Routinisation of work

There has been much talk about the loss of collegiality to a model of governance in which decisions are taken solely by managers. While support staff had not on the whole been included within this collegiality, there had been some diffusion of this culture to non-academic staff. It was partly this feeling  of inclusiveness in a community of scholars which lay behind the desire of many support staff to be counted as academic-related, along with a rate of pay for what is considered to be highly skilled work.

Although one can be critical of the sectionalism that this entailed, in its exclusion of lower paid workers, this desire for academic-related status was also an attempt to maintain some control over workload and working practices. For these reasons, the Vice-Chancellor’s vision that there would not be ‘two tribes’ had some resonance with higher-paid support staff.

However, whatever its original intention, the reality of this ‘vision’ has been to reduce academics’ autonomy and subject it to the same managerial decision making as support staff, not to widen the culture of collegiality but to weaken it. Furthermore, this culture of managerialism is being deepened within support services, no more so than for IT staff. Over the last few years there has been a drive to introduce standardised procedures, most recently in the introduction of a suite of ‘best practices’ for IT service management. Together with the centralisation of IT support and the creation of a smaller management structure, there is now a tighter chain of command which is likely to lead to less autonomy for IT staff, closer supervision and the routinisation of work.

This is not to say that there is no merit in the standardisation of procedures. However, it would be a mistake to view these procedures as merely neutral technocratic measures. They have been devised with the assumption of a hierarchical organisation in mind and with the subordination of labour to economic imperatives. There is a constant pressure on management to drive down costs by introducing routines, procedures and a more fine-grained division of labour. These measures are often associated with ‘deskilling’ and the concentration of decision making within a managerial layer. We have already seen the introduction of lower graded jobs within the new IT Services department and it is possible that as the financial pressure continues this will lead to attempts at downgrading existing posts. Along with outsourcing and the employment of temporary staff this will lead to a sense of insecurity as jobs become more precarious. If these changes occur they are likely to lead to higher levels of stress as workers start to lose control of workloads and a decline in productivity.

However, it would be a mistake to think this situation is merely a result of the acceptance of a business ideology. The subordination of state expenditure to financial markets is the latest attempt to re-establish the conditions for profitability within the wider economy. The desire to drive down costs in the state sector, apparently to free up resources for private capital, is leading to a corporate managerial style as value and productivity become the measure of success. Its extension to higher education is part of a trend which other groups of workers in the public sector have already gone through.

It is an irony that the Vice-Chancellors ‘vision’ of abolishing the culture of ‘two tribes’ finds its expression in the preoccupation with managerial control for both academic and IT staff alike.

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