meets The Office:
Managerialism in UK Plc.
"I adore certain symbols no less than you do. But it would be absurd
to sacrifice to the symbol the reality that it symbolises. Cathedrals
are to be adored until the day when, to preserve them, it would be necessary
to deny the truths which they teach."
(Time Regained, Marcel Proust)
The above quotation from Proust relates to a conversation about the threat
to French cathedrals posed by the German bombing raids of the First World
War. Substituting the word 'Universities' for 'Cathedrals'
makes it a particularly vivid description of the way in which Higher Education
in Britain is in danger of becoming a pastiche of the disinterested pursuit
of knowledge some of us would still like to believe it should be. The
university system is now but one area of British institutional life that
is rife with a level of one-dimensional thought that makes satire increasingly
difficult. When Powerpoint presenters use cabalistic incantations consisting
of one part alliteration and one part bullet point you begin to ask 'how
do you satirise what is already a self-parody?' It is in such a context
that Ricky Gervais has created the squirm-inducing and zeitgeist-capturing
character of David Brent in the BBC's cult mocu-drama The Office.
Unfortunately, amidst the laughter and squirming, teachers, doctors, university
lecturers etc. recognise that for every David Brent there are many more
equally vapid but ultimately much more dangerous characters I term managerial
operators. Another recent BBC programme The Project has shown how this
much more malign form of managerialism has successfully eviscerated traditional
Labour Party values and the point of this article is to highlight how
it is now committing similar harm upon our universities and the few remaining
areas of British life where people are not yet contract workers for UK
Humboldt's Rift - the Taliban with spreadsheets
"The University of Culture, instituted by Humboldt, draws its legitimacy
from culture, which names the synthesis of teaching and research, process
and product, history and reason, philology and criticism, historical scholarship
and aesthetic experience, the institution and the individual."
(Readings 1996: 65)
"The phenomenon I am describing, strictly speaking, neither managerial
nor ethical, but a hybrid (and sterile) vampire that draws what strength
it has from that most dangerous of combinations, two concealed metaphors - both
in themselves relatively harmless - but which together form a deadly
compound whose corollaries include not just the crude idea that education
should serve the needs of the labour market, but also underlie the whole
moral rationale behind the push for accountability and testing. Managerial
ethics is not so much a theory as a set of sloppy and unquestioned assumptions."
(Prickett 2002: 181)
Our modern university system largely derives from the model instituted
by Wilhem von Humboldt (1767-1835), a Prussian Minister of Education,
at the University of Berlin. It is based upon the German idealist notion
of the University of Culture and the concept of Bildung - the ennoblement
of character. Such concepts were obviously of their time but they nevertheless
provide a useful yardstick with which to gauge how far from such ideals
British universities have moved. Universities are succumbing to a tsunami
of rampant managerialism that has already devastated the morale of previously
public sector institutions such as the BBC and the NHS. The time is fast
approaching, if it hasn't already arrived, when we will be telling
our children about the times when students weren't 'customers'
or 'key-stakeholders' but...well, students.
An interesting by-product of devolution is the way in which Scottish resistance
to top-up fees may be one of the last barriers to the whole-scale commercialisation
of British universities. This is a danger that has until now largely crept
under the radar of a middle-England driven media more concerned with the
latest A-Level debacle. If Scottish universities successfully resist top-up
fees the fraught situation will arise whereby they will become disproportionately
cheap to English students and the likely subsequent invasion will make
the Edinburgh Festival's usual quota of corduroys and striped shirts
seem small eighty-shilling. Beyond this obvious concern, however, is the
even more important issue of where in society is there any space left
for thinking beyond the bottom-line mentality of the spreadsheet?
The phrases managerialism and managerial ethics are used in this piece
as shorthand concepts with which to explore the anti-professional, anti-intellectual,
and disturbingly uber-Thatcherite values that have all but destroyed Humboldt's
vision. Since I am writing as an academic, the majority of my examples
are taken from higher education but I would argue that this particular
arena of contemporary managerialism is worth paying attention to for a
number of reasons:
Whist the Ivory Tower may seem divorced from the 'real world'
concerns of many people, the very fact that this relatively isolated and
protected cultural realm has become infected by the managerial virus bodes
ill for the rest of society's chances of resisting it.
