The antidote to cranial rectal insertion in the academic world
Joking aside, there is a sense that the CDBU really is Defending Against the Dark Arts, where the Dark Arts are things like “management models”. Prof Hotson (Chair of the CDBU Steering Ctte), in a recent Guardian article (12 Nov 2012), claims that “management models impoverish teaching, undermine creativity, trivialise research, and alienate teachers”. This is because they are “line-managed like private corporations”, apparently. To me, this sounds like the kind of things said by people who don’t know how good corporations are run. Good corporations (and there are some) aim to actively promote creativity and encourage experimental approaches. They know there is value in such activities.
Hotson adds that such line management is “devoted to maximising performance metrics which do not remotely capture what universities aspire to achieve”. Whether or not he is referring to those same metrics that the CDBU seems to be promoting (publications and citations, for instance) or some other metrics, is not clear, but the key thing is that what he is describing is very bad management. To me, it doesn’t sound like the model is wrong, but rather the managers! No successful business manager would every aim to maximise anything that didn’t “capture what [they] aspired to achieve”. If they did, they would very quickly become an unsuccessful business manager.
There is an important general point here: many academics seem to think that methods that are adopted by business are, de facto, bad for universities (if not just plain bad). It’s a dangerous inward looking approach to assume that some business practices cannot be applied successfully in a university, and we would be wise to wake up to the possibility that some of the most creative thinking of recent times is happening in private ventures, not public universities.
Hotson raises another common concern: that the “market system transforms students from active apprentices in the craft of higher learning to passive consumers attempting to leverage their purchasing power into high lifetime earnings”. To this, I would note that there is a big difference between consumers, customers and clients. Students are now paying for a service (even in Scottish Universities), and it is our responsibility to develop a professional client-type relationship, and not let them drift into becoming idle consumers. There is an opportunity here is we wish to take it.
In one respect, though, I completely agree with Hotson. Pitching a university degree on the basis of future earning potential (as the current government has done) is a very weak argument. For instance, studies also show that “attractive” people earn more over their career than less attractive people. So perhaps, by applying the same argument, we should be encouraging our youngsters to invest in plastic surgery rather than expensive university fees.