The Means and Ends of Higher Education

Things I Learnt With Colleagues Last Week

Week 4, and it looks like the combined stupidity of the UUK and lack of preparedness and care by individual University senior leaderships before the current UCU strike action started means that lots of University staff in the UK are still out on strike, not teaching students, not librarian-ing, not providing professional support to researchers, not, public-engaging, and not doing lots of other things they’d rather be doing. That does mean more “learnable moments” for those of us on strike, whether through talking to our colleagues on the picket line (or meeting new ones) or through tweets and re-tweets and blogs. I’ve decided to not have any shame about only now discovering things about my pension, or how the University I work at (NOT for) is run, and instead take my ongoing journey of discovery as an indictment of the very system we are all realising we are part of. After all, none of what we are learning about how the USS pension system has been undermined, or how this is related to the systematic financialization of University funding, or how University governance has been rendered obscure and unaccountable, is actually a secret. Some of it people have known about, and lots of this is actually a focus of robust research. But who has the time to keep up with all this? And who imagined that those representatives of the institutions that one might think were meant to act in the best interests of those who work for Universities would turn out to be, well, less than honest and trustworthy and competent, if not deliberately misleading?

A few things have caught my eye in the last few days, precisely because the focus of my attention has been directed by my colleagues at better understanding the economics of pensions systems and the business models of Universities and because I have had the time to pursue in more depth these issues (there’s a lesson here, surely, concerning what it says about the Efficient Market Hypothesis that it is only when employees are on strike that they have enough time to actually begin to even imagine being able to access all of the information they are supposed by adherents to that abstract principle to have at their disposal in order to function as rational fools).

The first was a great, succinct blog post by Ewan McGaughey explaining the relationship between the planned gutting of the USS pension scheme and shifts in the nature of University governance. As he puts it, the plan to shift risk away from Universities by rendering all ‘pension’ support into ‘Defined Contribution’ schemes in the name of flexibility and choice amounts to recommending a ‘Die Quickly’ Plan. Now, one thing we’ve all learned is that this whole programme of de-risking is related to a broader shift in the strategizing of UK Universities, whereby the urge to reduce pension support as liabilities is intrinsically linked to the imperative to diversify sources of funding in a context of reductions in direct government support. Now, the logics of financialization in higher education are perhaps longer established, and subject to research scrutiny, in a North American context than in the UK, but it is worth remembering that that’s a different context. Thomas Hale provides a short summary of ‘allure of the capital markets’ for Universities at the FT’s Alphaville site (you have to register, but it’s free after that, and totally worth it – he’s been writing about higher education for a while now). It’s good to keep in view the degree to which these transformations in the strategies of Universities are structured by a firm commitment by government since 2010 to restructure the economics of higher education in fundamental ways. The relationship between the pensions dispute and this trend towards financialization is captured in what now, two weeks later, reads like a very old statement from the Vice Chancellor of Exeter, according to which the costs of continuing to support the existing pension system would involve “a reduction to our resources, and would limit our ability to deliver our key missions around research and education as well as our ability to invest in, and improve, the facilities we provide.” This zero-sum representation of what is at stake in this dispute – between investing in uniformly high quality pay and conditions for staff versus a rather obscure sense of education and research ‘missions’ that centre on ‘facilities’ – is, in fact, simply a talking point proffered by the UUK for widespread use. That’s just one of the things we’ve all learnt because of the work of Gail Davies and Felicity Callard and others in reconstructing the explicit efforts of ‘The Voice of Universities’ to legitimise the shift from collective pension support to individualised “Die Quickly” savings plans. (And Exeter’s VC has more recently reiterated the same argument).  

The implicit view that supporting pensions is a liability that gets in the way of delivering key missions rests on a broadly shared imperative for Universities to be able to demonstrate that they are enhancing “student experience” – where this means access to high quality work spaces, to fantastic sports facilities, accommodation, high-tech teaching spaces, and the like. All of those things are crucial to making a University the space that it is meant to, no doubt. The interesting question is how it is that we have arrived at a situation in which all those material things are rendered affordable only by drastically restructuring academic labour markets in increasingly bifurcated ways while also streamlining ‘academic support’ professions.

