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Academics tangle with managerial oppressors

  • 14 June 2018


The imposition of what is termed 'managerialism' or 'marketisation' on universities is almost entirely disastrous.

So here is a question. Why are academics so passive when their working lives are being immiserated by the imposition of ideas, mostly derived from business or economics, that are either patently false or poor? Why, when a little research or analysis would show these notions to be largely ridiculous, do they allow them to shape their academic life?

First, a little personal background. This writer, who has a PhD in English literature, has had the opportunity — or perhaps misfortune — of having interviewed many of the world's so-called 'best' economists and business theorists. I have never met a single one whose intellectual development, even basic grasp of semantics, comes close to those who taught me in literature at university.

For instance, when I explain to someone from a literary academic background that a phrase like 'financial deregulation' is logically impossible because finance consists of rules, the point is understood in a matter of seconds. When I say that to economists I am invariably met with blank looks and incomprehension. Economists, it seems, are not trained in semantics (the meaning of words); they simply absorb what they are told. Critical thinking is avoided and circular logic enthusiastically embraced.

Similar sorts of shortcomings are evident in business and management theory (which this writer covered as a journalist for over 20 years). Apart from total quality management (TQM) — a mix of statistical insight and work place democratisation that was used to transform Toyota — no management theory has been anything more than a fad.

Especially pernicious is quality assurance, a conversion of TQM into an autocratic system. It was shown by business in the 1990s to be hopelessly counterproductive and wasteful. Instead of cutting expenses by anticipating quality problems, as is the case with TQM, quality assurance involves extensively documenting quality problems after they happen. That is why secondary teachers, subjected to quality assurance methods, find themselves spending hours photocopying in triplicate their students' essays – because a senior bureaucrat in the Education Department has completed an MBA and thinks he or she has actually learned something.

Even more ridiculous is using quality assurance with tertiary scientific research. How is it possible to document, in advance, the quality of the research outcome when, by definition, it is not known? In truth, a word such as 'quality' is thrown around aggressively as