Changing conversations: changing hearts and souls

What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.

Margaret Thatcher Sunday Times, 3 May 1981

I worked with a group of senior managers in a higher education establishment to help them think about their ways of working while they discussed strategy. A pattern emerged in discussion about current difficulties and in anticipation of future changes that drew on ideas of an education marketplace, and which drew forth economic language. Managers were concerned about ‘buy in’ to plans and strategies, they worried about brand, they were anxious about their students’ customer experience, they wondered how they would act if their institution were a supermarket, a supermarket like John Lewis for example. They were anxious about competitive threats from the Chinese, they wanted to make business cases for change, they were concerned about their products. Education needed to be as flexible as possible so that students could consume whatever, whenever they wanted. They were worried about student satisfaction. These notes of market vocabulary were the clearest melody, although there were also contrapuntal themes opposing them – some argued that being business-like isn’t the same as being a business.

I wondered what might be going on in the group, and what else was being communicated with all this market language. Perhaps it is one way of reducing uncertainty and anxiety by developing a discourse shared in common, and by identifying with the currently dominant and perhaps reductive way of thinking about strategy dilemmas. Young economists Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zac Ward-Perkins have pointed to how this phenomenon I experienced in this particular group of managers has been amplified more generally in society. They refer to it as an Econocracy, where all social problems and questions of policy become reduced to questions of economics, and economics of a particular and abstract neoclassical kind. So one explanation would be that the adoption of the language of the marketplace is a response to the marketization of higher education, and not just education, but also an identification with a dominant power figuration. It has become a common sense and taken for granted way of thinking about the world. Members of this particular group were signalling to each other that they understood, and perhaps even agreed with, the current orthodoxy.

In doing so group members communicated to each other that they think they belong to an elite group: they are an in-group which really understands the particular and contemporary difficulties they all face. Elsewhere Norbert Elias has referred to this as a ‘heroic we identity’. A minority of members of the group had recently been on management courses where they had been taught to think and talk this way. One might, then, understand this phenomenon as an example of MBA-thinking considered appropriate to a cadre of managers/leaders operating at this level of the hierarchy: there is cachet in being fluent in business speak. Perhaps there is an assumption that other senior management teams in a similar cohort of higher education establishments talk about their strategy dilemmas in similar ways. It’s what senior managers do.

In creating an in-group through the now common-sense ideology that all social problems can be reduced to questions of economics, it became quite difficult to explore different ways of thinking, and particularly arguments to the contrary. If the dominant way of talking is to draw on business terms, then it may sounds unbusiness-like, naïve even, to make a different kind of argument. Framing strategy dilemmas in terms of economics is beguiling and reduces complexity. But it also produces an enhanced sense of risk – there was a good deal of anxiety in the room about competitors, about ‘loss of market share’, about technology, about ‘the Chinese’.

Patricia Shaw made the case that changes in organisations are changes in conversations: people talk about what they are doing differently, which at the same time makes them think and act differently. In another piece of research I carried out in different HEI, a senior member of the management team described how some years ago he had participated in a workshop facilitated by an outside consultant to help his team think through processes of change:

Oh, it was all you know, sort of get the monkey off your back and all those kinds of management book clichés really, it was all of that stuff, Americanisms and yeah, it wasn’t the language we were used to using at all. It would be really interesting to have done a study on to what extent now amongst those people who sat in those rooms and found his terminology a bit alien and confusing and hilarious at times; are they actually now using some of those terms? I think they probably would be.

What starts out as alien and incongruous becomes ubiquitous and taken-for-granted. It is hard not to talk into a conversation using different vocabulary from everyone else.

Some of the other voices in the group I was working with tried to raise the following questions, potentially disrupting the university-as-business discourse: to what extent should students be satisfied? Isn’t there something inherently disturbing and unsettling about the educational experience, which doesn’t lead immediately to feelings of satisfaction? (This doesn’t dismiss the idea that the institution should provide the best possible education for students who pay a lot of money for it). And what about the university’s responsibility to the academic disciplines which make up a higher education establishment? Is there a trade-off between flexibility and academic rigour? How important are the relationships within which learning takes place, and which are particularly important for developing learners – do we have a tendency to over-glamourize technology as the answer to everything? To what extent does the university turn on the idea of transmission rather than transaction, more experienced learners struggling with less experienced learners in a community of inquiry, the notion that learning takes place between human bodies trying to stay in relation? Is education an end in and of itself, rather than being a passport to a job in an organisation?

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