The trelationship between the substantive issues behind the current pension dispute and the shift towards capital investment strategies amongst Universities is neatly captured by Philip Roscoe, discussing the origins of the strike in decisions made by UUK in 2017: “In the summer of last year USS asked employers – via Universities UK – whether they wanted more or less risk. It might seem a silly question, for out of context everyone wants less risk. But universities have a particular agenda. USS is what is known as a ‘last man standing’ scheme, meaning that should institutions start to fail, risk would pile up on those still operating. And university managers, now thoroughly versed in the language, practices and salaries of business, are obsessed with avoiding risk. Risk has practical implications, for under current accounting rules employers must carry full pension liabilities on their balance sheet. This affects administrators who, seeing themselves primarily as curators of rankings in a market-driven system, are diverting all the funds they can into an arms race of building and infrastructure investment. Universities can borrow very cheaply – often at less than the cost of inflation, and almost free money is too good a ticket to be passed up. But lenders are not going to offer such preferential terms to borrowers with huge pension liabilities; for a university, the covenant of USS begins to loom as an enormous blot on an otherwise shiny credit rating.”

The integral link between the pensions dispute and the financialization of University expansion plans involves a search for new sources of revenue, in a context of declining direct funding from government and uncertainty over the reliability of student fee income, the real value of which is declining year on year anyway. (Let’s not forget, in the midst of realising just how badly managed British Universities have been, that the changing political economy of higher education has its source in the determination of Tory-led governments since 2010 to try to make higher education conform to ridiculous models of markets and competition. Universities’ turn to capital investment programmes as a way of seeking enhance ‘student experience’ is an index of a motivated effort to enforce a competitive spirit on higher education institutions, and the move to ‘de-risk’ pensions liabilities is a central element of the resulting and still emergent business model in which getting better loan rates is the driving imperative.)

The transformation of the economics of higher education represents an opportunity for growth for certain fields of private investment, and that’s why there is so much consultancy by the likes of Barclays and KPMG flying around – it serves as a way of introducing potential investors to potential borrowers. Here is pwc summarising the new landscape of higher education funding:  “In an increasingly competitive market where all Universities are striving to offer their students, staff and visitors the most positive and rewarding experience possible, the quality of the built environment, the accommodation offering, and the delivery of estates services are playing a more critical role than ever before. In response to this, Universities are developing exciting and ambitious estates plans that propose significant investment in new facilities, and innovative ways of delivering services.” Now, the key thing about this emergent field is that buildings and facilities require long-term financing, and traditional lenders – banks – “are unable to write loans with the same duration and pricing levels of the past”. All of this is a source of some excitement:  “New sources of finance, as well as new commercial modes for securing this finance, are therefore needed and are being employed across a variety of projects in the sector”. As NatWest nicely put it, capital debt markets “have capitalised on the lack of bank liquidity for longer-duration financing”.

The most publicly visible example of Universities turning to debt capital markets takes the form of individual institutions – ones as very different as De Montfort and Cambridge – issuing their own bonds (an instrument of indebtedness sold by the issuer to the holder, e.g. what governments do). This trend serves as a way of securing long-term finance that bank lenders are not prepared to extend. But the logics of financialization are not only evident amongst institutions who have leveraged credit in this way. For example, the University of Exeter’s financial strategy is quite prudent – the University is “relatively highly geared”, that is, it’s focussed on paying down relatively high levels of debt accrued from past investments. This is one reason, of course, why pension commitments show up as a risk (not just a liability) for this type of institution.  For Exeter, “Pensions” are listed ahead of “Impact of the EU Referendum June 2016” when it comes to discussing financial risks: “The settlement of the USS 2017 actuarial valuation is a key risk, both financially and in terms of industrial relations, with the national trade unions agitating to protect current pension benefits. Current expectation is that the valuation will be settled within the current funding envelope, without increasing costs to the employer or employee but the likelihood that future pension benefits will have to be curtailed is high.” That was written a year or so ago I guess.