Since universities inevitably train the country's future leaders,
administrators, and technocrats, the pervasion of the educational process
by managerialist values has potentially profound political implications
for the future of Britain.
The spread of managerialism within higher education provides a
particularly vivid example of the 'Emperor's got no clothes'
type of collective pyschosis that can be achieved by the strategic use
of inherently banal but nevertheless extremely destructive concepts. The
fact that professional academics, trained to deconstruct and reflect upon
the ways in which power is exercised, have failed to call managerialism's
bluff is particularly worrying and again cause for concern.
The totally administered society
"...current higher education culture, the purpose of which...is to
make 'balance-sheets sound like Homer and Homer sound like balance-sheets'
...British higher education policy now turns solely on the enforced internalisation
of managerial control mechanisms. Their intention is to displace universalising
intellectual comportment by task-orientated technocratic procedures through
behavioural conditioning; to make the experience of thinking and learning
the sterilized aggregate of specified technical norms."
(Davies 1996: 23)
First voiced in the 1960s Marcuse's fears of a totally regimented
and administered society are more and more evident to anyone that has
had to deal with a large organisation whether it be a hospital or a bank
manager hiding behind a defensive ring of Korean-based call centres. In
the field of education, job advertisements vividly illustrate the dominance
of managerial values. The text accompanying a call for university administrators
at a Scottish university, for example, includes educational values only
as an after-thought: "You will need strong management skills, particularly
an understanding of change management, a commitment to customer-focused
service and an empathy for academic objectives."1
The complete conflation of academic and business values is reflected in
another advert's juxtaposition with chief executive positions in
the water, gas and development agency fields and its call for a "Vice-Chancellor
and Chief Executive." Again, academic values play a minor role in
the tenor of the advert but do threaten to be implied (albeit in a heavily
commercially qualified sense) in the penultimate phrase of its final sentence:
"The successful candidate will possess strategic vision, commercial
acumen, and a strong determination to lead a team that has very high ambitions
for the future. This is an exciting opportunity to lead a large, distinctive,
and dynamic organisation that thrives on developing entrepreneurial learning
and encouraging innovation."2
Such examples are now found across the whole range of the educational
field. Thus, the Department for Education and Skills (sic) recently launched
a national press advertising campaign for 'fast-track Teaching'
in secondary schools. Fresh on the heels of various railway debacles,
not only the accompanying logo, but also the advertisement's whole
ethos, bore more than a passing resemblance to Railtrack with an almost
heroic insensitivity to the danger of negative comparisons being drawn.
It read: "Fast Track teachers embrace new technology, new business
practice, new management skills, and new school policies." Although
reminiscent of the Catholic Mass's Apostolic Creed, the Department
is at least open in its calling for management apparatchiks, rather than
educators with a vocation. Disturbing as they are, to some extent these
adverts are just surface phenomenon. Deeper within education, however,
structural changes are being instigated that are likely to have much longer
term and damaging effects upon the ability of educators to think beyond
the spreadsheet. Thus, in a manner the Rev. Sun Myung Moon would doubtless
Aspiring headteachers are to be required to take a compulsory leadership
qualification before they can apply to run schools...The New National
College for School Leadership is based in a state-of-the-art £28m
headquarters on Nottingham University's Jubilee campus...It will
encourage all classroom staff, not just heads and their deputies, to see
themselves as leaders and to take up appropriate training.3
The seamless conflation of the managerial and education sectors is further
illustrated within the same report by the news that: "Sir Anthony
Greener, deputy chairman of BT and chairman of the firm operating the
government-sponsored learndirect adult education provider, was appointed
interim chairman of the qualifications and curriculum authority."
As Marcuse points out:
"Domination is transfigured into administration...the tangible source
of exploitation disappears behind the facade of objective rationality."
