A very Stalinist management model

Craig Brandist on the parallels between Stalin’s Russia and the operation of today’s universities

May 29, 2014

Source: James Fryer

A department head who had published on the Stalinist period asked me without irony for a five-year research plan

Is Stalin’s Russia the model for today’s policymakers in UK higher education?

This question may raise a wry smile, but working in the archives of Soviet higher education institutions from the late 1920s, I noticed that many documents could be stylised translations of those I routinely write for the bureaucracy of my own institution or funders.

Struck by this, I did an experiment. I chose some boilerplate text and points from an archival report in which a Soviet scholar justified his research to his funding body. Having translated and tweaked it, I incorporated it into an end-of-project report about my own research project. It was accepted without comment.

Bureaucrats everywhere, I quipped, are like Pavlov’s dogs: ring the right bells and they salivate. But now it was other specialists in my field who were salivating. I was amazed at just how desensitised we had become to features of an institutional and ideological framework that can hardly be considered a model for academic freedom and intellectual integrity.

The huge differences between carrying out scholarship in today’s Britain and in Stalin’s Soviet Union are obvious, not least because formal censorship and direct state repression are not routine consequences of dissent in the UK. Moreover, education was viewed primarily as a public rather than as a private good by Soviet policymakers.

Yet the parallels are surprisingly pervasive. They include the imperative for competition between institutions; the subordination of intellectual endeavour to extrinsic metrics; the lurching of departments and institutions from one target to another heedless of coherence; the need to couch research in terms of impact on the economy and social cohesion; the import of industrial performance management tactics; and the echoing of government slogans by funders (of which the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s invocation of the “Big Society” some years ago is only the most crass example).

When a head of department, who had published works on the Stalinist period, asked me without irony to provide my five-year research plan, the parallels became inescapably farcical.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Stalinist scholarship was not a desert populated by intellectuals cowed or silenced by the state. Some of the most important literary and cultural theory of the 20th century was produced in the Soviet Union at this time, but there were significant distortions and myriad valuable research projects were destroyed. The problem was not so much the party imposing its own line (there was no line on matters such as literary theory) as it was the erosion of the structures that insulated scholarship from the demands of state policy and economic imperatives.

When scholars wanted to promote their perspectives as superior to those of rivals in their pursuit of resources and influence, they found it more effective to appeal to authorities outside the academy. The closer research was to the concerns of government and industry, the more powerful became the appeal to non-scientific forms of authority, so crucial scientific issues became obscured and ideological conformism usurped exploration.

We are increasingly exposed to the same trends. Frederic Lee’s research into the effects of the 2008 research assessment exercise on economics departments in UK universities shows that the requirement for staff to publish in neoclassical “diamond list” (prestigious) journals led to a sharp decline in the recruitment of “heterodox” faculty and to an ideological homogenisation of approach. Apart from narrowing the field, this hardly helped economists to diagnose and warn about the problems bequeathed by years of deregulation in the banking sector.

This is a symptom of a general centralisation of decision-making in universities, reducing heads of department to craven functionaries implementing decisions made higher up the bureaucratic structure. The result is a requirement to fulfil the corporate “plan” while appealing to ever dimmer memories of collegiality when concessions from academics are required. Productivity indicators are applied to every aspect of academic work, rewarding managers’ favourite Stakhanovites and pushing everyone else to emulate their 70-hour weeks.

The sheer illogicality of the assumptions underlying such attempts to drive up performance was perfectly stated in a recent article about “people management” at my own institution (as reported in “Staff baulk at performance yardstick threat”,  February). Our director of human resources was quoted as saying that all academics will be expected to “excel” or will have to “leave the organisation”. It is hardly surprising that mental health problems among academic staff subjected to such pressures are on the rise. The production paradigm is unsuited to academic research and creative teaching, which is the core of what higher education is all about.

