The university business

published 13 May 2019 updated 13 May 2019

By Sylvain Marois, Laval University, Quebec

“[…] domination is administration.”

(Max Weber 1971)

Quebec has several renowned universities, but our network of public universities is barely 50 years old. The Université du Québec (UQ), a network present throughout Quebec, was created in the late 1960s. It should be noted that the creation of those universities contributed to the birth of university trade unionism in Quebec.

The one seemed to be a response to the other, and the trade unionists wanted to counterbalance the “power” of the new directors, among other things. Since that time, the trade union presence has increased and almost all staff in our universities is unionised.

However, although the trade unions were created in a spirit of opposition, as a counterweight, the strong trade union presence was not able to counter the toxic excesses of neoliberalism and managerial governance. Why is that? Is it trade union practice? The transformation of labour relations following unionisation? Is it the result of concessions negotiated over the decades?

Collegiality versus governance

“The Governance Institute defines governance as the process through which societies and governments take important decisions, determine who has a vote, who is involved in the process and how accountability is achieved.”

(Alain Deneault 2013)

Collegial management is a veritable tradition in universities. Historically, collegiality invites discussions, debates, elections, shared responsibilities and, where a hierarchical organisation exists, it must be exercised with tact and diligence. That being said, although collegiality is omnipresent in the universities, it is certainly not the prerogative of all groups.

It takes various forms and, unfortunately, it is not always inclusive. In other words, we talk of collegiality but, in reality, inter-union and inter-group relations increasingly resemble those found in similarly-sized private organisations.

Is it not true that, for the past few decades now, participatory management has been replaced by managerial management, by a “new governance”?

This ideology, which stems directly from the management mechanisms of private enterprise, is causing the institution of university to wobble on its foundations.

However, beyond the management method used, is it not the institution – the university itself – which has become “something else”? Is it not now simply a large organisation? And if such is the case, should it not be analysed as such in order to gain a better understanding of it? It may be that the prism through which we view the institution of the university is no longer the right one.

Prioritisation of decision-making processes

There are many well-documented examples of the “ Top-Down” process. These include, among others, an increase in the number of managers [1], the centralisation of powers and decisions, the holder of closed-door proceedings, etc.

Co-management has given way to “governance”, a catch-all solution that has been elevated to a veritable dogma, “synonym of integrity and thoroughness”, a true “conceptual coup d’état [2]”.

However, over time, this management method has obliterated the collectivist structure. Universities, faced with an obsession with growth – of funding, of student numbers, etc., and with recent acrobatic feats in order to juggle billions in research funds, are literally forcing their staff to compete by pushing them to conduct individual lobbying efforts, which of course influences and transforms labour relations.

Transformation of funding

The loss of state funding [3] forces the university organisation to diversify its sources of income while leading to clashes between members of staff due to a lack of financial and material resources. Thus, the law of competition among all and for all has become the norm.

As a result, everyone has to become an entrepreneur, a leader, a promoter of “their” university with recruitment objectives, in particular of international students [4], in order to fill their organisation’s coffers. The State relinquishes any liability and “leaves” universities in the hands of speculators.

Fracturing and weakening of staff

Unsurprisingly, such changes in management methods, cuts in funding, and other factors, have led to much tension among the various staff.

Competition, loss of meaning of the work, exhaustion [5], ceilings on the hiring of professors, loss of academic freedom, freedom of expression, university autonomy, profound regression of the public nature of universities, and more still. There does not seem to be any real protection against managerial excesses and corporate promotion. How did it come this despite the presence of strong trade unions?

A negotiated situation?

A vast swath of literature documents the terrifying devastation in universities around the world caused by the prevalence of business-led management. To be truly effective, this market approach must make collegiality and co-management disappear.

Consequently, like it is the case in large enterprises, universities have implemented numerous and frequent administrative reforms. They have concentrated power into the hands of a smaller number of decision-makers, the meetings of decision-making bodies are held behind closed doors in a “face-to-face” ritual that only appears to be democratic and representative, etc.

Despite the presence of various groups in the bodies, the main guidelines are based on growth projections and profitability, development and expansion graphs, etc., and hardly on the members’ opinions. Finally, the universities have to constantly rework their image, improve their positioning on international rankings, hire such and such big name, etc., in short, like any large enterprise, they must boost their performance! But who will fight back?

All over the world, academics are firmly and eloquently denouncing managerial excesses and their harmful consequences, but it must be noted that:

1) they have collectively been unable to stop the neoliberal bulldozer, to slow down the devastation, and to turn it around;

2) decisions supporting the guidelines that increasingly make universities function like private enterprises are being taken, regardless of the opinions of the members of the community and despite their presence in the universities’ bodies.

In short, universities have become krakens, monster enterprises, large machines that use the modus operandi of large enterprises, and trade union opposition unfortunately seems to be too weak to deal with them.

Faced with the weakening of collegiality, the multiple violations of academic freedom, of professional and university autonomy, fractures in traditional roles, the streamlining of available courses, increases in the number of students per class, etc., managers manage and universities suffer. In silence. The power of the administrators must be counterbalanced with the power of the trade unions! The “new administration” of universities has imposed a style and a structure: bureaucracy.

The latter “[…] appears here as a particular way of constructing relational structure, adjusting stakeholders’ positions in relation to each other, all of whom are additionally linked to the constructed third party [6]”.

We must therefore take up the trade union pilgrim’s staff and “negotiate”, well beyond collaborationism, the university of tomorrow, the “post-neoliberal” university. The legendarily well-documented observation. It is pointless to contemplate the problem. The solution is in the hands of the “academic workers [7]”.

[1] This issue is very well documented in the work of the FQPPU which published another book on the issue and more broadly on the decline of collegiality on 25 April 2019: https://fqppu.org/la-gouvernance-imposee-aux-universites-a-conduit-au-recul-de-la-collegialite-et-a-une-coupure-entre-les-directions-et-les-communautes-universitaires/

[2] DENEAULT, La gouvernance (Governance), Montréal, Lux, 2013, p.10-12

[3] See, among others, Philippe Hurteau many works showing, for instance, the changeover from State funding to individual contributions, i.e. funding obtained from students: https://iris-recherche.qc.ca/publications/financement_des_universites_vers_une_americanisation_du-1

[4] Like France, Quebec will deregulate the admission fees of international students in the fall of 2019 in an effort to diversify universities’ sources of funding.

[5] See, for instance, the special report on universities in Quebec: https://fqppu.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Snesup-sp%C3%A9cial-Uqc.pdf

[6] ALTER, Norbert, Sociologie du monde du travail (Sociology of the work environment), Paris, PUF, 2012, p. 52.

[7] The fact that the term “academic workers” does not exist in French is quite revealing.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.