The university has been occupied – not by students demanding a say (as in the 1960s), but this time by the many-headed Wolf of management.Footnote 1 The Wolf has colonised academia with a mercenary army of professional administrators, armed with spreadsheets, output indicators and audit procedures, loudly accompanied by the Efficiency and Excellence March. Management has proclaimed academics the enemy within: academics cannot be trusted, and so have to be tested and monitored, under the permanent threat of reorganisation, termination and dismissal. The academics allow themselves to be meekly played off against one another, like frightened, obedient sheep, hoping to make it by staying just ahead of their colleagues. The Wolf uses the most absurd means to remain in control, such as money-wasting semi- and full mergers, increasingly detailed, and thus costly, accountability systems and extremely expensive prestige projects.
This conquest seems to work and the export of knowledge from the newly conquered colony can be ever increased, but inland the troubles fester. Thus, while all the glossed-up indicators constantly point to the stars, the mood on the academic shop floor steadily drops. The Wolf pops champagne after each new score in the Shanghai Competition, while the university sheep desperately work until they dropFootnote 2 and the quality of the knowledge plantations is starting to falter, as is demonstrated by a large number of comprehensive and thorough analyses.Footnote 3 Meanwhile, the sheep endeavour to bring the absurd anomalies of the occupation to the Wolf’s attention by means of an endless stream of opinion articles, lamentations, pressing letters and appeals. In turn, the Wolf reduces these to mere incidents, brushes them aside as inevitable side effects of progress, or simply ignores them.
The occupation may have a different shape and intensity in different places, but it cannot be reduced to a few isolated phenomena. It is rather a highly significant and pervasive pattern that applies in varying degrees to many universities in many countries. The fact that there may be other animals around does not make the presence of the Wolf less significant or threatening.
Although our description and evaluation are written from the perspective of Dutch universities, the gist of our account (and quite a few details) applies to other countries as well, especially in Europe.Footnote 4 While management’s occupation may not be as advanced in the Netherlands as it is in England (Holmwood 2011), it has already established a powerful continental bridgehead (De Boer, Enders and Schimank 2007). To show how these developments are more than just incidents, we list six critical processes and their excesses below. We will then proceed to analyse causes and suggest remedies.Footnote 5
Measurability for Accountability
Under management’s occupation, scientists are measured against one another with endlessly changing yardsticks. The supposition is that this will make their complex work accountable to outsiders, make the ‘output’ fit the accountants’ spreadsheets. In the Netherlands, counting output started off with the number of publications, then international publications, after which only English-language publications counted, thereafter articles in high-impact journals, and eventually often-cited publications (leading to a high ‘h-index’).Footnote 6 Because jobs and the survival of entire departments depend on these indicators, everyone does their best to buff up the scores, if need be at the expense of content. Academics assist their colleagues with citations to increase their h-index and travel endlessly to conferences to surpass one another in visibility with slick PR presentations. Journals demand references to their papers as a precondition for publication in order to increase their (senseless) impact factor (Weingart 2005; American Society for Cell Biology et al. 2012; Vanclay 2012; Dijstelbloem et al. 2013), while academics make cynical jokes about the ‘smallest publishable unit’. After the collapse of each indicator, we fabricate a new one and the game starts all over again.
The problem does not lie with the technical inadequacy of a particular indicator, but in the very regime of indicator fetishism itself. The regime does not really care about high-quality results, which it cannot judge, but rather about performance: the tactically well thought-out and cleverly buffed-up illusion of excellence. These indicators have fundamentally changed science itself. They ignore and destroy the variety of knowledge forms and practices in various fields of study. That what is not measurable and comparable, does not count, is a waste of energy and should therefore be destroyed. In the indicator game, a book of four hundred pages published by Cambridge University Press hardly counts, or does not even count at all; a three-page article does. The specific publication system of (a part of) the natural and life sciences has been forced upon the rest of the sciences, even where it does not fit.
