Some time ago now I wrote a post which raised some questions about how the decision of the UK government to redirect a large slice of ‘development aid’-related funding to the science budget, primarily through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), might play itself out over the course of time. Well, this question is already a live public one – Eleni Courea at Research Fortnight has a concise account of how both the GCRF and the Newton Fund are currently subject to debate amongst academics, politicians, and NGOs concerning the degree to which the aims of those schemes can be justified. There is a much larger story here, I should say, and perhaps the terms of the debate summarised in this piece might well be challenged. Noel Castree’s comment at the end of this piece – concerning the implied paternalism regarding British expertise that is sometimes associated with these schemes – captures much of what I suspect many people worry about. I should say also that the Newton Fund project that I am involved in aims to address precisely that worry. Basically, a good lesson to remember is that you should never trust people who claim to be able to mobilise ‘science’ in order to ‘solve’ what are too glibly called ‘global’ problems.
Newly available, a double issue of the political theory and activist magazine engagée, on the theme of Radical Cities, containing a series of pieces connecting theories of more-or-less radical democracy with reflections on city-based, urban-themed political issues and movements, with contributors and examples drawn from across Europe.
The issue contains, amongst many other things, a re-versioned paper by me, ‘What Do Cities Have To Do With Democracy?’. I just received a pile of hard copies of the journal, so if you ask nicely I might send you one.
The suspended USS strike in UK HEIs has thrown up some interesting debates around the idea of academic freedom, a principle not very strongly institutionalised in British Universities (See https://www.ucu.org.uk/academic-freedom-in-2017).
For example, my own institution, just by way of example you understand, has an academic freedom protocol which is structured around the idea that academic freedom is a ‘right’ that is conditional on certain ‘responsibilities’. Of course, academic freedom is NOT dependent on exercising responsibility at all – anyone who links rights and responsibilities together in this way doesn’t understand the concept of rights. Academic freedom is not a special right that accrues to certain types of people (academics). It’s a principle that arises from the constitutive relation between the idea of a University as an institution committed to free, open ended inquiry AND the fact that this type of inquiry does, indeed, need to be institutionalised in organisational form. That’s an idea you can trace way back, to Kant and others.
The principle of academic freedom is not the same as the right of free speech, which classically arise from threats from the state [& NOT unruly student protesters with post-it notes]. But like any notion of freedom, it is a relational concept. And the primary source of the un-freedom to which principles of academic freedom are meant to act as protection is the University itself. That is, academic freedom is a response to the ever present possibility that the organisation of the diverse set of practices by which Universities have to be funded, managed, and sustained as institutions capable of supporting their primary purpose (supporting free, open ended inquiry) might come to actually impinge upon and undermine the very conditions of possibility of free, open ended inquiry.
I’m not being melodramatic, just pointing out what the genealogy of the idea of academic freedom shows us.
If you think of academic freedom in this way, then you can begin to see how all sorts of recent events in UK HEIs might represent at least serious threats to academic freedom, if not its actually realised diminution. Take, again just by way of example you understand, what appears to be a rather widespread practice of Universities monitoring and trying to regulate the social media activity of academic staff members. This habit, shall we call it, is one effect of Universities importing models of corporate ‘messaging’ into their internal and external communications strategies, allied to wider changes to personnel management and University strategising. The primary imperative of University communications strategies, these days, is to promote and protect the ‘brand’ and reputation of a given University in relation to that of its ‘competitors‘ (yes, that really is how other Universities are described in this world). If you look at academics’ social media activity from the perspective of a standard model of corporate communications – and look upon academics as simply employees – then this activity is viewed either (in a good light) as contributing positively to the brand, or (in a bad light) as potentially threatening the reputation of the University. Because from this perspective, ‘The University’ has taken on a life of its own separate and distinct from the activities of its members, now seen as mere employees.
What seems difficult for HEI management systems to acknowledge is the validity of using social media as a medium for the expression of criticism of the ordinary features of University practices, that is, as an expression of a basic aspect of the life of a University as a self-governing community of scholars. Here we have, then, a perfect example of that constitutive paradox from whence the principle of academic freedom arises – a practice meant to enhance the capacity of the University to function properly ends up threatening to undermine the integrity of free, open ended inquiry. Of course, one might wonder why it never occurs to anyone that gaining a reputation for heavy-handed surveillance of ordinary intellectual debate is not necessarily the kind of brand identity a University would want to be associated with.
“Nothing we do can be defended absolutely and finally. But only by reference to something else that is not questioned. I.e. no reason can be given why you should act (or should have acted) like this, except that by doing so you bring about such and such a situation, which again has to be an aim you accept.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value