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Covid-Universities and what if

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Over the past week or so there have been some mutterings about whether it is safe to open up universities. There is the advice from the scientific advisors (Universities get some Indie SAGE advice on reopening campuses in September)  and some thoughts from academics ‘Why universities must move all teaching online this autumn’.

As we move closer to the start of term, so my dread of what is ahead comes into sharper focus. I try to imagine what it would be like and try to reassure myself that the risk assessments have been done and the reassurances that the universities are Covid safe are true rather than simply fantasy and wishful thinking.

In this safe environment I imagine that the number of students and staff on campuses will be carefully managed as it is with many large stores.

I imagine that all staff and students will be wearing face coverings. This is not for protection of themselves, as the use of coverings is a somewhat altruistic venture, I cover my face and protect you and you cover yours and protect me.

I imagine that all thoroughfares will be marked and monitored. Social distancing is important, and we need to be at least a metre apart.

I imagine that the classrooms will be laid out in such a way that social distancing can be maintained and that the classrooms will be well ventilated, even in the middle of winter. I imagine all the chairs and desks and any other equipment will be wiped down after each session.

I imagine that face to face teaching will be limited and interactions with multiple groups of students will be severely curtailed to ensure lecturers are not put at unnecessary risk.  I imagine each class will comprise only a few students to minimise risk.

I imagine that anyone who is symptomatic will not attend a university and will after being tested self-isolate.  I imagine that all the people they have been in contact with will do the same for a whole, boring, 14 days.

I imagine that the universities’ management will be at each university, leading from the front.  They will be checking to ensure the safety of students and staff.  They will be mixing with staff and students, receiving feedback and continuously monitoring. I imagine the safety of the students and staff is paramount.

And then I think, what if…

What if campuses are a free for all.  Students can come and go as they please, there is no monitoring of volumes.  Or what if there is, but it is impossible to enforce with limited staff to do so. And those staff tasked with this endeavour are at greater risk due to the proximity with large volumes of students.

What if people decide not to wear face coverings or having got into the building decide to take them off or several people are exempt for some reason or another. Altruism has gone out of the window. I’m a criminologist and I know that people break the rules for all sorts of reasons and the only certainty is that some people will break the rules.

What if social distancing becomes all too difficult.  Many of us have experienced it in stores. A one-way system works for most, but a significant number just don’t abide by it, for whatever reason. People break rules.

What if the social distancing in classes is impossible, there just isn’t enough classes to maintain it with the volume of students on the course.  What if ventilation is impossible, other than air conditioning, some classes are in the middle of buildings. Who will clean the chairs and equipment after each class? Go to a restaurant and tables and chairs are wiped down after each use so who will do it at a university?

What if lecturers have to teach multiple groups face to face as there are not enough staff to spread the load. Teaching in a classroom for two hours multiple times in a day with different groups each time must surely expose lecturers to much greater risk.

What if students are of the age group where they are more likely to be asymptomatic?  How many that are infected might be at a university, spreading the virus around campus and around the locality.  Even if they are symptomatic, how likely are they to self-isolate? Judging by the street parties and illegal raves reported on the news, there is a good chance that some will break the rules. Let’s be realistic, if you are only likely to suffer affects akin to a cold, why would you be that bothered about social distancing or self-isolation?

And finally, what if all managers avail themselves of the much-vaunted government advice, work from home if you can. Leadership from the rear, the bottom line is more important than the safety of others.  We can of course dress this up in management psychobabble about what the students need.

Never mind, ‘Tally ho and all of that sort of thing and over the top we go’*.

* For those of you that are lost at this point it might be worth a visit to the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

Imagine and what if…

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Imagine’, a simple word and one that evokes memories of a song written by John Lennon and released in 1971. In that song we are asked to think about ideas that would perhaps lead us into notions of utopia, if only the ideas were true. Though, often what we see as a simple solution proves to be far from simple and in each solution, lies a paradox that gives lie to the fact that our solution was a solution at all. If we imagine a solution or a scenario we should also ask ourselves ‘what if’. ‘What if’ that were true, what would it look like and what would the consequences be? I like the idea of ‘what if’. ‘What if’ allows me to jump ahead, ‘what if’ allows me to see whether a solution would work, ‘what if’ allows me to play out various scenarios in my mind and ‘what if’ causes me more trouble than imagine. In imagine I can dream, in ‘what if’, I tear those dreams apart, dissecting each bit into practical reality. A reality that has its basis in science and my limited knowledge of human nature. And so, I’d like to begin my journey of ‘imagine’ and ‘what if’.

