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Tag Archives: commercialism

Arguments over the commercialisation of university education are part of two wider controversies. Firstly, there is a familiar dispute between extreme liberals and the rest of us. Liberals think that businesslike approaches and the imposition of markets will solve all or most problems. The rest hold that such thinking has limited application and that there are products and services which ought not be traded or subjected to competition and markets. There is, however, a second, less obvious and usually neglected controversy, and in this the universities represent one site in which a wider struggle over the future of management is being played out.

The ease with which this second controversy can be neglected is plain in a recent piece by Fintan O’Toole. It is also evident in a university manager’s attempt to get off the hook for what was done to universities in order to create a match with similar inefficiencies in other organisations.

The fundamental mistake in analysing the damaging process of commercialisation is to view it as merely a clash of market or business management values with those of public service. It is very definitely at odds with public service but it is also at odds with good management – even management whose focus is entirely business oriented. When Fintan points out that the apparently market driven university is failing in market terms, he gets close but misses the entrance to the more labyrinthine truth. That a commercial approach is failing in commercial terms should prompt a doubt that market success is the objective. What Fintan misses is that it has little to do with market success and a lot to do with turning the objective of a university into the objectives of a new elite.

Attention must turn to what is usually termed managerialism as opposed to management. Many of those made fat by the former deflect criticism by characterising all questioning as some kind of worker opposition to management. It is nothing of the sort; assaults on managerialism tend to be a defence of management in the face of a hostile, destructive takeover.

When the objective of managers has little to do with their institution/organisation/company and more to do with common cause of similarly placed managers in other organisations, management as traditionally understood has been usurped.

The bloated salaries are in evidence across companies and in both the private and state sectors. The same is true of bizarre new job titles, the creation of new structures which duplicate management and facilitate high level appointments, expanding the numbers in what were once very senior – perhaps unique – well paid positions (e.g. “Director”), reliance on a lexicon which is silly and frequently derided but which gives to waste the impression of being businesslike and efficient. Above all this is a shared change of “product” so that the creation of management information becomes an end in itself.

The production of management information is both essential and costly. It diverts people from their work and requires support staff. Each and every management report has to be accurately costed before a decision can be made to begin producing it. In short, management information has to be kept to the minimum necessary to achieving an objective. In the absence of rigorous costing and an eye to the bare essentials, it is very easy for measurement, data collection and the manufacture of reports to get out of hand. Professionals in management information have been aware of the paradox for decades: management information is part of a control system but its production needs to be tightly controlled.

Universities fell to the parasite as inflated salaries, new titles, changes in structures, a bogus business approach and way of speaking, and a drive to measure rather than produce became the predictable course. It is simply untrue to say that the HEA or any other external pressure caused this. The HEA is similarly troubled and is as keen to demand information as the new “industry” is to produce it.

The change was complex, thorough and involved a large number of staff. However, if one development were to be selected as typical and demonstrative of a university parting company with its age old objective, it might be the demand for stated “learning objectives”. While “learning” itself suggests the thoughtful, critical, creative aspect of a university education, a “learning objective” suggests the acquisition of a skill. At that point the desire to measure, to gather information was changing the role of the university.

Depressing as it is to consider, there may be no way back. It is worth bearing in mind that quite large numbers of people earn a living from all this and any attempt by one organisation to reform will be resisted, characterised as backward and eccentric. On the other hand, as a whole it is unsustainable. What an organisation (in this case a university) might seek to do is return salaries, staffing, structures etc. to those pertaining at a chosen time in the past. Apart from the shock to the system, the pay cuts and the numbers made redundant or demoted, the choice of date would be difficult and critical. Choose too late a date and the roots of the problem might be left intact. Choose too early a date and there’s a risk of going back too far in the history of ICT, thereby stripping a university of its ability to operate legitimate, up-to-date systems. One thing is certain: there can be no reform if the problem is understood as simple commercialism.