Of course the idea that pensions are ‘a material liability’ is just technical vocabulary, it’s not necessarily ripe for deconstruction. But when financial balance-sheets become ‘enveloped’, shall we say, in a wider process of actuarial de-riskification then the idea of pensions as liabilities gets translated into the idea of pensions as a risk, and helps to generate the search for securing the ‘resilience‘ in higher education financing.

Now, you might think that if you are already busy paying down lots of debt, you’d calm down about taking on a lot more. Well… the University of Exeter actually has an ambitious future capital investment strategy (‘Iconic Buildings on what used to be a Car Park’, for short). Exeter’s Capital Strategy proclaims “The next ten years will see us invest £428.5M in our campuses, estate and infrastructure. We are building the estate we need to deliver world-class research and an internationally excellent education, accommodating our students and our world leading academics in exceptional teaching, learning and research spaces.” As I said, there’ll be less car parking space as a result. And it’s not quite clear, from the outside (that is, for those working at this University) where this money is meant to come from. This investment strategy also sits alongside the University’s “People Strategy’, which has the sub-heading of ‘Attract, Perform, Retain’ – I’m not sure how any of those aims is meant to be enhanced by undermining University employees’ pension provision which, as UCU members have helpfully reconstructed over the last week or so, has been systematically pursued by British University senior management for a while now. 

Exeter is certainly a good an example of the recent spending spree on new buildings that characterises British higher education, a phenomenon that is rooted in a widely shared understanding that this is the secret to attracting students. And if building buildings is crucial to recruiting students, then in turn servicing the debt that finances that building depends on being able to guarantee future student income (an aside: one of the things that working through the logics of this dispute does underscore is just how important teaching students remains to the changing meaning of ‘the University’, including ‘research intensive’ ones). In his discussion, Hale helpfully identifies just how important rankings are to this process of financialization, playing two related roles in mediating demand of “student-consumers” and in “the overall marketing process of debt issuance” (i.e. in reassuring investors that Universities looking for credit are actually any good). Rankings are, of course, just one part of the ‘avalanche of numbers’ that has swamped HE – loads of ‘data’ is used to manage Universities internally so that universities can act in certain ways externally, as it were, for accountability and justification purposes for sure, but also to establish and maintain institutional credit worthiness (remember that next time you are congratulated for achieving a better position in a methodologically dodgy league table). But more precisely, rankings and league tables are now built into systems for finessing the calculation of the risks of different sorts of assets, liabilities, and both estate investments and human capital.

Needless to say, this sort of estate-led expansion of HE is not without its controversies.

It should be said that developing expansive capital investment strategies does not only involve individual Universities directly raising capital through bond issues. Again, pwc is helpful here: “We are, however, seeing significant interest from certain large investors to increase their exposure to the higher education sector through property-related income that is backed by a strong covenant”. What is being referred to here is the turn to using “lease based structures” that allow Universities to access capital with long maturities indirectly (and therefore not messing up the balance-sheet). That line about large investors ‘exposing’ themselves to the HE sector is, of course, meant to be ironic: it’s not really the investors that are exposed in these deals, which actually depend on the assumption that investing in University estate is a safe bet. This second form of ‘innovative’ higher education financing through the credit markets involves Universities partnering up with specialist financial companies, of which University Partnership Programme (UPP) is the most visible in the UK. UPP is a University accommodation developer, that provides to Universities  ‘special purpose vehicles’. Basically, they raise the capital for Universities and build and run student accommodation, and ownership of the buildings only passes on to Universities when the original debt is paid back (that might sound familiar). UPP describe what they do in the following way: “Our vision is to deliver the very best student experiences, in partnership with great universities. Our mission is to create exceptional academic infrastructure and support services in partnership. We design and develop high quality, affordable, student accommodation, academic infrastructure and support services. Our unique partnerships enable universities to make best use of their assets, freeing up university resources and improving services to students.” That last bit about ‘freeing-up’ resources is important, because this way of financing building projects allows Universities to keep the costs of investment off their balance sheets – thereby enhancing their on-going borrowing strategies. Nothing to worry about there then. 

