Managerial Strategy and Chinese Whispers

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It seems simple enough to observe that information about Lancaster University is subject to tight controls and restricted access. A managerial apparatus exists that is removed from the university body – staff and students – and, like any bureaucracy, it keeps its functioning shrouded in secrecy. In this way, it is able to avoid scrutiny of its operations and, when information does get through to the university body, it is able to keep open the door to denials. Anyone who attempts to criticise the University’s ways of operating will be told: “You don’t know the facts, so shut it.”

Last year saw several major controversies that made this clear. The first was the setting of fee levels, which occurred without any substantial input from staff or students. The exact amount of influence Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU) was able to exert is unclear, which implicates LUSU in this process of secrecy. Of course, since the utterly spurious argument was circulating in the Union at the time that if we didn’t charge the maximum fees we’d look second-rate, it may be an underestimation of LUSU to say it had no hand in events.

The second was the appointment of a new Vice Chancellor – made with zero input from students – which was quickly followed by the attempted appointment of a new FASS Dean from Australia, Professor Nancy Wright. This appointment was rapidly aborted when subtext (Lancaster’s underground academic newsletter) reported on Professor Wright’s track record: known as a “grim reaper” at her previous institution for enforcing drastic budget cuts at her previous institution, it seemed she was fleeing Australia for a reason.

However, the real controversies were the Business Processes Review (BPR) and the briefly floated and rapidly aborted Lancaster-Liverpool merger. The former was a forced cull of administrative and support staff that would have badly affected academic staff and students. Remarkably, staff as well as students were purposely kept in the dark in order to ease the way for a management determined to steam-roll through destructive measures without consultation. The University administration’s basic policy seemed to be: “If you’ve nothing good to say, say nothing at all.”

Eventually, the BPR was met with determined resistance, but only because a grassroots coalition of admin staff and students managed to get hold of information, publicise the negative effects of this process, build support amongst the university body, and pressure LUSU into backing the campaign. It is worth noting that all of this is left out of the official history. Rather than a grassroots group pressuring into action a clayfooted LUSU hesitant to openly move against management, the official history propagated by LUSU and SCAN converted this sordid episode into a LUSU victory – and, in particular, a George Gardiner success story. Here we see another way in which information is controlled.

Beyond these major controversies, a more insidious means of information control is everywhere in operation. Through a host of media – for example websites, emails, posters, letters, signs, newsletters, and even the architecture of the University itself – the managerial bureaucracy disseminates the information, images, and narratives that are useful to it while suppressing or withholding anything controversial. What else is all this swanky new red-cladding about, apart from projecting a certain branded image of the University: an image of the University as entrepreneurial hub that correlates to its rapid development of lucrative business and marketing courses.

But, this whole strategy of concealment only makes abundantly clear the fact that the managerial bureaucracy does not want staff and students involved in the processes of determining the form and direction of the University. This process of information control and damage limitation is only necessary because the University is developing in ways which are antagonistic towards the needs and desires of students and staff. Our University and our education are being rationalised away by managers keen only to increase profits. This whole process is premised upon finding new avenues by which to exploit students – such as more expensive accommodation, more expensive courses, more hidden costs – whilst cutting the cost of producing education, evidenced by fewer course modules, reduced library resources, less support, and more intensely exploited staff.

This is the kernel of truth contained within the mystical shell, the truth we increasingly confront. Thus the act of concealment becomes an act of revelation.

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