While the current debates and discourses surrounding higher and distance education are focused (if not obsessed) with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), there are also other “M”s to reflect upon. No, I am not talking about the Head of the Secret Intelligence Service in James Bond movies, referred to as “M”. In the field of higher and distance education there are also Massification, Mobile Learning, and … Managerialism. There is however (possibly) an uncanny resemblence between managerialism and Judy Dench as “M” as “the evil queen of numbers.”
Current discussions on the future of higher and distance education are seemingly obsessed with how technology shapes access, assessment, content, and accreditation. Most of these discussions place “technology at the centre of both educational development and institutional strategy for change” (Reid, 2003, para. 10). I must confess that the discourses and hype around the MOOCification of higher and distance education is, at times, overbearing. There are the massive MOOCs, the small MOOCs, the accredited and non-accredited MOOCs, and there seems to a MOOC for every possible occasion, taste and need. There is also a surge of claims and even “inexorable pressure” (Reid, 2003, para. 10) to embrace online technologies. Looking back at 2012 we may rightfully say that “we’ve been MOOCed.”
I don’t contest the fact that MOOCs in their various forms and the determined move towards online learning force us to review some of our traditional assumptions and claims about the purpose of and access to higher education, the ‘preciousness’ of content, assessment, collaboration and accreditation. The present debates and news flashes are however relatively silent on the possibility that the current hype is mainly concerned with the “prestige and competitiveness of the university as an end in itself” (Marginson, 2012, in Reid, 2003).
In this blog I would like to reflect on another game-changer in higher and distance education namely managerialism. How does the MOOCification of higher education relate to and impact on managerialism, if at all? Does the opening up of academic expertise, assessment and accreditation significantly contradict claims that higher education has become the “handmaiden” of corporations in an “age of money and profit, [where] academic disciplines gain stature almost exclusively through their exchange value on the market, and students now rush to take courses and receive professional credentials that provide them with the cache they need to sell themselves to the higher bidder” (Giroux, 2003, p. 182)? How do these recent changes in the higher and distance education landscape challenge Blackmore’s (2001) exposition of “academic capitalism” where academics “sell their expertise to the highest bidder, research collaboratively, and teaching on/off line, locally and internationally” (p.353)? Will the opening up of education and scholarship challenge the hegemony of performativity, and the “creeping vocalisation and the subordination of learning to the dictates of the market [which] has become an open, and defining, principle of education at all levels of learning” (Giroux 2003, p.185)?
I recently came upon a book and an article addressing the issue of managerialism in higher education – Locke and Spender’s (2011) book, “Confronting managerialism. How the business elite and their schools threw our lives out of balance” and Christine Teelken’s (2012) article on how academics respond to managerialism. I will briefly refer to Locke and Spender (2011) before spending more time on Teelken (2012).
Locke (2009, in Locke and Spender, 2011, p. xi) defines managerialism as follows:
What occurs when a special group, called management, ensconces itself systematically in an organization and deprives owners and employees of their decision-making powers… and justifies that takeover on the grounds of the managing group’s education and exclusive possession of the codified bodies of knowledge and know-how necessary to the efficient running of the organization.
Locke and Spender (2011) further refer to the “obsessive preoccupation with numbers” that implies “objectivity and accuracy” resulting in the thinking that “decisions based on numbers would be independent of the observer and of mere opinion” (p. xiii). The real value in using numbers in management is in realizing the limitations of numbers (Locke & Spender, 2011).
Teelken (2012) defines managerialism as “both the ideologies about the application as well as the actual use of techniques, values and practices that are derived from the private sector” (p. 272). Higher education’s values, practices and norms are therefore shaped by entrepreneurial models and the business-speak of the private sector. Some of the effects of managerialism on higher education are
- “the simplifying tendencies of the quantification of outputs” (Trow, 1994 in Teelken, 2012, p. 272)
- “increased accountability for time and resources” (Hackett, 1990, in Teelken, 2012, p. 273)
- a “disproportionate growth of the administrative component with the attendant adoption of managerial standards and principles” (Hackett, 1990, in Teelken, 2012, p. 273)
- an obsession with efficiency, effectiveness and excellence (Deem, 1998, in Teelken, 2012, p. 273)
- an instrumentalist perspective on the functioning of higher education organizations (Barnetson & Cutright, 2000, in Teelken, 2012, pp. 272-274).
