Too much Merlot, too little Marlowe

January 27, 1995

One of the effects of the Thatcherian managerial revolution in the new universities has been to create a class of senior-level managers which awards itself generous "remission" from teaching.

In many departments there are senior staff who teach only one or two modules per week (approximately four hours) and some who do no teaching at all. As many as three full-time posts in a team may be subsidised by those members of staff carrying full teaching loads. This can mean nine members for each faculty or some 60 for each university or about 2,000 full-time posts across the sector.

These subsidised posts are at the top of the salary range -- usually in excess of Pounds 30,000 a year, so the cost to the public purse of "management" is probably as high as Pounds 60 million a year.

The defence for this outlay is that more management is required and in so far as modular systems of delivery have become increasingly complicated it is true that there are more involved regulations and more handbooks with intricate rules that read like the small print on servicing guarantees. But in practice, management inevitably spawns more management and the whole structure tends to lift off the ground and to float away into a self-sustaining atmosphere of awaydays, committee meetings and various forms of non-academic staff "development". To the Pounds 60 million must be added the cost of the awaydays spent at top hotels enacting American-style management techniques where simulated games are played. We seem to be creating a senior educational culture which prefers the hotel buffet lunch to the library bookshelves and is more familiar with Merlot than with Marlowe.

There is also the problem of providing part-time or short-contract teachers to replace the missing managers. This is the alternative to creating larger seminar/workshop groups by spreading the number of students among existing staff. Apart from the difficulty of finding staff competent to teach at degree level or the fact that part-timers, however dedicated, cannot be expected to spend the time with students that a full-timer would, there is the additional cost. At about Pounds 800 per module per semester a part-timer costs only about a third of a full-timer. But on a national scale this could amount to about Pounds 20 million. The bill for non-teaching managers in the public sector may be as high as Pounds 100 million -- which might otherwise be spent on improving libraries, building lecture theat- res and improving seminar and workshop rooms.

The management culture that has been created does not require either teaching or research to sustain it: these become simply questions of "delivery" or "appraisal". It makes little difference whether the students or the other teaching staff are present on campus.

The financial cost of all this is high but the cost in less material areas is equally damaging. Managers are an active group; a restless, highly motivated bunch forever searching for new fields to conquer. In higher education they have comparatively little to do. There is no reason why module sizes should become so complicated, or why credit systems should assume such byzantine intricacies. It often seems as though we spend months re-inventing the wheel. A great deal of flummery takes place under the title of "student choice". One has the suspicion that managers are like highly intelligent children on a wet afternoon who are fed up with playing Monopoly. They devise an ever-increasing mountain of rules and guidelines to avert boredom.

As a result the institution is liable to churn out a plethora of booklets and PR material on everything from the mission statement to the modular system as well as surveys on workloads.

One of the net effects is that the reality of teaching and learning -- the tricky, critical and creative questioning that insists on ruffling the glossy page is seen as subordinate. Teaching and learning become raw material for the PR process. The management culture decides what is real and promulgates it.

The second cost is that the activities of teaching and research become unreal to those who do not engage in them. As the managerial class ascends any empathy with the difficulties of say, assessment, becomes increasingly distant.

A few years ago an extensive survey of staff in American universities found that undergraduate teaching rated eighth in their list of priorities. We are clearly heading the same way. The classical pyramid of British higher education with the researching dons at the top -- the learners -- has been inverted and the broad managerial summit now has often neither learners nor teachers.

The management is now in a position of considerable strength, gathering into itself a whole vocabulary and syntax as well as an economic and financial power which is difficult to contest.

There is undoubtedly a great deal of educational sleaze supporting the system. We are not industrial firms, liable to go bust or beholden to shareholders. Huddersfield has shown how little we know about what is going on. Is it possible that our universities, now often the largest employers in the region, are suffering from the same corruption as beset the monasteries and might benefit from a little Dissolution?

John Daniel is subject team leader for English at the University of Plymouth.

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