The Politics of Knowing in the Modern University

Source: Ian Cook et alOne of the peculiar things about working in Higher Education in the UK these days, as Universities become increasingly assertive about declaring their own public significance – in terms of their contributions to students’ employability and thereby national productivity, to regional and national economic regeneration, and to local diversity and creativity – is the sense of dissonance that arises from the use made by those institutions of various sorts of ‘data’ and ‘evidence’ and even ‘concepts’ to support those justificatory claims, on the one hand, and on the other what seems increasingly to be the systematic elision of social science expertise in the public performance of the importance of any single University, or of Universities in general (as a colleague of mine has helpfully pointed out, this process is one symptom of the institutionalised stupidity of audit-led higher education governance in the UK).

The current dispute between the University staff union, the UCU, and Universities UK (UUK) over the sustainability of USS pension system (or, if your prefer, over the attempt by the latter to basically allow Universities to steal money from their employees) is one example of this disconnect, and an illustration of the politics of knowing internal to the operations of contemporary HE institutions. The position of the UUK, parroted by many (though not all) VCs of Universities, rests on the claim to have access to  a singularly authoritative interpretation of complex financial information (including the putting beyond question of certain ‘facts’, as if actuarial knowledge is, and even presumes to be, an exact predictive science). But lo and behold, it turns out that Universities are full of people who not only read the papers and know about how institutions work and what really motivates people, but also a whole bunch of experts who turn out to be perfectly adept at questioning the authority of those singular interpretations of the facts.

The know-it-all style of communication displayed by some Universities in the current dispute is one part of a more general, increasingly taken-for-granted model adopted by Universities in which they loudly project their achievements and ambitions, in the interests of securing student recruitment, public and private funding, and not least, hoped-for alumni support. I sometimes wonder, only half seriously, whether Universities shouldn’t be obliged to append a message to their external communications stating that the viewpoints of ‘the University of X’ do not necessarily represent those of individuals working for that University. The same model of communications has become a feature of internal management cultures too – so that internal management is increasingly shaped by the self-congratulatory register that assumes that everyone is meant to buy into the corporatised mission of ‘the University’ – as if academics work for the the Universities that employ them, rather than simply working at those institutions: we derive our sense of vocation from and owe our loyalty to wider “invisible colleges”. (Whisper it, but really, nobody cares where the University they happen to work at stands in international league tables; that’s not something worth taking any pride in at all, and if you think it is, you don’t understand the complex ecology of modern scientific knowledge). And that’s simply a way of saying that ‘a’ University is more than one thing. Of course, people who manage Universities obviously know that; but increasingly this type of knowing has to be systematically effaced in practices of internal management – another version of stupidity, no doubt.

This style of univocal management is not unrelated to the habit of central HE administrations to assertively seek to represent “student voice” in internal management systems. Student voice is captured by various internal and external metric-based, not-very-robust survey methods (that’s you, NSS), one part of a broader audit culture in HE of course, and then wielded against academic staff to impose centrally determined, pedagogically dodgy programme changes. The purest expression of this form of management is the TEF, an insidious expression of out-of-date Principal-Agent theories of public management, in which students are understood to stand exposed to having their interests as recipients of services usurped by the temptations to self-interest of those supposed to provide those services. (There is a larger story to be told here about quite why British Universities remain beholden to models of top-down, hierarchical management that are, indeed, so dated). As a more or less eagerly embraced  system of mismanagement, the TEF involves a doubling of this set of understandings: externally, Government appointed agencies are meant to provide the monitoring function that will keep the Agents (Universities) from mistreating the Principals (students); internally, the logic is just cascaded downwards, so that the central management of the University takes on the role of guaranteeing that untrustworthy Agents (academics) don’t short-change the Principals (those same students). You’ll notice how, in this logic, ‘students’ are doubly displaced into chains of representation in which their ‘voice’ is only ever ventriloquised by those claiming to have their best interests in mind. In this model, students are always and only seen as Pawns; University senior management are treated by their external Government overlords as defensive elitists, but are tempted to think of themselves internally within their own institutions as altruistic Knights; and so, one way or the other, academic staff are only ever treated as Knaves.

