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 Do Universities Know?

Yesterday saw the launch of the GW4 Vision, the statement of ambition of the GW4 Alliance of four ‘research intensive’ Universities in what is referred to as the “Great West”, Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter. GW4 is modelled after other regional higher education consortiums in the UK (the first of these was the N8), and together they represent a paradigm for the coordinated effort to do ‘impact’ of a certain sort. GW4 is nominally a research-focussed initiative, although in practice it is driven primarily by the discourse of “research and innovation”, which is something else entirely. GW4’s vision is oriented around a reference to the ‘region’ of the “Great West” – in one sense this is entirely made-up, but perhaps more interestingly, one might think of this type of research and innovation strategy as one step in the active process of trying to make-up this region, if you see what I mean.

The GW4 vision identifies key areas of research excellence with the potential to drive “innovation”, including sectors of advanced engineering and manufacturing, data sciences and medical sciences. It’s an interesting test case of a rapidly consolidating policy consensus about how higher education institutions can drive urban and regional economic growth, in a context in which national government’s belated discovery of the need for an “Industrial Strategy” translates into an agenda for reconfiguring the purposes of science funding. This is reflected in the rapid emergence of the discourse of ‘challenge-led’ research, which sounds like an uncontroversial, even virtuous idea. You can see this reflected in the GW4 strategy – you don’t have to look too hard to notice that the challenges that it seeks to address are all copied straight from unmediated government-directed funding priorities, rather than from scientific or intellectual agendas – so it is that research is reoriented around Global challenges (as in the Global Challenges Research Fund), Industrial challenges (as in BEIS’s Industrial Strategy), and the Productivity challenge.

Outside of those niche fields specifically concerned with higher education policy, the full ramifications of this reconfiguration of research funding systems have generated remarkably little controversy – not only ‘out there’ in the real world, but even amongst most academics. Initiatives such as the GCRF and the formation of UKRI effectively mean the end of the long-cherished, perhaps idealized, Haldane Principle, according to which decisions about what government sourced research funds should be spent on should not be made by politicians but by scientists. The way in which that principle is now enshrined in legislation – according to which decisions about which individual projects to fund are still determined by independent peer review – is a wonderfully Orwellian piece of double-think – it confirms the abandonment of the structural core that makes the principle of any value in the first place. In a broader institutional context in which securing external grant funding is now a key, if not the main, criteria for professional advancement for many University researchers, one might think that the burgeoning field of challenge-led funding initiatives might constitute a serious infringement of both scientific integrity and academic freedom. But it has been effectively sold as meaning more money for researchers, and that tends to have a chilling effect on any serious dissent. This re-orientation of the public purposes of research funding not only attracts much less attention than the sorts of issues of access and affordability associated with news stories about Oxbridge admissions and tuition fees, but in no small part those controversies tend to draw on and support the underlying logic of these research-facing initiatives – it is often the status of Universities as institutions in receipt of large amounts of public funding directed at research, increasingly justified in relation to claims about driving economic innovation, that is leveraged against them when it comes to accusations of lack of inclusivity in matters of student recruitment.

A set of somewhat taken-for-granted geographical assumptions underwrite not only the GW4 initiative but this whole field of regional economic policy. According to GW4, for example, Universities “anchor” regional economies and have the potential to “drive-up productivity and wealth creation”. Assumptions about the links between science, innovation, and regional development now form the “spontaneous philosophy” of a whole sector of higher education external strategising. On the face of it, this actually looks like a breathtakingly naïve viewpoint, according to which the solutions to all sorts of pressing social and economic and environmental ills just require the application of appropriately complex scientific knowledge. Because that’s an idea that has worked well in the past, isn’t it? This rosy vision of the dynamic role of Universities as drivers of a virtuous circle of discovery, innovation, skills development, productivity and economic growth seems to require not knowing a lot about the causal processes underlying the structural problems of, for example, regional space economics in the UK; or not knowing a lot about the politics of economic policy making and implementation, much less about the politics of policy failure; and not acknowledging the full range of ways in which  Universities are always already parts of their localities and regions in ways which might well acerbate the problem those places face. In short, these sorts of research and innovation strategies seem to depend on the systematic elision of a large amount of the social science knowledge produced by significant parts of the institutions in whose names they speak (there is, it should be said, plenty of anti-social science of certain sorts informing these initiatives; and there is no problem finding space for the humanities in these initiatives either, since they are after all fields of expertise in the arts of selling out).

