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.





What happens in Vegas…

I feel a little like I have been ‘on tour’ for the last year or so. Since February 2009, I have presented papers at conferences, workshops or seminars in Zurich, Las Vegas, Manchester, Rome, Utrecht, Bristol, Stockholm, and Singapore. This sounds like the sort of itinerary ripe for parody along the lines of a David Lodge novel, but none of these has felt like a junket. In fact, because of relatively new childcare responsibilities that have befallen me, none of these trips involved more than four nights away from home – Las Vegas was three nights in a hotel and a trans-Atlantic overnight flight. This means that I haven’t really much of an answer when someone asks ‘What did you make of Singapore?’, because I wasn’t there long enough to even enter into the speeded-up fieldtrip to which geographers inevitably reduce any and all international conference experience. I can tell you, though, what I made of the International Communication Association (‘the ICA’), or at least the slice of if I attended. Which might seem obvious, but my point is that doing conferences in this way makes you really focus in on what it is that these sorts of gatherings are good for intellectually.

What have I learnt? Well, for a start, I have been reminded of just how much of my own serious academic reading is itinerant, as it were, done on the move, in the interstices between other activities which impose themselves on you more strongly. Travelling makes this very evident, although it’s not the only occasion when such opportunities arise – the only proper philosophy book I have read from cover to cover in the last four years is John McDowell’s Mind and World, which I read over the course of a week in January 2007 while sitting up in the early hours of the morning waiting for a very small infant to wake up and demand a bottle-feed. But travelling on buses, trains, and airplanes is, and has always been for me, an important occasion for learning, because of the amount of ‘dead time’ there is to fill (since I started driving to work, in 2003, I have felt this all the more, since driving a car is really not conducive to reading difficult theory; I have managed to listen to the podcast of Hubert Dreyfus’s lecture course on Heidegger while zooming along the A420, but I’m not so sure much of it really stuck).

I have also learnt, or re-learnt, the oddities of ‘disciplinarity’. In Rome, I took part in an intensive workshop, funded by an EU grant of some sort, in which most of the other participants came from Politics departments, but turned out to have far greater ‘intra-disciplinary’ hang-ups (between political theorists and IR scholars, between the normative and the empirical, for example) than one finds in geography. So here, I was very definitely The Geographer, which was a bit strange. This event was a great social experience; we all experienced three nights of detailed tutoring in how to eat Italian food properly. This sounds like a terrible, Lodge-like cliché, but actually this was an important aspect of making this event work, for me at least: we were spending the days discussing pre-circulated papers, each of which had a designated discussant, with a view to working the dozen or so pieces into chapters for an edited collection. This is difficult to pull off amongst people who have never met each other before. It was important to spend some time with one’s fellow workshoppers, if only as a sort of coercive force of academic propriety – it is difficult to either rip to shreds someone else’s paper, or to be too quick to take offense by critical remarks on one’s own, if you have to sit next to them choosing sugary desserts a few hours later.

I do have to say that it has been amongst folks from Politics, broadly thought of, that I have experienced the most disciplinary clunkiness over the last year, in the sense of being positioned most clearly as coming from the outside, as a Geographer. In Utrecht, shortly before Christmas, I attended a workshop on media and cosmopolitanism, which was actually more diverse than the Rome event, including film theorists, legal theorists, political philosophers, and sociologists. But in this company, I didn’t seem an oddity – I suspect people working on media issues are much more used to coming across, and stealing from, other disciplinary perspectives. Or, to put the contrast differently, I suspect the ‘disciplinarity’ of some disciplines is much more internally cohesive than some others – fields like development studies, media studies, geography, or urban and regional studies are, certainly, definable fields and disciplines, but what might account for their observable outlines are the settled patterns of exchange, borrowing and external influence which characterise them. This sense was underscored by my brief time in Singapore, at the ICA conference. I felt quite at home at the ICA, or at least the bits I attended – I had been invited on the assumption that I could talk to other scholars interested in media, culture, democracy, neoliberalism, that sort of thing, and we shared the same reference points, the same sensibilities. I heard some great papers, and actually felt more at home than I sometimes do in critical human geography – people here were talking about Robert Brandom (not kindly), Axel Honneth (much more kindly), and there was a great session on the theme of listening as a medium of public communication and democracy (see http://www.thelisteningproject.net/). One of the things I most enjoyed about the ICA was the sense that a bunch of the people in the sessions I was involved in were struggling to find ways out of some fairly staid, predictable, disabling styles of doing academic ‘critique’ – ways of being critical which remain rather resolutely entrenched in ‘critical human geography’, where too many people seem satisfied with a shared sense that we all already know what we don’t like.