One perhaps unexpected effect of the current dispute in UK higher education is the disclosure, revealed by quite robust survey methods, that lots of students’ seem quite sympathetic to the sorts of grievances behind the UCU-led dispute. At the very least, the presumption that students speak with one “voice”, one that aligns perfectly with the perspective represented by central University management strategies, evidently lies in ruins. Herein perhaps lies the longer term significance of this dispute, whatever its outcome (there’s certainly no need to be that optimistic that the employees’ position will win the day). What has been rather shamelessly revealed by the UUK position in general, and in varying degrees by different Universities in their somewhat insensitive repetitions of that position, is a fairly brazen lack of respect not only for their staff in terms of the material issues at stake (pay, pensions and conditions), but also for the basic professional competencies upon which Universities’ day-to-day roles of education, research, scholarly and pastoral care depend. That’s something very difficult to row back (I’m sure that from a management perspective it might well be a difficult task to motivate academics; but once they have been systematically de-motivated, it becomes impossible – all you are left with is systems to “incentivise” them, which are really just a way of systematising the de-motivation). I suspect that part of the reason why some VCs have recently distanced themselves, in different ways, from the UUK party line was an appreciation of the need to publicly maintain some modicum of professional respect towards their staff through the course of this dispute. Other Universities have simply doubled down on the “we know better than you do” model of management and communication, at the same time as thoughtlessly seeking to talk to students as if only they had their best interests at heart in contrast to short sightedness   academic staff.

Did someone say ‘stupid‘?

What is ‘public’ about the Public University?

 I was visiting UCL yesterday, where students are involved in an occupation as part of the ongoing campaign against the Coalition’s pernicious policy of higher education funding (we don’t have one at the OU, cos there aren’t any students at Walton Hall). These occupations are interesting not least because they are seeking to directly shame the VCs of individual institutions, who as a collective group have proved horribly supine in their response to the government’s decision to allow an increase in fees AND to slash public funding in support of teaching of all but a select ‘strategic’ subjects. The last few weeks have exposed clear divisions within the University sector, with representatives of the Russel Group and other research intensive institutions quietly accepting proposed changes as inevitable, while the most forceful criticisms of these proposals, and defence of the public value of higher education beyond the personal benefit derived by individual students, have been made by articulate VCs from institutions such as the University of Central Lancashire and Canterbury Christ Church. This division is so clear that it has generated a debate about whether the Universities UK, the umbrella representative body for the whole sector, has lost its legitimacy as an effective representative by adopting such an accommodating tone – you can track the tensions in recent articles and letters in the Times Higher.

All of this will come to a head this week when the Commons gets to vote on the tuition fees proposals. But one of the more important aspects of this campaign is the way that it has very quickly exposed fault lines around the terms in which the politics of newly austere public sphere is going to be fought out: on the one side, a set of arguments which invoke particular images of ‘fairness’ and focus all the attention on the idea of higher education as a system distributing benefits upon differentially advantaged individuals (on this criterion, of course, there are aspects of the current proposals that are easily commended – the OU has loudly celebrated the equalization of treatment of part-time students as potential high education debtors); on the other side, an argument about the public good of higher education residing in various collectively bestowed, and collectively enjoyed benefits which are more than the aggregate of all these personal benefits. The best thing I have read on this issue is Stefan Collini’s critique of the perfect-market idiocy that informs the Browne Review (whose membership is indicative of a shift in the ‘public’ quality of these sorts of reviews). Collini points out that the headline coverage of the Browne Review, and the protests and campaigns since too, has been on the issue of fees increases; and he elaborates on how there is a much more fundamental aspect of the Review, which is its proposed (and largely accepted by the Coalition) ‘dismantling of the public character of higher education’, which he describes as ‘breathtaking’ in its scale. The emphasis of Collini’s analysis on defending the public quality of higher education in a broad sense has quickly found expression in a newly established Campaign for the Public University. In a letter published in The Times earlier this week, the broader issue is clearly stated: “The issues at stake for the future of higher education are not only to do with the proposed increase in student tuition fees. We believe that the public university is essential both for cultivating democratic public life and creating the means for individuals to find fulfilment in creative and intellectual pursuits.” The letter also refers to the results of rather extensive research survey undertaken by Ipsos MORI on behalf of HEFCE and also published last week, which, to cut a long story short, showed rather widespread support amongst the public for government investment in higher education and a broad appreciation of the varied benefits (economic and non-economic, individual and collective) of higher education. The OU currently has a research centre, CHERI, which also focusses on exploring and promoting the public dimensions of higher education, engaging in empirical research but contributing to conceptualizations of the place of higher education in reconfiguring the public sphere – partly through links with CHERI, some of us hosted Craig Calhoun at the OU earlier this year, whose talk about the changing public status of Universities now seems even more pertinent than it did back in March – you can see the lecture here.

The only thing that worries me about the tone of debate at the moment around these issues is the danger that certain aspects of a rather tired Two Cultures debate are already being reproduced, so that ‘the public’ benefits worth defending from the more extensive marketization of higher education end up being represented in terms of the apparently non-instrumental value ascribed to ‘the humanities’. I think that path threatens to undermine much more expansive, inclusive understandings of the public qualities of higher education, by just reproducing some hoary old (class-bound) stereotypes about ‘really useless knowledge’ being the embodiment of the public value of University life. I think the challenge is to acknowledge and defend a pluralist range of ‘uses’ and ‘instrumentalities’ that higher education helps to sustain.