It’s worth slowing down a moment, and recognizing that the emergence of this debt-fuelled model of higher education is rapidly evolving – until very recently Universities were able to raise capital on favourable terms because of an implicit assumption that they were in the last resort guaranteed against failure by government. That’s no longer such a wise assumption. Government now not only seeks to facilitate new entrants into HE but says out loud it will not automatically prop-up a financially failing University. This effort to enforce marketisation is one reason why it is important to differentiate between arguments that HE is currently an imperfectly functioning market that could be made more perfect, and an argument about why it might not be a good idea to imagine that it’s sensible to imagine it should or could be in the first place. Of course, Universities remain very heavily dependent on government funding in all sorts of ways, primarily in terms of credit-extended to fund student fees as well as direct grants and research funding. It’s not clear that the model of financialization of higher education upon which the trashing of my pension has been premised is actually even sustainable.

And it’s worth noting, in the middle of all this, just how variable the subject of ‘The Student’ has become. It’s easy to bemoan the idea that students are increasingly treated as consumers, but it in fact students are figured in various ways in contemporary higher education policy and strategy: as future recruits, they serve as security against which Universities can secure loans; they are quite publicly presented, amazingly, as superficial air-heads who are easily dazzled by ‘shiny buildings’ when making life-changing decisions; they are expected to be only ever motivated as utility-maximisers by the promise of future earnings in their choices and expectations and satisfactions (giving rise to a weird sense of what ‘vocational‘ means in education, which is reduced to quite instrumental ideas about value for money; which doesn’t leave much space for the idea of a calling, a passion, a life’s worth of mission); and, rather importantly given the debt-leveraged nature of all this building work, as reliable rent-payers. And this disaggregation of ‘The Student’ into a dispersed range of abstract singularities facilitates in turn the re-aggregation of “student voice” and “student experience”, always and only ever spoken-for by University managers.

It’s Not Neoliberalism!

Now, at this point, I want to step sideways and make what might appear to be an arcane theoretical point: I want to say out loud that I think none of this can be helpfully analysed with reference to extant conceptualisations of neoliberalism. My reason for saying this here is because I have made this case on a couple of occasions as contributions to local UCU-related teach-outs in the last week or so, so I thought as a matter of good faith I should reiterate the argument here too. The framing of the wider context for this dispute routinely falls back on the terms of a popularised discourse of ‘the neoliberal University’ set against an idea of Universities as a public good that has come to define a whole space of critical imagination for the academic left and beyond. It’s worth slowing down a moment and considering what difference it makes to think about higher education as a public good or as a means of achieving the public good – and noticing that in neither case are market mechanisms necessarily inimical to desired collective outcomes. I happen to think that the analysis of processes of the marketisation, financialization, and consumerisation of higher education in the UK needs to be freed from the weight of the theoretical edifice of critical discourses of ‘neoliberalism’ (and I think this not just for academic reasons but also because I think it contributes to bad political strategy). I don’t want to rehearse a lengthy academic argument here, so I will try to be quick: leaving aside the complete incoherence of ‘neoliberal’ as either an explanatory or descriptive term, and the fact that all critical theories of neoliberalism tend to suffer from a somewhat unhealthy identification with their putative object of analysis (this is related to the methodological basis of most social science research on neoliberalism, which for all the talk of ‘political-economy’ tends to be based on fairly simplistic forms of discourse analysis (without even admitting it) and interviews with elite actors; or, for those late to the game, it is related to having no regard for the empirical at all, preferring to simply show the normative inadequacies of a set of theoretical propositions that are presented as having already been perfectly realised in the world). To cut a long story short, prevalent theories of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ – whether the carpet theory of roll-back and roll-out variegated neoliberalization, or those of a more sophisticated poststructuralist variety, turn on stark contrasts between states and markets, or between the political and the economic – or, at a deeper level, between bad individualism and virtuous sociality (there are broader issues here about what kind of social theory is at work in critical analyses of ‘neoliberalism’, which tend to be reliant on functionalist theories of the state and of ‘subjectivity’, and devoid of effective understandings of the rationalities of action) .

