New Managerialism in Education: Commercialization, Carelessness and Gender, by Kathleen Lynch, Bernie Grummell and Dympna Devine

Is relentless marketisation devastating our schools and universities?

New Managerialism in Education: Commercialization, Carelessness and Gender
New Managerialism in Education: Commercialization, Carelessness and Gender
Author: Kathleen Lynch, Bernie Grummell and Dympna Devine
ISBN-13: 978-0230275119
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Guideline Price: Sterling55

Like a deadly, odourless gas, the elements of a quiet revolution have seeped through every area of Irish education during recent decades, poisoning the atmosphere. A relentless application of market principles, urged on by international agencies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Monetary Fund, has shifted the focus of education from the development of the individual (and the benefits flowing from this to society) to the service of the economy, narrowly conceived. Students have been turned into customers, teachers into service providers, education leaders into a managerial class and the State into the main driver of the process.

The emphasis is now on outputs over inputs, on measuring “progress” rather than understanding process. Using narrowly defined arguments of “efficiency”, “value for money” and “relevance”, Irish education is being turned into a commodity, designed to suit market forces, rather than a transformative experience for the individual that also has incalculable social and cultural – and economic – value. Those leading this revolution mean well, and believe they are acting for the public good, but have failed to assess adequately the underlying principles on which their policies are based.

This marketisation of education is an Anglo-American import, a key element of the disastrous neoliberal policies that have brought the world's economy to its knees and deepened already shameful patterns of inequality. The shorthand for this revolution is "managerialism", and New Managerialism in Education: Commercialization, Carelessness and Gender is to be welcomed as the first research-based attempt to analyse some key aspects of how it has operated at all levels of education in Ireland.

Written by the sociologists and educationalists Kathleen Lynch, Bernie Grummell and Dympna Devine, under the auspices of the equality-studies centre at University College Dublin and funded by the (now defunct) gender-equality unit of the Department of Education and Science, the book focuses on the impact of this revolution on gender equality. This is examined through an extensive series of interviews with people in leadership positions in primary, secondary and tertiary education about how senior appointments were made during the period 2001-5.


The research seems exemplary, its approach based, appropriately, on qualitative criteria rather than on the narrow reductionist quantitative indicators on which virtually all educational policy is now based. Its attempt to understand the “cultural codes enshrined in senior appointments” leads it to define the “new managerialism” as “a culture that valorises long work hours, strong competitiveness, intense organisational dedication, while assuming a lack of ongoing care commitments”.

The failure to take such commitments (to family, for example) into account in making senior appointments is so systemic as to constitute “a careless culture”, and is a key concern of this study. Together with “homosociability” (the tendency to select the candidates most like the assessors, thus ensuring “access to power and privilege to those who fit in, to those of their own kind”), this has had a major negative impact on the appointment of women to senior positions at all levels. Indeed, the authors conclude, “the care ceiling” is as significant as the long-recognised “glass ceiling” in inhibiting promotion for women, especially at third level.

The significance of this book goes far beyond gender issues, however, important though these are. The opening chapter offers a provocative analysis of the Irish version of new managerialism as a political project, and reflections on this crucial context continue throughout. While the application of market-led models of control and assessment from the mid 1990s followed international "best practice", Ireland had a pre-existing tendency to view education in such narrow utilitarian terms, ever since the key 1962 report driving educational reform, significantly titled Investment in Education.

The enthusiastic adoption of the language of the market by senior civil servants (who greatly enhanced their own status, incomes and mobility by becoming a “professional managerial elite” rather than “public servants”) played a major role in “the marketisation of education”, as did the Catholic Church authorities that latched on to it in the interests of their main concern, the maintenance of control, and who provided an additional basis for the “careless” model at primary and secondary levels – “the image of the all-available religious head was married to the 24/7 manager”.

While the language and practice of marketised education have become so normalised as to be rarely remarked on, there has been resistance on the ground, especially at first and second levels. This the authors ascribe to the nature of teacher training, the strength of teachers’ unions and the fact that so many schools at these levels are too small to suit managerialist norms. Nonetheless, they show how the pressures of such norms, applied by the State to the role of school principals especially, have become severe, posing a growing threat to traditional holistic views of education.

