Tim Hazledine: 'Managerialism doesn't belong in universities'

Opinion: Ahead of his retirement, Professor Tim Hazledine reflects on what he believes is wrong with modern New Zealand universities.

Professor of Economics, Tim Hazledine.
Professor of Economics, Tim Hazledine.

The development of the modern large public research university has been termed North America’s greatest contribution to Western civilisation.

Personally, I’d put it up there but just behind music – blues, jazz, rock, soul, hip-hop etc as well as the Great American Songbook – and Hollywood movies.

Before I returned to Aotearoa New Zealand in 1992, I taught for nearly ten years at one of the best of those public universities: the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. It was an impressive place.

All academic staff were simply lower-case-p professors, with just three ranks: assistant, associate and full. That means that there are just two major career moves: the up-or-out tenure decision after six years, and the possible later promotion from associate to full professor.

Importantly, these decisions were quite independent of pay. Indeed, when I was promoted to full professor, my disposable income actually dropped slightly: salary was unchanged, but Faculty Club dues went up.

Administration was on a strictly amateur basis: a professor could expect to take a four-year tour of duty as department chair or dean before returning with relief to their real job. Some rules were quite firm: you never hired your own PhD students to their first job, and no academic could even be enrolled for a UBC PhD. It all worked very well, I thought.

So, when I got to the University of Auckland in 1992, it was quite a culture shock. The place was run on what I call Brit-colonial lines. Departments were still headed by “God-Professors” – just 85 of them (four women), often research-inactive, and holding their position for life.

I was startled that Auckland’s only world-renowned public intellectual – the Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd – was just a senior lecturer.

The situation with respect to PhDs was, shall we say, relaxed. And rank and pay were tortuously intertwined in a series of steps and bars on a ‘ladder’ – a ladder that ended at a firmly closed door labelled: “Professors’ Club: No Entry”.

Twenty-nine years later, this situation has not fundamentally changed. The student roll has more than doubled (too many?), and the number of professors has increased somewhat more than this, to 231 (104 women, thank goodness), but we still haven’t plucked what seems to me to be the invitingly low-hanging fruit of moving to the North American rank system – as most leading British universities have done.

 The goals of the University are to teach students and carry out
research. No manager can tell us, the shop-floor academics, how to do that.

Tim Hazledine, Professor of Economics University of Auckland Business School

But whether I am right or wrong about this, the situation of all the universities in the English-speaking world has been drastically endangered by a force majeure inflicted on all of them, and indeed on all other large institutions.

This may be our last “elephant in the room”, now that the climate-change elephant has been outed. And it is an elephant that gets labelled differently depending from which side you look at it. From the left, it looks like ‘neo-liberalism’; from the right: ‘creeping socialism’.

What it is, is one thing: managerialism. It’s everywhere, but it is especially concerning on campus because it is so inappropriate here.

In the big public and private sector bureaucracies, managers at least have a clear role: to guide their underlings to meet the goals of the organisation.

But the goals of the University are to teach students and carry out research. No manager can tell us, the shop-floor academics, how to do that. So why are they increasingly trying to do so?

Some figures. I have calculated that, in just the 20 years since 2000, the number of front-line academics plus direct support staff at the University has grown at a bit less than the rate of students, which increased by 49 percent. But the number in other professional and managerial roles nearly doubled and now comfortably exceeds front-line numbers.

In financial terms, the excess is around $100 million a year that otherwise could go to lowering student fees, funding scholarships or hiring young academics. And there’s more. The essence of managerialism is mistrust of the workers. There’s a growing feeling that managers don’t trust us to evaluate promotions, to run our exams and, even, increasingly, to design our courses and our research agendas. Year by year they whittle away our autonomy in these matters, and impose rules and regulations that take us away from our core job.

It may not be overstatement to worry that Western civilisation is now at threat here. If academic freedom is compromised, then so too is freedom of thought everywhere.

But I will close positively. I’ve been a university academic for more than 40 years, and I have loved it. If you are a self-starter, able to take the stress, and with a few ideas in your head, there is – still! – no better job. Battle on, dear colleagues.

Tim Hazledine is a Professor of Economics in the University of Auckland Business School. He retires from the University in August 2021.

The views in this article reflect personal opinion and are not necessarily those of the University of Auckland.

This article first appeared in the August 2021 UniNews magazine.