The scientific publication system is now all but broken: it is caving in under an endless stream of worthless publications, edited papers posing as republications ‘for a different audience’, strategic citations, and opportunistic or commercial journals: an exponentially growing stream of output, hardly ever read. You do not further your career in this publication factory (Halffman and Leydesdorff 2010; Abma 2013) by reading all these papers, but rather by writing as many as possible, or at least by adding your name to them – and finding this absolutely normal.Footnote 7
Permanent Competition under the Pretext of ‘Quality’
Institutions are measured against other institutions, researchers compete with one another for funds and universities for students. This leads to a permanent state of war between all the parties, destroying the social fabric of the university, but benefiting the occupier. You can no longer present your research proposals to your colleagues in good faith, because they may appropriate your ideas. Your institute may not show any weakness at all, as this can result in its termination with the support of neighbouring departments. Of all tasks in the academic workplace, teaching is the least appreciated and has to be outsourced as soon as possible, allowing people to focus on the battle for coveted research money.
This competition is part of a culture of mistrust, which is explicitly applauded and encouraged: university employees are suspect, scroungers, parasites. The insinuation is that if they are not constantly threatened, they do nothing. The strong inner drive of many academics who, despite all these absurdities, stubbornly persevere is scornfully dismissed as unreliable.
Much is also expected from competition for students. Competition between universities and degree programmes, measured according to audits and rankings, is presumed to improve the quality of education. The student-consumer, however, does not opt for quality, but rather for an image, an attractive student life, or fancy facilities. Hence universities invest in appealing restaurants and sports facilities. And if the university or degree programme then grows (to the joy of the managers), the quality tends to decrease rather than increase, because the infrastructure of lecturing rooms, lecturers, teaching methods and administration cannot cope with the influx.Footnote 8
This situation of permanent competition and mistrust subverts each impetus for organisation and collective resistance by lecturers and researchers opposing this system. Disposable staff are opportunistically left dangling with temporary contracts, often with an appeal to their sense of responsibility towards their students. Overtime work and structural job insecurity, including above-average stress levels, have become the rule (Gill 2009). Universities now tend to offer academic kamikaze contracts with just about 100% lecturing duties, often comprising far more work than is paid for. The carrot offered is the suggestion of more permanent academic employment in the future. In light of the fierce competition, this is only feasible for those who ‘qualify’ by obtaining research results in their unpaid free time. The defence of this system is that ‘Nobody is forced to sign such a contract’. A structural injustice is legitimised by making it an individual choice: ‘Exploitation? You are doing it to yourself’.
The Promise of Greater ‘Efficiency’
In addition to quality improvement, the managerial university also claims to increase its efficiency. Hence we do not need to provide universities with more resources; we provide managers who will attract extra resources through increased efficiency, under the pressure of mutual competition. Competition will not only make the university better, but also cheaper – this is the promise.
However, in practice, competition between degree programmes is about slick communication and prestige projects – which are not cheap at all. One hilarious book (Tuchman 2009) describes the shift of resources from research to PR projects at an American university, but in the Netherlands things also go wrong. A typical faculty now has a solid communications team and also at the university level there are large divisions of marketing and communication. They produce high-priced newspaper advertisements containing the most recent, excellent external review results, regularly introduce a new corporate image, as well as sparkling websites. They plug Acclaimed Professors in TV talk shows in the hope of luring away students from the competitor. Providing real information about a degree programme is still voluntary work, by lecturers behind a table on a Saturday afternoon university information day or in a demonstration class at secondary schools.
Specifically in research, competition leads to outrageously high overheads. Writing research proposals requires a substantial part of the research time (Herbert, Barnett and Graves 2013), in an environment where the chances of a research application’s success are often one in ten, or even less. Researchers try their fortune with European funding agencies, even if it requires taking on its notorious bureaucracy, its Byzantine research programmes, its forced cooperation constructions, its lobbying in the Brussels corridors, and the expensive application-writing advisors at universities.
Similar processes occur in the Netherlands on a national scale. According to a conservative estimate, the overheads of writing, reviewing and allocating the NWO Veni subsidies (The ‘Innovational Research Incentives Scheme’ of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) amount to about a quarter of the research budget (Van Arensbergen, Hessels and Van der Meulen 2013: 47). Here too, there are costly preparation procedures with specialised advisors coaching applicants for the procedure. In the end, this expensive assessment system does not even succeed in selecting the best researchers (Van den Besselaar and Leydesdorff 2009). In spite of this, receiving such prestigious ‘talent subsidies’ is increasingly used as a criterion for further appointments at universities.