I suppose my thinking behind this short piece was to set the scene for a number of other pieces without trying to explain the background and rationale of each piece.  ‘Imagine’ and ‘What if’ are the rationale.  Perhaps the idea might provide a spark for other bloggers, I hope so. And so, I begin….

Imagine a chain of nice restaurants (not the greasy spoon type but perhaps not the Michelin star type either), each restaurant with its own chef.  Imagine the work that goes into running a restaurant*, for those of you that watch MasterChef, ‘it isn’t hard to do’. Let’s start with the basics.

Well of course there is the food. Decent food, requires decent ingredients. So, sourcing the ingredients is important, a fair amount of research required to do this and then of course there is the logistics of purchasing the food at the right time in the right quantities and ensuring the quality at the same time.

Then there is the menu, what is put onto the menu is carefully planned around what ingredients are available, what the chef wants to produce and what the customer might want. If the theme of the restaurant is Vegetarian cuisine, there is little point in putting a chicken Balti on the menu. The actual menu needs to be produced, not some scrap of paper, it needs to be carefully planned, printed and delivered. The food then needs to be cooked and served. There is a lot of planning and careful consideration that goes into this. Dishes are tried and tried again until they are right and are aesthetically pleasing on the plate. The customers need to be looked after in the restaurant, shown to their tables, their orders taken, and drinks served.

Imagine how the restaurant is advertised, perhaps on Facebook, maybe its own website and imagine what the advertising would promise. Perhaps a congenial atmosphere, good food and fine service. Imagine you can book online. Imagine the amount of work that goes into building that website or Facebook page. Imagine the work that goes into servicing the bookings.  Imagine the organisation of running a restaurant. So, what if…

The chef was responsible for:

  • The design and implementation of the website or Facebook page
  • The planning, sourcing and cooking of the food
  • The design and printing of the menu
  • The taking of the orders and the delivery of the food to the customers
  • In fact, the chef was responsible for delivering just about everything.

What if…

The customers that came to the restaurant decided they don’t like Vegetarian cuisine and are more at home with burgers and chips, but somebody told them it was a good idea to try the restaurant, or maybe they didn’t have anything better to do on the day.

The restaurant chain managers decided that more customers were better for business and they crammed in as many as they could each day, whilst berating the chef for not servicing the website bookings in line with published timelines.

The restaurant managers decided that the chef could run it all on their own as it is better for the bottom line.

What if…

The feedback from customers is filled with complaints about the untimely service, the crammed conditions and the fact they don’t like Vegetarian food and couldn’t understand why burgers and chips weren’t on the menu as well.

The management scrutinise the restaurant Facebook page or website looking for inaccuracies or areas that don’t fit the restaurant chain’s USP and appear to have little interest in the food produced or the service given to customers.

The management introduce new policies to ‘ensure better customer service and a better customer experience’.  The policies increase the workload for the chef.

Just imagine you are that chef ….

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NB I apologise to all chefs out there. As with anything in life we have little idea of the amount of work something involves until we have to do it ourselves.

What is the value of your ‘yes’ when you never say ‘no’?

A good few years ago a senior colleague asked me that very question.  It was more of a statement, than a question and it was designed to make me think about how I approached work and perhaps more importantly how others saw me in the workplace. It fits very nicely with another saying, ‘if you want the job done, give it to a busy person’.  It seems there are those in the workplace that get the job done and those that don’t.  There are those that always say ‘yes’ and others that often say ‘no’. There are those that solve problems and those that don’t. Another saying from a senior manager, ‘don’t bring me problems, just bring me solutions’ sums up the majority of relationships in organisations. 

