Don't underestimate managers' ability to
treat you as an idiot
Increasingly, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World provides the script
for the ambitious university manager. Communication is framed by
meaningless rhetoric that is designed to confuse the institutional
practices that the academic is meant to live by. Most of us know
that university manager-speak uses words with meanings that are
far from clear.
I am not just thinking of aims and objectives, quality assurance
or learning outcomes. Virtually every term transmitted through the
university bureaucratic machine sets out to obscure its real intent.
Take "staff development". There was a time when I assumed
staff development meant... well, staff development. I thought it
had something to do with providing lecturers with an opportunity
to develop intellectually to become better academics - catching
up with developments in a subject, learning a language or acquiring
a working knowledge of new methodological innovations. Think again.
Staff development has become one of those mandatory bureaucratic
rituals few academics dare opt out of, which suggests that the outcome
universities have in mind is not a more sophisticated grasp of your
In recent years, many academics have discovered that attending
staff development courses has assumed the character of a contractual
obligation. Checking out how many of these courses you have attended
is often part of the appraisal process. Along with outlining your
publications, grant applications and conference papers, you have
to provide evidence that you have been a busy staff-development
course attender. And if you think that you have better things to
do than spend an afternoon getting blackboard training - think again.
As the University of Brighton's staff development website indicates:
"The university has the right to expect that each member of
staff as part of the individual's contractual obligation will develop
his/her competencies and capability, which are aligned to the university's
strategy as it may be operationalised at faculty, departmental,
school, section, team or individual level." Quite a mouthful,
but the message is clear. Attendance will be policed. Brighton requires
that "each member of staff keeps a record of staff development
activity, which is monitored and evaluated in collaboration with
the line manager".
A review of British university staff development programmes indicates
that their objective is to ensure that staff are fully socialised
into accepting the bizarre managerial ethos that prevails on campuses.
"Staff development exists to maximise the potential of each
individual to support the university in achieving its strategic
goals," declares the human resource home page of Brunel University.
Clearly, this is not a statement celebrating the individual's potential
to develop, but an attempt to ensure that employees know the institution's
line. The University of Leicester's declaration on this subject
is no less subtle: "One of the main responsibilities of the
university's Staff Development Centre is to provide a central programme
of developmental activities for all categories of staff to support
developments and the university's institutional plan." One
of the main aims of staff development at the University of Sheffield
is "to enable the university to improve its institutional performance".
It can be argued that there is nothing objectionable about mobilising
staff to promote the corporate plans of a university. But why call
it staff development? Why pretend that these initiatives are for
the benefit of staff?
Some colleagues will say: "So what? Why should one more meaningless
activity make any difference?" But staff development is more
than just an empty ritual like the filling-out of a template of
Increasingly, such courses seek to shape our personality. More
staff development programmes are oriented towards what is euphemistically
characterised as "personal development". At Loughborough
University, personal development courses deal with topics such as
"assertiveness, financial advice, meditation, relaxation, etc".
The learning outcome of one assertive communication course at a
leading university is to gain the ability to "differentiate
between different types of behaviour". Aside from its patronising
assumption that staff cannot do this already, the training course
is wholly objectionable because it seeks to impose an insidious
form of emotional conformism. At least in the old days, the military
had no inhibitions about letting everyone know that soldiers were
not expected to think for themselves. University bureaucrats prefer
to hide behind the Kafkaesque language of staff development when
they transmit the same message to human resources.
At the University of Nottingham, staff are offered a course patronisingly
titled "Looking after yourself". Participants are told
that they will have an opportunity to "recognise the importance
of good nutrition and exercise". They will also learn to "identify
a range of techniques for reducing the effects of stress and increasing
self-esteem". Thankfully, it will also "plan ways of improving
their personal image". At Cambridge University, a course "Navigator:
A programme for men" is "designed for those who wish to
progress to develop themselves", while its "Springboard:
A women's development programme" aims "to value what you
have got going for you and build on your strengths". Cambridge
also runs "Assertiveness in action". The objective of
this course is to allow yourself "to find out how you see yourself
in relation to others". Or at least to see yourself through
the eyes of your trainer. Courses designed to manage our self-image
prey on individual insecurities as a means of managing the way we
Take the Orwellian-sounding course on mind mapping offered by one
university. Mind mapping is one of those techniques that usually
appeals to people who are avid readers of How to Win Friends and
Tony Buzan, its inventor, asserts that it is a "powerful graphic
technique that provides a universal key to unlock the potential
of the brain". I am always suspicious of anyone claiming to
hold a universal key to anything. I certainly do not trust anyone
who thinks there is a key that will unlock the potential of my brain.
Huxley would certainly get a kick out of reading a typical university
staff-development handbook. Or maybe he ghosted all these suspiciously
similar-sounding texts? You will recall the conversation in Brave
New World between the Controller and the Savage, where the former
states that "we've sacrificed the high art" and have "feelies
and the scent organ instead".
The Savage replies: "But they don't mean anything" and
adds "they're told by an idiot". Instead of feelies, we
have courses designed to "value what you have going for you".
Never underestimate the capacity of the university system to treat
its staff as if they are idiots.
in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 30 January 2004