The Deskilled Academic: Bureaucracy Defeats Scholarship


Clerical work
In training for the modern British professoriat …
In discussions about the nature of academic labor in the UK, two recent but growing problems are frequently mentioned. One is academics’ increasing responsibility for mundane but nowadays mandatory bureaucratic tasks – form-filling and clerical work in relation to a range of issues, from student recruitment to assessment to corporate marketing. The other is the need for academics to collect data about more and more elements of their work, in order to document and justify this work in a range of audits – time use surveys, student satisfaction surveys, audit reports submitted in response to student satisfaction surveys, the national research audit, the forthcoming national teaching audit, and so forth.

Nehring Corporate bugThese twin trends are noteworthy in so far as they make for an obviously poor use of academics’ time. Academics have attained their positions on the basis of the specialist knowledge they possess in particular fields of scholarly enquiry. Menial bureaucratic tasks that do not rely on this specialist knowledge in any way therefore do not make for a plausible use of academics’ time. In fact, universities do not advertise the fact that ‘admin’ takes up a substantial and growing part of academics’ work time. Advertisements of academics posts will call for expertise in particular areas of teaching and research, with the balance between the two depending on the standing and institutional objectives of the advertising universities. Administrative duties will be mentioned en passant, as part of the prior work experience that is expected of candidates and as a minor element of their prospective workload. The job advertisement has yet to be written that calls for ‘enthusiasm for bureaucracy, substantial experience in form-filling, and a sideline of teaching and research in the candidate’s discipline.’

Universities’ astounding interest in bureaucracy has been widely recognised, analyzed and written about. Headlines such as “The irresistible rise of academic bureaucracy” or “How come our cash-strapped universities can afford so many administrators?” have not been uncommon in British journalism in recent years. Books such as Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (2011) or Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades’s Academic Capitalism and the New Economy (2009) have highlighted the roots of academic management and control regimes in wider, international developments in higher education administration, particularly in the United States. These publications and the debates they have generated do not seem to have diminished universities’ predilection for bureaucracy in any way. So do university managers increasingly use academics’ time for bureaucratic tasks that obviously do not make use of their specialist knowledge?

One useful way to make sense of this conundrum is to understand contemporary British universities as marketing-driven enterprises. In The Triumph of Emptiness (2013), Mats Alvesson writes:

“[…] we may be justified in regarding significant parts of contemporary higher education systems as a gigantic illusory arrangement. We live in a knowledge society, elite groups like to claim, thereby boosting their status and self-esteem and improving hope and pride for themselves and their groups. The expanded higher education sector can be seen as an arrangement of doubtful substance, but high on symbolic and signal value. It is a legitimizing structure that gives some credibility to the knowledge society’s claims and protects such claims from careful scrutiny.” (100)

While Alvesson surveys the higher education landscape at a broad international level, his observations do allow us to account for important developments in British academia. I have previously written about British universities’ abiding concern with marketing and concomitant self-justification through audits and rankings. The rise of the marketing-driven university has had far-reaching consequences. Academic bureaucracies and the ‘managers’ who direct them have eclipsed academics within universities’ organisational hierarchies. The shift in the academic balance of power is readily visible in salaries, organisational command structures, and the decline of stable, long-term academic employment.

This development has been paralleled by the emergence of new forms of surveillance and control within universities. Audits and performance measurement regimes fulfill the dual purpose of legitimizing universities vis-à-vis policy makers, funding bodies, students, etc., and of disciplining academic staff. One particularly worrying manifestation of this is the apparent use of academics’ scores in teaching evaluations to justify redundancies and performance reviews at some universities (1, 2, 3).

In the end, thus, there is little room left for the complexities of scholarship in Britain’s bureaucratic, marketing-driven universities. The projection of an image of ‘academic excellence’ requires clear slogans and simple language, rather than complex scholarly arguments. Academic bureaucracy thrives on standardized practices that are expressed in equally standardized management-speak. Teaching becomes ‘teaching-and-learning’ and is opened up to bureaucratic standardization and performance measurement. Research remains visible only at the most superficial level, in terms of income generated through grants and the quantity of publications that can be audited in the REF. Intellectual labor comes to be largely external to the objectives of the bureaucratic regimes that dominate universities, and academics whose careers were built on intellectual labor turn out to be deskilled workers in organizational settings indifferent to their concerns.


Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

Skip to toolbar