There are at least three reasons why this whole framework of analysis doesn’t really help in analysing what we are all learning about the political economy of higher education through our involvement in this dispute. They all deserve more attention than I can muster here, but I’ll mention each in turn:

  • First, it disallows the possibility of any positive knowledge of the economic (at best delegating that knowledge to a tradition of Marxist analysis that is certainly worth taking very seriously). And if there is one thing we’ve all learnt these last couple of weeks, it’s that it’s really useful to be able to know about the economics of finance.
  • Second, as already intimated, risk the central theme linking the use of rankings, pensions as liabilities, and the financing of capital investment (again, that’s what Gail Davies and Felicity Callard  have been excavating). And risk is quite central to modern concepts and practices of public life, in a way often underestimated by critical theories. There really is something called the ‘The new risk agenda‘ that is being embedded in bought-in, consultant-led higher education strategising, management and administration. It’s a world in which future pension liabilities show up as a financial risk while leveraged on- and off- balance indebtedness doesn’t, no-one takes seriously the risk of undermining the professional confidence of University staff in senior leadership, and all those flakey metrics are used to make it appear that future student recruitment is a lock-in. There is certainly a debate to be had about ‘the privatization of risk‘, although that’s not quite what is involved here – it’s more like a process in which privatised models of risk, via actuarial practices and the operations of debt markets, have become integral to the delivery of new understandings of the ‘public benefits’ of HEIs.
  • Third, and picking up on this suggestion, entrenched critical discourses of neoliberalism find it very difficult to acknowledge that the marketisation and financialization of higher education involves the reconfiguration of the relationship between the means and ends of the public dimensions of higher education, rather than the diminution of the public qualities of University life in the face of unrelenting privatisation (the values of efficiency, accountability, freedom and choice that legitimise that reconfiguration are, after all, no less public values than, say, equality or justice). It is presumed that market mechanisms – in this case financialized practices – can only ever undermine properly public values (and it’s never explained why this infectious relation cannot work in the other direction as well).

The example of pension provision, which is what our dispute centres on, should remind us that there is no necessary reason why private means cannot be used to secure public goods (in that respect, Adam Smith remains a rather insightful theorist of modern public life). The history of pension provision in the UK from the early 20th century until the introduction of George Osborne’s “Freedom and Choice’ reforms in 2015 illustrates that it’s perfectly possible to combine private markets for investments with specific tax regimes to deliver welfare outcomes.


Should Universities Calm Down?

I guess my point is simply that higher education isn’t a public good – there are multiple public goods associated with higher education (and they might actually be proliferating even as the means of achieving them is being narrowed). At its most straightforward, as subject to the Charity Commission, Universities in the UK are obliged to demonstrate that their activities deliver Public Benefit to all sorts of constituencies (have a google, you’ll quickly be able to find the annual reporting of how your University’s delivers Public Benefit). It is possible to imagine various configurations of the objects, subjects and mediums of public life rather than holding to a stark contrast between two separate, and opposed realms. The marketisation and financialization of higher education, expressed not least through heavily leveraged capital investment programmes, represents a re-configuration of the means and ends of the public qualities of HE. And it’s not just done in the name of public values (to think that this will do as an analysis requires you to still believe in the concept of ideology, which you just shouldn’t). To illustrate my point, consider the evaluation of the capital investment by the research-intensive Russell Group Universities between 2012 and 2017 produced by the economics consultancy BiGGAR Economics in 2014 (great name). It should be said that most of the increase in capital investment by Universities is driven by a relatively small set of research-intensive institutions. The evaluation found that almost 100,000 jobs would be supported by more than £9 billion of projected investment – spending on “a wide variety of different types of project from new libraries and student accommodation to major urban regeneration projects and world-leading medical facilities” – and that every £1 invested will generate £4.89 ‘gross added value’  – these claims being arrived  at by using a “specially developed economic model”, the details of which are not made publicly accessible. These impacts will be felt over different time-scales – the total added value is divided between short-term impacts (the impacts of building the buildings), longer-term operational impacts (which derive from what goes on in the new buildings once they are built) and long-term ‘catalytic’ impacts: there at least 6 dimensions to this latter category, which anchors the really strong claim involved, namely that capital investment by Universities does not just amount to a redistribution of central government moneys but contributes to the active generation of new wealth. The six dimensions are ‘graduate productivity’, ‘medical research’, ‘commercialisation and innovation’, ‘enhanced research competitiveness’, ‘tourism’ (basically, parents coming to stay in University towns when their kids graduate) and ‘improved learning environment’ (which loops back to securing future student recruitment).