(Marcuse 1968: 32)
Flower power & the potted plants brigade
"One of Mrs Thatcher's most outstanding gifts was the ability
to effect a brilliant interweaving of power and language into a form of
communication with which no communication was possible...Thatcherism was
distinctive for the originality and effectiveness of its manner of communicating:
like an adept schizogene, it gave the impression of participating in a
communicative exchange, when in reality the messages were all one-way."
(Ryan 2002: 118 & 120)
"...there are those of us working in the area of education who see
the social project underway as destructive of values that are essential
to our practices and indeed to the very fabric of our moral and social
(Loughlin 2002: 105)
On occasion, jaw-dropping ironies such as the sponsorship of a medical
ethics centre by a tobacco company mean that the writing on the wall can
not be fully hidden by the latest laminated corporate mission statement.
More often, however, the negative effects of the corporate influence are
accretional and cumulative and pass without sustained critique. Moral
distance from the vandalism of managerial ethics is created by a combination
of rhetorical and physical constructions. Thus, although the etymological
root of manager is the Latin word for hand (manus), potted plants, abstract
art, deep carpets, and other managerial paraphernalia act as a semiotic
break between managerial units and hands-on 'core businesses'
(whether it be teaching, doctoring etc.). In addition to these physical
signs, less material but ultimately much more significant barriers are
built up by managerial units through the essentially vague and platitudinous
language and symbols they use: "...the greasy idiom of the profiteers."
(Steiner 2001: 222)
I once witnessed a student hustings where the Labour-sponsored candidate
put down the trademark question-without-apparent-end of a Socialist Worker
member with the quip: "If I wanted to sell newspapers I'd have
joined John Menzies." To this day I regret not having shouted out:
"Then if you wanted to sell red roses, why didn't you join Interflora?"
New Labour's logoised version of flower power is a good example of
the 'greasy idiom'. Allied with suitably banal managerial language
about customers and stake-holders, principled opposition ironically becomes
difficult exactly because there are no firmly held principles to engage
with and the constant use of catchy sound-bites makes us increasingly
insensitive to their inherent crassness. Ultimately unjustifiable and
illogical parallels between dissimilar concepts and values are sustained
by mere repetition: "...it is a perfectly routine and rather frequent
equivalence that implicitly carries...a message." (Fairclough 2000:
27) 'The power of the platitude' is used as a Trojan Mouse for
managerial values that are propagated by the attritional effect euphemism
has on more substantive values less amenable to translation into managerialese.
The promiscuous use of euphemisms, neologisms, and the skilful slipping
into arguments of questionable, yet generally unquestioned, equivalences
are key elements of the managerial approach to engineering change. In
the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao undermined traditional values
by, amongst other tactics, 'simplifying' a huge swathe of pre-existing
Mandarin ideograms. This included, quite poignantly, excising a heart
shape from the symbol for 'love'. In the university sector,
rather than excision, the linguistic heart of education has become furred
up with a corporate Esperanto that has effectively redefined meanings
and associations to preclude discussions based upon professional academic
values. Despite their acronyms conjuring up unthreatening images of supermarkets
and fizzy drinks (for example, The Higher Education Staff Development
Agency [HESDA] and the Further Education National Training Organisation
[FENTO]), the language used by various education bodies has destructive
effects that are intrinsically difficult to engage with.
Managerialism uses phrases: "from a language which is itself the
destruction of thought...This style is not only inadequate, but a kind
of virus rendering blank the minds that try to use it." (Maskell
& Robinson 2001:62) The danger is more than aesthetic: "such
pressures on the incipience of meaning and communication in the individual
and collective subconscious, on the means of articulate speech, are gradual."
(Steiner 2001: 8) As in the blurring of the pigs and humans in the conclusion
of Animal Farm, it is only near its end point, and when it is too late
to change things that one tends to see how cumulative pressure creates
Chase the indicator & Who will audit the auditors?
"The risk of audit is not simply that it does not work and leads
to fatal remedies, although one can assemble evidence for this. Rather,
it is that, in the process of continuous movement and reform that it generates,
it is also impossible to know when it is justified and effective...audit
has put itself beyond empirical knowledge about its own effects in favour
of a constant programmatic affirmation of its potential."
