A memorial service for Harold Macmillan, Oxford University, 1987

The British universities, Oxford and Cambridge included, are under siege from a system of state control that is undermining the one thing upon which their worldwide reputation depends: the caliber of their scholarship. The theories and practices that are driving this assault are mostly American in origin, conceived in American business schools and management consulting firms. They are frequently embedded in intensive management systems that make use of information technology (IT) marketed by corporations such as IBM, Oracle, and SAP. They are then sold to clients such as the UK government and its bureaucracies, including the universities. This alliance between the public and private sector has become a threat to academic freedom in the UK, and a warning to the American academy about how its own freedoms can be threatened.

In the UK this system has been gathering strength for over twenty years, which helps explain why Oxford and Cambridge dons, and the British academy in general, have never taken a clear stand against it. Like much that is dysfunctional in contemporary Britain, the imposition of bureaucratic control on the academy goes back to the Thatcher era and its heroine. A memorable event in this melancholy history took place in Oxford on January 29, 1985, when the university’s Congregation, its governing parliament, denied Mrs. Thatcher an honorary Oxford degree by a vote of 738–319. It did so on the grounds that “Mrs. Thatcher’s Government has done deep and systematic damage to the whole public education system in Britain, from the provision for the youngest child up to the most advanced research programmes.”1

Mrs. Thatcher, however, disliked Oxford and the academy as much as they disliked her. She saw “state-funded intellectuals” as an interest group whose practices required scrutiny. She attacked the “cloister and common room” for denigrating the creators of wealth in Britain.2 But whereas the academy could pass motions against Mrs. Thatcher and deny her an honorary degree, she could deploy the power of the state against the academy, and she did. One of her first moves in that direction was to beef up an obscure government bureaucracy, the Audit Commission, to exercise tighter financial control over the universities.

From this bureaucratic acorn a proliferating structure of state control has sprung, extending its reach from the purely financial to include teaching and research, and shaping a generation of British academics who have known no other system. From the late 1980s onward the system has been fostered by both Conservative and Labour governments, reflecting a consensus among the political parties that, to provide value for the taxpayer, the academy must deliver its research “output” with a speed and reliability resembling that of the corporate world and also deliver research that will somehow be useful to the British public and private sectors, strengthening the latter’s performance in the global marketplace. Governments in Britain can act this way because all British universities but one—the University of Buckingham—depend heavily on the state for their funds for research, and so are in a poor position to insist on their right to determine their own research priorities.

Outside of the UK’s own business schools, not more than a handful of British academics know where the management systems that now so dominate their lives have come from, and how they have ended up in Oxford, Cambridge, London, Durham, and points beyond. The most influential of the systems began life at MIT and Harvard Business School in the late 1980s and early 1990s, moved east across the Atlantic by way of consulting firms such as McKinsey and Accenture, and reached British academic institutions during the 1990s and the 2000s through the UK government and its bureaucracies. Of all the management practices that have become central in US business schools and consulting firms in the past twenty years—among them are “Business Process Reengineering,” “Total Quality Management,” “Benchmarking,” and “Management by Objectives”—the one that has had the greatest impact on British academic life is among the most obscure, the “Balanced Scorecard” (BSC).

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Harvard Business Review in 1997, its editors judged the BSC to be among the most influential management concepts of the journal’s lifetime. The BSC is the joint brainchild of Robert Kaplan, an academic accountant at Harvard Business School, and the Boston consultant David Norton, with Kaplan the dominant partner. As befits Kaplan’s roots in accountancy, the methodologies of the Balanced Scorecard focus heavily on the setting up, targeting, and measurement of statistical Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Kaplan and Norton’s central insight has been that with the IT revolution and the coming of networked computer systems, it is now possible to expand the number and variety of KPIs well beyond the traditional corporate concern with quarterly financial indicators such as gross revenues, net profits, and return on investment.


