Paul Taylor: Humboldt's Rift: Managerialism in Education and Complicit Intellectuals

Paul Taylor: Humboldt's Rift: Managerialism in Education and Complicit Intellectuals
European Political Science, autumn 2003, issue no. 3.1

I adore certain symbols no less than you do. But it would be absurd to sacrifice to the symbol the reality that it symbolises. Cathedrals are to be adored until the day when, to preserve them, it would be necessary to deny the truths which they teach (Proust, 1996: 131).

The above quotation relates to a conversation about the threat to French cathedrals posed by the German bombing raids of the First World War. Substituting the concept ‘University’ for ‘Cathedral’ gives a good sense of the present day evisceration of university values. British universities are succumbing to a tsunami of rampant managerialism that has already devastated morale in such other public-sector institutions as the BBC and the National Health Service which are now riddled with one-dimensional managerialist thought. Satire becomes increasingly difficult in a climate where inherent banality is used as a defence against rational critique. The dominant language of the Academy now disproportionately resides in management meetings replete with the cabalistic incantations of PowerPoint presentations consisting of one part alliteration to two parts bullet point. There are three main types of character responsible for this situation: non-academic managerial vandals; former academics who have crossed over to the managerial dark side, and supinely acquiescent academics. The most dispiriting and ironic aspect is the failure of the latter group to apply to their own situation the critical thoughts they often research and teach.

In May 2003, Charles Clarke, the UK Secretary of State for Education caused a furore with a speech he delivered to an educational audience upon the contemporary purpose of universities. The exact words are disputed but the claim from those present is that he argued that the state should only fund higher education with a ‘clear usefulness’, going on to say, ‘I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.’[1] Perhaps even more revealing is the subsequent ‘clarification’ from one of his departmental spokespersons:

He is basically saying that universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change. Some might argue that universities are essentially communities of scholars that should go on without the involvement of the state in any way; that they are a group of people who come together to think thoughts in whatever way they do it. Charles Clarke thinks that this a perfectly legitimate definition of a university, but it doesn’t of itself add up to an explanation or justification of the state providing any resources for universities (THES, 2002: 2-3).

Such words provide crystal clear evidence of the extent to which Humboldt’s original idea of the university as a community of scholars has been eviscerated.

The University of Culture, instituted by Humboldt, draws its legitimacy from culture, which names the synthesis of teaching and research, process and product, history and reason, philology and criticism, historical scholarship and aesthetic experience, the institution and the individual (Readings, 1996: 65).

Humboldt’s University of Culture, the hugely influential model of our modern university system, was based upon the German idealist notion of Bildung – the ennoblement of character. Such a concept was obviously of its time but it nevertheless provides a useful yardstick with which to gauge how far from such ideals British universities have moved and the likely dangers soon to be experienced by other European university-systems. The time is fast approaching, if it hasn’t already arrived, when we will be nostalgically telling our children (not even our grandchildren) about the times when students weren’t ‘customers’ or ‘key-stakeholders’ but, well … students.

Baker and May (2002) along with Charlton and Andras (2002a; 2002b) have provided exemplary explorations of the misguided and ineffective nature of managerialism within British Higher Education, and of how the managerial approach of such operators fails in a practical sense and in its own auditable terms. This article, although related in concerns, seeks to do something different. It aims to show how British academics have at best been aesthetically and morally myopic and at worst complicit in the managerial project and its undermining of the Humboldtian ideal.

The continued success of managerialism or managerial ethics is due to a failure to confront head-on its underlying lack of principles. As Stephen Prickett succintly points out, ‘Managerial ethics does not debate first principles, indeed any principles (Prickett, 2002: 182). This paper seeks to address this inadequate level of debate. It therefore unapologetically, and without mincing its language, concentrates upon those first principles that academics seem curiously eager to ignore. I seek to highlight two main issues:

  1. The essentially parasitical and banal elements of managerial ethics that need to be recognised more clearly before they can be opposed.
  2. How the failure to recognise these qualities has led to academics’ abject failure to oppose these trends.


Most of these new styles of operators … are not professionals, since they manipulate … language for profits or other ulterior ends. It is a sad sign of their own insecurity or just plain cheek that they cling to the word ‘professional’ to describe themselves. Since their ethics are never pure, always contingent on the need to deliver what those who pay them want (which is itself always and entirely contingent), their self-designed tickets of entry to the professions can never be honoured at the entrance gates. They are parasitic on and compliant to activities which are always interested, never disinterested (Hoggart, 2001: 195).