It would be easy enough to fall back on a conventional form of negative criticism at this point, as if all that social science can bring to the table is a certain sort of grumpy knowingness that would ruin any dinner party. My point, though, is that there are a series of social science arguments about how industrial development, business development, or labour markets actually work locally and regionally that, if they factored in, might provide for a more holistic, shall we say, account of how Universities sit in their places. There are at least aspects to this point worth considering in relation to a document such as the GW4 Vision statement. Two of these are related to the question of what type of economic growth Universities help to drive, and the third is to do with the coherence of the assumptions lying behind the vision of Universities as anchors of regional economies and therefore drivers of not only regional but national economic transformation:

1). Universities are, of course, machines for reproducing social inequality – the only question worth asking is whether the forms of inequality produced by higher education systems are justified or not (perhaps they can be if they are found to be to “the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society”, as someone once put it). This is not only a matter of student recruitment, but also includes broader questions about Universities as employers (or out-sourcers). This first point, one might suppose, already complicates the vision of the University as intentional agents of positive socio-economic benefits.

2). Following on from this first point, Universities in the UK certainly, and elsewhere too, are more or less proactive agents of a series of processes related to skewed property markets and financialization of urban space, including gentrification associated with expansions of University employment of academic and non-academic professionals, the ‘studentification’ of housing markets and retail spaces, and investments in green field science park initiatives and the like. This range of phenomena are no less significant means through which Universities help to shape patterns of economic growth in their localities than explicit efforts at doing knowledge-exchange and commercialisation of research, and their benefits are less than obviously fair.

3). Finally, there is a more reflexive dimension to this,  related to the ways in which very specific social science concepts are actively invoked to shape higher education research and innovations – concepts like “clusters”, for example, or “catalysts” which are sourced from particular disciplinary fields, or theoretical speculations such as “smart specialization“, the idea that underwrote the UK government’s Science and Innovation audits, one of which directly informs the GW4 vision of Universities as drivers of all sorts of innovative solutions to all sorts of challenges. These types of ideas are not merely descriptive ones, they are normative propositions, which just means it might be wise to slow down and think through possible unintended consequences of acting upon as if they were innocent.

GW4 might be a great case study, as it develops and unfolds, of the process of imaginative region-making. It’s an example of how increasingly Universities, either individually or in partnership as in the case of GW4, tend to adopt management styles based on singular, corporate-like visions of shared mission that everyone is meant to identify with, despite the fact that higher educations institutions (HEIs) are self-evidently and ever increasingly complex and internally variegated institutions juggling various and not necessarily consistent public functions. To adopt the terms of the research on publicness that I have been involved in with various colleagues, one might think of public purposes of HEIs in terms of the subjects of higher education (individual beneficiaries such as students, local communities, stakeholders such as non-student audiences, ‘parents’, and collective interests such as the national economy, employers and business); the mediums of public benefit of higher education (research, teaching, training, community engagement activities); and the objects, or the pubic goods, delivered by HEIs (skilled workforce, a knowledge economy, citizenship, lifelong learning, widening participation, public culture). Even this simple differentiation indicates the multiple and competing ways in which HEIs sit in their localities and regions and reach beyond them, as well as the variegated nature of the “impacts” associated with this multiplicity. This whole field – the role of HEIs in regional development – remains somewhat under-researched and poorly understood. Wouldn’t it be an innovative research project to investigate how and why Universities have impact, not just asserting that they should do it and pretending to measure it when they do. Investigating the impacts Universities have rather than the impacts they imagine themselves to be able to intentionally bring about would involve treating Universities as organisations just like all those others subjected to scrutiny by normal social science investigation.

