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Making Universities into Factories

Two histories of reflection on academic life

Performance review: it sounds like a good idea.[1] We can hardly imagine academic life without individual and collective review and assessment—among friends, colleagues and students; within departments, faculties and institutions—of what we are teaching, how we could do our job more effectively, how we balance the demands of teaching and research, how our teaching and research best contributes to the intellectual life of society and indeed the broader society itself. This has surely been part of academic life since its beginnings in Plato’s Academy in Athens in the fourth century BCE.

Across the centuries, there have been many different ways in which academics have reflected on their tasks. The major questions explicitly or implicitly guiding the process have changed over time and differed from one context to another: Have we grasped the nature of reality? Are we cultivating the virtues needed by our society? Are we serving God’s will? How do we uncover nature’s secrets? Are we helping to build a nation? In each case academics have been involved in formulating those questions and contesting them and forming the agenda for the ongoing process of review. In this sense, such academic reflection is a process requiring the initiative of academics and others and their active participation in a dynamic and open-ended process.

To do this honestly requires taking account of a huge range of factors related to your discipline, your students and colleagues, your own specific commitment to teaching and research, sometimes the survival of your institution, your culture or your language. To do this creatively requires imaginative engagement with the resources these provide, relating them to the aims of the university and their specific context. The process of questioning leads to the redefinition of old questions and the discovery of new questions that need to be asked.

That longstanding process of review and reflection—extending from Plato until just the other day—has not been called performance review. The term performance management was coined by an American behavioural psychologist, Aubrey Daniels, around 1982. Performance management extended Taylorism from its original context mechanized manufacturing processes to office and sales work. It aimed to establish ways of measuring the contribution of individual employees to predefined corporate aims. In this way, it contributed to the relatively new field of human resource management, which had itself emerged around 1950, also in the United States.

What we now call performance review gained a foothold in universities sometime around 1990. At times, it presents itself as essentially a continuation of the age-old practice I’ve described as reflection on academic life. It claims simply to make the practice more efficient, more impartial, more modern, and to ensure that colleagues do not protect each other from the demands of oversight and accountability. Of course, like any process of stock-taking it allows for individual reflection, and may even prompt it. But performance review is not simply a new name for an old practice, now updated. As I will argue here, it changes and subverts the character of the reflection that has always been essential to academic life.

From the outset, academic performance review formed part of the larger project of neoliberalism, which extended corporate norms into spheres of life in which it had never been present before around the same time. The ongoing project of neoliberalism seeks to subordinate all human activity to the profit motive. The specific practice of performance management seeks to ensure that academic life is measured by similar standards.

Performance review as managerial subversion of collective reflection

In the past decade or two, the institutionalized forms of performance review which emerged with the spread of neoliberalism has made it difficult, and often impossible, to conduct honest reflection on the tasks of academic life.

This new process of performance review has specific features, which set it apart from the huge range of reflective practices that have preceded it. It is, first, centrally controlled and administered by university management; second, largely quantitative in its approach; third, punitive in intent and effect; fourth, concerned with the results of the academic teaching and learning, without serious interest in the processes involved, or interested in processes only where these are relevant to bureaucratic purposes, such as marketing or fundraising.

It could be argued that performance review partly draws on, and somewhat resembles, previously existing practices within the university, related especially to confirmation of tenure. But the process is crucially changed once it no longer concerns individual entry into the academic profession but sets norms for academic life as a whole, no longer dealing with each case within its own specific context but applying the same broad metrics to broad categories.

The cumulative effect of these features of performance review, I wish to argue, is almost entirely destructive of essential values of academic life. First, they promote misunderstanding of what is involved in teaching, learning and research or simple indifference towards them. Second, they disable honest reflection on these tasks, initially at a collective level but necessarily at an individual level as well. Third, they provide fertile soil in which multiple forms of academic dishonesty are bound to flourish and to corrupt the whole fabric of academic life.

All these effects are perpetuated by setting in motion a cycle in which managerial power is constantly increased, while management itself constantly imposes new responsibilities on academics, students and administrative staff, or redefines their responsibilities to subject them more fully to managerial control. Much of the work of university management is concerned with shifting responsibility for its own concerns onto the rest of us; I’ll describe this process later, in the context of plagiarism policies.

