Dream of a bureaucrat

November 8, 1996

Romuald Rudzki (THES letters, October 25) accepts David Albury's rosy picture of happy, self-employed scholars interfacing with their universities and colleges through a managed pseudo-market on the style of the present-day National Health Service (THES, October 11) too much at face value.

If Albury's scheme were to have a chance of working it would need to summon up a corresponding set of institutions to act as educational "providers". Health authorities do not contract with individual surgeons and physiotherapists, they contract with composites known as hospitals, for example. It would be quite unworkable for a comprehensive educational offering to be put together through separate contract negotiations with, say, 600 individual academics. The normal dynamics of the marketplace would lead to large conglomerates dominating the field of providers.

So the principal difference for most academics would be that they would still work for a large institution, but would have less influence over the shape of its educational offering. There would be only a small niche for individual contractors, available to cover unexpected variations in demand, like Victorian outworkers. They would be both economically and educationally marginal.

Instead of the bureaucracy, the unitary university or college, we will have two, both busy generating managerial posts to engage in contract-related hassles with each other. Of course, this might seem a small price to pay for the elimination of the dead weight of teaching quality assurance and assessment. Not so - for as David Albury virtually concedes, there would still be a need for a "supra institutional quality agency". The NHS illustrates this forcefully - because the effect of the pseudo-market in health was to drive down prices, it was necessary to install medical audit procedures throughout the system to protect quality. So, I am afraid, it would be duplicated bureaucracy plus imposed quality monitoring.

What alleged benefits of this educational redesign remain? Just David Albury's whimsical notion that the senior management of universities, freed from the obstructionism of academic staff (safely outsourced), would provide an education far more "responsive to the needs of students, employers and communities". Employers, perhaps. Otherwise, one may doubt. The new managerialism, of which David Albury's article is an example, is more noted for its macho entrepreneurialism than for its sensitivity, say, to the needs of disadvantaged individuals and groups. My own experience is that university academics have a somewhat more principled approach than do senior management, who are more responsive to central government and balance sheets. Albury's system will have relegated academics to suggesting "how", while the management decides "what" - an accentuation of one of the least attractive features of the management system which a previous educational restructuring imposed on the newest universities.

David Albury has provided us with an education dystopia. Have a care! These are dangerous times to think the unthinkable.

Jonathan Rosenhead London School of Economics and Political Science.

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