An unwillingness to question fundamentally the intellectual credibility of both the dogma and its proponents lies behind the ability of managerialism to superimpose itself on the professional standards of not just academics, but also such groups as over-managed doctors (see Loughlin and Seedhouse, 2002) and creative sectors of the BBC. Perhaps the most surreal example of this ungrounded belief in the efficacy of ‘real-world’ (read: non-professional and extra-institutional) management skills was the recent Whitehall event where pop music impresario Pete Waterman lectured top Civil Service Mandarins on how to identify and nurture new talent. In an incident that academics could learn much from, ‘One bewildered civil servant is alleged to have asked aloud: “Mr Waterman, why are you here?”’ (Guardian, 1 August 2002). A similar basic level of incredulity and subsequent willingness to challenge crassness shown by the anonymous civil servant needs to be fostered amongst academics. Charlton and Andras (2002a; 2002b) describe in blunt but accurate terms how a sector whose raison d’être is the search for disinterested truth has become fatally compromised by an educational audit regime that is effectively an institutionalised process of lying. The British regime of Quality Assurance Auditing (QAA) does not, even by its own rubric, improve teaching quality: it merely confirms the existence of auditable paper trails. The fact that for the sake of individual and institutional reasons, academics have been willing to pretend otherwise is a cause for professional shame of two kinds. Some of us have failed to point out the Emperor’s lack of clothes, whilst others have been busy praising his sartorial elegance.

Managerial ethics are aesthetically inappropriate when applied, beyond their narrow range of functionality, to more intellectually complex fields. Some academics still have the grace to wince when they hear the unchallenged assertion of managerial platitudes (who, for example, would be deliberately against ‘quality’?) but more generally, their repetition seems to have made us insensitive to their inherent crassness. This is a technique identified as a mainstay of New Labour rhetoric. Ultimately unjustifiable and illogical parallels between dissimilar concepts and values are sustained by mere repetition: ‘… it is a perfectly routine and rather frequent equivalence that implicitly carries … a message’ (Fairclough, 2000: 27). The strategic use of banal language goes beyond mere aesthetics. Banal managerialism enervates educational values to produce a

… current higher education culture, the purpose of which … is to make ‘balance-sheets sound like Homer and Homer sound like balance-sheets’ … British higher education policy now turns solely on the enforced internalisation of managerial control mechanisms. Their intention is to displace universalising intellectual comportment by task-orientated technocratic procedures through behavioural conditioning; to make the experience of thinking and learning the sterilized aggregate of specified technical norms (Davies, 1996: 23).

The necessary conditions for anti-educational behaviour by academics are created by the way in which bureaucratic/managerial structures create a distance from ethical concerns: in meetings, procedural answers are given to ethical questions. On occasion, jaw-dropping ironies such as the sponsorship of a medical ethics centre by a tobacco company (at the University of Nottingham) means that that the writing on the wall cannot be fully hidden by the latest laminated corporate mission statement. More often, however, the negative effects of the corporate influence are cumulative and pass without sustained critique.


We flatter ourselves that we are civilized yet we habitually place conformity before reason … How … can we stop ourselves being so bloody stupid? (Loughlin and Seedhouse, 2002: v).

It’s the verbal equivalent of Meccano, lots of standardized bits put together in a few standardized ways … These cliché-agglutinations may not be the work of intelligence but they aren’t the work of mere chance either … (Maskell and Robinson, 2001: 66 and 68)

An important part of the humanities and social sciences is their ability to deconstruct language’s power surreptitiously to enhance the salience of certain values in a seemingly natural fashion. Curiously, however, academics seem unable to adapt these skills to their own working environments. The promiscuous use of euphemisms, neologisms, and the skilful slipping into arguments of questionable, yet generally unquestioned, equivalences are all used in managerial approaches to engineer change. Despite the way in which their acronyms conjure up unthreatening images of supermarkets and fizzy drinks (for example, The Higher Education Staff Development Agency [HESDA] and the Further Education National Training Organisation [FENTO]), the language used by various education bodies has destructive effects that are intrinsically difficult to engage with. They use phrases from a language ‘which is itself the destruction of thought … This style is not only inadequate, but a kind of virus rendering blank the minds that try to use it (Maskell and Robinson, 2001: 62).