The problem is not that performance review now takes an institutional form—that is, it has become part of the university’s calendar, with common deadlines and formats, and reporting that extends beyond specific departments and faculties. It would not have been difficult to formalize informal structures of collective review and reflection and extend them across entire institutions.

The problem is also not one of accountability, although there have surely always been academics who resist accountability. University management at different times has often resisted accountability itself. It accounts readily to the wealthy and powerful, but resists call to extend accountability beyond these limits—for example, in response to demands that the university should not be complicit in the US war on Vietnam, or in funding apartheid, or demands made by the student movement of the 1960s for a curriculum that serves human freedom rather than corporate profit and established power.

The problem is rather that performance review is a way of using managerial power to redefine the tasks of the university. It is not a way of enabling the university to carry it out its tasks more effectively than before. We should see performance review as an indispensable part—the means of enforcement, the blunt instrument—of a strategy to bring an end to the university as an intellectual community and make it into a factory instead.

Community is not in itself a term of commendation, any more than factory is a term of opprobrium. But the terms have different and generally incompatible meanings. Communities are constituted partly by commonly-held values, by ongoing contestation over their meaning and application and require the ongoing practical development of judgement by their members. The values constituting universities as intellectual communities have varied widely across time and context, and have often been compatible with exclusion and oppression on grounds of race, gender and class. The managerial university of today is sometimes presented as seeking to overcome agendas of racial and gender privilege, but it does this only insofar as this make the university more serviceable to the class interests of neoliberal capitalism. In the process, however, it destroys the foundations of community which are essential to academic life.

Managerialism, complicity and responsibility

Performance review has become part of the routine of most South African universities. It is probably most entrenched at the more prestigious universities, whose norms are closely aligned with the various global rating systems in which they compete. Where it is not yet established, this is either because small enough universities have been able to preserve and defend their community character against managerialism or where universities are struggling for survival. But no university entirely escapes the tide of managerialism, and academic performance review is its logical consequence.

I’ll mainly use the abstract noun managerialism or the concrete management to describe the driving force of this process, rather than distinguishing consistently between them, the managerial university, neoliberalism, the ideology of excellence and its other component parts. However, these terms do not imply that management is solely responsible for the process. Management is often supported and pressured by government, corporations and donors, and influenced by the prevailing global ideological climate. It often acts with the support, or at least acquiescence, of senate and faculty boards, and some academics are easily co-opted into becoming eager participants in it, some are intimidated into acquiescence, and others accept the process without giving it much thought.

Indeed, there is no single clear line to be drawn between management conducted in order to make academic work possible—maintenance of buildings, procurement of supplies, establishing terms of employment, relations with government, and the like—and the point at which management recreates the processes of academic life in order to suit its own norms and interests. There is no single obvious point at which academics can recognize that the work of the university is being subverted. By the time managerialism is clearly recognizable, many academics have been sufficiently co-opted and corrupted by the process that they choose not to see it. And for those who enter academic life at some time after that, managerialism presents itself as a universal norm, along with the idea that the primary aim of the university is to secure high-paying jobs for its graduates.

In using the terms managerialism and management, then, I don’t mean to exempt the rest of us from complicity in the process. But management—above all, our vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors and deans—are the people who should be defending the university against the claims of neoliberalism and who are enforcing them instead. Many of the individuals concerned would not think of themselves as upholding the principles of neoliberalism, and some may be outspoken critics of neoliberalism in other contexts. But that is the framework they accept and impose on us, with very few exceptions.

The factory model of the university

For many people, the factory is the symbol of all that is modern, rational and efficient. The factory represents the norms of professional, impersonal and goal-directed management. Would the university, like any other large institution, not benefit from being more like a factory?

The efficiency of the factory consists in limiting each person’s task to exactly what they are qualified to do and what is essential to the goals of the factory and leaving room for no more than that. The manager employs people with the expertise that is needed to survey the market, design the product, source the materials for it, brand and advertise it, anticipate legal problems. Once that has been done, each worker is assigned a specific task to carry out and detailed instruction on how to do it. The design of the process is aimed at the greatest possible production for the least possible cost; in effect, at the greatest profit.

