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Universities challenged

Tue, 4th Feb 2020

A piece in the press about academic bullying caught my eye recently. This one was about Cambridge, but there was another about Oxford, and when I delved a bit, about universities generally. There seems to be a lot of it about, particularly, though not exclusively, of bullying by academics of administrative staff.

Now this struck me as odd. I know, and have known, a great many academics, and none of them is the bullying kind. Rather the reverse: although definite in their professional opinions, they are otherwise polite, well-brought up and if anything rather put upon themselves, being subjected to ever more bureaucratic measurement and performance management indignity. It’s hard to imagine them terrorising anyone. So what is going on?

We all know that real bullying exists – and what it looks like. On the one hand it’s Harvey Weinstein, Robert Maxwell and others of that ilk who instrumentalise power and use it brutally to get what they want, whether, money, sex or position, brooking no opposition. On the other, there is organised institutional harassment of the kind I wrote about a few weeks ago, as practised by France Telecom, and legally condemned as such, when it was doing its worst to ‘persuade’ 20,000 employees to move on in 007.

But although there are still unreconstructed individuals around, and some industries are less scrupulously managed than others – the film and music businesses, the City of London and retail come to mind, not to mention some newspapers – that kind of extreme behaviour is getting harder to get away with in the age of #MeToo and what we might call managerial correctness, the latter as it happens being particularly prevalent in universities.

Nor should bullying be confused with bad temper. We’ve all made stupid mistakes in our time and been ticked off, sometimes roundly, in return – with the result that one doesn’t make the same mistake again. Most newsrooms are not places that are easy to hide in. But people sometimes getting cross, or even raising their voices when urgent action is needed, is not the same as bullying. 

What I suspect is happening in universities is more the indirect effect of bad management than direct oppression. As we know, bad management is depressingly common – more people leave their jobs to escape their immediate superior than for any other cause. A thinktank reported recently that fully one-third of UK jobs were of such low quality they were a danger to health. But poor interpersonal skills are only part of the story. More pervasively frustrating is the systemic growth of managerial bureaucracy.

New Public Management came late to the universities, but they have enthusiastically made up for lost time. British higher education is now subject to the full panoply of market disciplines: competition, audit, cost control, numerical targets and regulation (effectively government control under another name). In this quasi market, universities have the worst of both worlds, market discipline on the one hand but no effective autonomy on the other. For academics, this translates, to a degree unknown anywhere else in the world, into stringent performance management, continuous change initiatives and endlessly metastasizing forms of assessment – including mock assessment before the real one, assessment feedback afterwards, feedback on the feedback, and so on.

Now add in the huge expansion of management pay, and numbers, in a period when academic salaries marked time, and a raft of managerially correct attempts by HR functions to smooth over the friction points by sending faculty on mandatory courses on ‘coping with change’, introducing wellbeing and work-life balance programmes, or, still more futile, as at Cambridge, appointing fleets of work counsellors, conciliators and moderators – and it would be hard to imagine a richer compendium of counterproductive management practices, or a more toxic stew of misunderstanding and bad feeling as a result.

These symptoms are far from unique to tertiary education, of course. But universities present them in fairly extreme form, along with their unsurprising consequence – a pervasive resentment of management methods that as Peter Drucker once sighed, seem to have been designed to make it difficult for people to work: strenuous attempts to do the wrong thing righter, generating a profusion of bullshit jobs (perhaps as much as 60 per cent of the total) with ever more pretentious (and yet unmemorable) names, managing other people, the ‘clustering’ of professional services, numbers, targets, measures and other data – all parasitic on the real academic work of carrying out research and helping people to learn. No wonder the pot sometimes boils over into bad temper and raised voices. But while there is no excuse for systemically taking it out on junior staff, for senior managers to blame the mayhem caused by stupid management on others rather than themselves is insulting bad faith. The fault is theirs, and so is the remedy. It is to stop doing what Drucker labelled the summit of absurdity: appointing people to do more efficiently what shouldn’t be done at all.


 

 


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