On Academic Freedom

The suspended USS strike in UK HEIs has thrown up some interesting debates around the idea of academic freedom, a principle not very strongly institutionalised in British Universities (See https://www.ucu.org.uk/academic-freedom-in-2017).

For example, my own institution, just by way of example you understand, has an academic freedom protocol which is structured around the idea that academic freedom is a ‘right’ that is conditional on certain ‘responsibilities’. Of course, academic freedom is NOT dependent on exercising responsibility at all – anyone who links rights and responsibilities together in this way doesn’t understand the concept of rights. Academic freedom is not a special right that accrues to certain types of people (academics). It’s a principle that arises from the constitutive relation between the idea of a University as an institution committed to free, open ended inquiry AND the fact that this type of inquiry does, indeed, need to be institutionalised in organisational form. That’s an idea you can trace way back, to Kant and others.

The principle of academic freedom is not the same as the right of free speech, which classically arise from threats from the state [& NOT unruly student protesters with post-it notes]. But like any notion of freedom, it is a relational concept. And the primary source of the un-freedom to which principles of academic freedom are meant to act as protection is the University itself. That is, academic freedom is a response to the ever present possibility that the organisation of the diverse set of practices by which Universities have to be funded, managed, and sustained as institutions capable of supporting their primary purpose (supporting free, open ended inquiry) might come to actually impinge upon and undermine the very conditions of possibility of free, open ended inquiry.

I’m not being melodramatic, just pointing out what the genealogy of the idea of academic freedom shows us.

If you think of academic freedom in this way, then you can begin to see how all sorts of recent events in UK HEIs might represent at least serious threats to academic freedom, if not its actually realised diminution. Take, again just by way of example you understand, what appears to be a rather widespread practice of Universities monitoring and trying to regulate the social media activity of academic staff members. This habit, shall we call it, is one effect of Universities importing models of corporate ‘messaging’ into their internal and external communications strategies, allied to wider changes to personnel management and University strategising. The primary imperative of University communications strategies, these days, is to promote and protect the ‘brand’ and reputation of a given University in relation to that of its ‘competitors‘ (yes, that really is how other Universities are described in this world). If you look at academics’ social media activity from the perspective of a standard model of corporate communications – and look upon academics as simply employees – then this activity is viewed either (in a good light) as contributing positively to the brand, or (in a bad light) as potentially threatening the reputation of the University. Because from this perspective, ‘The University’ has taken on a life of its own separate and distinct from the activities of its members, now seen as mere employees.

What seems difficult for HEI management systems to acknowledge is the validity of using social media as a medium for the expression of criticism of the ordinary features of University practices, that is, as an expression of a basic aspect of the life of a University as a self-governing community of scholars. Here we have, then, a perfect example of that constitutive paradox from whence the principle of academic freedom arises – a practice meant to enhance the capacity of the University to function properly ends up threatening to undermine the integrity of free, open ended inquiry. Of course, one might wonder why it never occurs to anyone that gaining a reputation for heavy-handed surveillance of ordinary intellectual debate is not necessarily the kind of brand identity a University would want to be associated with.

Just saying.

Thought for the Week

“Nothing we do can be defended absolutely and finally. But only by reference to something else that is not questioned. I.e. no reason can be given why you should act (or should have acted) like this, except that by doing so you bring about such and such a situation, which again has to be an aim you accept.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value [1931]

The Means and Ends of Higher Education (Take 2)

Here is the revised version of the original post I wrote in the middle of the strike earlier this week exploring the theme of ‘the means and ends of higher education’, published as part of the online archiving of strike material at the Journal of Cultural Economy.