In the context of the broader agenda towards thinking of HEIs as integral to the ways in which cities and regions act as drivers of economic, social and environmental change, there are at least two key research challenges that the elision of social science in current models of University-led research and innovation strategy keeps from coming fully into view. First, an initiative like the GW4 vision conforms to a wider tendency for economic growth strategies to run separately from social policy fields addressing issues of poverty, inequality, skills, as well as policy issues relating to sustainability (apart from when these are seen as technical or behavioural issues) and democratic accountability. Wouldn’t it be nice to imagine a University strategy for research and innovation geared towards inclusive growth? A strategy, perhaps, which imagined ways of addressing issues which are often taken to be obstacles (e.g. entrenched poverty, low skills, fragmented infrastructure) as routes to sustainable and inclusive economic growth strategies (e.g. through for example public sector procurement policies and social value initiatives, living wage campaigns, as well as skills policy, or sustainable regional innovation). Second, strategies like the GW4 vision and the broader shift to challenge-led funding are informed by a strong rhetoric of interdisciplinarity (again, who could possible gainsay that?). But the fields of research on cities and innovation or smart cities and regions that implicitly underwrite claims about HEIs and regional innovation – fields like environmental studies, information sciences, health sciences, regional science – are often associated with design-based, behavioural, technocratic, or engineering solutions to varied urban challenges. The happy rhetoric of interdisciplinarity in the world of research funding policy is another example of a seemingly wilful elision of social science knowledge, in this case knowledge about the difficulties of doing interdisciplinary work in ways that do not reproduce asymmetries of status and influence to harmful effect.  In those new fields of urban and regional ‘science’, certainly, the lack of shared vocabularies to bring competing epistemologies and methodologies into critical engagement with one another means that political, practical and ethical issues are not currently fully addressed in many debates about city-region futures. The ascendancy of new urban epistemologies that favour technocratic approaches to societal challenges raises pressing questions about the relationships between practices of expertise, civic participation, institutional accountability, and substantive economic and social outcomes. Again, there is plenty of scope here for creative, innovative research projects, if only someone was smart enough to fund them.




We’re Number One?

Scan 130690012-8Simon Batterbury has added a comment on the short post about the ESRC’s International Benchmarking Review of Human Geography, which found that human geography in the UK ‘ranks first in the world’. I don’t get a lot of comments on this blog (I can’t imagine why, I find myself to be a very engaging blogger), so this is an opportunity that does not come along too often to keep a conversation going. Or to just have the final word, depending on how things develop. Here are some thoughts of mine on Simon’s thoughts – I have no specific desire to defend the claim of the Review, but it is interesting to think about how one might proceed to think ‘critically’, as they say, about this sort of exercise:

–       The first thing to say is that this isn’t actually UK geography’s own judgement of itself – it was the judgment of an international panel of scholars (some of whom seem to have quite well developed skills in analysing colonial remainders in contemporary life), undertaken at the behest of the ESRC.

–       Simon repeats the canard about British geography being all a bit too theoretical. That’s right, British geography departments are chock full of people writing complex exegeses of Marx and Spinoza. I suspect that if you looked closely, you’d find that even the most obvious targets of this sort of complaint turn out to be rather more practically oriented than is acknowledged (by adherents as well as doubters): take non-representational theory and/or affect theory, for example, the most self-consciously ‘theoretical’ field which almost everybody (including me) loves to get wound up by, but which seems to be able to inform plenty of interesting research on ‘applied’ topics such as health and well-being, educational attainment, or the design of built environments; even when it isn’t being all ‘relevant’ like that, this is a field that shares a broader disciplinary hang-up on methodology – if you want to know how to do something empirical with affect theory, then you read geographers writing about this range of work, not sociologists or literary theorists.

