Why I... am <i> so </i> proud to be a 'learning provider'

October 11, 2002

It is not that managers love language too little but that they love it too much. And love can be destructive. The endless care expended on words, the endless redrafting just to produce sentences such as "necessity has seriously marginalised external input" is a serious error of judgement on the part of those at the forefront of change in universities, whose mission also includes conservation.

Yes, when managers talk about transparency, it is like George W. Bush talking about peace. Their objective is to seek out and destroy the English language or, at the very least, to improve it. Thus, in case there is any doubt about what a lecture is, managers have helpfully renamed it a "delivery activity". No doubt the next time I telephone for a pizza it will come complete with a talk on Hamlet . I am now a "learning provider". I make sure my modules enable students to "achieve the desired learning outcomes" and that "the assessment process enables learners to demonstrate achievement of the intended outcomes". Thanks to the Quality Assurance Agency, I can talk at length and in precise terms about what I do, whereas before I said just "lecturer", at which people scratched their heads in bewilderment.

Managers love to juggle metaphors. It is one of the reasons why no one knows what they are talking about. Management's favourite metaphors derive from the military: mission statements, strategic plans and, my favourite, "capturing relevant information". Not long ago, managers devised a culinary metaphor for education. A modular degree was a series of diets. So whether you wanted to lose weight or eat more protein you just joined the appropriate course. But diets were combined into pathways, from which students could wander to find themselves in a dark wood, prompting another change of metaphor, this time an arboreal one.

Now modules are like trees, having roots and branches, probably because, in these hard times, that makes them easier to prune. I wonder if the person who thought up that one had in the back of their mind the story of Adam and Eve. No, they can't have. That would have indicated the presence of irony, whose absence is one of the defining features of the managerial mind. The British have always been thought of as Philistines but now we have managers to prove it. Their ultimate aim is to banish disciplinary knowledge and usher in a culture of skills, in the process severing the link between teaching and research.

What puzzles me is how anyone can write sentences such as "The act of approval integrates considerations of not only academic integrity but resource efficiency and fitness for purpose as measured against university strategic direction and culture paradigm" without their face crashing onto their keyboard with boredom. For management speak is not only depersonalised, it is clanking, repetitive, ungrammatical and full of non-sequiturs.

And if the quality of thought depends on the quality of language then the future of thought in our universities is in grave danger. As the all-pervasive medium of "communication", management-speak is beginning to affect how academics write. "To liberate form from the mathematical frock coat of utility requires that the universe be conceived as a gob of spit lubricating the interactive operativity of two heterogeneous elements."

It doesn't have to be that way. Perhaps by laughing at some of the absurdities of management discourse we can shame it into reform. Managers may even start to actualise the distinctive portfolio of cognate ideals embedded in the strategy of formulated goals for research, teaching and learning as measured against external reference points, stakeholder accountability and responsibility - which is something we all want, right?

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Monfort University. Examples not taken from De Montfort University.

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