At third level, and especially in universities, they see the story as very different. Here the new managerialism has been adopted enthusiastically, indeed “internalised” by senior management, and is having a more devastating effect on educational philosophy and policy. The authors explain this by the huge scale of State investment in this sector, leading to greater pressure from politicians and international agencies. (For example, the 1997 Universities Act crucially and disastrously turned university presidents into chief executive officers, while the focus of the key 2004 OECD report, further developed in the 2011 Hunt report, was to develop a “skilled workforce for the economy”.) The size and complexity of third-level institutions also make them more amenable to textbook managerial systems, and those running them now have the services of a hugely inflated bureaucracy to do their bidding and to spread the managerialist gospel, making its vacuous language ubiquitous.

Another factor, of which the authors might have made more, is the lower level of unionisation among university teachers than at primary and secondary levels. Tenured university teachers have had major salary increases, thanks to benchmarking; most were not very active in the old university structures anyway, and while many may dislike the new ethos, they have the option of retreating, ostrich-like, into their own research and teaching. The casualisation of labour by the growing use of contract and part-time teachers – a key project of the neoliberal agenda – has further reduced the likelihood of resistance to managerialism in the universities.

The view of third-level education as geared primarily to the economy, and capable of measurement in terms of quantifiable and immediately relevant “outputs”, also explains the ever-increasing bias of State funding towards applied science and technology (on top of the huge funding of applied research in the universities by industry, a major threat to the quality and independence of academic research). This State support comes at the expense not only of the humanities and social sciences but also of the basic, or “blue skies”, research from which, indeed, most of the major breakthroughs in science and technology have come.

As part of the same narrow, unimaginative mindset, university presidents are now almost invariably chosen from the applied-science and technology sectors, and they may have little knowledge or experience of the wider university, and little sympathy with its core educational and scholarly values. The ability to run a technology centre or to attract research funding from industry is no guarantee of suitability for the complex leadership role that being a university head demands.

This book attributes the dominance of neoliberal attitudes in Irish educational policy and management to pragmatism rather than to ideology. This is to discount the remarkable and disproportionate influence of the only Irish political party with a coherent, modern political philosophy, one in tune with the zeitgeist: the late, unlamented Progressive Democrats. They filled the ideological vacuum in Irish politics before and during the Celtic Tiger years, and, despite all the misery that their neoliberal philosophy has caused, their influence can still be seen in the ideology of all parties today, not least in attitudes to educational policy (and indeed health policy) across the political spectrum.

It was also significant that this philosophy was adopted wholeheartedly by the Irish media, not least by The Irish Times, which became a vocal cheerleader for the new breed of business-oriented university presidents and for a long period refused to facilitate expressions of dissent, as I and others can testify. The book ends with a useful survey of the role of the media generally, and there is scope for full-length studies on this, as on so many areas highlighted by this important study.

It is hard to be optimistic that this managerialist revolution in education can be reversed, or even modified, any time soon, especially in the university sector. This will begin to happen only when more and more teachers and researchers at all levels publicly question its fundamental principles and assumptions. We need, for example, a thorough interrogation of the Irish version of educational managerialism from a humanities perspective, akin to Stefan Collini's What Are Universities For? (2012). This is a mordant and masterful exposé of the inanities of government policies towards universities in England, policies now being enthusiastically embraced here. It is time that Irish academics, too, came down from their ivory towers and got involved in this debate.

The new order has undermined the idea of the university as a community of scholarship, replacing it with the idea of the university as a business. This will change only if our political masters are confronted on a sustained basis with proof that this sense of community is crucial for success, even on the narrow utilitarian grounds on which success is currently defined.

This is already clear in the much-vaunted international league tables, in which Trinity College Dublin, the only Irish university controlled by academics rather than business interests, far outshines its Irish rivals. Of course Trinity academics too have had to trim to current national and international orthodoxies, but their ability to continue to prioritise educational and academic values needs to be replicated throughout the system.

Tom Dunne, professor emeritus of history at University College Cork, spent some years teaching in primary and secondary schools but was a university teacher for most of his career, and was for a period involved in policy and administration at senior level. He edited The National University of Ireland: 1908-2008: Centenary Essays (2008), which included an essay by him on the impact of the 1997 Act on the NUI.