A home office becomes an office hideaway: Anyone who is not in the office can concentrate on an article or a series of thoughts without being disturbed by colleagues and bosses. (Photo: GaudiLab / Shutterstock / NTB scanpix)

Academics hide, play dumb, don't care or over-perform. Everything to oppose the system and administration.

“You can get away with a lot if you just pretend you haven't heard about the rules,” one professor said.

Norwegian universities and university colleges have grown much larger between 1992 and 2015, but administrators are multiplying much faster than academics.

There are four times as many administrative positions now than in 1992, and the number of advisers has gone from less than ten to over 3500.


“I have observed this growth,” says Jo Ese. He is an associate professor at Østfold University College and recently received his PhD in occupational science from Karlstad University in Sweden. His dissertation addresses how academic staff covertly fight the system.

They react to the fact that their university or college is governed and administered based on business principles. Ese calls it "managerialism".

“If we want to understand the organization, we must also look at informal aspects — what happens outside the system that allows people to cope,” says Ese.

A culture of secrecy

Ese conducted in-depth interviews with 25 researchers at one major university and one smaller university college in Norway. He talked to professors, associate professors and PhDs. It turned out that many people started the interview by answering the questions with "the official version" — or the way they would be expected to describe reality under an internal audit.

“It’s clear that there is a culture of silence at university colleges and universities and that people are uncomfortable criticizing the system,” he says.

A lot of resistance

The researchers realized during Ese’s interviews that the purpose of the conversation was quite different, and that Ese was not a supervisory authority. Ese himself is confident that the answers he was given later in the interviews are as genuine and honest as interviews can be.

“I had two ‘aha’ experiences. One was when my informants told me about how much resistance and gaming the system there was. The other was that employees in a factory, for example, resist to keep the pressure down, but researchers resist to keep the quality up,” he says.

His dissertation describes four examples of how academics quietly and covertly oppose the system.

Jo Ese (Foto: Christina Knowles, Karlstads universitet)

Home office hideaway

First, academics hide. One professor described when she first learned about academia’s more informal rules:

“One of the first things I was told was that if I wanted to get something done, then for God's sake don’t show up at the office. I should sit at home and hide. I’ve seen that this is right. You can do your research, stay focused, read articles. If you show up at work and make yourself available, you get stuck in a meeting, have to answer a phone or someone is standing at your door. Suddenly, the whole day has gone by, and you haven't been able to do anything about it,” she said.

When researchers make themselves inaccessible to students, colleagues and management, it gives them an opportunity to do what they see as the most important thing: To immerse themselves in a special assignment or topic.

Play dumb

Second: Academics pretend to be stupid and that they don't understand the rules. One associate professor told Ese about a course that was intended to be held only once, as a pilot project.

“We really believed in this course, but we knew that the management would never allow us to keep offering it. So we held it anyway. After a while we were asked where these changes came from. We played dumb and said ‘Well, we held it last year ...’. When they asked who had said we could hold the course again, we said, ‘I think it was [the name of an employee in the administration] or something, maybe?’.”

This kind of “playing dumb” is often a joint affair, shared with several colleagues.

“You can get away with a lot if you just pretend you haven't heard about the rules,” one professor said.

Just ignore them

Third, academics simply ignore the messages they have been sent. This is the tactic that academics use when they think the management’s guidelines work against the intent and goals that the academic staff is trying to achieve. So they decide to ignore the guidelines.

“We just ignore them. We have been told to follow the guidelines, many times, but it takes a lot of time and effort and doesn’t add anything extra to the project, so we don’t. If they come and ask why we didn’t follow the procedures, I ask them who knows the most about the subject. Is it them or me?”, said one professor.

Ese cites this last comment as an example of something that is key to academic disobedience: Academics articulate a deep-seated right to oppose.

Doing too much

Fourth: Academics perform over and above expectations.

“This is perhaps the clearest example of how academic resistance differs from other resistance,” Ese says.

One professor explained to him how she gives her master's students as much as ten hours of guidance in one special area, even though they are only supposed to get two hours.

“This is really important stuff, and the management doesn't see it! These topics are so important to the entire students' understanding of the subject, and it is really difficult. We have agreed that we would like to give them around ten hours. But we never tell the management. They wouldn't understand,” she says.

“All forms of academic resistance include this element of intensifying work efforts in one way or another, but this is where we see it most clearly,” Ese says.

No easy solution

Arne Benjaminsen, university director at the University of Oslo, is confident that he will hear when someone thinks that their administrative tasks are compromising their ability to do their academic work. (Photo: Anders Lien, UiO)

Ese concludes that researchers think the management and university system are unable to do a good enough job handling free and independent research.

“Professors undertake these forms of resistance because they want to do a better job teaching, researching and to adhere even more strongly to academic norms,” says Ese. “Academics believe some aspects of the academic system are destroyed by the managerial systems rather than improved.”

Ese can only describe the problem — he doesn't have a solution.

“I don't see any clear ‘quick fix’ that ‘if we do this, things will resolve.’ What I have wanted to do is describe the phenomenon. Knowledge will make it easier to work in this sector, but it will also make it much easier to manage the sector,” he says.

Shared interests

Arne Benjaminsen, university director at the University of Oslo, says he doesn’t see academics in the same way as described in Ese’s doctoral dissertation.

He believes that the administration and academic staff have a clear shared interest in freeing up resources to conduct academic work and not be burdened with extra administrative work.

“It’s in all of our best interests that academics do the best research possible. When it comes to the more administrative requirements, I think most institutions today are trying to automate as much as possible. Here at UiO, at least, we are working actively to simplify and avoid reporting routines and administrative burdens that go beyond academic efficiency,” he says.

“I think the threshold for voicing one’s disagreement is quite low. We hear this constantly. I am not worried that no one will speak up if they feel like they’re being buried in red tape,” Benjaminsen said.

Ministry leaders are interested

Rebekka Borsch, State Secretary at the Ministry of Research and Higher Education, describes staff at universities and university colleges as "serious and hard-working", but would like to take a closer look at Ese's research.

State Secretary Rebekka Borsch will look at Ese's research and hopes she and the country’s academic institutions can learn from his findings. (Photo: Marte Garmann, Ministry of Research and Higher Education)

“This is interesting qualitative research that we want to look at and that can be useful for both us and the universities and university colleges,” she says.

She doesn't want to say much about how well she recognizes herself in the descriptions.

“It’s the various institutions that know their staff best and who must answer as to how recognizable the phenomena described in the dissertation are,” she says.

“Employees are involved in how various institutions are managed, such as by sitting on the boards of institutions and by having employees represented in a number of other bodies at university colleges and universities. Different unions in the sector also contribute to dialogue and collaboration with management. This kind of participation is a strong tradition in Norway, and is something the Ministry is committed to preserving,” Borsch said.


Jo Ese: Defending the university?: Academics' reactions to managerialism in Norwegian higher education, PhD thesis at Karlstad University, 2019


Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no

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