As explained by Kaplan and Norton in a series of articles that appeared in the Harvard Business Review between 1992 and 1996, KPIs of the Balanced Scorecard should concentrate on four fields of business activity: relations with customers, internal business process (for example, order entry and fulfillment), financial indicators such as profit and loss, and indicators of “innovation and learning.”3 It is this last that has yielded the blizzard of KPIs that has so blighted British academic life for the past twenty years. Writing in January 2010, the British biochemist John Allen of the University of London told of how “I have had to learn a new and strange vocabulary of ‘performance indicators,’ ‘metrics,’ ‘indicators of esteem,’ ‘units of assessment,’ ‘impact’ and ‘impact factors.'” One might also mention tallies of medals, honors, and awards bestowed (“indicators of esteem”); the value of research grants received; the number of graduate and postdoctoral students enrolled; and the volume and quality of “submitted units” of “research output.”4

An especially dysfunctional aspect of the British system, on display throughout its twenty-year existence, is that the particular KPIs that the British universities must strive to satisfy have varied at the whim of successive UK governments. John Allen’s reference to “impact factors” points to the final lurch in the Labour government’s thinking before it lost the recent elections. The Brown government particularly wished to promote research that would have an effect beyond the academy, above all in business. In the words of David Lammy, Gordon Brown’s minister of higher education:

Since these impacts are things that happen outside the academic realm…[we] propose that the panels assessing [research] impact will include a large proportion of the end-users of research—businesses, public services, policymakers and so on—rather than just academics commenting on each other’s work.5

Since the only major segment of the British economy that is both world-class and an intensive user of university research is the pharmaceutical industry, any UK government invitation to business “end-users” to take a more prominent part in the evaluation of academic research amounts to an invitation to the pharmaceutical industry to tighten its hold over scientific research in the UK.

This is an alarming prospect given the industry’s long record of abusing the integrity of research in the interests of the bottom line, well documented by Marcia Angell in these pages. The leading British pharmaceutical multinational, GlaxoSmithKlein, for example, features prominently in Angell’s research for its clandestine and improper payment to an academic psychiatrist in return for promoting the company’s drugs. For suppressing unfavorable research on its top-selling drug Paxil—to cite only one example—it agreed to settle charges of consumer fraud for a fine of $2.5 million.6

The new Conservative–Liberal coalition government that won the May election has endorsed the bureaucratic control of higher education by the central government, as did the conservative Thatcher and Major governments in the 1980s and 1990s. It is not yet clear whether the new government will adopt Brown’s “impact” KPIs, or come up with some new indicators of its own.

Whatever it does, this academic control regime with its KPIs will continue to apply as much to philosophy, ancient Greek, and Chinese history as it does to physics, chemistry, and academic medicine. The central government, usually the UK Treasury, decides the broad outlines of policy—the amount of money to be distributed to universities for research and the definition of “research excellence” that determines this allocation. The government has also set up a special state bureaucracy, situated between itself and the universities, that handles the detailed administration of the system. This bureaucracy, which continues under the new coalition, goes by the unappealing acronym HEFCE, or the Higher Education Funding Council for England.7

The intervention of the state in the management of academic research has created a bureaucracy of command and control that links the UK Treasury, at the top, all the way down to the scholars at the base—researchers working away in libraries, archives, and laboratories. In between are the bureaucracies of HEFCE, of the central university administrations, and of the divisions and departments of the universities themselves. The HEFCE control system has two pillars. The first is the “Research Assessment Exercise” (RAE), the academic review process that takes place every six or seven years when HEFCE passes judgment on the quality of the academic output of the UK universities during the previous planning period—and therefore on the funds eventually allotted to them. According to HEFCE’s rulebook for the RAE, the university departments must collect books, monographs, and articles in learned journals written by the department’s scholars.

For the assessment, four items of research output must be submitted to the RAE by every British academic selected by his or her university department. With 52,409 academics entered for the most recent RAE of 2008, over 200,000 items of scholarship reached HEFCE. For the previous RAE of 2001, this avalanche of academic work was so large it had to be stored in unused aircraft hangars located near HEFCE’s headquarters in Bristol.8 The items are then examined by the academics on panels set up by HEFCE to cover every discipline from dentistry to medieval history—sixty-seven in the 2008 RAE. Each panel is usually made up of between ten and twenty specialists, selected by members of their respective disciplines though subject at all times to HEFCE’s rules for the RAE. The panels must award each submitted work one of four grades, ranging from 4*, the top grade, for work whose “quality is world leading in terms of originality, significance and rigor,” to the humble 1*, “recognized nationally in terms of originality, significance, and rigour.”9