(Powers 1997: 142)
The practical consequence of the spread of managerial language is that
substantive political discourse based upon ethical judgements and values
becomes subordinate to the mestastic growth of league tables and performance
indicators as more and more areas of public life join in a game of "chase
the indicator."4 In a classic
case of 'the emperor has no clothes', however, the competitive
market ethos of managerialism stops at the free and open discussion of
competing views of managerial competencies themselves. Powers (1997) provides
a detailed analysis of how much managerial activity becomes self-validating
and legitimising. It rarely seems to be pointed out that managerial ethics
do not work by any meaningful measures of success. 'Meaningful'
is obviously a highly disputable term. I define it as the situation whereby
outputs can be judged in terms that have a basis beyond the very system
that produced them. This practical criticism of managerial ethics is thus
grounded on the fact it has no substantive outputs beyond its own frame
of reference. This is the tactical sleight of hand that makes the audit
culture within our schools, universities, and hospitals so difficult to
refute rationally. The double irony of the success of politically motivated
auditing is that it presents itself as apolitical and is premised upon
its own lack of accountability. On the third level of the ironic tier,
attempts to point out the ironies are met with the claim that one is being
The inability of managerialism to provide demonstrable evidence of its
own success leads to an attempt to make everything part of its frame.
Its hitherto successful strategy seems to be that if it is in a state
of constant movement no one will notice its fatal flaw (as if in a glass-topped
carriage the naked emperor hurtles past too quickly for his nudity to
be proved). This produces an educational variant of the economic theory
known as Gresham's law which states that bad money drives out good.
Thus, the number of First Class degrees awarded by universities is used
as a performance measurement in university league tables, yet politicians
disingenuously express indignation if anyone has the temerity to highlight
the subsequently perfectly logical market-driven tendency of universities
to increase their number of Firsts to improve their marketability. As
A-Level students have recently found out to their cost, 'quality'
becomes an actuarial category to be manipulated rather than actually achieved.
The meta-irony of managerialism is that, like politicians criticising
firefighters as completely unrealistic when they are only claiming pay
increases of the same percentage as the politicians have awarded themselves
(and in absolute terms much, much, less), the proponents of managerialism
are seemingly immune to measurement themselves. This can be seen by the
following examples of managerial expansion without concomitant results:
The NHS - in the first 5 years
of NHS reforms (1989-1994): administrative staff increased by 18,000 whilst
nursing staff fell by 27,000.
The BBC - seven years of Lord Birt's reforms led to a doubling
of management with 26% of staff being managers.
The National Audit Office - a ten-fold increase in expenditure on 'management
consultancy services' between 1987-8 and 1995-6.
(see Protherough & Pick 2002: 1617)
As Charlton (2002) points out, in the private sector the need for profitability
works as a natural brake upon the managerial function, within non-commercial
environments such as the universities, however, the only limit to managerial
expansion appears to be the depth of academics' gullibility.
The myths of managerialism and the great transferable skills swindle
"...the mechanical abstractions of managerialism do not merely distort,
but actually come to replace the evidence of the senses within the managerial
(Protherough & Pick 2002: 45)
"Any skills...are so called just because they can't be transferred.
Learn how to mend your car engine and you will also learn how to work
out the difference between stress and beat in English sixteenth-century
metrics. As one trying to do both I assure you that neither gives any
assistance at all with the other."
