When Universities are Desperate to Look Different: League Tables, Product Symbolism and the Meaninglessness of Academic Labour

Here I continue my reflections on Mats Alvesson’s “The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, higher education, & work organization“.

Academic posts should come with a public health warning: THIS JOB CAN SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH!

Increasing numbers of academics are demonstrating signs of severe psychological distress as a consequence of the intensification of academic life, precarious employment, and the rise of the ‘managed CV‘.

It is interesting to consider then the relationship between the emergence of marketing as a dominant mode of academic existence and the rise of psychological distress.

Daily academic practice is caught up in the dynamics of ‘product symbolism‘ (The Triumph of Emptiness, p.50).  We are invited to massage and manipulate our academic ‘outputs’ (what a degrading term to use for the affective and intellectual work engaged in when writing and researching) so that they create an ‘impression‘.  What is important here is not the substantive content of our academic labour.  The aim is to make the product of our academic labour ‘special‘, to ‘stand out‘, to be ‘excellent‘.  In this universe the meaning of our labour is meaningless.  Academic labour becomes enmeshed in MARKETING, becomes marketing.  The social relations of academic practice are monitised and commodified.

The individual academic’s labour is caught up in the constitution of an institutional rather than an individual BRAND identity.  What else is a ranking in an international league table of universities?  The measures taken to improve an institution’s positional value is aimed at increasing its market presence, its visibility as high status (or higher than the institution down the road).  The actual meaningful content of our work is, at this level, literally invisible.  It is only when institutional managers believe that an academic’s meaningful and choiceful activity MIGHT undermine institutional ambition that such activity becomes the focus for overt management.

I would say that this is even more marked in middle-ranking institutions (See Simon Marginson on this).  These are not the ‘iconic brands’ of the global universities such as Harvard or Oxford.  In the loud chatter of institutional marketing, between universities that are not necessarily distinguishable from each other in any substantive way, difference has to be created and marketed.  It is in this scenario that individual intellectual ambition may be heavily steered, required to fit the overall strategic plan, and operational plans of its composite units.  Minor differences between institutions have to be magnified.  This can then impact negatively on the lived reality of academic life.

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