The report has a lovely conclusion, in which it is asserted that “Investing in a high quality learning and research environment” allows Universities “to attract and maintain the best students and researchers”. In this vision, capital investment projects are integral to the building of the ‘human capital’ that is central to both teaching and education. What a lovely idea. Unfortunately, no-one told the authors of this report that the specific business model upon which these programmes of capital investment depend actually requires that academic labour markets are increasingly bifurcated and students increasingly treated as assets – so that the ‘human capital’ part of that equation is actually sacrificed to the ‘capital-capital’ part.

The BiGGAR report illustrates that even when the impacts of higher education are, as they increasingly are, presented as accruing to individuals (the future salaries of students) or private entities (‘industry’) then this is understood as being a means through which wider public benefits can be generated. It’s just one example of how far the reconfiguration of higher education has involved a trend by Universities to claim to ‘doing everything‘ for everyone (social mobility, productivity increases, technological innovation, instilling civic spirit, solving climate change, etc., etc.); and the associated adoption of management models that are shaped by the imperative to provide evidence of that capacity to deliver for both instrumental reasons and accountability reasons.

So, again by way of example, the University of Exeter makes regular use of economic consultants to help it publicly demonstrate the benefit of increasing number of international students that it has bought to the city and region, part of a broader imperative to demonstrate the economic impacts of the University locally and regionally. And in case that sounds a little too economistic, then the University also makes strong claims about acting as an anchor institution the generates all sorts of social and cultural benefits alongside economic ones. The “anchor institution” idea has taken off in government and other public agencies around HE, and it’s an interesting example of travelling theory, whereby the original sense of the potential of certain public institutions driving regeneration in deprived and ‘vulnerable‘ localities and regions has been turned into a generalised narrative about Universities driving innovation and growth anywhere and everywhere. The specific combination of justificatory logics behind these sorts of claims about local impact is not peculiar to Russell Group institutions, it’s common across the whole HE sector. And one of the key roles of the not-so-loved UUK is to scale up these sorts of claims to the national level.

Now, to return to my theoretical hobby-horse, I don’t think neoliberalism or ‘privatisation’ or counterposing ‘people versus profit’ actually captures what is going on here (And I realise that “It’s complicated and contradictory and complex” doesn’t make a great slogan. It’s much worse even than Rectify the Anomaly, although I am personally increasingly drawn to the idea that University staff should campaign around the slogan “We Have a Right to be Well Managed”). Those slogans (and that’s what ‘neoliberalism’ really is remember) ask us to buy into a moralistic contrast between bad privatised, competitive, marketised, individualised practices versus good, virtuous, sharing ones. As I said, I think the ‘neoliberal’ frame leads us to misrecognize the degree to which what is at stake is a dispute between different understandings of the public responsibilities of higher education, and especially between different understandings of the best means by which to achieve the public purposes of higher education. I happen to think a better place to start is to take seriously  Rowan Williams’ characterisation of the current trends in higher education restructuring as being shaped by a “half-baked utilitarianism“. It’s a suggestion that has more purchase in analysing the dynamics of the changing world of higher education, and it is neatly illustrated by the line parroted by VCs that I mentioned at the start, in which the costs of sustaining decent pensions systems is set against the sacrosanct requirement to continue to invest in expansion: that zero-sum line exposes how the calculation of the value of the public benefits of higher education – in terms of social mobility and productivity improvements and that innovation and economic growth that is meant to follow from a credit-led expansion strategy – is totted up and then the ‘sufferings’ resulting from gutting staff pensions are simply subtracted from the total: what you get is a projected  overall increase in an aggregated utility function.