The anthropologist John Davis, former warden of All Souls College, Oxford, has written of exercises such as the RAE that their “rituals are shallow because they do not penetrate to the core.”10 I have yet to meet anyone who seriously believes that the RAE panels—underpaid, under pressure of time, and needing to sift through thousands of scholarly works—can possibly do justice to the tiny minority of work that really is “world leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.” But to expect the panels to do this is to miss the point of the RAE. Its roots are in the corporate, not the academic, world. It is really a “quality control” exercise imposed on academics by politicians; and the RAE grades are simply the raw material for Key Performance Indicators, which politicians and bureaucrats can then manipulate in order to show that academics are (or are not) providing value for taxpayers’ money. The grades are at best measures of competence, not of excellence.


Everett Collection

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in A Chump at Oxford, 1940

Nonetheless most British academics feel that they must go along with HEFCE, because its second pillar is the funding process that follows the announcement of the RAE results. It is this that gives the system real teeth, since academic departments receive less money if their RAE ratings fall short. There is a cleverness to these rules that points to their origins in the consulting world of McKinsey, Accenture, and Ernst and Young, and of course the Balanced Scorecard. As the deadline for the RAE approaches, university departments do not know the amount of the financial penalties to be imposed by HEFCE if they fail to receive the top grades; they know only that the penalties will be severe. Moreover, these penalties are linked to the performance of each academic entered in the RAE by his or her department. The pressure on academics in the months before the RAE deadline can therefore be intense. A friend at one of the humanities departments at Oxford faced them in the fall of 2007 when he struggled to finish for the RAE deadline a book that had been a lifetime project, with $120,000 of HEFCE funds thought to be at stake.

Things are usually done sotto voce at Oxford, and it didn’t take more than a couple of stiff, pointed telephone calls from my friend’s departmental “line manager” for the RAE (a fellow academic chosen to supervise his work for the RAE) to remind him of how much was riding on his performance. HEFCE’s financing process legitimizes this kind of micromanagement of research by both university departments and central university administrators. The system has therefore markedly shifted the balance of power in British universities from academics to managers. “Managers” is a category that now includes not only professional managers in central university administrations, but also those senior academics in university departments and divisions who have responsibility for submitting work to the RAE panels. They have become hybrid academics/managers and they have to worry about pleasing the agents of HEFCE, whether they like it or not.

What is it like to be at the receiving end of the HEFCE/RAE system, especially for a young academic starting out on his or her career? Here is the testimony of a young and very promising historian teaching at one of the newer universities in the London area:

The bureaucratization of scholarship in the humanities is simply spirit-crushing. I may prepare an article on extremism, my research area, for publication in a learned journal, and my RAE line manager focuses immediately on the influence of the journal, the number of citations of my text, the amount of pages written, or the journal’s publisher. Interference by these academic managers is pervasive and creeping. Whether my article is any good, or advances scholarship in the field, are quickly becoming secondary issues. All this may add to academic “productivity,” but is it worth selling our collective soul for?

A 2000 study carried out by the Universities UK, a body representing the vice-chancellors—executive heads of British universities—found that the frustration and demoralization expressed by the young historian were even then widespread among British academics. Its focus groups criticized “higher workloads and long hours, finance-driven decisions, remote senior management teams and greater pressure for internal and external accountability.”11 Some of the most telling testimony on the damage to British scholarship inflicted by the HEFCE/RAE regime has come not from an academic but from Richard Baggaley, the European publishing director of Princeton University Press, and an acute observer of the quality of British scholarly output.

Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement in May 2007, Baggaley deplored what he saw as “a trend towards short-termism and narrowness of focus in British academe.”12 In the natural and social sciences this took the form of “intense individual and team pressure to publish journal articles,” with the writing of books strongly discouraged, and especially the writing of what he calls “big idea books” that may define their disciplines. Baggaley attributes this bias against books directly to the distorting effects of the RAE. Journal articles are congenial to the RAE because they can be safely completed and peer-reviewed in good time for the RAE deadline. If they are in a prestigious journal, that is the kind of peer approval that will impress the RAE panelists.