–       Simon’s suggestion that the ‘public sociology’ agenda needs to be extended to geography seems to get things the wrong way around – it is difficult to imagine another discipline that is not more invested in various fields of application than geography, including, as I have just suggested all that woolly ‘cultural geography’. Debates about public sociology seem to be a case of that particular discipline trying to catch up with other disciplines that have, as it were, always already sold-out.

–       I’m not entirely sure that environmental studies, development studies, political ecology, or planning are ‘fringe’ fields in human geography, in the UK or anywhere else – they seem to make up a large chunk of what has been taught and researched in any department I have ever been in as a student or lecturer.

–       I’m not sure why one would think of a department like Reading (where I worked in the 1990s) or the LSE as being anomalies for being a bit ‘applied’ – again, this is a fairly standard feature of geography departments all over the UK.

–       My last thought goes back to the precise ‘authorship’, shall we say, of this particular report – it’s one of a set of reviews of social science disciplines undertaken by the ESRC, the primary public funder of social science in the UK. These reviews need to be read, one might have thought, as strategic initiatives – they tend to identify weak areas in each discipline, marked for further support or enhanced training (not enough macroeconomics in economics, hilariously!); not enough quant in sociology, that sort of thing. They are moments in ongoing games over the disbursement of public monies, in which the institutional interests at stake are not exhausted by Universities or academic disciplines. They also tend to emphasise various strengths, and they are ‘co-productions’, between the ESRC and other research councils with disciplinary bodies, like the BSA or RGS – pumping-up strong areas is a way of making moves in competitive games for further government funding, amongst other things. Such evaluations also, no doubt, enable defenders of often fragile departments to make stronger cases for further support and investment in their programmes in their own institutions – that might well be where the real significance of ‘Human Geography is Number 1’ lies, whether or not that was intended. I suppose my point is just that ‘critical’ analysis of these sorts of exercises might well benefit from a bit more social science imagination, recognising how organised fields of institutional practice tend to work.

–       No other discipline subjected to one of these reviews has been found to be ‘No.1’ in the way human geography was. One can imagine how that might invite a view that this judgement is a kind of back-handed compliment that implicates a whole international field. On the other hand, it is interesting to pause and consider how valuable it might be that human geography isn’t self-evidently dominated by the scholarly infrastructures of the USA – not least, because it might tell us something about the peculiar strengths of human geography in North America and elsewhere too.

–       There is of course a well-established tradition of ex-patriot British geographers now located in the US bemoaning how British geography is not all it should or could be (I’m not counting Simon here, since I think one is allowed to rant in blog posts, and he’s not in the US I don’t think). I have in mind pieces more or less regularly published in proper grown-up academic journals. It is impossible to imagine a similar discourse emanating, say, from American sociology or American political science. There are complex reasons for this, no doubt, including biographical trajectories, but also to do with just how mainstream ‘critical’ approaches are to international human geography agendas. Or, to put it another way, UK human geography’s elevated international status is not straightforwardly a function of the qualities of UK human geography on its own, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Local Politics: A University for Swindon?

stDespite now being the home to one of the largest collections of scholarly books in the world, Swindon remains very much not-a-University town – there has been a long-standing civic ambition which goes back at least to the 1940s to get one. Recent years have seen initiatives to snag some bit of an expanding existing University, such as Bath, but these have come to naught. It does, though, now have a BPP University College, so that’s good. In a way. Maybe. Maybe not.

Swindon claims, not proudly, that it is the only major urban area in England and Wales without a University, or the biggest one, or some variation on this (though I think Milton Keynes might also qualify for this distinction, depending on what it is that this sort of claim is getting at – it’s about relatively low levels of participation in higher education in these places). Even Cirencester up the road is now set to be a proper University town.