My experience of managers (both middle and upper) has been varied, but unfortunately most have fallen into the category of poor, bordering on awful. Perhaps that colours my judgement, but I do know that I’ve also had some very good managers.  The good managers always made me feel like I was working in partnership with them and, yet I knew who was the boss. I always tried to find a solution to a problem but if I couldn’t then the boss knew that it was a problem he or she needed to deal with, they trusted my judgement. Often what appears to be the most trivial of problems can be a show stopper, a good boss knows this.  If I said ‘no’ to a piece of work, then the boss negotiated which other piece of work would be set to one side for now.  Sometimes everything is a priority, and everything is important, it is for those at the most senior level to make the decisions about what will or will not get done.  Making no choice is an abrogation of responsibility, suggesting it is another person’s problem is just as bad if not worse.

Good managers understand how much work people are doing and trust their workers to get on with the job in hand. A good manager knows that even the most menial of tasks takes more time than might be imagined and that things rarely go exactly to plan.  There is always an element of redundancy.  When someone says ‘no’ to a piece of work they understand that there is a reason for that ‘no’ and rather than simply seeing that person as being difficult or lazy, they listen and seek solutions.  More importantly, they take responsibility for the problem, ‘bring me the problem and I’ll help you find the solution’.

As we move into a summer of uncertainty where the ‘new normal’ is an anxious time for most, where the ‘yes’ people are needed more than ever, and the managers need to lead from the front, if you are a manager, what will you response be when your undervalued ‘yes’ person says ‘no’?

Managerialism, students and the language of failure

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Imagine that every professional or semi-professional footballer in the country had the same ability and the same fitness levels.  How would it be possible to distinguish between them, how would league tables be established, who would play for the top teams?  Nonsense of course because we know that not every football player can have the same ability or fitness levels for that matter. And there is a myriad of reasons why this may be the case.  However, there is probably little doubt that those that have been professionally coached, even at the lowest level in the professional game can run rings round most part time amateur players.

Not everyone can be at the top, in the Premier League.  If we took a sample of players across the leagues and were to somehow measure ability then the likelihood would be that we would find a normal distribution, a bell curve, with most players having average ability and a few with amazing ability and a few with some but perhaps inconsistent ability.  It is probably likely that we would find those with the most ability in the Premier League and those with the least in lower or non-league clubs and these are probably semi-professional or amateurs.  Perhaps it would be prudent to reiterate that those with the least ability are still way ahead of those that do not play football or just dabble in it occasionally.  This then is not to say that those at the lower end of the skills distribution curve are rubbish at playing football, just that they, for whatever reason, are not as skilled as those on the opposite side of the curve.  And those that have average skill i.e., the greatest number of footballers, are very good but not quite as good as the most skilled.  Make sense so far, I hope so?

If we apply the logic to the skill of footballers can we not apply the logic elsewhere, in particular to university students.  Surely, in terms of academic ability, we would find that there were those at the one end of the curve achieving A and B grades or 1st degrees and then the majority in the middle perhaps achieving C and D grades of course tailing off to those that are achieving perhaps low D and F grades.  We would probably hope to find a normal distribution curve of sorts.  We could probably say that those with lower grades have far greater academic ability than anyone that hasn’t attended university.  We could certainly say that the majority i.e. those getting C and higher D grades are good or very good academically when compared to someone that hasn’t attended university but not quite as good as those achieving A and B grades.   The assessment grading criteria seems to confirm this, a D grade is labelled as ‘satisfactory’, a C grade ‘commended’ a B grade ‘of merit’ and an A grade ‘distinguished’. Just to reiterate, achieving a D grade suggests a student has displayed ‘satisfactory’ academic ability and met the requisite ‘learning outcomes’.

Why is it then that degrees at institutional level are measured in terms of ‘good degrees’?  These are a ‘1st and 2.1.  At programme level we talk of ‘good grades’, ‘A’ grades and ‘B’ grades.  The antithesis of ‘good’ is ‘bad’.  This logic then, this managerialist measurement, suggests that anything that is not a 1st or a 2.1 or an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade is in fact a ‘bad’ grade.  Extending the logic further and drawing on more managerial madness, targets are set that suggest 80% of students should achieve a ‘good grade’.  A skewing of a distribution curve that would defeat even the best statistician and would have Einstein baffled.

Let me revisit the football analogy, using the above language and measurements, a comparison would suggest that any player outside of the Premier League is in fact a ‘bad’ player.  Not only that but a target should be set where 80% of players should be in the Premier League.  The other leagues then appear to be irrelevant despite the fact that they make up probably 90% of the national game and prop up the Premier League in one form or another.

