November 07, 2011

The academic as truth-teller

The logic of the bureacratisation of academia, forcing academics to 'publish or perish' and cut corners when it comes to teaching, has more to do with the marketisation of universities than learning and scholarship.

Sadly, just as the principle of free higher education is under assault as never before, so too is the idea of the academic as a free-thinking intellectual, particularly in the UK. In the first place, rather than being allowed to pursue ideas for their own sake, increasingly British academics are pressured into meeting university and departmental demands for the five- or six-yearly Research Assessment Exercise (lately renamed the Research Excellence Framework). Introduced in 1985/6 as a means of evaluating the ‘quality’ of academic research across the various disciplines, the RAE requires university departments to submit four publications for each full-time member of staff selected for inclusion. Departments are then ranked according to their research outputs, research environment and indicators of esteem by a panel of subject specialists (there were 67 panels for the 2008 RAE). And it is these rankings that determine the allocation of quality weighted research funding each university receives from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), a non-departmental public body currently overseen by the Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. But the pressure to perform well in the RAE has resulted in academics being subject to ever-increasing layers of micromanagement and performance indicators whose logic are more corporate than they are academic. In actual fact, the roots for this bureaucratisation of scholarship can be traced back to the elite US Ivy League business schools and management consultancy firms such as Bain & Company, the Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey.

The upshot of this academic drift is that the ‘publish or perish’ imperative is now endemic within academe. And not just any old publication will do. The sheer volume of submissions to the RAE (over 200,000 outputs were submitted as part of the 2008 RAE) makes it virtually impossible for panel members to read through each and every article, which invariably means that common assumptions are made about the ‘quality’ of articles published in top peer-reviewed journals vis-à-vis those published elsewhere. But what this supposition overlooks is all the very good quality research published by those academics who refuse to play the RAE ‘game’. Indeed, it has been argued that only publishing in the ‘top’ journals forces academics to fashion their research around what those journals want, which can result in an unwillingness to push beyond the narrow confines of specialist fields of study and, ultimately, intellectual inertia[11].

Moreover, with sails trimmed tight, increasingly academics are forced to cut corners if they are to meet the next publishing deadline, particularly newly qualified academics who are expected to combine research with heavy teaching loads and endless administrative duties (a problem whose sheer scale and mind-numbingly tedious and pointless nature appears to be exclusively British). ‘What ever you do, don’t over-prepare’: ‘You only need to be one step ahead’: ‘Just cover the basics, ignore the rest’. These are just some of the suggested coping strategies one encounters when starting a new lecturing post. So much for the idea that the university is a place where teaching is carried out in an atmosphere of research, and vice versa. And this says nothing of the way in which the instrumentalisation of research has undermined collegiality by atomising any sense of a collective academic community[12]. It is no wonder that many junior academics, though grateful to finally have got their feet under the desk, find the early years of their careers strangely alienating and dispiriting, not quite knowing where to begin, what to prioritise or who to turn to[13].

Other ‘McKinseyian’ performance indicators include the unyielding pressures academics now face to secure external sources of funding (otherwise known as ‘grant-capture’), which often involves the preparation of long and tedious application forms for ever decreasing amounts of money and worsening odds of success. To compound matters, most academic funding bodies have rolled out award schemes that encourage collaborative research with a non-academic partner, which necessarily means a further narrowing of research aims and objectives. That many present-day universities so prize ‘cultural partnerships’, ‘corporate sponsorship’ or ‘third-stream funding’ in an effort to offset the shortfall in government funding muddies the waters yet further insofar as one sees increasing numbers of academics posturing as ‘consultants’ in the belief that research which has an economic or technocratic function is the surest way to gain promotion. And should the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework go ahead with the proposed 25 per cent weighting for so-called ‘impact’ (the premise being that academics and university departments will need to demonstrate how their research has impacted on and benefited the wider economy and society) the situation will almost certainly become even worse. In terms of the humanities specifically, the effect would be, as recently noted by Stefan Collini, ‘potentially disastrous’, not least because the implication is that academics will ‘be judged and rewarded as salesmen’ and thus forced into ‘hustling’ and ‘hawking’ their intellectual wares[14].

Which brings us to the crux of the matter: as market-driven research and corporate partnerships are accorded even more importance in higher education due to ever decreasing amounts of public funding, it is increasingly likely that we will see yet more universities adopting a subordinate relationship with possibly corrupt and manipulative power elites. This is all the more reason for academics to adopt the position of truth-teller and to question anything and everything that facilitates the growing marketisation of higher education or undermines academic freedom. However, defending the university requires much more than academics representing truth through democratic criticism and moral indignation. Also needed is a much broader social movement comprising all UK university workers, students, other public sector employees and the trade unions. Only then might politicians start to rethink their present assault on higher education, indeed, on the welfare state at large.

In the meantime, it would seem that the onerous responsibility of speaking truth to power has fallen on the student movement. It is they who have taken the upper hand and who are asking difficult questions. And, who knows, if student occupations spread up and down the country, perhaps we will see the uncovering, just as Warwick’s students did, of yet more evidence of ethical wrongdoing. If such a situation were to occur, however, universities will of course accuse students of irresponsible behaviour and do everything in their power to bring them to heel. In fact, there are already disturbing signs that the state itself may yet ‘police’ matters (in and through its many ideological apparatuses) should student dissent intensify. There is no question that those students singled out for ‘public misconduct’ in the months ahead risk all kinds of draconian sanctions, indeed, they run the risk of jeopardising their future careers. And all because they have the conviction to defend the idea of the university as a vital social and public institution. One only hopes that academics will express equal commitment and courage, not just in their writings, but in their actions too.


[11] See Simon Head, ‘The grim threat to British universities’, New York Review of Books, 13 January 2011.
[12] See Ronald Barnett, Beyond All Reason: living ideology in the university (Buckingham: Open University Press, in association with the Society for Research into Higher Education, 2003), pp. 108-10.
[13] For a full analysis of the changing academic experience in the UK higher education sector (based on survey evidence), see Malcolm Tight, The Development of Higher Education in the United Kingdom since 1945 (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2009), pp. 271-97.
[14] Stefan Collini, ‘Impact on humanities’, Times Literary Supplement, 13 November 2009, pp. 18-19.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As I understand it the REF requirement for publication in particular journals considered by the powers that be to be important has been dropped, which is a good thing, if that turns out to be the case.