The pressure to be published in the top journals, Baggaley wrote, also

increases a tendency to play to what the journal likes, to not threaten the status quo in the discipline, to be risk-averse and less innovative, to concentrate on small incremental steps and to avoid big-picture interdisciplinary work.

In the humanities the RAE bias also works in favor of the 180–200-page monograph, hyperspecialized, cautious and incremental in its findings, with few prospects for sale as a bound book but again with a good chance of being completed and peer-reviewed in time for the RAE deadline. A bookseller at Blackwell’s, the leading Oxford bookstore, told me that he dreaded the influx of such books as the RAE deadline approached.

Baggaley doesn’t mention a further set of practices, above and beyond the RAE, that push British academics toward “short-termism and narrowness of focus” in their research. These are the reporting and auditing burdens imposed on them not only by HEFCE but also by its sister bureaucracies such as the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and by the administrators of the academics’ own university. This is the “pressure for internal and external accountability” to which the Universities UK refers in its report, and is known collectively as the “audit culture.” The audit culture requires academics to squander vast amounts of time and energy producing lengthy and pointless reports, drenched in the jargon of management consultancy, showing how their chosen “processes” for the organization of teaching, research, and the running of academic departments conform to managerial “best practice” as laid down by HEFCE, the QAA, or the university administration itself.

In HEFCE’s texts, words like “quality” and “excellence” have become increasingly empty. For the handful of British universities that are world-class—Oxford, Cambridge, and the various components of the University of London foremost among them—the HEFCE system is especially dangerous, because the reputation of these universities really does depend on their ability to do first-rate research, which is most threatened by HEFCE’s crass managerialism. In Britain there are scholars who will continue to produce exceptional work despite HEFCE and the RAE. But by treating the universities as if they were the research division of Great Britain Inc., the UK government and HEFCE have relegated the scholar to the lower echelons of a corporate hierarchy, surrounding him or her with hordes of managerial busybodies bristling with benchmarks, incentives, and penalties.

To what degree do such methods prevail in American academia itself? It would be surprising if practices so central to the American zeitgeist during the past twenty years had thrived only on foreign soil. In the US, higher public education is the responsibility of the individual states, and the power of private universities also ensures that there can be no American HEFCE exercising monopolist powers over the funding for research in all disciplines. The lifetime security of employment that academic tenure provides—and that no longer exists in the UK—gives the senior professors, who in 2007–2008 made up 48.8 percent of teachers in higher education,13 the power and confidence to stand up to university managers and head off an American version of the RAE. But their success in doing this also points to the dubious bargain that many of them have struck: relatively little teaching, especially undergraduate teaching, is usually required of them, and in return they are left in peace to carry on with their research.

The result has been that the burden of academic managerialism in the US has fallen on the teaching rather than the research side of university life, with university administrators achieving collectively what in the UK has been achieved by government fiat. The imposition of the industrial model on teaching, and especially the teaching of undergraduates, has been most damaging in the state universities below the elite level and in the two-year junior and community colleges that together, Jack Schuster and Martin Finkelstein remind us in The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers, make up the great majority of American institutions of higher education.

At this lower level the prolonged and continued decline of funding from state and local governments had had a pervasive effect even before the present financial crisis hit, forcing university managers to behave more and more like their corporate counterparts and to treat academic departments as “cost centers and revenue production units.”14 In the science, mathematics, and engineering departments of eleven public research universities examined by Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades in Academic Capitalism and the New Economy, we find an assembly line where increased “student credit-hour production” has become the target of management’s “incentive based budget mechanisms.”15

Texas A&M University of College Station, Texas, provides an extreme example of a teaching factory in the making. For the academic year 2008–2009 each faculty member at Texas A&M was given a “profit and loss account” by the university administration, where the “loss” of the faculty member’s salary was or was not offset by teaching revenues brought in by the faculty member in the form of “semester credit hours.” Professors were in the red when their salary “loss” exceeded their teaching revenues. A professor’s research and publication record, and the value of research grants he or she might have received, did not figure in the profit and loss calculations. So Professor Chester Dunning, a tenured historian of Russia with a distinguished research and publication record, was nonetheless judged to be a $26,863 “lossmaker” for the university because his total salary plus benefits of $112,138 well exceeded the $85,275 he attracted in semester credit hours.16