Fair is Fair

Everybody’s talking about fairness, these days, as my colleague John Clarke observes. It’s been a central and recurring motif in discussions of the end of universal child benefit, the Browne review of higher education funding, and Nick Clegg’s announcement of the Pupil Premium. All this fairness talk is part of general break-out of explicitly normative political discourse in the last 6 months, or at least the surfacing of themes which have been floating around for a while – The Big Society, with it’s Burkean heritage and ‘Red Tory’ sheen of radicalism is just one example; Ian Duncan-Smith’s catholic inflected social justice agenda is another; David Willets’ account of intergenerational justice yet another, the latter two more obviously having policy relevance than Cameron’s more flaky sounding Big Society.  A key question here is whether it is wise to think of these discourses as simply ‘cover’ for spending cuts, simply means of legitimating more fundamental decisions.

John worries that fairness is too airy, lacking the incisiveness of a value like equality for example. I’m not so sure. Firstly, I think fairness is a term through which intuitive values of equality and justice is ordinarily expressed – these aren’t opposed terms at all. John Rawls’ egalitarian liberalism revolves around a notion of fairness, for example (a rather opaque account admittedly). But the principle of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ also expresses an egalitarian sense of fairness. I think the intimate relationship between fairness and from abstract notions of equality or justice is worth considering more carefully as the politics of ‘the new politics’ begins to unfold, starting tomorrow with the comprehensive spending review. Last week, The Guardian’s right-wing provocateur Julian Glover managed to concoct a mean-spirited response to the ECHR’s report, How Fair is Britain?. What exercised Glover was precisely the coupling of fairness with equality in this report, leading him to argue that since fairness is a woolly idea, and since it is too easily mistaken as ‘equality’, we should do away with both notions. Glover’s self-serving argument elicited a debate , which underscored again the close relationship between these two different values.

My point is that we might do well to take seriously the different meanings of fairness, and attend to their changing deployment in public culture and in different contexts. But more than this, might usefully think of this break-out of fairness talk not so much as merely ‘legitimating’ economic decision-making, but as a form of justificatory discourse – in the sense that justificatory practices are understood by economic sociologists such as Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, and Laurent Thévenot, as crucial mediums for the coordination of social life. From their perspective, justificatory discourses need to be understood as exerting real constraints on the exercise of unfettered capitalist logics, and as indices of fields of contestation and critique to which selective responses are made. From this sort of perspective, all this fairness talk is notable precisely because it is an index of the terrain of conflict and contestation to which an emerging, half-baked political programme feels itself obliged to respond in the hope of circumventing other modes of critique. Fairness is not meaningless, and certainly not an empty signifier. It has as set of intuitive associations, which the Coalition is doing its best to both make use of and control. David Cameron talks of fairness as ‘giving people what they deserve, and what people deserve depends on how they behave’. This definition ties fairness to a notion of individual responsibility, but it articulates a broader sense of fairness having to do with desert – an idea that is easily inflected in egoistically ‘meritocratic’ ways for sure, but which is also open to re-inscription.

So fairness might be worth taking more seriously than the urge to question all this woolly moralism leads us to think it should, if only because this is one terrain in which ‘the new politics’ is about to be articulated – not just spending cuts, but the coming debate about electoral reform too. It’s not the only one, of course, and there is no good reason to restrict oneself to the terms laid down by those in formal political control of events. In this respect, too, though, it is notable that there are some funny things happening in political discourse just now. For example, the reaction to the announcement of the end of universal child benefit by right-wing columnists in The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph is interesting not least because the challenge to the narrowly ‘transactional’ view of fairness expressed by Osborne and Cameron at the Tory conference was presented through a clear statement of a principle of public value – the defence of ‘stay at home mums’ receiving child benefit irrespective of personal or household income levels was made in the name of the principle that engaging in an activity that benefitted the collective life of the community deserved reward and support. This is a gendered, nationalistic, paternalistic vision of public value, no doubt, but a vision of public value it certainly is – it is in marked contrast to the ruling principle behind the Browne review of higher education, for example, which confirms an already evident drift to thinking of the public function of Universities primarily in terms of the efficiency with which they distribute private benefits to those who pass through their doors – a trend tracked by OU colleagues in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, and theorised by Craig Calhoun. If the ‘stay at home mum’ logic was applied to higher education, the proposals for University funding would look markedly different. All of which is to suggest that one task for a critical response to ‘the new politics’ of spending cuts, austerity, re-moralisation of the poor, electoral reform, and much else is to carefully track the modes of justification presented for different decisions, for it is here that one will be able to track the genealogies of vulnerability to which this idiosyncratic political project is responding and the opportunities for opposition it is helping to generate in its wake.