The worker has no need to think about the larger significance of their task on the assembly line, and has no business questioning the larger process of production. If your factory is making Coca-Cola, it’s not your task to think about its nutritional content. If your factory is making four-wheel drive motor cars, it’s not your task to think about the relative benefits of private and public transport. The worker is generally employed to activate a machine and the logical outcome of the factory process is often to replace workers with machines or with robots that activate machines.

There are different views about whether the factory is the ideal way for society to produce the resources it needs. But whatever we think about that, the factory model cannot easily be made to fit the university. The university can establish a top-down management style, expand administrative staff and hire consultants to deal with marketing, planning, legal issues, technology and the like. It can then impose the policies constructed by their experts on the process of teaching and research. But almost everywhere it impacts on the process of teaching and research, it does more harm than good. I’ll start with teaching.

Managing teaching; or why performance review doesn’t want to know what you teach

The factory requires workers to carry out a specific action, which can easily be verified, and which does not require from the worker any belief in the larger process of which it forms a part. But you cannot teach a student by carrying out instructions, even if management was able to issue them. Management cannot anticipate what part of the subject matter students will understand, what part will engage their attention, and what will enable them to gain a confident grasp of it. A vast array of topics is connected in the mind of the student every day, within and across disciplines, with individual students aware of lecturers’ expectations and how other students are responding. It’s difficult to script responses for a call centre, and impossible for a university.

Teaching students in any meaningful way requires that students should believe you mean what you say and believe that it matters to you. Much of what you’re doing as a teacher is showing, through your example, what it means to take a particular perspective seriously. If your students can see that you, as a teacher, are just going through the motions, you will be teaching something different: how to game the system; how to bluff your way through exams, etc. The complete failure of so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS)—despite huge investment in it—demonstrates the need for an encounter with a teacher who is present and engaged with those specific students.

Factory workers are compelled to carry out one specific action and no other by their need for a wage and by the threat of unemployment. It’s possible that, in some contexts, students can be motivated in a similar way, with constant reminders that, if you want the secure income of a chartered accountant, for example, you have to do things in this way and no other. But this kind of factory learning will not sustain itself across a university. No-one taught like this will have any motive to teach future generations.

Management can impose the factory model on university teaching mainly in negative ways—most obviously, by imposing a teaching load that makes the process almost entirely anonymous and impersonal. Under this pressure, lecturers must either take on an impossible burden of marking, or dumb their courses down so that assignments can be marked by student tutors, making use of a memorandum. (Management is often willing to impose this strain on graduate students, in exchange for the financial savings this entails.) Management can require student evaluations, often having the effect of making courses less challenging. In these ways, it reveals its main concerns: limiting spending on teaching; ensuring adequate throughput of graduates; avoiding bad publicity.

The coherence of the whole curriculum is less important. Whether a specific department or faculty has taken collective responsibility for the coherence of their curriculum, is not easily quantified and cannot easily be assessed by management. Hence it is unlikely to happen, and the curriculum will gradually be reshaped to enable teaching staff to respond to different, often individual, pressures imposed by management. Indifference towards the curriculum is also the basis for focusing on the rate at which peer-reviewed research publications are produced.

Managerial intervention in teaching: The case of the plagiarism declaration

Before coming to the question of research, I’d like to discuss an issue related to managerialism in teaching. I want to examine the strange dialectic of the plagiarism declaration, which students are required to sign and attach to every assignment they hand in—at my university, probably at yours, and at universities around the world. It’s not directly related to performance review, but it enables me to address the systematic dishonesty of the managerial university, which I’ve briefly referred to and will return to later.

If you Google the term plagiarism declaration, it will take no more than ten minutes to discover that the declaration itself has been plagiarized endlessly. In borrowing from someone else’s written work without attribution, it follows far more illustrious examples: many of the plays of Shakespeare, the American Declaration of Independence, Brahms’ First Symphony, T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland,” and much else beside.

Whatever its origins, the plagiarism declaration has now become a managerial rule throughout the world’s universities—based on expert advice from a lawyer or expert of another kind. I don’t know whether it actually inhibits plagiarism, and I doubt whether anyone can establish this reliably by now. Many of us have come to treat it as an unavoidable part of academic life. Why should we be challenging the plagiarism declaration as an impediment to our work as teachers?

