Corporate crackdown

April 20, 2001

As academics struggle to perform for quality assessments, Rebecca Boden is concerned about the 'creeping cancer of managerialism'.

Successive corporate scandals in the late 1980s ensured that governance became a buzzword as stakeholders sought to reassert control over corporate management elites.

While academics have embraced this field of study, the same cannot be said about the governance of universities - despite significant changes in higher education.

Over the past decade, universities have, without exception, been subject to a creeping cancer of managerialism. Professionalised classes of managers have emerged and formed a corporate layer at the top of institutions. A glance through the relatively well-paid jobs at the front of The THES appointments will confirm this. All too often this has been accompanied by a shift in power away from academics to "managers".

The past ten years in Britain have also been marked by the development of the audit society - systems of rules and practices directed mainly at the performance of empty rituals of verification that, nevertheless, empower those who control such processes. In universities, this is exemplified by the research assessment exercise and teaching quality audits.

Such "performance review" has become the means by which government and managers can exercise control over the labour of academics. The financial cost is some £250 million a year, the lost academic opportunities are immeasurable. The measure of our value is determined by systems and indicators that lie beyond our control.

The question that vexes me is, who exercises governance over managers in the newly corporatised universities? These are places where students are urged to leave rather than use their voice as stakeholders, picking their courses from league tables and taking their accumulated brownie points from institution to institution. It seems all too long ago that students were occupying the offices of vice-chancellors.

Academics can exert no effective governance, for we are all pawns in the process. The THES Whistleblower column is regularly filled with sad tales of academics who have fought incompetent or corrupt managers.

And the government? In stark contrast to the money spent on teaching audits and the RAE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has a handful of staff devoted to the regular review and special investigation of universities' corporate layers.

Hefce has long regarded universities as private sector institutions for whom delving too intrusively into their affairs would be inappropriate. The corporate layer supports this line, claiming proper accountability controls over managers would compromise academic freedom. This deliberately obscures the fact that it is poor governance that compromises academic freedom and that managers are rarely active academics.

David Blunkett recently wrote that Hefce special reports into university affairs would remain confidential, even under the Freedom of Information Act. The reason given is that, as a public body with audit functions, Hefce can only conduct its work within the bounds of confidentiality, supporting Hefce's view. Such a stance generates a second stark governance contrast: audits and reviews of academics' work are almost instantaneously made public - usually on the web - and stakeholders are urged to make extensive use of them.

There is, then, a governance gap when it comes to our managers. This does not become a serious issue where, as in the majority of instances, the corporate layer retains a professional commitment to public service and accountability - just as most academics would continue to teach and research well without the RAE and the Quality Assurance Agency. But, increasingly, we see evidence of universities where such professionalism among managers is deficient, and in these instances there is no effective governance.

The answers are straightforward. Reassert the rights of students as members of academic communities, not as customers. Relieve academics of crippling audit and surveillance, and make the academy a site of real collegiate control. Give Hefce adequate resources (perhaps with special teams to investigate failing universities) and an injunction to report publicly on the conduct of university managers. The obstacle, of course, is political will.

Rebecca Boden is professor of accounting at Bristol Business School, University of the West of England.

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