The end product of this virus is a disease whose symptoms can be regularly seen in the job advertisements appearing in the higher education press. For example, I recently came across three job advertisements that neatly illustrate the relative importance placed upon academic concerns in comparison to those of management. In the first, the post of Head of a Quality Assurance and Standards Unit was offered at a professorial salary level[2]. In the second, the text accompanying the call for new school administrators illustrates the importance with which academic concerns are held within managerialism. They are included almost as an after-thought: ‘You will need strong management skills, particularly an understanding of change management, a commitment to customer-focused service and an empathy for academic objectives.’[3]

The third is perhaps the best example of Marcuse’s observation that ‘[t]otal commercialization joins formerly antagonistic spheres of life, and this union expresses itself in the smooth linguistic conjunction of conflicting parts of speech. To a mind not sufficiently conditioned, much of the public speaking and printing appears utterly surrealistic’ (Marcuse, 1968: 89). The advertisement’s complete conflation of academic and business values is reflected in its juxtaposition with other advertisements on the same page for chief executive positions in the water, gas and development agency fields, and in its simultaneous call for a ‘Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive’. Academic qualifications play a minor role in the tenor of the advert but do threaten to break out (albeit in a heavily commercially qualified sense) in the penultimate phrase of its final sentence: ‘The successful candidate will possess strategic vision, commercial acumen, and a strong determination to lead a team that has very high ambitions for the future. This is an exciting opportunity to lead a large, distinctive, and dynamic organisation that thrives on developing entrepreneurial learning and encouraging innovation.’[4]

Before it is thought that such language is limited to the inevitably corporatised realm of job advertisements, I draw to your attention an opinion-editorial article published recently in the UK’s Higher Education trade magazine, the Times Higher Education Supplement. The article was entitled, ‘Serve the customer’ and, illustrating the heights which managerialism has reached, was written by Roger Waterhouse, the vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby. In what is, perhaps, the most depressing and, at the same time, revealing section, Waterhouse asserts that

Higher education … cannot be founded upon the deferential power relationship. And it cannot treat its customers like children. The truth of the matter is that we are a service industry … We need therefore to embrace the service industry and set up structures to look after our clients. We need call centres, we need advisers, we need mentors, we need learning facilitators with a customer-focused mentality … But lest we think that service industries based on the human touch will never change, consider the fate of banking (Waterhouse, 2002: 14).

Let each reader judge for himself/herself the significance of the language in this passage, but for this particular academic it provides a perfect example of what Maskell and Robinson refer to above as a language based upon cliché-agglutinations. I mentioned in the introduction that within the present managerial climate satire becomes difficult and it is difficult to imagine being able to write a similar pastiche of mangerialism without being accused of using an exaggeratedly crass tone.

The previously cited strategy of repeating false equivalences until they assume unwarranted conceptual weight is plied here with carefree abandon. The false ‘customer’ metaphor is pursued to its illogical extreme so that a commitment to the pursuit and subsequent transmission of knowledge in its highest form is reduced to the platitude of ‘a customer-focused mentality’. The excerpt ends with the vice-Chancellor hoisting himself by his own rhetorical petard. His request for call centres, and his invitation to consider the fate of banking seem to betray ignorance, not only of the inadequacies of touch-tone banking, but also of the extent to which the comparison itself exhibits a disturbing rejection of any non-commodified aspects of the activity formerly known as education. It is perhaps this type of unadulterated Blairism that led the father of the McDonaldisation thesis to observe: ‘The external audit system has changed everything. I view the traditional British system as different and superior to the American state model, but that’s gone now. The audit system has led to the McDonaldisation of British Higher Education to a much higher degree than we have experienced in the US’ (Ritzer, 2002: 18-19).


At worst auditing tends to become an organizational ritual, a dramaturgical performance … The problem of the epistemological obscurity of audit means that it is difficult to disentangle instrumental effects from a certain staging of control: audit practice is a form of social control talk (Power, 1997: 141).