In the UK, a shared sense of hubris continues to drive higher education policy (by government) and strategy (by Universities), around which the contradictions and conflicts between these actors revolve. It also lies behind the increasingly toxic mess of top-down, vicious, paternalist, patronising management systems that has come to characterise University life. A significant proportion of University staff have decided to call BS on the whole complex of funding, financing, and management over the last few weeks. As this dispute moves towards its fourth week, what is becoming increasingly clear is that it is not just that the governance of collective University decision-making is in crisis – that much is clear enough when the constituent members of UUK are themselves complaining that this organisation can’t be trusted – but that the whole model of individual University governance is itself in need of urgent reassessment. It’s easy to fixate on the responsibilities of VCs in all of this, but McGaughey is surely right to suggest that it is the whole edifice of upper-level University governance that needs to be democratised: “in every university, staff, the University and College Union, and students should demand every governing body has a majority elected by staff and students.” The reason why ‘democracy’ is the answer to the crisis of British higher education exposed by this dispute is not so much because ‘neoliberalism’ is opposed to democracy (the two are rather closely entangled), but because what everyone keeps calling ‘neoliberalism’ is really a specific assemblage, shall we say, of practices and meanings of accountability, freedom, and public value. At least that’s my argument, and I’m sticking to it.



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‘?

Calhoun on LSE and Libya

Not exactly hot off the presses, I’ve only just noticed this essay by Craig Calhoun in Public Culture, a long and detailed reflection on the changing dynamics of public social science and the public functions of Universities more generally, as exposed by the LSE/Saif Gaddafi/etc affair of last year.

Demonstrative Theory

Current events ‘out there’, in the streets no less, have been an occasion for the rehearsal of various theoretical standpoints on the meaning of democracy and the status of politics. Some writers have presented recent politicizations of public space as models of a purity of political action consisting of the expressive presence of bodies in space, as confirming both that this is all that is left politically and that this is what is most proper to left politics (a shout-out here for my old friend Andrew Merrifield, who provides a most eloquent variant on this theme in the latest New Left Review). I’m in no position to evaluate or assess the contours of these movements (there is no Occupy Swindon movement, nor do I expect there one to be anytime soon), but there is something about this sort of interpretation that doesn’t quite ring true for me.

There are some interesting blog discussions sparked by a piece at Critical Inquiry’s new blog site on Occupy Theory. What this piece raised for me was the question of how far one thinks of theory as essentially an interpretative device, used to give meaning to an event or events; or how far one thinks of theory as a hypothesis generating machine, something that raises questions about an event. There is a new site at Possible Futures that does some of this latter sort of theory work, including essays by Saskia Sassen and Craig Calhoun (newly announced as the next Director of the LSE – what a great appointment). Calhoun’s piece, for example, raises some interesting questions about how policing of protest has changed time. At TomDispatch, Rebecca Solnit has a piece about the Occupy movement in the US connects with longer traditions of civil society and non-violence movements, and this reminded me of arguments about the idea of the US in particular as a ‘movement society’ – there are interesting generational effects at work behind these protest movements which deserve more attention.

The fascination with the occupation of real space also surely needs to be put in the context of how this form of ‘presencing’ reverberates through other spaces, including mediated ones (it was all kicked-off by Adbusters, remember), but also through time, and above, there is the vexed question of how this moment of protest (not just the Occupy example, but also the return of street protest in Egypt) interacts with the sequencing of electoral cycles. Given the likely geographical dynamics of the 2012 US Presidential election, for example, it is interesting to speculate on how far the populist sentiments expressed by the Occupy movement will be articulated in the coming year, and by which side. Sidney Tarrow had an interesting little piece in Foreign Policy a month or so ago, on OWS as a ‘we are here’ movement akin to the women’s movement, the point being about the long-term effects of this ‘event’. Tarrow and Doug McAdam also have an interesting piece on the relationship between social movement scholarship and electoral studies, from 2010, but which is rather prescient in light of recent events in the USA – one of their points is that analysis of movements tends to be overly movement-centric, and underplays the role of electoral politics in generating and orienting non-electoral, non-party mobilisations, campaigns and protests: this point appears to be well supported by the resurgence of protest in Egypt these last few days, as Mariz Tadros argues at the IDS blog, in which the relationship between street mobilizations and elections is central.

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.