Teelken (2012) used organizational theory to “explain the inertia shown by higher education organizations, and more particularly, by the (professional) employees against the managerial measures imposed upon them” (pp. 276-277). Managerialism results in “ceremonial assessment criteria” and processes that are more determined by “conformation to institutional rules than with the actual quality of teaching” (p. 277). Teelken’s (2012) research found that academics in three different contexts (the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK) respond in three different ways to managerialism. She coined these responses – symbolic compliance, professional pragmatism and formal instrumentality.
“Symbolic compliance implies the pretension of enthusiasm, while remaining vague creates scope for autonomy or performing in your own way” (Teelken, 2012, p. 278). Adaptation to enforced changes is at most superficial or cosmetic especially where “traditional values are deeply embedded” and consists of “a combination of acquiescence and avoidance” (p. 278). Professional pragmatism takes these developments as a given and deal with the enforced changes and compliance “in a critical but serious manner” (p. 278). Formal instrumentality involves the reliance on formal arrangements and instruments… without a critical perspective “ (p. 278).
Teelken (2012) explores these three different modes of dealing with managerialism in the contexts of assessment of research and the assessment of teaching. Assessment in research increasingly involves an emphasis on the number of publications, the success in obtaining external funding and the “increased bureaucracy involved in such numbers” (p. 279). It is not only the number of publications that are counted, but there is the added pressure to publish in high ranking, especially American ISI-rated journals Teelken (2012) found that not performing as required in research, result in the reduction of allowed research time, increased teaching loads and fewer chances for promotion.
The respondents in the research indicated that there are also increasing measurements and criteria to assess the quality of teaching from regulatory and professional bodies, governments and institutional stakeholders who, often, are located outside faculty (see also Reid, 2003). Teelken’s (2012) research confirms Reid’s (2003) points that the quality discourse has moved from “one promoting and encouraging quality, through grants to universities for innovations and investigations, to one of assuring quality through institutional ‘benchmarking’ and audits by external bodies” (Reid, 2003, para. 10). These procedures “aims to provide guarantees, not of quality per se, but of the carrying out of the atomized processes by which particular products are claimed to be produced” (Reid, 2003, para. 11).
Teelken (2012) concludes that she found it interesting how academics coped with the obligations imposed upon them. Academics often “found ways to work around these stressful obligations and survived by maintaining their autonomy and academic freedom through demonstrating symbolic compliant or pragmatic behaviour” (p. 287).
Conclusion: Though much of the attention in higher and distance education discourses are currently focused on MOOCs and the Medusian gaze of technology, we also (and possibly urgently) need to reflect on the shape and future of managerialism in higher and distance education. Managerialism is not going to disappear, on the contrary. While openness and flexibility in higher and distance education offer a counter-narrative to years of exclusivity and the closing of education; there is evidence of increasing managerialism in higher and distance education. While Teelken (2012) found three ways of responding to managerialism namely symbolic compliance, professional pragmatism and formal instrumentality, she did not find outright resistance and concerted efforts to disrupt the hegemony of managerialism in higher and distance education. Why? Has faculty become neutered? Or is faculty so enjoying the fruits of the entrepreneurial university that they cannot bite the hand who feeds them?
There is no doubt in my mind that the recent debates around the MOOCification of higher education have raised important questions about knowledge production, open scholarship and open teaching, assessment and accreditation. We will have to see whether and how this increased openness will impact on the hegemony of performativity in higher education or possibly even strengthen it…
Blackmore, J. (2001). Universities in crisis? Knowledge economies, emancipatory pedagogies, and the critical intellectual. Educational Theory, 51(3), 353 — 370.
Diefenbach, T. (2007). The managerialistic ideology of organisational change management. Journal of Organisational Change Management, 20( 1), 126 — 144.
Giroux, H.A. (2003). Selling out higher education. Policy Futures in Education, 1(1), 179— 311.
Locke, R.R., Spender, J-C. (2011). Confronting managerialism. How the business elite and their schools threw our lives out of balance. London, UK: Zed Books.
Reid, I.C. (2003). Quality online education – new research agendas. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 7(1). Retrieved from
Teelken, C. (2012). Compliance or pragmatism: how do academics deal with managerialism in higher education? A comparative study of three countries. Studies in Higher Education, 37(3), 271-290. DOI: org/10.1080/03075079.2010.511171.