The closest Hamlet gets to confronting directly the usurper of his father’s throne is the staging of ‘the play within the play’. In a similar procrastinatory fashion, academic colleagues have suggested to me that the ‘cleverest’ way to deal with managerial culture is to treat auditing as a game to be played creatively. Although Hamlet’s long drawn-out anguish makes great drama, academics should avoid his hand-wringing and oppose the spread of managerial ethics in higher education much more simply and directly in two main ways:

  1. Academics and former academics now in management positions need to seek common cause in the protection of education from parasitical operators.
  2. Not only managerialism’s inherent lack of valid intellectual credentials, but also its lack of credibility in its own terms (e.g. its obvious failure to verify the quality it purports to measure) needs to be highlighted. Emphasising at every opportunity the blatant internal contradictions of managerialism puts the operators on the back foot: they have to pause to justify in a rational manner rather than plough ahead with cliché-driven initiatives.


The phrase ‘herding cats’ has been used to describe the difficulty of steering academics towards a common purpose. A vivid illustration of managerialism’s success has been the way it has managed, under the banner of ‘quality’ to transform such idiosyncratic independence into behaviour more appropriate of lemmings. Both within individual institutions and across the university sector as a whole those best placed to resist managerialism have in fact promoted it. A whole generation of young academics has grown up aping their elders’ collaborationist attitudes and averring their commitment to meaningless managerial concepts whilst potentially powerful bodies within the university sector have chosen the path of least resistance and most eventual harm. The roots of academic barbarianism lie in our own actions: so does the solution. At the micro-level, individual academics within individual universities should refuse to engage in needless managerial activities (for example, those not imposed by external bodies under pain of financial penalty).

At higher management levels, senior managers need to acknowledge the rather obvious fact that self-serving means-oriented bureaucratic structures attract self-serving people to the ultimate detriment of the institution. No one with any experience of higher education would claim that academics are easy to manage. Effective management, however, has been side stepped in preference for dulling academics’ intellectual energies with the vapidity of managerial structures and language. In this way Senior Management Teams (SMTs) have created ideal conditions for the proliferation of two types of operators and their obfuscatory practices:

  1. non-academics parasitical upon academic life: e.g. general curriculum development/teaching and learning units;
  2. academics who use mastery of procedural processes to compensate for their lack of commitment to the more substantive educational concerns.

SMTs have the responsibility to choose administrators and managers from a pool of those with the specific abilities to administrate and manage rather than from among a self-selecting rump of purveyors of platitudes or academics seeking an escape from the ‘core businesses’ of teaching and research.


Managerialism is frequently based upon the mere repetition of false equivalences. This needs to be pointed out as and when it happens. For example, when words such as ‘quality’ are used indiscriminately, or students are referred to as ‘customers’, we need to point out the basic linguistic slippage that is being perpetrated. The collaborationist approach has advocated jumping through managerial hoops in order to receive rewards that have since proved to be a mirage. Co-operation has thus failed by its own pragmatic rationale and non-compliance should be given its chance. Given the basic nature of the problems identified throughout this article, my proposed solutions are equally simple. The most efficient form of resistance is a form of institutional aikido. In practice, this would mean questioning various initiatives in their own budgetary and managerial terms: what do they contribute to the bottom line core business of the University? We need to continue to ask a series of pointed questions, and keep asking them until answers are provided:

  • What are the qualifications of those who are redefining the professional status of academics?
  • What is the exact meaning behind glib-sounding managerial phrases?
  • What is the contribution of university operators to the bottom-line profitability of a university?
  • What are the implications of standardised matrices for professional discretion and real learning?


On the night of August 10th, 410, when King Alariac’s 100,000 Visigoths drove their bonze-headed battering rams through the walls of Rome, the emperor Honorious was in his palace on the Adriatic coast, arranging and re-arranging his collection of prize poultry. Later the next day, while the Goths were busy looting the imperial city and murdering its inhabitants, a court chamberlain in Ravenna informed the emperor that Rome had perished. Honorious received the news with shock and disbelief. “Rome perished?” he said. “It is not an hour since she was feeding out of my hand”. The chamberlain explained that that he referred to the city of Rome, not to the emperor’s chicken of the same name. The clarification relieved the emperor of his anxiety. “But I thought my friend … that you meant that I had lost my bird Rome” (Lapham, 1997: 218).