Archiving the 2018 UK Universities Strikes

Hey ho everyone, in case you are looking for some relaxing reading over the long weekend, those nice people at the Journal of Cultural Economy has just posted an online archive of some of the material generated on Twitter and on blogs over the last month or so investigating the wider contexts for the strike action by staff at pre-92 higher education institutions in the UK. This includes collated twitter threads by Gail Davies on the role of consultancy in shaping the landscape of HE pensions ‘reform’, Felicity Callard on the way in which what’s going on now in 2018 stretches back at least as far as 2014, and @etymologic on the cross-cutting networks that connect up UUK, USS, and other high-level HE advocacy and regulatory agencies; and re-published blog posts by Philip Roscoe on the construction of the USS deficit as an economic ‘fact’, Penny Andrews on what has been exposed by this dispute, and a re-versioned blogpost by me orn The Means and Ends of Higher Education (this includes a slightly filled out analysis of the example of the University of Exeter’s attachment to its capital investment programme – a reminder, ahead of further developments in this dispute next week that the key issue in all this is not the valuation of the USS scheme per se, but the question of how much risk Universities are willing to bear – that’s the issue that connects the pensions dispute to a series of broader issues that extend far beyond this dispute and will not be resolved by it whatever the outcome, all the way down to how we are micro-managed through annual reviews, income targets, poorly designed student appraisals, etc etc).

Thanks ever so much to Liz McFall and others at JCE for putting this together. It’s an important step in curating material that deserves wide accessibility both in the immediate term – this material leads off in directions that all UCU members should consider before deciding on the UUK-written ‘proposal’ to be balloted next week – and going forward, in facilitating ongoing rigorous scrutiny of UUK and other powerful actors in the future.

Just Doing Our Jobs

A colleague asked me today, in all seriousness and genuine anxiety, whether being involved in writing an open letter addressed to the senior leadership of our University, outlining a list of concerns about management structure and governance revealed by the handling of the pensions strike, risked staff members being accused of bringing the University into disrepute.

I wonder? There is quite tough opposition to even get into the Top 3 for THIS week:

There’s been this:

And this:

And this:

I’m not sure we are the problem. We’re just doing our jobs – as social scientists and humanities scholars and scientists – by helping people to reflect meaningfully on the attachments they have to the worlds they inhabit.

Sad Beautiful Tragic

A couple of weeks ago, LEGOVC (the real one, or the real pretend one, it’s difficult to tell) asked me whether there were any songs by a certain someone that spoke to the cause for which University staff in the UK have recently been striking (we go back to work next week, wiser and with our eyes wide open, while maintaining Action Short of a Strike). LEGOVC (the pretend one, who is plastic) has helped us learn in the last few weeks that it’s always good to laugh with other people and at yourself. And, now I think about it, I don’t think a plastic figure can pretend, which might mean that it’s real, but only real plastic.

Here’s a first go at a list. I’m afraid it’s the titles that might most resonate, but if you listen carefully, and depending on quite how you have experienced the strike action, one or two of them might have a deeper ring of truth for you too. And if not, well, they’re still all great pop.

  1. This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
  2. Hey Stephen
  3. Tell Me Why
  4. Blank Space
  5. Bad Blood
  6. I Knew You Were Trouble
  7. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
  8. Shake It Off
  9. Never Grow Up
  10. Everything Has Changed

 

10 Things I’ve Learnt From Being on Strike

1). Don’t underestimate students. And not only the occupying ones (but ‘wow’ to them, too).

2). My University stole my money. So did the one’s I used to work for. And they were happy that I hadn’t noticed.

3). Twitter IS a space for intellectual analysis.

4). To listen. And to be careful what you say “Yes” to.

5). If you say out loud that the University you work at has an “institutionalised culture of bullying”, everybody nods AND shrugs at the same time and it feels normal. But also that the shrugging might be about to stop.

6). That a “liability” is not the same as a “risk”. And that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with either.

7). “I think we need to call into question the basic assumptions of your analysis” CAN work.

8). That the Dinosaur Cafe is awesome, the Devon and Exeter Institute is a hidden treasure, the WEA really are lovely, and that Billy Bragg can still excite. And to get carried away.

9). Snow days in the middle of industrial action are heaven sent.

10). People bring different things to a mobilisation: knitting, cakes, crochet, placards, nerdy skills, sociable skills, organisational skills, bells, sunglasses, insider knowledge, incisive analysis, babies, dogs [not cats], Canadians, plastic building bricks (apparently), layers, obscure Latin quotes that don’t piss people off, anger, relief, and irony, hugs, Duncan, playlists, retweets, cynicism, sacrifice, coffee.

11). That what my Head of Department says is right: “We’re Good at What We Do”. All of us.