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.