(Maskell & Robinson 2001: 79)
As we have already seen with the potted-plants syndrome, one of the ironies
of the business world is that despite its hard-nosed 'real-world'
rhetoric it frequently tends to be much more divorced from reality than
the tallest ivory tower. Managerialism suffers from the same type of institutionalised
irrationality that has historically accompanied the market system. From
the tulip fever of 1630s Amsterdam5 and the South Sea bubble of the 1720s
to the dot.com collapse of more recent times, myths, rhetoric, and plain
wishful thinking dominate the managerialist mind-set to produce inefficient,
counter-productive and at times surreal results. Thus, despite the rhetoric
of the knowledge economy as a key rationale for the expansion of higher
education, the majority of managerial policies serve to undermine the
very qualities of ingenuity and creativity one would think are necessary
to be internationally competitive in the new global economic order. This
much-vaunted concept actually serves to disguise the fact that, despite
its nominal 'real-world' focus, it actually squeezes out useful
knowledge. A true understanding of real, complex situations is neglected
in favour of the abstract information it has prepared in large quantities
to fit its pre-existing and ultimately stultifying models, business plans,
The negative consequences of this displacement of knowledge by managerial
information are reflected in the misguided strategies it produces. Ryan
(2002) cogently describes how, since Margaret Thatcher, successive British
governments have engaged in a project of pressuring the university sector
to train future employees rather than generally creative and well-rounded
citizens. He points out that this has been informed by the mentality of
a Taylorist manufacturing-based outlook just when there has been a paradigm
shift towards a postindustrial world that will require those generally
well-educated students rather than trained workers whose specific skills
become quickly dated. At one point in this process he describes how: "The
dawning realisation that epochal transformations in the constitutional
fabric were being made by people who were assertively ignorant of the
absolute basics of what they were dealing with was, to this writer, cause
for great perplexity." (Ryan 2002: 129) Put more bluntly, even within
the narrowly utilitarian appreciation of education the managerial approach
has missed UK Plc.'s urgently needed strategic targets with an amnesiac's
sense of timing and the marksmanship of Mr Magoo.
The recent history of UK Plc. provides a particular cautionary tale for
those eager to promote the mythical concept of transferable skills throughout
Higher Education. Managers have indeed succeeded in transferring their
skills across a range of industrial and public sector organisations with
great alacrity and corresponding financial reward but without the corollary
of easily identifiable gains. Gerald Corbett of Railtrack was formerly
the head of a hotel group before he attempted to transfer his managerial
'skills' to the railways and despite the ensuing debacle walked
away from the Railtrack with a golden handshake worth more than one million
pounds. Continuing the trend Lord Birt, formerly of the BBC, has also
managed to use his experience of a large media organisation to become
an advisor on transport policy...need I elaborate?
This myth of transferable skills lies behind the rise of managers as the
new Jacobins. They promote the basic category error of conflating such
fundamentally different activities as education and training and seek
to reduce the status of the former to the latter. If any readers do doubt
their innate difference then think about the different parental responses
that would accompany a child's announcement upon returning home to
announce that they had received either sex education or sex training at
school. Training is undoubtedly an important part of any advanced economy,
but the overwhelming supremacy of its terms in education today is steadily
eroding away any basis from which the managerial approach can be criticised.
If we all accept that we're trainees rather than educated people
then the path to power of the managerial cadres is unobstructed. Academics
and the rest of the population interested in the values of education shoot
themselves in the foot when they allow the managerial terminology of training
to enter education: "Education, in proportion as it becomes particular,
ceases to be education." Maskell & Robinson 2001: 29)
If you tell a lie ...make sure it's a big one
"...the selling of audit has not taken place modestly: audit is a
practice which in every sphere where it operates must necessarily talk
up expectations at the very same time as it may suffer from so doing...the
'expectations gap' is not so much a problem for auditing as
its constitutive principle. More generally, the audit explosion has actually
closed off avenues of official scepticism and modesty..."
(Power 1997: 144)
The ability of managerialism to prevent the various internal contradictions
identified above from being scrutinised more forcefully is based upon
a combination of two closely related factors that draw upon the rhetorical
ploys delineated earlier:
The strategic use of banal platitudes.
