored unless there are external funds that make it viable. I see changes creeping up on universities - costing, viability tests, the encroachment of the private sector, plus outrageous terminology that seems more appropriate in a George Orwell novel than at any centre of learning. There is little fight left in many of our teaching staff, who seem busy, disillusioned and tired of this bombardment of managerialism and obsessive interest in profit maximisation. It will end in tears.

My second worry is the lack of union concern about all this. I feel there is a need for a robust and exciting form of representation of university staff that come from non-traditional backgrounds. I sense the union is too antiquated, inward-looking and traditional to have any gravitas when it comes to dynamic and creative responses to the privatisation of our higher education system and to managers who seem like clones from Goldman Sachs. Could it be that within a few decades, universities will become "companies" and tackle share issues, offer profit warnings and discard any subject that has little or no viability in the brave new globalised world of the academic entrepreneur?

The past few blogs about the direction universities will take over the next few decades have worried me. I hear from a range of people in the academy who fear where "knowledge" will go and what price or value certain courses will have in a rampant free-market world.

Can we rely on vice-chancellors to guide us through the maze of contradictions that beset us when profit comes before the worthiness of degrees that produce free and critical thinkers? I doubt it. I also wonder whether we can ask Times Higher Education readers to take up the debate about our direction and a defining "line" that cannot be crossed in terms of ethics and values. Any cult of managerialism that acts in ways that seem extreme should be challenged. There is a debate to be had: who will run with it?

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