But the biggest difference in the position of university staff in Stalin’s time and our own is that we have freedom to organise in defence of professional standards and conditions of work. Organising academic staff is notoriously akin to herding cats, but history has provided us with an important illustration of where we will all end up if we do not make good use of that freedom to defend academic priorities.

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Reader's comments (7)

Illuminating thanks. If only the priority of government was the upholding of academic standards.
Professor Brandist summarises what is evident to any person knowledgeable about the workings of the communist systems in Eastern Europe before 1989. Many subtle features of East European authoritarianism have been adopted in the process of creeping Stalinisation by the managers of UK universities. The play Memorandum by the Czech playwright (and later President) Václav Havel from 1967 can in fact be interpreted today as a brilliant analysis of the situation in UK universities, although the author originally intended it as a satire directed against the communist system. The play explores the non-communicative functions of language. In the Memorandum, the communicative role of language has been abolished. Language has been turned into a jargon and its only role is to indicate who is in power. The better you are at using the jargon, the more powerful you become. This seems to capture brilliantly the current situation at UK universities.
I generally agree with the above, but from experience of the various Universities I've worked in and been associated with, there are some areas where what actually happens in Departments often differs very significantly from the official policies and procedures emanating from the Centre. If only Heads of Departments/operational HR in all institutions across the sector WOULD follow the official line and consistently apply their published policies and procedures, there might be substantial savings in legal costs and payouts- see this week's shocking article by Paul Jump. Sadly, the current audit culture in HE does not seem to be applied to these matters. Consistent and transparent audit of HR operational procedures could save money, as well as actually improving both an institution's culture and its reputation.
This article breathes the fresh air needed by our stale higher ed system. The only part I'd argue with is the final paragraph. I'm not sure we do all have the freedom now to resist the Stalinist management that is strangling the proper function of universities. At my institution, the jargon-addled management would take a very dim view of any such challenge. It believes it is right because it is right. One cannot argue with that, not without preparing for the sack.
Craig Brandist offers an admirable analysis of the organisation of many HE institutions in the UK. There is little sympathy between 'managers' (a term unknown 10 years ago in universities) and the academics they purport to lead. HoDs are rewarded for delivering the Vice Chancellor's 'vision' rather than responding to the aspirations of their staff and students. Particularly in post-1992 universities, we have seen the reproduction of a cadre of managers who perceive themselves as a new kind of officer class. Perhaps the best way to preserve the collegial ethos is to rotate the position of HoD among senior academics. Let us see then, if impossible or contradictory edicts are maintained, if managers understand that these will constitute their working conditions in 2 or 3 years time.
It would be very easy to rectify the situation. All that would have to be done would be to introduce democracy into UK universities. Academic staff should be able to elect heads of departments, colleges and vice-chancellors. Incidentally, this is what happens in many European countries, including (this adds insult to injury!) the universities in former communist countries. Not in the UK, though. Why not? Why are academics not fighting for their natural right to elect their superiors? Isn't the UK supposed to be a democracy?
(Today I saw Brandist's essay on Bakhtin on academia and then downloaded Bakhtin's book on Rabelais. That is how I got here, googling Brandist). Amazing. I am stunned by this piece on managerialism, and also by the wonderful comments. The newspaper "The Australian" has an education supplement every Wednesday. I continue to read it because sometimes there are good articles commenting ironically on bureaucracy. But overwhelmingly, the writing by professors and vice-chancellors in "The Australian" education supplement is in a pidgin English (an "English for special purposes") taken out of some managerialist playbook ("The 60 minute CEO", perhaps. Or a book yet to be written, "The 60 minute vice-chancellor"). In truth, I love pidgin English (as it has emerged spontaneously in islands near northern Australia) and have no doubt that it possible to make good interpretations of what vice-chancellors are saying. Perhaps one day we will have wise robots like angels at our shoulder, each with the power of a world champion chess players (or even the power of a billion world champion chess players), who can find good interpretations.