Here are a few shots I’ve fired over the years – usually to the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) – on the new managerialism’s laying waste of British universities. Most got published; some didn’t. I also wield another, perhaps subtler weapon: <a href=”cabaret.html“>satire</a>.<br><br>


The true cost

14 December 2001


In the farrago of RAE figures which carpet-bombed your readers (December 14), I was unable to find one simple number: more meaningful, I submit, than most you did print.<br><br>

Namely: How much did all this cost? In money, in time, in stress? In the opportunity-cost of millions of hours lost, which could have been spent actually doing research and teaching – as opposed to wasted jumping through meaningless and meretricious hoops.<br><br>

And to what end? Old universities do better than new ones: what a surprise. Everyone plays the system to look their best. More than half of researchers are now 5 star: wow! But did anyone seriously expect this to impress that relentless cynic, Margaret Hodge? <br><br>

To adapt Churchill: Rarely in the field of human endeavour has so much been wasted by so many to so little purpose, whether practical or intellectual. Are we really going to go through all this nonsense again in 2006? With the heartening backlash against the TQA and QAA, let’s add RAE to the bonfire and get rid of the rankers once and for all. <br><br>

Aidan Foster-Carter

(Hon. Sen Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds University)

PS: Oh and by the way, on p 15 col 3 you got Leeds University’s shading arsy-versy.

Whether or not you print this letter, you should publish a correction on that score.

[Surprise surprise: they didn’t, and they didn’t]



“When universities try to minimize outside scrutiny, you have to wonder what they are afraid of”. Thus Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman David Rendel (THES, August 24), who has apparently forgotten what liberalism actually means.

What universities are afraid of is simple. It’s that the bureaucratic Leviathan built up by control freaks like the unlamented John Randall, under phoney populist slogans of accountability, has become a monster destroying what it so intrusively scrutinizes. Let Rendel read Randall in the same issue, and see the malign managerialism behind the purported concern for “customers” – whose own view of the burdens heaped on them in the name of education is eloquently put by young Daniel Farrell on the same page.

Liberals, of all people, should support minimizing outside scrutiny. A free society is one where we trust each other to do our jobs, not constantly snoop. The impulse to surveillance that animates the Randalls of this world is at root no different from trash TV like Big Brother. Both are symptoms of a sick society, ill at ease with itself.

For centuries our universities ran themselves, gaining a global reputation. Along came a bunch of quacks (or QAAks), diagnosing an imaginary illness and prescribing their leeches as the sole cure. But who’ll scrutinize the scrutineers? Randall’s resignation, not a day too soon, suggests the patient is at last wising up. This cure was worse than any disease. Universities must seize back their freedom – and liberals should cheer.

Aidan Foster-Carter

(Hon. Sen Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds University)

Bonkers and rankers

12 May 1999


Having been away, I’ve only just seen the rather startling front page headline of your April 23 issue, which proclaims that “‘Bonkers’ job index irks v-cs”.

Shame on vice-chancellors for being so narrow-minded. In this age of ubiquitous league tables, I see no reason why sexual athleticism should be excluded from the rankings. As a transferable skill already much practised by students since time immemorial on an extra-curricular basis, this is surely long overdue to be formally assessed and graded like everything else these days. No doubt the QAA could rise to the challenge of devising appropriate performance indicators.

Or have I misunderstood something?

Aidan Foster-Carter

(Hon. Sen Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds University)

Collaborate, or resist?

18 October 1999


Rarely has the choice facing academics been so starkly posed as in your October 15 issue. While Sheffield’s pro VC urges us to “Give quality the respect it deserves”, over the page we have the other side (literally), with Bruce Charlton telling us why he believes “academics should sabotage the Quality Assurance Agency”.

What is striking is how the two talk past one another. Charlton’s case, to paraphrase, is that the TQA is essentially a corrupt Foucauldian exercise in managerial control. As such, academics should resist it rather than collaborate in their own imprisonment.

P. A. Jones, in contrast, criticizes “utopian dreams of a world free of quality assurance”, and worries about “trench warfare” between universities and the QAA – both of which he wants to protect, and to get along better with one another.

Yet if anything is utopian, it is surely Jones’ professed confidence that the QAA will move to less intrusive forms of intervention (“from assessment towards audit”). Indeed, he goes on to contradict himself by conceding the “danger of ‘permanent review’  the spectre of a permanent QAA parking place is real”.

I sympathize, in a way. Just so, no doubt, did good-hearted prefets in Vichy France seek to smooth relations between the locals and the occupying power. If only we police ourselves adequately, so the argument runs, then They will be satisfied and leave us (relatively) alone.

