‘Cuckoo managers’ are throwing out academy traditions

Managerialism has taken over the university, professor argues

May 21, 2015

The rise of managerialism in universities has sometimes been derided as a case of the tail wagging the dog. Now an academic has suggested that there may be a more appropriate animal metaphor for the phenomenon: the parasitical egg-laying behaviour of the common cuckoo.

Rebecca Boden, professor of critical management at the University of Roehampton, said that the way in which managers had introduced increasingly onerous regulations was very much like how cuckoos laid their eggs in the nests of other birds, and how the young cuckoos then evict the nest-builder’s offspring.

The rise of managerialism had, she said, supplanted the processes through which academics had previously governed themselves and replaced them with procedures that eroded the traditional focus on research and teaching.

Just as the cuckoo “becomes the bird” that its hosts believe it to be, Professor Boden argued, managerialism has taken over the university. In effect, the managers have become the university. “The cuckoo manager has displaced the processes we used to hold dear and replaced them with a set of procedures, a set of rigid rules, which the cuckoo determines,” Professor Boden said.

Speaking at a seminar organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education, Professor Boden said that examples of the rise of managerialism included the research excellence framework and the journal rankings produced by the Chartered Association of Business Schools.

Such procedural devices were “controlling” and “standardising” rituals that handed power to those who operated them.

She also highlighted the way in which academics were now required to fill in forms to book holidays. This showed that they could apparently “no longer be trusted” to take reasonable breaks of their own accord, Professor Boden argued.

A better model, she argued, was that of the cooperative university, such as Mondragon University in Spain, where decisions are taken by an assembly of researchers, students and other interested parties. There was a need, Professor Boden said, for “alternative governance forms which re-socialise the university”.


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Reader's comments (2)

All one can say is a loud "Hear! Hear!". Long ago I left the commercial world, bored of a managerial approach that placed procedure above clients and employees. Unfortunately, all the tiresome practices and form filling that I left behind have eventually followed me to academia!
I find it ironic that the THE, the same publication whose specious rankings are among the heaviest bludgeons employed by managers to bully, corral and coerce academic staff into obedience with their processes, is publishing this article.