In Academic Capitalism and the New Economy Slaughter and Rhoades draw on interviews with department heads at public research universities to give a sense of what the mass production of teaching can mean at the classroom level: “The whole thing is marketing. The whole thing is how many bodies do you process. Administrators actually use these terms.” Again, “Chemistry 101 is like a fast dentist. It can generate lots of revenue.” But while faculty output (that is, its teaching load) was scheduled by the administrators to increase, faculty numbers and its remuneration have to be strictly controlled. One department set up a professional masters program that was inexpensive to run because it could be taught “partly or largely by adjuncts and even doctoral students.”

These adjuncts and doctoral students belong to the contingent academic workforce, the expanding army of academics employed on short-term contracts, many of whom work part-time and have little by way of job security or benefits. This workplace “restructuring” is the subject of Schuster and Finkelstein’s monumental study of employment trends in American academia, The American Faculty, an exhaustive examination of the available data. They show that the growth of the “contingent” academic workforce—i.e., nontenured and without secure benefits—over the past thirty years has been spectacular and surpasses anything to be found in the corporate world.

Between 1993 and 2003 the proportion of all new full-time faculty appointments employed on short-term contracts and without prospect of tenure increased from 50 percent to 58.6 percent of those hired. This “restructuring” has been going on since the mid-1970s and shows no sign of slowing down: between 1976 and 2005 the full-time contingent academic workforce grew by 223 percent, the part-time contingent workforce grew by 214 percent, while the tenured and tenure-track workforce grew by just 17 percent.

The growth of the contingent academic workforce brings the labor economics of the call center and the Wal-Mart store to higher education. With these contingent academics, few of whom have firm contracts, managers now have at their disposal a flexible, low-cost workforce that can be hired and fired at will, that can be made to work longer or shorter hours as the market dictates, and that is in a poor position to demand higher pay.

With its “profit and loss” statement for every academic on its payroll, Texas A&M has provided detailed statistical evidence (inadvertently, one suspects) showing why this expansion of the contingent academic workforce appeals so strongly to university administrators. In 2008–2009 in the Communications Department of Texas A&M’s Commerce, Texas, campus, Stephanie Juarez, untenured, was said to be four times more “profitable” for the university than her tenure-tracked colleague Tony Demars. This was not just because Juarez brought in more “student credit hours” than Demars, $113,960 versus $98,838, but also because, untenured, her cost to the university in salary and benefits was just over half that of the tenure-tracked Demars, $43,447 versus $82,969, yielding a “profit” for Texas A&M of $86,411.17

In the concluding chapter of The American Faculty, Schuster and Finkelstein list the costs and benefits of “faculty restructuring” and seem to be looking ahead to what is essentially a post-tenure academic world dominated by the contingent academic workforce.18 Their concept of the academic future includes greater professional stratification for academics, reflecting distinctions between tenured and nontenured faculty. It also includes replacement of academic disciplines by “client services” as the organizing principle for “instructional delivery” (i.e., teaching); the corporatizating of academic life, with the faculty serving as managed professionals and with less emphasis on academic values; a “renegotiation” of the social contract between the faculty and the institution, with declining mutual loyalty and increased administrative oversight of academic affairs; promotion of academic star systems undergirded by a vast new academic proletariat; and diminished protection of academic freedom with fewer positions protected by tenure.

Might the scale of the global financial crisis, driven by the targeting mania of the Balanced Scorecard and by automated management systems, shake the confidence of those who think that these very same methods should be applied throughout to the academy? With the recession eating away at the budgets of universities on both sides of the Atlantic, the times are not propitious for those hoping to liberate scholarship and teaching from harmful managerial schemes. Such liberation would also require a stronger and better-organized resistance on the part of the academy itself than we have seen so far.

—December 16, 2010

This Issue

January 13, 2011