With such a use of language and a desire to simplify the academic world so that it can be reduced to some form of managerial measurement, it is little wonder that perfectly capable students consider their work to be a failure when they earn anything less than an A or B grade or do not achieve a 1st or 2.1 degree.

It is not the students that are failing but higher education and academic institutions in their inability to devise more sophisticated and meaningful measurements. In the meantime, students become more and more stressed and disheartened because their significant academic achievements fail to be recognised as achievements but are instead seen at an institutional level as failures.

The same old rhetoric, just another place

2+2=5My sister phoned me the other day in great excitement.  She’d just met a former criminology student from the University of Northampton, and she had an awful lot to say about it.  She wasn’t in her hometown and had asked directions from a stranger to the river embankment.  Having visited the embankment, she returned to town only to bump into the stranger again who enquired whether she managed to find it. They ended up chatting, my sister can do a lot of that, and she found out that the stranger was a police officer.  My sister asked whether she knew me, why she would ask that I have no idea, it seems that she has formulated some notion in her head that all police officers must know each other or at least know of each other.  This is the bit that my sister got so animated about, yes, the stranger did know me, I’d taught her at the University, and she was now in a budding police career.  Apparently, I had done so much to help her.  Now I don’t know about being that helpful and I suspect that many of my colleagues played a part in her success story, but it reminded me about what it is that we do and aspire to do as lecturers.

Whilst waiting to play my part in talking to school children the other day I started to read a new edition of a seminal piece of work on policing, The Politics of the Police (Bowling et al., 2019).  The preface alone makes interesting reading and in ‘mentioning populist political reactions towards crime’, ‘zero tolerance of the marginalised and outsiders’ and ‘laissez-faire economics’ that promotes individual interests, my mind turned to the managerialist ideals that have dogged policing for over three decades.  Those ideals saw the introduction of performance indicators, targets and the inevitable policing by objectives (Hallam, 2000), that resulted in some quite appalling manipulation of data and a diminution of service rather than an improvement.  The problem was that the targets were never achievable and were simply put in place for managers to simplify the social world over which they had no control.  What didn’t get measured, because it never could be, were the myriad of tasks that police officers and staff undertake daily.  Dealing with people with mental illness, searching for missing persons and dealing with minor disturbances are an example of just a few such tasks.  Bowling et al. (op cit.) subscribe to the notion that the job of the police is to help maintain social order, an ideal that does not lend itself to measurement. Counting the number of crimes committed in an area or the number of detected crimes is only an indication of failure, not success.

How does that policing narrative fit in with my opening paragraph? The former student was not an ideal student from a managerialist viewpoint.  She didn’t attain so called ‘good grades’, I’m not even sure if she fully completed her studies.  In terms of performance measurement, she doesn’t even feature and yet she, like so many others we have seen in Criminology, has flourished.  Whilst concentrating on ‘retention and progression’ and ‘fails’ and ‘good grades’ we neglect the very reason we exist.  Just as in policing where the figures were pored over by managerialist who had not slightest notion of the reality of the social world, so too are we in danger of simply seeking pleasing statistics to keep the wolves from the door because explanations of real success and failure are too complex for managers to understand or manage.

Imagine a world where the police just helped maintain social order, where probation were not plagued by notions of payment by results, where patients were just seen in A&E in a reasonable time and where lecturers just opened the minds of students and allowed them to think for themselves.  Imagine the time and expense that could be saved and reinvested in providing real service and dare I say it ‘value for money’ if we stopped gathering meaningless data.  Imagine managers casting aside the shackles of neoliberalist ideals and managing people, not using numbers as an indication of failure and impending doom.  We can but dream, but my reality, as I’m sure is the reality of many of my colleagues, is the success stories that I occasionally hear and can reminisce about.  No amount of number crunching can take that away and nor will it ever provide evidence of success or failure.

Bowling, B. Reiner, R. and Sheptycki, J. (2019) The Politics of the Police. (5th ed.) Oxford: OUP.

Hallam, S. (2000) Effective and Efficient Policing: Some Problems with the Culture of Performance, in Marlow, A. and Loveday, B. (eds.) After MacPherson: Policing after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Lyme Regis: Russell House

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