Monday, 17 March 2014

Institutional Discourse and the Cult(ure) of Managerialism

Liz Morrish contemplates the legacy of Foucault's concept of governmentality in this piece on the construction of managerial identity in UK universities.

In UK universities, the conflict between managerial and academic values is primarily a struggle over discourse and the symbolic. It operates by forcing the academic to cite discourse which redefines their subjectivity in terms of managerial values.  We have seen a destabilization of established academic practices, and a superseding of existing values of cooperation, collective governance and democracy.  Whereas, once the university was once conceived of as a refuge from market values in its tolerance of risk and failure, they now reward only entrepreneurial, self-governing and competitive subjects, who are happy to function within the limits and discourse set for them by the managerial project. 

This paper draws on an ongoing project to collect and analyse data to support the argument that university management is like a Ponzi Scheme which is having a malign effect on the character of British higher education institutions. These schemes only succeed when you can persuade new investors to join the scheme, and so the internal priorities of universities are distorted away from teaching and research, towards feeding the managerial Ponzi. 

I am fortunate to be able pursue my research as an outsider on the inside by embedding myself in the rich environment of managerial apprenticeship now offered by most universities. The project of neoliberal governmentality is for the institution to produce its ideal employee (Morrissey 2013) and there can be no rejection of the new subjectivity. Our professional lives are dominated by the need to provide discursive evidence that we are compliant with the managerial regime in the form of performance management reviews, teaching evaluations, student satisfactions surveys, research excellence frameworks. Failure to enter into the discourse results in illocutionary silencing. A kind of biopower is exacted by compelling academics to undergo dressage training (Bendix Petersen and Davies 2010) in the new ratified behaviours and discourses. Linguistic data supporting this analysis emerges from management training programs such as: Leading High Performance Teams, Succession Planning, and Supporting Gold Standard Customer Service. 

I argue that those who pursue management roles in higher education are in the grip of a cult. Their identification with others in that tier, and their search for community, demands that they police the borders of the in-group while compelling subordinates to cite their norms. It is precisely because a fiction has been constituted, that management has to work so hard to maintain this precarious identity by discourse. Academics, however, are very aware that the official university culture of transparency and access to information is a perverse parody, retreating to what Docherty (2011) has called the ‘clandestine university’ within to pursue meaningful teaching and research.


  • Bendix Petersen, Eva and Davies, Bronwyn. (2010) In/Difference in the neoliberalised university. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences. 3:2. 92-109
  • Docherty, Thomas (2011). The unseen academy.
  • Morrissey, John. (2013). Governing the academic subject: Foucault, governmentality and the performing university. Oxford Review of Education. 39:6. 797-810.


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