Decline and Fall

This page written circa 5 November, 2018.

The rising tide of managerialism in universities has finally overwhelmed the parapets of Waikato U. It is said that Hamilton was referred to as "Cow Town" because it is the centre of the North Island dairy business. In keeping, but for different reasons, The University of Waikato will soon be widely known as "Cowboy U".

Days before one paper is due to start we are still jockeying about who will teach it. When one of the two teachers is sorted, it takes days to get him computer access to the Moodle page. Staff are still marking the exams from B semester, yet T semester is starting. A number of school kids are scheduled to visit on two days between T semester starting and the examiners' meeting to finalise marks for B semester. The date of the Year-10 visits was never discussed or checked, just decided by someone somewhere far away. The date of that examiners' meeting, set 6 months ago, was changed last week to suit some managerial schedule, as was the Board of Studies meeting. Rumours speak of academic staff having grad students mark their exams. Grad students complain that names of unheard-of overseas people are added as authors of a paper some student wrote, for no visible reason. Staff expected to teach a paper in January are not yet actually staff, so they cannot officially access the materials or rooms. Somebody better call the sherrif, the cowboys are running wild.

The second VC of Waikato U, Wilf Malcolm, passed away just a month ago. Reading his obituary I discover that he wrote a book on this very subject:

In 2007, Wilf co-wrote with Professor Nicholas Tarling, of Auckland University, a book that made a compelling case for how the ideology of the New Right and the rise of managerialism in the 80s had a punishing effect on collegiality in universities.
Well, he was certainly correct. In fact, the continued existence of the research institute that carries his name, WMIER is in jeopardy. It does research and does not make money. How is that for an unprofitable idea? In Ferengi culture, that would be a serious criminal offence. Fits in nicely with managerialism!

You could not make this stuff up if you were writing a skit. I have never needed to ask before, but who is supposed to police this sort of thing? If Monty Python can call the Church Police, we should be able to call the University Police. Lecturer-Sargeant of the force has come to investigate some student complaints. Actually that's Inspector-Dean, sir. "Hello hello, what's going on here then?", is the research question. They could have Teaching, Research and Ethics divisions, just like homicide, financial crime, and so on in the old-fashioned Police force. The thought of a Teaching Police would fill our undergraduates with hope. Imagine how our reputation would soar if there actually were standards you could be arrested for violating!

A colleague in Australia tells me that he "has been troubled with a certain amount of managerialism at work as well. I think the basis of the problem is that we see solutions in terms of our own expertise. Thus, engineers realise that you may need more engineers to solve an engineering problem. Managers, on the other hand, clearly see that all it needs is more management. Unfortunately, the company is run by managers."
My Australian colleague's management in its wisdom has decided that they will now have to apply for root access to any of the 600-odd servers they manage. The guys at the pointy end have told them that emergencies can strike at any time and can require root access... but to no avail. Funnily enough this is exactly what has happened to us at Waikato as well. All the managers are reading from the same crib book. Much like American CEOs.

The Business Council of Australia has produced a "Future Proof" paper, encouraging various educational proposals. In its response to the Future Proof paper, Universities Australia begins, "The paper contains some misconceptions about the higher education policy environment. These misconceptions influence the paper's discussion of the issues and its recommendations in unhelpful ways", which is a gentle way of saying that the BCA do not actually know what they are talking about. What a surprise.

Managerialism is now joined by politics, at least in Australia. Your humble author has been compiling a list of "lobby groups in the tertiary education space" in Australia. The number of them is quite astonishing. There is the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, Council for International Education, Engagement Australia, Group of Eight, Innovative Research Universities group, International Education Association of Australia, National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Regional Universities Network, TAFE Directors Australia, Universities Australia, yada, yada. Scarily, there is a great need to lobby because the government seems bent on messing up tertiary education! The government meddles directly in university things they do not understand. There has been a recent scandal because the previous Minister of Education (Simon Birmingham) decided to override the ARC's recommendation and cross some high-scoring proposals off the funding list because he thought that their topics were things the taxpayer would not like funded. This caused comment on The Conversation and it easily reaches the British news sources including The Guardian. As one writer put it "Birmingham's decision demonstrates that the government is unwilling to leave funding decisions to the free market of ideas institutionalised in peer review. [...] It may be time to limit---and perhaps forbid---the minister's rights to intercede for political purposes." The new minister is more careful... he plans to add a "National interest" test for grant proposals. This is supposed to "give the public more confidence in research conducted using their money". Unlinked from reality if you believe this will have any impact tomorrow or any time.

A major problem with managerialism is its short-term focus. Changes must happen quickly to impact this year's budget. While a modern vice-chancellor might do a superb job of running a chain of pizza shops, she would be lost if it took 3 years to cook a pizza. The upshot is that one cannot trust the university to do what it says any time into the future; its memory is too short. The mantra has to be "make sure you get promises in writing before you agree to anything".

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