The Imperfect University: The Cult of Efficiency

The cult of efficiency

I’ve recently been reminded about a great book recommended to me by my former supervisor, Nigel Norris. Half a century since its publication it remains a fascinating read and sits midpoint between two eras of educational change which, perhaps surprisingly, seem to have a lot in common. (Note that a large part of what follows is taken from my book Dangerous Medicine: Problems with quality and standards in UK higher education which is available for Kindle via Amazon at what I’m sure we’d all agree is a very competitive price.)

Callahan’s book, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, published in 1962 offers a salutary warning about the hazards of imposing inappropriate models in education. When I first looked at this I was interested in the ways in which industrial quality assurance frameworks seemed to be enthusiastically adopted by some in higher education with little regard for context, with one of the main drivers for the application of industrial models to HE being the belief that efficiency and economy will result.

Wonkhe Education and the Cult of EffciencyThe economic imperative is one which has been vested in higher education with ever greater force since the early 1970s but has forerunners in other spheres too. Callahan’s detailed and in many ways prescient study, shows the effect of scientific management, Taylorism, on US schools in the early part of the last century, the effects of which were felt in the American education system until the 1960s.[i] The essence of the problems this approach caused are articulated as the promotion of cost accounting over educational value and these ideas permeated the whole education system including the universities. The notion developed of schools as ‘service stations’ which represented the ‘natural outgrowth of years of business influence’ and the idea ‘that the public should provide the specifications for the educational ‘products’ which were turned out by the schools’.[ii] These concepts provide interesting parallels with the educational landscape in the UK today.

The primacy of the world of business was as real in the US of the second decade of the last century as it is in the UK today with ‘the community’ and ‘the business community’ being seen by many school administrators at that time as synonymous. Students were expected to undertake service for their communities (which often meant cheap labour for local employers) and there was a strong emphasis on the importance of student thrift. The response by school administrators, in the face of a critical public which was concerned with economy in public spending, was to turn educators into technicians producing products to specifications.

Wonkhe Classroom hands up


Administrators therefore embraced economy measures and accepted increased class sizes based on ‘evidence’ that large classes did not diminish performance, a situation which remained in US schools until the 60s. One of the side-effects of this economy drive was a disproportionate focus on the trivial and measurable, a development supported by the training given to school administrators in graduate schools of education. This resulted in work which focused on measuring, for example, toilet paper use, ink consumption and heating savings.[iii] As late as 1938 a text on the principles of school administration included specific instructions on how a janitor should dust desks. Callahan cites Flexner who shows that the emphasis on service, selling education, mass production and measurement of trivia was equally widespread in US higher education at this time.[iv]

Overall, Callahan characterises the impact of scientific management as tragic with education ‘adopting values and practices indiscriminately and applying them with little or no consideration of educational values or purposes’. The wholesale adoption of basic business values and techniques represented a serious mistake in education and in the period from 1910-1929, when efficiency was demanded, what was actually meant was lower costs with no reference to the quality of the ‘product’. At this time the public was suspicious of public institutions and in awe of the world of business (before the stock market crash) and saw scientific management as an appropriate solution. Administrators were, in this context, entirely complicit with this misapplication of business processes and values. The impact of this period was widespread and enduring (despite the depression), as those trained during this period went on to hold positions of power for many years, and the ideas remained dominant into the 1960s with an emphasis on business and technical values at the expense of the educational. Similar societal factors can be seen in the UK in the 1980s onwards which perhaps helps to explain the potency of industrial ideas in education in this country too.

Looking forward, it is possible to envisage a (not very attractive) future in which most of our schools are ‘free’ and, in the absence of any other direction, turn to inappropriate models and measurements and follow a 21st Century version of Taylorism in order to deliver ‘products’ which it is believed the country needs. Whether or not such a scenario comes to pass it is to be hoped that a similar cult of efficiency will not take hold in higher education.

Wonkhe Imperfect University


[i] Callahan, R E (1962), Education and the Cult of Efficiency, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[ii] ibid, p227.

[iii] ibid, pp242-3.

[iv] ibid, p243, referring to Flexner, A (1930), Universities America, English, German, New York.

6 responses to “The Imperfect University: The Cult of Efficiency

  1. I read this with interest and was reminded of the importance of insisting that education is not a product and learners are not consumers. I was also reminded of a volume called “Audit Cultures: Anthroplogical Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy” edited by Marilyn Strathern (2000). Some of the chapers deal with the rise of technologies of audit and accountability and their transfer from the financial domain to the public sector, particularly higher education and how these technologies are not “….simply innocuously neutral, legal-rational practices: rather, they are instruments for new forms of governance and power” (from chapter 2, “Coercive accountability:The rise of audit culture in higher education” by Cris Shore and Susan Wright).

Leave a Reply