Allan Cochrane and others at the OU have been researching the place of Universities in their localities and regions, looking at the changing rationales of economic growth and public engagement shaping this relationship. Swindon is interesting because here the story isn’t how established institutions now seek to engage with the places of which they are a part, but how and why local actors think it’s a good idea to have a local University in the first place. Via Twitter, I came across the latest round of discussions on this issue of the Borough Council earlier this month, including a consultancy report, A University for Swindon, which provides a profile of the current participation in HE of people living in Swindon. The report is shaped by the aim of establishing levels of potential demand for Higher Education in the town and round-abouts (ha!).

The report, and the wider strategizing over the last couple of years, indicates some of the assumptions about the potential benefits of having a higher education presence (of any sort, we’re not fussy), assumptions shared broadly across the political spectrum (as I think I have mentioned before, Swindon’s civic boosterism has a long history of attracting academic scrutiny of one sort of another, from Michael Harloe in the ’60s through to the 1980s localities debates. Phil Pinch even dubbed Swindon an archetypal ‘ordinary place’ twenty years or so ago. Trust me, it’s certainly a lot more ordinary than Johannesburg or Rio de Janeiro).

Anyway, the current strategy is an incremental one. A University Technical College (UCT) is set to open in 2014, with Oxford Brookes as its University sponsor and a locally-based ‘international high-tech’ company as its business sponsor. It will specialize in providing in engineering courses for 14-19 year olds. This is meant to be the first step towards realizing the dream of a University for the town, a dream which is seen as central to local economic development and growth, and which is strongly  supported by Influence, the organization representing the business community in Swindon.

The report commissioned by the Council has some interesting stuff in it. For a start, Swindon has relatively low rates of participation in HE, and they are not improving. This, in fact, is central to the strategy for attracting or building an HE presence locally. There is an assumption that the skills base is central to future economic development, and that a University is one way of dealing with the supply side challenges facing the town. It turns out, and this is what first attracted my attention, that 15% of Swindonians in higher education study with the Open University, which is above the national average. The report takes this as proof of ‘latent demand’ for a local University, along with the fact that a third of all Swindonians enrolled in HE are at UWE in Bristol, Bath Spa, Oxford Brookes, or the University of Gloucester – all about an hours drive away, but none technically ‘local’ according to the way these things are officially defined. But the report is careful to point out that levels of participation in HE are not straightforwardly linked to the presence or absence of a local University: “The availability of local HE provision is just one factor influencing learning patterns, other factors include levels of attainment prior to 19; deprivation and aspirations.” Swindon does not score well at all in those other factors, which is the real story behind the report.


So there are interesting geographies revealed by this report – geographies of absence, and geographies of ambition, and imagined geographies too. In one section, for example, it is noted that “The impetus for a university stems in part from the knowledge that Swindon is one of the few major settlements in the country without an HE institution”. Then, with the help of a rather busy map, it is claimed that “Swindon lies in a swathe of country without a university which stretches from Stratford on Avon in the north to Weymouth in the south. Whilst this research has focused on demand from Swindon; this gap underlines the point that any new university would also be likely to attract students from nearby Wiltshire and Gloucestershire.” I’m not sure this ‘swathe’ actually adds up to a real region – it’s basically anywhere West of the M40 if you swing round Oxford on the A34, east of the M5 as long as you don’t stop at Bristol, Gloucester, or Cheltenham, and a large part of this empty swathe south of the M4 consists of Salisbury Plain. And I rather doubt whether rates of HE participation in Wiltshire towns like Marlborough or Salisbury will be significantly affected by any new University of Swindon (Swindon is in Wiltshire, but not necessarily of Wiltshire). And of course that statistic about the level of enrolment with the OU might not be best read as an index of the absence of alternatives either – but as further indication of the fact that local levels of HE participation are only tangentially related to local provision.

But keep your eye on Swindon – the future of non-elite higher education, shaped by assumptions about skills, the knowledge economy, and business partnerships might be slowly revealed here. Meanwhile, I have the sense of the town having all the component parts of a proper University without quite having composed them properly into one: loads of potential students, as well as already having all the books and even all the research money. What could be easier?