The harm it does lies, first, in its impact on the relationship between students and teachers, which is reinforced by the hand-in of every assignment as resembling one between a criminal suspect and a police investigator. It lies, second, in its suggestion that the question of academic honesty is simply one of protecting intellectual property, rather than developing the skills to say clearly what you mean, judge when and how to use different kinds of source materials, and how to locate your own argument within existing scholarship. Third, in its false suggestion that the university can effectively police plagiarism, when the reality is that it can reliably discover only the crudest forms of plagiarism—that is, lifting large chunks of text unchanged from the Internet—and even that only when the teacher makes time to go through electronic reports. Put differently, what presents itself as a plagiarism policy for all students is often, in reality, a policy to penalize plagiarism by educationally disadvantaged students, especially those who do not have English as their home language.

Has the signed plagiarism declaration ever helped to decide whether a student has committed plagiarism or not? The decision is often taken out of the hands of the teachers concerned, who are familiar with the course, the assignment and the literature it draws upon. Disciplinary tribunals depend on the intention of the student concerned, which is often hard to prove. The actual message conveyed by forced compliance with the policy of the plagiarism declaration policy is that those with institutional power are entitled to impose hypocritical policies and those without such power have to play along. In various ways, the plagiarism declaration plants the same seed of dishonesty in teaching that it actively and energetically cultivates in policies regarding research.

Plagiarism is a serious problem, but it is a problem primarily because it stands in the way of learning, rather than distorting quality control among the products of the system. It is likely that the problem was much aggravated by the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, and the proliferation of easily accessible online resources. But this is surely not the whole problem. Plagiarism is also the result of larger classes, outsourced marking and a broader conception of university education as a ticket to career success, rather than a path to autonomy and responsibility. When management sets targets for student intake which exceed the limits of what the schooling system or the undergraduate curriculum can support, a recipe is provided for plagiarism to become endemic, sometimes even at graduate level.

In this context, plagiarism is largely a problem created by the managerial university, which then decides that more managerialism is needed in order to solve it. The plagiarism declaration is a way of saying to students: you are responsible for the problem, and to academic staff: you are responsible for fixing it, evading the actual responsibility of managerialism for creating and sustaining it. Instead, the declaration further erodes the foundations of academic honesty, continuing the managerial cycle of illusion.

Consequences of quantifying peer-reviewed research

The real focus of performance review, however, is on the publication of peer-reviewed research. Performance review, from its origins in the factory, has always relied on quantification. Classifying and counting publications seems to realize, at last, the factory manager’s dream of setting an exact standard of productivity for every employee and measuring them against it. Out of this dream, the science of bibliometry is born and the inner sanctuary of performance review is constructed!

Management will readily concede that research is very different from one field to another; that within the same field the same research output can reflect a vastly different level of effort and thought; that research publication in a field which is well established is easier than in a field which is in the process of being defined; that it’s easier for a researcher to stay in the same narrow field throughout their career than to take on new challenges when the times call for them. Taken together, these concessions seem to invalidate the whole idea of quantifying research output according to one bureaucratic measure. But this is a conclusion managerialism just cannot accept. It is an item of faith that, if publications are not classified and quantified, the whole academic edifice will collapse.

Similarly, management will concede that there is need for different emphases in academic life, with some academics carrying a heavier load of teaching, supervision or administration than others. They will concede the need for academics to be engaged with public life and that some are better equipped to do this than others. These concessions seem to invalidate the point of the giving priority to the publication count. But once again, this is the barricade where managerialism takes its stand.

The larger problem concerning the publication count is clearly formulated in what is known as Goodhart’s law, which specifies that once a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a reliable measure.[2] Goodhart was an economist and adviser to the bank of England, and his argument was developed in the 1970s as a critique of Margaret Thatcher’s monetary policies. Basically, once government decides to regulate a specific set of financial assets, investors will try to anticipate the effect this regulation will have and invest in a way designed to benefit from that effect. But the same applies to setting targets for publications. Management may believe that it will increase the rate of publication, but the most significant effect will be to change the character of research among academics faced with these targets and, in the process, change the character of intellectual life more generally.