A considerable part of these overheads is shamelessly passed on to the primary process. Participating in this assessment circus is often a matter of working in the evening or during the weekend. This work is rarely paid and seldom interesting, apart from keeping track of what the competitors are up to. In practice, the real meaning of ‘efficiency’ and ‘quality’ is ‘working over the weekend again’.
Meanwhile, the overheads of universities and the research system are kept vague and invisible. In the Netherlands, universities no longer have to issue detailed annual reports since Education Minister Ritzen stripped university councils of their budget supervision authority in the late 1990s. As a consequence, overheads have become a kind of trade secret. A separate investigation by an expensive consultant would be required to make overheads visible at all.
The ridiculous transaction costs of competition, evaluation and performance management are an astounding and well-known source of financial waste, but nonetheless the system remains unaltered. For the average academic, the promise of efficiency is a bitter joke.
The Adoration of Excellence: Everybody at the Top!
Dutch research policy is obsessed with top researchers, top departments and excellent universities. Only the best is good enough and only for the very best can we spare a dime (and then solely at the expense of the others). The ‘top’ comprises those with a plethora of publications, the clever networkers who know how to put themselves in the spotlight and how to organise large-scale research funding. Meanwhile the really big chunks of research funding are not shared in the hard-as-nails open competition at the bottom, but rather in the ad hoc programme funding for which you need to belong to the right networks. Subsequently, acquired large projects provide a hefty advantage when it comes to acquiring even more subsidies. In this way, the managerial university strengthens the dubious Matthew Effect in science (Merton 1973) even more, but now in a financial way: he who has (money), will receive even more (money) (Landsman 2013).
In the culture of winners, no-one cares what is consumed to keep this fire going. Star players often outsource their teaching duties to underpaid temporary workers. The time thus saved, can then be utilised for the expansion of their own research empire. They demand more money or better research facilities, even to the detriment of their more docile colleagues. Thus, in times of great scarcity for universities, ever increasing sums go to well-‘hyped’ stars, whilst doctoral students, postdocs and other employees with bad contracts and dismal academic career prospects perform the real toil. The managerial university itself cannot judge the intangible ‘excellence’, but believes blindly in its existence and in the assessment system’s ability to identify it, and is terrified it might miss some ‘excellent’ opportunity. Meanwhile, being one of the ‘top’ is mainly a matter of successfully managing a self-fulfilling prophecy and disguising the costs.
Contentless Process Management
In essence, for management a university is like a company (or any other type of organisation). The required number of annual credits and doctoral dissertations are pre-set in budgets as production targets. ‘Management is a profession’ and ‘university management needs to professionalise’. With ‘professionalise’ they actually mean that academic professionals must deprofessionalise: they have to be demoted to executors, subject to a strict regime of supervision by another group of professionals: educational experts, marketing and communications staff, lawyers, real estate managers, auditors and, at the top, the professional university administrators. What is important is ‘the process’, not the objectives. The objectives are, after all, obvious: output, quality, efficiency, excellence.
The Wolf arrived in sheep’s clothing: management claims to be here to help the poor academic in these tough times of budgetary constraints. The poor academics will be relieved of the burden of administrative jobs, of the mass of paperwork, of endless meetings, and can hence concentrate on their real task. But whoever lets the Wolf in has to work each weekend through the piles of paper generated by organised mistrust and ends up writing reports and petitions to convey that this sheep is not yet ready to be slaughtered. A pet example are the extensive teaching documentation systems, in which lecturers have to record all kinds of administrative details about courses, including how each exam question relates to specific learning goals. Such petty control systems have nothing to do with ‘quality’ and only foster cynicism.
VU University Amsterdam – dubbed the ‘biscuit factory’ by academic activists – is a case in point for how this all went awry. This university has become increasingly viewed as a professionally managed company producing publications and degrees of tolerable quality at the lowest possible cost.Footnote 9 Knowledge that is not compatible with this ‘factory logic’ is in for hard times. Consequently, management is not a neutral intervention, but has major consequences for the nature of universities’ activities. Its ‘vision’ leads to ‘big is beautiful’ policies, separation of teaching and research, a preference for instrumental skills aimed at specific labour markets and for profitable research which latches on to the next hype and does not approach its funders too critically.
