The promise of university bureaucracy: academic neoliberalism as project rather than outcome

My notes on Nash, K. (2018). Neo-liberalisation, universities and the values of bureaucracy. The Sociological Review, 0038026118754780.

It is too easy to frame neoliberalism in institutions as an outcome rather than a project. In this thoughtful paper, Kate Nash explores the space which this recognition opens up, the “competing and contradictory values in the everyday life of public sector organisations” which becomes apparent when we reject the supposition of “a fit between ideology, policy, political outcomes and practices” (178). Extending marketing competition into the university doesn’t automatically replace public goods, something which is important to grasp if we want to construct an adequate meso-social account of neoliberalisation. New Public Magement, as a theory of administration, might be explicitly opposed to bureaucracy but it is through a bureaucratic transformation that its tenets are woven into the fabric of an institution like the university. Nash begins her argument by revisiting Weber’s conception of the impartial promise of bureaucracy:

I adopt Weber’s definition of bureaucracy as enacting an ‘ethos of impartiality’, treating individuals as cases according to strict rules of professional and technical expertise. Each person in an organisation should follow correct procedures to guard against making personal judgements; to avoid using the authority of their office to exercise power according to their own personal decisions, whims or alternative values (Du Gay, 2000; Weber, 1948). For Weber, famously, instrumental values, the means rather than the ends, come to predominate in a modern capitalist economy and we are all caught in an ‘iron cage’ of technical evaluations (Beetham, 1987, pp. 60–61; Mommsen, 1989, pp. 109–120). (179)

However it is a mistake to regard bureaucracy as a totality, argues Nash, framing it as leading to the displacement of all values other than administrative efficiency. Rejecting this view allows us to distinguish between “different kinds of bureaucracy, that which undermines and that which supports education in universities” (179). It allows us to identify the values which marketisation entrenches (entrepreneurship and consumer choice) and find others to protect. The allocation of research funding (through the RAE/REF and individualised competitions) and teaching funding (through the student fees and student loans system) in UK universities reflects the entrenchment of these values. It is against this backdrop that collegiality, drawing on the analysis of Malcolm Waters, becomes interesting:

Collegiality, he argues, is relevant to university life in that, firstly, as academics we understand ourselves to be experts in our different fields, and therefore as possessing insights into knowledge – scientific, of the humanities, of the arts – on which there are no higher authorities. As such, academics have a degree of expert authority; we expect, and to a large degree we maintain, our ability to ‘have the last word’ on what counts as a university education in our specialised disciplines through procedures of peer and student evaluation. Secondly, academics tend to think of the university as a ‘company of equals’. Where knowledge is ultimately what matters, other markers of status, wealth and power must be irrelevant. As Waters puts it, ‘if expertise is paramount, then each member’s area of competence may not be subordi- nated to other forms of authority’ (Waters, 1989, p. 955). Finally, Waters suggests that the value of ‘consensus’ is a norm of universities: only decisions that have the full support of the collectivity ‘carry the weight of moral authority’ (Waters, 1989, p. 955). (181)

For Waters this is not necessarily a good thing, as collegiality brings closure i.e.the protection of insiders over outsiders, the defence of existing status against threats to it. This can make it appear to be a form of resistance to marketisation, but the intersection of the two can exasperate their existing problems e.g. superstar academics being able to exercise academic autonomy in a collegial mode, while others are left behind to aspire to collegial status (if I understand Nash’s point correctly). The fact that corporatism has displaced collegiality, to use McGettigan’s phase, doesn’t mean collegiality is a solution to the problem of corporatism.

Even if the rise of audit culture and end of contractual tenure have dented academic autonomy, there is still an entrenched expectation that we “should be free to research, to publish and to teach ‘the truth’, however inconvenient or troublesome for university administrators, governments and civil servants, without fear of losing our jobs”. It has the associated expectation that we will develop this by “reading widely, with curiosity, developing capacities to think through different meanings of concepts, challenge fundamental assumptions, and design and use systematic methodologies, as well as to uncover facts through scholarship and empirical research” (182). Meeting this expectation requires temporal autonomy in relation to free time in which nothing is being produced that can easily be registered.

Audit culture on Power’s account threatens this through twin processes: colonisation (transforming an organisation’s values through measuring its activity) and decoupling (the circularity of auditing which has paperwork produced for auditing as its sole object). The assumption underlying this is that “professionals cannot be trusted to do their jobs well; in particular, we cannot be trusted to deliver value for money” (183). However bureaucratic work is of the same kind and Nash draws attention to that we engage in outside of audit, including those activities which support education and resist abuses of collegiality and marketisation. Nash reminds us that “we should not see bureaucracy solely as marketising, nor only as imposed from above” (184). These are described by Nash as socialising bureaucracy:

Socialising bureaucracy regularises collegiality in that it helps academ- ics communicate what counts as good teaching and learning, what counts as research and learning that is of academic merit, and what assumptions and biases should not be allowed to make a difference in these judgements. It regulates collegiality in that documents and procedures help set limits on academics’ discretionary judgements. (185).

Against an exclusive focus on marketisation as a threat to education, Nash reminds us of those cases where professional power threatens it e.g. academics act in ways that serve  their own private interests rather than those of education. The first example she gives is formalisation of equal treatment where mechanisms ensure staff and students are assessed on the relevant grounds of academic performance and other criteria are excluded. The contractualisation of learning formalises the reciprocal expectations placed upon teachers and learners, mechanisms ensuring both parties have a working understanding of how the interaction will proceed.

Socialising bureaucracy in this sense mitigates the pathologies of both collegiality and marketisation. Recognising the critiques which see these mechanisms as killing spontaneity and charisma, Nash asks how we could otherwise secure the value for teaching and learning for everyone in a mass higher education system which has expanded dramatically over recent decades? Nonetheless distinguishing marketing bureaucracy from  socialising bureaucracy is difficult in practice. Both can contribute to the intensification of work and be experienced as destructive of autonomy. Furthermore, one kind of bureaucracy can stimulate the other

What’s particularly interesting for my purposes is Nash’s analysis of the grey area opened up between the two by intensified competition within and between universities:

It includes dealing with the paperwork associated with the explosion of publishing, showcasing and promotion of academic work – from reviewing articles for journals and book manuscripts and editing journals to organising and publicising conferences and seminars; the bureaucracy of applying for and dealing with funded research, which can mean managing a team; designing, developing and publicising popular programmes and courses; reviewing new programmes for other Departments and universities; acting as external examiner for other universities; and writing references for colleagues and students. In virtually every case, these activities require hours of meetings and emails, as well as filling in forms, and they often require producing online as well as offline materials. In addition, there are also meetings, emails and paperwork associated with running a Department and a university as if it were a business: writing and re-writing ‘business plans’, ‘job descriptions’, ‘programme specifications’, ‘strategies’ to promote research, enhance student experience and so on (188)

It strikes me that social media is part of this grey area but it also something through which much of the gray area is inflected i.e. it is an expectation in itself but also a way of undertaking these other activities. To use an example I talk about a lot: if social media makes it quicker to publicise seminars and conferences then why do we constantly assume it will be a net drain on our time? This seems like the theoretical framework I’ve been looking for to help make sense of the institutionalisation of social media within the university.