Pressuring academics and universities to produce an ever-greater quantity of publications will inevitably impact on their quality. The publication count will discourage academics from taking on major projects extending over several years or whose duration and outcome cannot easily be estimated. It will discourage work written because the author believes she has something significant and important to say, and encourage work contrived to meet the checklists given to reviewers: demonstrating knowledge of the field rather than putting that knowledge to specific use; seeking to be original by discovering some point of potential dispute so obscure that no-one has ever bothered to address it directly; avoiding a controversial position that may be in conflict with the opinions of a blind reviewer. Having gotten through the acceptance process once, the publication count will then encourage the practice of recycling the same material in a somewhat different form and under a different title for submission elsewhere, perhaps on another continent.

In turn, the pressure of the publication count will lead to the creation of new and ever more narrowly-focused fields of specialization, and journals in which work in that sub-sub-field will be published. Once citation indexes are introduced, the whole practice of bibliometry directly encourages forms of fraud, with journals requiring citation of other articles from their own pages as a condition for publication, and “citation rings” formed by academics who exchange citation of each other’s work, not for its relevance to the topic but to keep up their citation scores.

Not every academic will follow this route, and some may have followed it without the pressures of performance review—out of everyday self-importance, the wish to be invited to a conference, or the lack of any other research ideas. But performance review will systematically move individuals and institutions in these directions, and managers will systematically exploit this vulnerability, perhaps without even being conscious of it. The performance review form at UCT—on the previous occasions I’ve filled it in—included a requirement that you describe your “strategy for promotion.” The idea that an academic could be motivated by anything but the wish for self-advancement—for example, by a belief that the work they are doing has intrinsic value—becomes unthinkable in the managerial university.

Stefan Collini captures the absurdity of the most basic assumption of the publication count with his quip that it “will no more improve the quality of our intellectual life than a faster ‘rate of production’ of ejaculations would necessarily improve our sexual life.”[3] The managerial university makes such absurdity part of its daily routine.

The ideology of excellence

I began by speaking of performance review as part of an attempt to make the university more like a factory. The factory is defined by its pursuit of efficiency and, through greater efficiency, profit. Universities are increasingly concerned with strengthening their finances, often for good reason. Management is increasingly willing to justify decisions that impact on its academic life primarily, or even exclusively, on financial grounds. But universities do not see themselves as pursuing profit, in the same way that corporations do.

Instead they see themselves as pursuing excellence, which they present as the unavoidable aspiration for institutions and individuals alike. I have written about the ideology of excellence in higher education before.[4] I will outline its working only briefly here, as this ideology plays a crucial role in securing compliance with managerialism in higher education. For as long as excellence can only be contrasted with mediocrity, it will be hard to argue against it.

The contemporary practice of excellence has three main characteristics. First, it measures academic achievement in predominantly quantitative terms, through bureaucratic processes. It does not require academics to read and debate each other’s work or see themselves as part of a collective enterprise. Each of them need only tick the same boxes. Second, it depends on an ethically neutral conception of the aims of academic life. A cure for cancer may be no more “excellent” than a technique for marketing cigarettes to teenagers. Their excellence is measured by frequency of publication, standing of journals, citation rates, research funding and frequent flyer miles. Third, excellence is promoted by a competitive system of individual rewards and penalties and systematically devalues the forms of academic community on which individual achievement depends. Individual universities or academics have no reason to celebrate when their neighbours improve. Neighbours become rivals, setting a standard against which they may be found wanting.

In South Africa, excellence also integrates our universities into a subordinate role within an unequal global system, through its preference for international recognition over contributions to local or national intellectual life. In this sense, it assists a recolonization of South African intellectual life. The problem is not globalism, but the uncritical acceptance of the inequality of global wealth and power, requiring South Africans to imitate the global norm rather than developing our own distinctive contribution to the sum of human thought.

The accountancy of excellence impacts on every relationship in the university and the whole fabric of academic life. It may begin with academics producing shallow and uncontroversial research within narrow specializations in order to meet the requirements of performance review. It spreads into the curriculum when academics design their courses in such a way as to leave more time for research. Assignments are dumbed down accordingly, and students learn the habits of intellectual passivity, academic formalism and reliance on jargon, instead of learning to develop their own arguments and insights.