Yet however well-meant, the collaborationist argument was flawed then and it is flawed now. The occupier’s demands do not diminish, but grow greedier. Like all any bureaucracy, the QAA is forever on the lookout for new ways to extend its power. Witness its bid earlier this year to seize control of external examining – killed, encouragingly, by university resistance – or its latest wheeze: to standardize allegedly misleading names and types of degree title.

Ironically, such centralizing commandism is not just outrageous: it is outmoded. No amount of Procrustean benchmarking will make any of us fitter for the nimble new world of the next century, whose challenges are sketched by Charles Leadbeater in the same issue. The future is heterogeneous: it lies in civil society, variety, autonomy. The QAA is Stalinism’s last gasp.

But Leadbeater relapses into the old dualism of state versus market, missing the real Third Way – which is liberty. The spurious extension of so-called audit – brilliantly anatomized by Michael Power in The Audit Society – was always intellectually deceitful, and will become politically untenable as the pendulum swings away from the control freaks and self-appointed Platonic guardians who currently hector us, blighting our lives while feathering their nests.

Universities used to be free, and worked fine. In sensible countries they still do. There is nothing good or inevitable about our servitude. I’m with Charlton and the resistance.

Aidan Foster-Carter

(Hon. Sen Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds University)

Deliver us from quality police

THES 27 March 1998


The latest wheeze from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education is, as the Financial Times reported recently, to create “an elite corps of highly trained and well-paid examiners” as part of a radical shake-up of quality assurance in universities “mirroring the rigorous inspection of schools by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog”. Under this system, external examiners will report primarily to the QAA, by whom they will be registered and trained. Progress marches on.

Or does it? Elsewhere in the same issue of the FT, an article on “outstanding manufacturing companies” profiles a firm called DEK Printing Machines as an example of best practice in management. Two quotes struck my eye. “There is very little direct supervision of individuals”; and “The US parent gives its subsidiaries complete autonomy to run their own operations the way they see fit”. Under this regime, DEK has tripled its workforce and quintupled its turnover since 1990.

Everyone who works in higher education knows that the onward march of surveillance by the self-styled “quality” police has brought nothing but more bureaucracy and misery (while being a nice little earner for some: note the “well paid” bit). But academics are less confident than they should be in pointing out the nakedness of these would-be emperors, who purport to be bringing private-sector efficiency to universities.

The truth is that this neo-Stalinist shift to centralisation and policing flies in the face not only of centuries of history – during which British universities, curiously, contrived to become world-class long before the QAA was ever dreamed up – but of genuinely forward-looking management thinking. We all know that we work better as free men and women than in cages on hamster-wheels (themselves constantly changed, just when we got the hang of the last one: “goalposts on castors” is another apt metaphor). And we are right: we do. Or did.

Twenty years from now, I hope much sooner, historians will look back in bewilderment on the bout of surveillance mania that infected British education (most other countries, significantly, have been wiser) at the end of this century. I confidently predict that all this nonsense will look as silly in retrospect then, as do the opposite excesses of 1968 now. But meanwhile, those who have hijacked the word “quality” are doing real and terrible damage. Is it too late to hope that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and others will become a little less invertebrate, and respond to this latest assault on our freedom by roundly telling the QAA to take a running jump?

Aidan Foster-Carter

(Hon. Sen Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds University)

Stop the rankings

THES 28 August 1998


I am dismayed that the Association of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences has nothing better to do with its time than to initiate yet another competitive ranking exercise (THES, August 21). It is bad enough that the powers that be inflict on us the research assessment exercise, the Quality Assessment Agency, the funding councils, etc; all of which erode the old collegiality with pointless and divisive competition, not to mention creating a transfer market that gives a few lucky stars an inflated sense of their own worth. But why on earth does a voluntary association that was set up to unite rather than divide choose to play the same perverse game?

What ALSISS should be doing is starkly illustrated by the latest A-level results, which show an alarming fall in those taking the core social science disciplines. Economics fell 10 per cent below last year – not 0.3 per cent as reported by The THES – and sociology and politics slipped 7 per cent.

There were fewer than 55,000 entries in the three subjects: less than 7 per cent of all A levels sat. This is not a recruiting base that should allow any British social scientist to be complacent. Someone should be out there making the case for social science; and who if not ALSISS?

A sensible ALSISS would also be working to break the outdated barriers between disciplines, and agitating to ensure that it is not just pure luck whether the United Kingdom happens to train even a single expert on faraway countries such as Indonesia.

But this lot, it seems, would rather play narcissistic parlour games. Just another bunch of rankers.


(Hon. Sen Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds University)