2019 Keynote

2019 Keynote

Zombie Universities and Happy Academics: Negotiating ‘Excellence’ in the Measured University

Professor Martha Caddell

Professor Martha CaddellMeasurement and the quantification of performance has become a ubiquitous feature of study and work in contemporary universities, infusing institutional cultures, practices and relationships (Deem 1998, Sutton 2017). On the one hand, we have seen increasing focus on refining those measurements to ensure they are as effective and appropriately framed as possible, be that measures of widening access, the questions that frame student satisfaction surveys, or how to measure learning gain and the ‘value-added’ of university study.

On the other, there is focus on the impact of measurement on academic work, study and collegiate relations (Smith & Rattray 2016, Tight 2014). Recognizing and valuing particular activities or outputs as ‘excellent’ creates a prestige culture that ensures particular ways of being ‘a university’ or ‘successful academic’ are privileged (see Blackmore 2016). 


Two intertwined trends offer a useful route into exploring this contested landscape of success.  Firstly, we see the colourful characterisation and critique of the ‘zombification’ of higher education, focused on the perceived ‘toxic’ and corroding effects of the current condition of higher education (Smyth 2017, Whelan et al 2013, Murphy 2017).  The zombie trope is used to highlight the uncritical acceptance of managerialism, measures and language within policy and practice, and – indeed – models of teaching and learning that “refuse to die and keep coming back” (Grove 2018).

Such constant exposure to comparison and pressure to ‘be excellent’ results in academic staff having to negotiate complex demands and consider which aspects of their role to prioritise. This leads us to the second trend: the growth of what could be termed academic ‘self-help’ resources, books and training to support academics navigate their complex workloads, to “write no matter what”, and find meaning – and even “happiness” - in their academic life (Clark & Sousa 2018, Jensen 2017). Such emphasis focuses largely on self-management and contributes to the “hyper individualization” of academic careers and success (Kandiko Howson et al 2018). 

Using these two trends as a springboard, this lecture will explore the contradictory, messy and refractory effects of the promotion of ‘excellence’ in higher education. Drawing on a recent study of how mid and early career academics negotiate their work (Caddell & Wilder 2018), it explores the intertwining of discourses of success, value and collegiality. Giving voice to these everyday transcripts and experiences, the session will cast light on how efforts to promote excellence and enhancement impact on practices and relationships within the university and will challenge us to consider what – practically – we can do to focus on what matters from what is measured in university learning & teaching.


  • Blackmore, P. (2016) Prestige in Academic Life: Excellence and exclusion. London: Routledge.
  • Caddell, M. & Wilder, K. (2018) ‘Seeking Compassion in the Measured University: Generosity, Collegiality and Competition in Academic Practice’, Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice.  6(3).
  • Clark, A. & Sousa B. (2018) How to Be a Happy Academic: A Guide to Being Effective in Research, Writing and Teaching. Sage: London.
  • Deem, R. (1998) ‘New managerialism’ and higher education: The management of performance and cultures in universities in the United Kingdom. International Studies in Sociology of Education. 8:1, 47-70. DOI: 10.1080/0962021980020014
  • Grove, J. (2018) ‘Zombie academic on the march’.  Times Higher Education Supplement. 5/7/2018. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/zombie-academic-march  
  • Jensen, J. (2017) Write No Matter What: Advice For Academics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kandiko Howson,C.B., Coate, K. & de St Croix, T (2017) Mid-career academic women and the prestige economy, Higher Education Research & Development, 36(7). https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2017.1411337
  • Murphy, S. (2017) Zombie University: Thinking Under Control.  London: Repeater
  • Smith, J. & Rattray,J. (2016). ‘Mapping the Terrain of Identity-Work Research’. In Identity Work in the Contemporary University. Smith,J., Rattray,J., Peseta,T. & Loads,D. Sense Publishers.
  • Smyth, J. (1996) The Toxic University: Zombie Leadership, Academic Rock Stars, and Neoliberal Ideology London: Palgrave Macmillan https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-54968-6
  • Sutton, P. (2017) Lost souls? The demoralization of academic labour in the measured university, Higher Education Research & Development, 36:3, 625-636, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2017.1289365
  • Tight, M. (2014) Collegiality and managerialism: a false dichotomy? Evidence from the higher education literature, Tertiary Education and Management, 20:4, 294-306, DOI: 10.1080/13583883.2014.956788 
  • Whelan,A., R. Walker & C.Moore (2013) Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education. Bristol: Intellect Press.