Administrators of provincial universities aspire to be little Oxford, little Harvard or little Cambridge, but have no notion of the problems these places face: the rancour, the poor employment terms for those at the bottom of the organisation, the workload, the concentration of power. The social consequences, such as the formation of elite cliques, nepotism and the extreme inequality in this type of academic system, do not interest them at all. This does not prevent universities from introducing ‘top degree programmes’ in colleges based on the American model, or top research institutes with large industrial interests. At the lean Dutch universities there are no funds for these types of projects, which means that budgets have to be created; in other words, they have to be requisitioned from the rest of the organisation. This leads to prestige projects of which the manager can boast. That the permanent lecturers at these university colleges have no (or hardly any) time for research is not mentioned. And so the Netherlands now also has wannabe universities: megalomania with a small middle-class budget and a wake of destruction (cf. Tuchman 2009).
In the meantime, the managerial university’s system ensures that the administrators continue to believe in the occupation through extensive confirmation and lavish rewards. They receive a top salary and a car with a private chauffeur (‘If they treat me like this, I must be very special’), grow detached from the workplace and end up in a highfaluting administrative level – from the Dean through the Executive Board, the Supervisory Board, the Interuniversity Association up to the Ministry of Education, and all their surrounding moonlighting visionaries – where they all constantly parrot each other. Blatant failure, such as botched mergers between non-university higher education and universities, is no reason for critical reflection or even a delayed career. In the middle of fiasco, the managers are already busy with the next round of megalomaniac plans. If the academic staff becomes too obstreperous to carry out its policies, management flies in a contingent of well-armed crisis managers from another business sector. Critics of the policy are invited ‘for a talk’ about their irresponsible conduct and are blamed for causing reputational damage. Whoever is not with us, is against us. An important part of ‘managing the process’ is the neutralisation of doubt. Doubt is for losers.
The Promise of Economic Salvation
Management promises that an ‘entrepreneurial university’ (the old motto of Twente University) will provide economic salvation. By cooperating with business, it expects universities will transform their wonderful discoveries into marketable products within a few years. This promise not only exhibits a naive belief in commodified universities delivering immediate economic relief, but also a shocking reduction of social benefit to economic gain. Extreme economisation has led to a radical transformation of the academic culture (Radder 2010; Engelen, Fernandez and Hendrikse 2014). The ludicrous climax is the measurement of the ‘media value’ of newspaper articles written by academics at VU University Amsterdam. Instead of valuing a contribution to public debate, these articles are now regarded as advertisements for the own university: their ‘value’ is calculated from the advertising rates for that part of the article in which this university is mentioned.
However, universities are in no way the starting point of an innovation production line culminating in new computers and smart phones – gadgets that will deliver us from the economic crisis. What universities can do is provide part of the infrastructure that enables such innovations: highly educated people, methods, a deeper understanding of what lies behind accidental discoveries, general principles and building blocks that may one day be used by a clever entrepreneur, reflections on the socio-cultural conditions for successful societal innovations. But then again, much innovation results from the opening up of new markets, new applications, improved maintenance technologies and unforeseen combinations of social and material inventions. These are processes in which academic research plays but a minor role (Edgerton 2007). The hope of economic salvation by means of enforced innovation is a misdirected yearning for a technological fix, like taking a pill to cure an unhealthy lifestyle.
In the name of economic relief, Dutch research is now surrendered to the strongest sectors of the ‘The Netherlands Inc.’: the ‘top sectors’ of the Dutch economy. Profit-oriented enterprises are gaining control over the public research infrastructure. They are allowed to restructure research to fit a time horizon their shareholders find interesting; if needs be, to the detriment of the long-term knowledge infrastructure and of those disciplines that are not easily marketable: mathematics, minor languages, philosophy and a whole range of other essential sectors of the knowledge landscape that do not necessarily bring in money.
That which does not lead to industriousness and financial gain is outmoded and questionable. History should be replaced by company history, philosophy is at most useful for the neuroethics of office innovation, sociology only as a marketing tool. Away with culture, the fundamental questions of life and the universe, the meaning of happiness or a good life.