A specific human type is selected for in this process: a type who sees academic debates as “games” in which their performance is an end in itself; a type who never questions their own approach to the subject matter but applies an established method mechanically, who focuses on their own self-advancement and takes no responsibility for the collective good. The uneven playing field of excellence favours them and ensures that they fill the ranks of the next generation of academics, continuing the vicious cycle.

In reality, the ethical neutrality implied by the idea of excellence has always been pretence. The implicit ethic of the managerial university is one of individual self-advancement; the only permissible ethic of neoliberalism. Once we abandon that pretence, we have no choice but to make ethical debate about the purposes of higher education an integral and ongoing part of academic life. That step, however, would require the end of managerialism and the techniques of performance review. It would require an open and conscious effort to make the university less like a factory and more like an intellectual community.

Can the university be reclaimed from managerialism?

How will the process of making universities into factories be brought to an end? The process will almost certainly lead to frequent crises. It is quite conceivable that whole areas of higher education will be destroyed in the process, or reduced to a parody, with massive consequences for our collective intellectual life. Capitalism may no longer need the expansion of higher education that has taken place globally since 1945, and may be content to scale down access to it and the scope of its teaching and research. In some ways, the managerial university, through its relentless assault on the integrity of intellectual life, is already preparing the ground for dismantling its institutional structures.

In this context, it will certainly not be enough to defend the contemporary managerial university, and it will perhaps not even be possible. Who comes to the defence of a factory which is no longer able to make a profit for its owners? The defence of higher education against managerialism will require deliberate and conscious effort to create a new kind of university to take the place of the managerial university, without simply returning to the patriarchal order of the past.

Without such a conscious and creative effort, it seems to me that managerialism will destroy universities in all but name. Once universities have accepted the idea that their function is to contribute to economic growth as quantified by capitalist profit, capitalism will limit universities to their needs. The managerialist who claims to keep the university alive may yet recall the words of the US army officer in Vietnam, who “had to destroy the village to save it.”

The future of the university in the context of neoliberalism is foretold by the Hamburger University established by MacDonald’s corporation, currently with campuses in Chicago and Shanghai. To some extent the major questions of managerialism in higher education have already been reduced to how wide a range of goods and services they can cater to and how much further upmarket than MacDonald’s they can go.

At the same time, the effort to create a new form of university cannot be separated from the struggle to create a new kind of society, in which human potential is not limited by the needs of capitalist profit. That does not mean that we need wait for a new society to come into being; universities can make a real contribution to that end. The university provides for a real human need for intellectual exploration and discovery, which we see among our students, whenever there is an opening for it, despite the pressures on them to consider only the cash value of their studies.

As the crisis of neoliberalism deepens, there will be space for students, workers and academics to mobilize on university campuses around an alternative future. In the meanwhile, there are a few things which even a small number of people can do.

We can speak out openly about the damage done by managerialism, even if we are in a minority. We can do our academic work honestly without succumbing to the pressures like those of performance review. We can build forms of political and intellectual community within the university, in defiance of management’s appropriation of the idea of community as a marketing tool—for example, in solidarity with the Marikana mineworkers or with the people of Palestine. For how can we resist the pressures to make the world into a factory, even in our own limited context, except in solidarity with those communities already standing up to the harshest forms of repression?

Above all, it is critically important to keep forms of teaching and learning and collective debate and enquiry alive within the university and in non-academic contexts, or in collaboration between them.


[1] This is an expanded version of a paper presented to a panel discussion hosted by the Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria, on 5 May 2014.

[2] I owe this point to Robin Briggs’ T.B. Davie Memorial Lecture, delivered at the University of Cape Town in August 2010. Details of Charles Goodhart’s publications are available on Wikipedia.

[3] Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London: Penguin Books, 2012), p. 127.

[4] Andrew Nash, “A Desert Called Excellence,” Mail & Guardian, November 26, 2010; Andrew Nash, “Excellence in Higher Education: Is There Really No Alternative?” Kagisano 9 (March 2013), pp. 42–62.


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