The deliberate over-extension of metaphorical constructions - metaphor
Applying auditing's own penchant for measurement to managerial practices
highlights blatant anomalies that threaten to test the elastic properties
of managerial euphemisms to snapping point. The inherent contradiction
of the audit principle that Power highlights above is that despite being
an activity premised upon accurate measurement, it nevertheless has an
inherent need to exaggerate its ability to make such measurements so that
its own performance is immune from such assessment. This is part of the
process we have previously seen identified as audit's need for constant
movement and it tends to take the form of assertions of its potential
rather than actual evidence of its efficacy. This ruse to distract from
closer scrutiny seems based upon a combination of two parallel strategies:
The expansion of auditing into more and more inappropriate areas of society's
Building upon this ubiquity of audit and a large number of people's
complicity in it to make claims so large that the stakes are raised for
anyone who wishes to point out the sheer irrationality of the situation
(the silence of the crowd in the face of the emperor's nudity).
The result within education of this strategy of distraction from auditing's
self-examination is the creation of bad faith and double standards of
which Estelle Morris was an unfortunate embodiment. Under the Government's
political slogan of 'Education, Education, Education' this former
Secretary of State for Education took more than one attempt to gain seven
O-Levels and then failed all her A-Levels including the largely preparation-free
multiple choice test of General Studies.6
More than just a gibe at a Minister's intellectual ability this goes
straight to the issue of the way in which managerial ethics depends upon
an uneven application of the 'quality' it promotes. An unwillingness
to question fundamentally the intellectual credibility of both the dogma
and its proponents lies behind the ability of managerialism to superimpose
itself over the professional standards of not just academics, but also
such groups as over-managed doctors (see Loughlin 2002) and creative sectors
of the BBC. Professional practices are supplanted by the values of intellectually
inferior, parasitical, but strategically more adept operators. Managerial
ideas need to be opposed on not only intellectual grounds but within their
own terms where the internal contradictions identified above are blatant
and therefore of most embarrassment to these operators.
"...the total mobilization of all media for the defense of the established
reality has coordinated the means of expression to the point where communication
of transcending contents becomes technically impossible. The spectre that
has haunted the artistic consciousness since Mallarme - the impossibility
of speaking a non-reified language, of communicating the negative - has
ceased to be a spectre. It has materialized."
(Marcuse 1968: 68)
That The Office does in fact accurately describe a real social phenomenon
was neatly illustrated in a surreal recent Whitehall event where the pop
music impresario Pete Waterman lectured top Civil Service Mandarins on
how to identify and nurture new talent. In an incident much can be learnt
from: "One bewildered civil servant is alleged to have asked aloud:
'Mr Waterman, why are you here?'"7
Managerial ethics are irredeemably vapid and tautologous
but, by both sins of omission and commission, workers, voters and citizens
across UK Plc. greatly enhance the managerial vandals' destructive
power. We need to imitate the anonymous civil servant and show a similar
level of basic incredulity, and a subsequent willingness to challenge
the managerial Emperor's nudity. It is perhaps our last thin defence
against all becoming like characters from either The Office or The Project.
Mind you, in The Office David Brent got sacked, in UK Plc. he'll
probably end up designing our transport policy...
1. University of Edinburgh job advert for 3 School Administrators, THES
2. Advert in the Sunday Times' Appointments section, 20.10.2002,
3. "Teachers wanting to be head face leadership course", Rebecca
Smithers and Lucy Ward, The Guardian, 24.10.2002, p7.
4. A phrase used in a THES letter by Roderick Martin and cited in Ryan
5. For a fictional portrayal of this period see Deborah Moggach's
Girl with a Pearl Earring (Vintage Books)
6. A journalistic critique of this situation is provided in "Do A-Levels
matter? Not in politics" Catherine Bennett Guardian G2 Section 29.11.01
pg 5 - with a similar sentiment evident in an undergraduate student's
perspective on Ms Morris's reaction to the A-Level fixing scandal
of Sept 2002: " The expression on Estelle Morris's face on the
front page of yesterday's Daily Telegraph looked hauntingly familiar.
It is exactly the same expression as I wore last year, when, on opening
my last A-Level French exam paper, I realised that it was beyond my limited
capabilities. (The Daily Telegraph letters page 21.090.02)
7. 'Fool Britannia' Alexis Petridis Thursday August 1, 2002
The Guardian <http://www.guardian.co.uk>
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