So my conferencing has, over the last year or so, been much more concentrated than in the past, but this has helped me appreciate how much serious work goes on in these events, as well as reminding me of just where I feel most comfortable. And I have, more or less inadvertently, managed to pick up one or two things about ‘local’ customs along the way, despite my tight schedule. For the Utrecht trip, I arrived in early Christmas, and didn’t immediately register that the airport at Schiphol seemed to be full of people in ‘blackface’, dressed as vaguely seasonal-looking minstrels. This turns out to be Zwarte Piet, a Dutch (and Flemish) sidekick to the proper St. Nicholas (not Santa Claus). The Dutch celebrate St. Nicholas’ day on the 5th and 6th December, so here we all were, gathered to discuss cosmopolitanism, media, and representation (with appropriate references to Deleuze, Boltanski, Derrida), amidst this big national celebration replete with racist caricatures (on one interpretation, at least). Opinion amongst the participants seemed a bit divided – the guy who ran the fantastic radical bookshop which hosted a book launch the night I arrived (De Rooie Rat) had played Zwarte Piet at his kids school that afternoon, and defended doing so on the grounds that ‘the kids really love him’. Which was kind of disarming, actually. I wonder if Dutch people arriving in England on November 5th wonder why we are all engaging in anti-Catholic rituals involving burning human figures on the top of bonfires.

Zwarte Piet was a surprising challenge to certain presumptions about liberal Dutch culture. I’m not sure I was as outraged as one or two of the local academics expected; rather, my response was along the lines of “Really? Still!”.

I had an equally surprising encounter, but of a different sort, in Las Vegas, where I was attending the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (‘The AAG’). This is the biggest gathering of English-language academic geography, and it’s a big, proper US-style scientific conference (although also oddly anarchic in its organisation). I actually found Las Vegas to be a terrible conference location – no coffee shops to escape to, where one can revise and rehearse the paper you are meant to give later in the week. I did have one great encounter, but it was in the shuttle bus back to the airport on the morning I left to come home. The shuttle turned out to have a ‘limo’-style interior, complete with a pole-dancing pole – obviously trips to the airport were not the only thing this vehicle was used for. All the other passengers on board for my trip to the airport were women, and there were a few raised eyebrows about the pole as we boarded. But these remarks had a certain knowingness about them, and as the ride started, these women, a dozen or so ordinary, ‘middle class’ Americans, entered into an extended conversation about what they had learnt in their week in Las Vegas. They all seemed to either know one another, or to be part of the same organisation. And their conversation consisted of a weird combination of matter-of-fact business talk about sales figures and future projections, and, well, sex toys. Now, I am actually quite shy, but as this conversation developed around me, I felt obliged to ask just what it was these women did. It turns out they were all reps for Passion Parties, which is the US’s largest ‘sensual products’ party plan company – these women had been attending the annual conference, the company being based in Las Vegas. Technically, I think the women I was sharing the shuttle with are ‘Consultants’ – they arrange, and sometimes host, women-only parties where, well, ‘sensual products’ are sold. In the UK, Ann Summers, the high street sex toy and lingerie shop, has a roughly equivalent line of business (apparently). These women, on my shuttle, had a great analysis of the geographies of their corner of the economy – during the ride, it was established that selling products in the South took a lot longer than in California – ladies in the Bible Belt passion-partied at a more leisurely pace than those on the West Coast, it was agreed. These women also had a complex analysis of the uncertainty of their business in a recession – couples would be staying in more in the evenings in economically straightened times. But they were also aware that they might find themselves adjusting downwards their own expectations of what people could afford in tough times, risking ‘underselling’. They also all agreed that a tighter economy risked heightening the tension they all felt that they had to negotiate, between engaging with the women who attended their parties as both friends and customers.

This was one of those encounters that had me wondering for a moment if there wasn’t a research project to be done on the economic and cultural geographies of Passion Parties. Then I thought better of it. I’m not sure I believe any more that critical social science is really equal to the sort of understanding that phenomenon like Zwarte Piet and Passion Parties really require. That would entail having a theory of fun.