Prichard, C. and Willmott, H.  (1996)  'Just how managed is the McUniversity?', unpublished, a paper given at the 'The Dilemmas of Mass Higher Education' conference, Staffordshire University, April 10-12, 1996.
A version has been published as Prichard, C.  (1997)  'How managed is the McUniversity?', in Organization Studies, Vol 18, No 2: 287 - 316.

The paper takes particular issue with a piece written by Parker and Jary  (1995)  'The McUniversity: Organizations, Management and Academic Subjectivity', in Organization, Vol 2, No 2: 319-38). It is true that the Open University Vice Chancellor once described his university as  'the McDonald's of higher education', and this might confirm Parker and Jary's argument that there has been a move towards for fordist mass-production driven by Weberian forms of rationalization or McDonaldization which is replacing the old professional and collegial structures.

The main problem is that while managerial discourse might be far more common, especially in the new universities [founded 1992 from former polytechnics], it is a mistake to say that practice has also shifted. As usual, opposition and resistance have been overlooked. Lots of academics have complained about managerialism  [even Stuart Hall, apparently], but the reality is that  'each university is a mix of organizing practices which are historically located and variably resilient and resistant to being wholeheartedly overthrown by the  "new"  managers' (3). Their own material, based on discussions with 35 senior post holders indicate some of the ambiguity, although they admit that it would have been nice to also interview rank and file lecturers. One example, on page 4, has a Vice Chancellor argue, for example, that old notions of education are still important [at this time, maybe university managers believed their own rhetoric, that the new reforms was simply intended to be helpful, to tidy up a few points?]

Parker and Jary insists that there has been a considerable amount of management discourse imported into the university, seen best in managerial language, referring to line managers, customers and products, for example. However has practice been actually changed? What of resistance to this trend? How did Parker and Jary manage to resist?

If Weber and Foucault had not been so dominant in the analysis, these neglected aspects might have been foregrounded. Other resources that might have been used include Bourdieu and the concept of field and habitus: Bourdieu would remind us that shifts in the field must always be 'locally interpreted and elaborated' (5), and that habituses tend to reproduce themselves rather than easily been swept away. Similarly, Giddens would stress elements such as the role of human agency, struggles, and also unintended consequences. However, Fiske has the best account, with its stress on resistance to 'the power bloc'. [Fiske's argument is expanded for the next couple of pages -- basically, it emphasises the possibility for local collectivities to resist formal mechanisms of control, and cites examples such as gay activism which has successfully gained space. Thus it is true that management systems have been put in place as 'stations', but those who are excluded have a tendency to form 'locales' (local collectivities) to struggle with them.]

It is true that universities have lost their  'quasi autonomous status' with their relative financial independence, and it is also true that student numbers have been increased, and spending increasingly tied according to objective measures of performance and competitive pressure. However, senior post holders see themselves as negotiating and mitigating these pressures, trying to preserve the old ways while implementing aspects of the new ones. Those interviewed also mention resistance from below, and the actual difficulty of moving from rhetoric to practice. Academic departments are able to function as forms of local resistance, while others are evidently pursuing micropolitical strategies to preserve their own positions. Thus initiatives get defused as well as diffused. Managers are also keen to avoid some of the bad effects of bureaucracy, such as a  'work to rule mentality' (12), and to protect some of their researchers from financial pressure. Thus managers struggle  'to develop a sufficiently integrated "performance"' (13), having to gain the support of underlings while responding to managerial imperialism from outside [no doubt their huge salaries help]. They feel paternalistic towards underlings, partly because they realise that academic culture and excellence does depend on academic freedom, and because they realise that managerialism can be divisive.

The main solution to these tensions is to  'undertake a considerable amount to discursive work just to re-establish something that only a few years earlier would have been largely taken for granted' (14). Some seem able to effortlessly integrate old values with the new managerialism, which is seen as innocent facilitation [as a kind of jolly old common sense]. Others have opted to protect the institution against the new state organisations of control, by softening the impact of the reforms  [Prichard and Willmott suspect a certain rationalization in this particular case -- page 15]. Similarly, some rank and file academics have simply absorbed the new pressures, but not because they particularly believe them  [an instrumental calculative stance is suggested here, when discussing research funding and its tie with research productivity]. Some managers express sympathy with staff who likely to be marginalised [I have noticed this myself -- many managers want to be tough efficient rationalisers, but also to stay as one of the chaps and be liked by underlings]. Still others have become enthusiasts for the new managerial discipline, often combined with a criticism of the old ways as too restricted and anarchic, or even too unproductive. Sometimes, the opportunities to restructure and introduce the new discipline were provided by staff turnover.

However, few understood themselves completely in managerialist terms. They denied that they had particular authority, and took care with their job titles, and favoured [symbolic violence] rather than outright explicit control. They were aware that they were greeted with suspicion. There was some evidence that they had been seduced by management discourse into seeing themselves as facilitators, or as offering a useful combination between managerialism and collegiality  (through a degree of openness and discussion, for example, or some devolution). Yet there is no ethical or principled reservation about managerialism, and  'soft' forms of managerialism are really being supported by the knowledge or threat of  'hard' forms  (19). There is also some evidence that the traditional academic values are often cited primarily to motivate academics.

Nevertheless there are genuine difficulties in developing full managerialism, including the [short-term cultural lag] provided by old friendships and loyalties. There are also the genuine difficulties provided by academic staff who are quite capable of subverting managerial problems -- they don't even always respond to carrots! (21) Managers can make life difficult for dissenters, but their options are fairly limited and seem to rely on peer pressure (to increase research productivity). This is paradoxical, of course, because it also strengthens local cultures.

Overall, there has certainly been an attempt to colonise the university with managerialism. But the senior staff interviewed seemed to face considerable problems and contradictions --  'thus, whatever "transition"  may be occurring, it is likely to be extended, patchy and incomplete' (22). However, managerialism seems set to increase, and so does staff resistance, if only in the form of sullen compliance and ritualism --'there is the prospect of a continuing expansion in the number and influence of  "professional"  committee sitters and managers' (22)  (especially for those who are unable to become career managers themselves). [My own view is that the senior managers are also chronically likely to become ritualists, as they find managing just too difficult and stressful: it is so much easier to go through the motions and keep drawing a salary]. Withdrawal of this kind shows the power of the existing values. Paradoxically, soft managerialism relies on these values to motivate and seduce, to encourage self discipline and raised productivity. However, rank and file academics lack real public support and can only rely on local tactics.

back to key concepts