The Politics of Knowing in the Modern University

One 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‘?

Is stupid really stupid

George Monbiot had a wretched little piece in yesterday’s Guardian, based on a paper in a psychology journal, Bright minds and dark attitudes, which purports to establish that there is a link between cognitive ability, right-wing attitudes, and prejudice. Monbiot took this as the basis for a general argument about how right-wing politics is a medium for stoking and sustaining general levels of stupidity (in so doing, he risks running together various things – the paper he cites is about cognitive abilities, about intelligence – not about people merely not knowing, but about some people not having the capacity to know stuff; and the reference point is prejudice, and a broader set of criteria basically derived from good old fashioned ‘authoritarian personality’ type arguments, but Monbiot extends this to attitudes to policy questions such as tax and spend, not supported at all by the paper).  

Now, Monbiot has always seemed to me to be the perfect epitome of a certain style of google-based journalism – that sort of newspaper commentary piece where you can almost see the traces of the google searches that the column is pasted together from. In this case, poor George gives a great deal of credence to a style of psychological research that, if you look at the paper, raises all sorts of methodological and conceptual worries – anyone for a little bit of ‘abstract empiricism’?

Of course, Monbiot’s piece might be self-refuting – it’s an example of crass stupidity, but from the left, which seems to undermine the claim that stupid = right-wing. On the other hand, it might inadvertently confirm its own claim – it’s a basically reactionary argument, based on a set of stupid suppositions and idiotic reasoning, not really an argument belonging to anything meaningfully ‘left’ at all, if that is to include basic precepts of democracy.

Anyway, I take the Monbiot piece to be one example of a broader strand of contemporary self-proclaimed Left ‘know-it-all-ism’ – epitomised perhaps by Ditchkins-style ‘new atheism’, but much broader no doubt. It’s a strand of thought that seems unable to imagine politics as having any other basis than knowledge – good, accurate, rational, critical, knowledge; or bad, manipulated, veiled, ignorance. Left thought suffers terribly from this way of imagining politics – as being all about ‘ideology’, basically, too much of the bad sort, and not enough of the good sort, often wrapped up in cmplex theories of subjectivity or, in this case, research about cognitive abilities and intelligence. 

Which is not to say that issues of truth and knowledge are not important to how we think about politics – a new book on Truth and Democracy, via the ever informative Political Theory blog, collects various essays together on this issue; it touches on broader debates about the epistemic value of democratic politics. At some level, the sort of position articulated by Monbiot, but shared I think rather more broadly, which seeks to explain the other side’s political successes by reference not just to the lack of knowledge of some constituencies, but by reference to their credulity, their gullibility, or in this case, their innate lack of cognitive ability, is deeply undemocratic at its very core.  

Just thought I’d get that off my chest before going to bed.