This article began by referring to three key categories: non-academic managerial vandals; former academics who have crossed over to the managerial dark side; and supinely acquiescent academics. The first two categories are arguably beyond redemption but whatever their salvational status this paper concentrates upon the third category. As a relatively young academic I am nevertheless cynical enough to expect nothing from the first two groups. Both use the language of managerialism as bureaucrats have throughout the ages to stifle those who are either more dedicated to educational values or simply more intellectually able than themselves. Much more dispiriting and harmful to early career idealism, however, is the complicity of those academics who criticise managerialism in private yet acquiesce in the day-to-day working environment. Academics as a profession have let themselves down by either failing to act or, even worse, using the tired old, ‘Its better us doing it than having it done to us’. The biggest disappointment of my professional life has been the sight of otherwise respected colleagues using and promoting some of the managerial terms and concepts critiqued above without any apparent qualms.

The examples used in this article are taken from the British experience and, moreover, their effects may, for the moment at least, be disproportionately felt in those relatively vulnerable institutions that can ill afford to upset their paymasters. For those elsewhere in Europe who have not yet felt the full effects of managerialism, failure to heed and resist the warning signs may exact a heavy cost in future. Perhaps there is ground for optimism in the fact that the demise of the ‘heavy-touch’ QAA regime was hastened by the decision of the academic board of the London School of Economics to withdraw from it and that, significantly, ‘all five of the senior academics who led the LSE revolt had non-British backgrounds’ (Wolf, 2003: 13). The British experience is that such principled leadership is the exception rather than the norm. There is widespread academic acquiesence to the damage wrought by the vandals – which makes us look uncomfortably similar to Honorious and his indifference to the fate of Rome.


Baker, G. and T. May (2002), ‘Auditing as the eternal present: Organisational transformation in British higher education’, European Political Science, 1:3, 12-22.

Charlton, B. and P. Andras (2002a), ‘A System Poisoned by Deceit’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 4 October, p. 14.

Charlton, B. and P. Andras (2002b), ‘Auditing as a tool of public policy: The misuse of quality assurance techniques in the UK university expansion’, European Political Science, 2:1, 24-35.

Charlton, B. and P. Andras (2002), ‘Auditing as a tool of public policy: The misuse of quality assurance techniques in the UK university expansion’, Euopean Political Science, 2:1, 24-35.

Davies, M. L. (1996), ‘University culture or intellectual culture?’ in B. Brecher, O. Fleischmann and J. Halliday, (eds), The University in a Liberal State, Aldershot, Avebury.

Fairclough, N. (2000), New Labour, New Language? London, Routledge.

Hoggart, R. (2001), Between Two Worlds: Essays, London, Arum Press.

Lapham, L. (1997), Waiting for the Barbarians, London, Verso.

Loughlin, M. and D. Seedhouse (2002), Ethics, Management and Mythology: Rational Decision Making For Health Service Professionals, Abingdon, Radcliffe Medical Press.

Marcuse, H. (1968), One-Dimensional Man, Boston, Beacon Press.

Maskell D. and I. Robinson (2001), The New Idea of A University, London, Haven Books.

Power, M. (1997), The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Prickett, S. (2002), ‘Managerial Ethics and the Corruption of the Future’ in S. Prickett and P. Erskine-Hill (eds), Education, Education, Education: Managerial Ethics and the Law of Unintended Consequences, Thorverton, Imprint Academic.

Proust, M. (1996), Time Regained, London, Vintage.

Readings, B. (1996), The University in Ruins, London, Harvard University Press.

Ritzer, G. (2002), ‘Drive-thru Education Serves McNuggets of Information’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 20 December, pp. 18-19.

THES [Times Higher Education Supplement] (2002), ‘How the Story Unfolded’, 16 May, pp. 2-3.

Waterhouse, R. (2002), ‘Serve the Customer’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 20 December, p. 14.

Wolf, A. (2003), ‘Opinion’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 30 May, p 13.


  1. I am citing the account given in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 16 May 2002, pp. 2-3.
  2. Advertisement for a position (salary circa £42,000) at St Martin’s College. Times Higher Education Supplement, 20 September 2002, p. 42.
  3. Advertisement for three School Administrators, University of Edinburgh. Times Higher Education Supplement, 20 September 2002, p. 47.
  4. Sunday Times, Appointments Section, 20 October 2002, p. 1.