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.

 

 

 

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What are the humanities good for?

SMAGThere is, apparently, a ‘war against the humanities‘ going on in British higher education, according to a piece in The Observer this weekend. The piece cites as its primary evidence for this ‘war’ the perspectives of scholars from the humanities, of course, lamenting the effects of changes to funding regimes but also the culture of management in British Universities on the proper pursuit of scholarship.

I always worry when ‘the humanities’ is used as a catch-all to encompass the social sciences as well as more ‘arts’-type fields. It is true, of course, that both arts and social sciences disciplines have suffered from the same funding changes since 2010, but I’m not quite sure that the standard ‘whither the humanities?’ style of criticism of higher education policy over this period necessarily sheds much light on what is really going on, or on how best to evaluate it. The piece in The Observer shares various features of a broader genre of criticism of higher education transformation in the name of ‘the humanities’:

First, as already noted, it conflates a range of different disciplines, but presents next to no insight from anyone who looks or sounds like a social scientist. No doubt we could argue about whether the social sciences counts as ‘humanities’ or not, but in this sort of piece, it turns out that ‘the humanities’ really means literary and arts-based fields and forms of analysis. Therein lay the values most under threat from funding changes and top-down management styles and impact agendas. Amongst other things, one effect of this elision of social science is a tendency to present ‘the sciences’ as the more or less unwitting bad guys in the story. Two cultures, all over again, one of which is always a bit too uncultured.

Second, the lament about the squeezing of ‘humanities’ is often enough made in the name of the values of criticism and critique, but I do wonder whether we should really look for our models of these practices from ‘the humanities’ anymore? To be fair, there is a ‘social science’ version of the same lament. John Holmwood, for example, has written in much the same vein recently about the apparent marginalisation of the critical voice of social sciences in British public debate. Holmwood worries that social science is being shaped too pragmatically, in such a way as to displace attention to social structures. I dare say that an appeal to the value of social science as lying in access to knowledge of structures and possibilities of change bears some structural similarity to the form of discerning insight that ‘the humanities’ are meant to have. In both cases, ‘critique’ is the magical practice that is best able to articulate with public worlds by maintaining a certain sort of distance from them.

The genre is remarkably resilient, it seems, even resurgent. Unhappily, it turns on quite conventional oppositions between (bad) instrumental knowledge and (good) critical knowledge. Somewhere in between, the scope for thinking about different versions of instrumentality gets lost, and the critical voice gets snared in its own contradictions, being forced to disavow various public entanglements (the impact agenda, most obviously, or treating students as adults, rather more implicitly), in the name of a weakly expressed ideal of the worldly force of ‘really useless knowledge’.

There is much to lament about the state of British higher education. And there is, of course, a ‘campaign for social science‘, which has recently managed to produce a deeply embarrassing representation of the value of social science that might well confirm all one’s suspicions about the selling-out of social scientists to ‘neoliberal agendas’ (we are in ‘the business of people‘, apparently). Social science is, of course, a divided field, as Holmwood implies. So too, one might suspect, are ‘the humanities’. The resilience of the ‘two cultures’ genre has been evident since 2010, at least, when arguments in the defence of the ‘public university’ took off in response to Coalition policy changes. It was evident, for example, in the controversy around the AHRC’s alignment with ‘the big society’ agenda (remember that?). That episode illustrated the division within the humanities I just mentioned, rather than an impure imposition of pernicious instrumentalism from the outside. It turns out, of course, that the humanities are really good at being instrumentally useful, at knowing how to ‘sell-out’; not least, humanities fields have been at the forefront of legitimizing the impact agenda both in principle and in practice (as evidenced by evaluations of impact submissions and indicators in the 2014 REF exercise).

The ‘two cultures’ genre is always a trap, not least in the current conjuncture when the defence of ‘the value of the humanities’ is made alongside sweeping references to neoliberalization of higher education. Like it or not, the restructuring of higher education in Britain, and elsewhere, is explicitly made in the name of public values like accountability and social mobility; as a result, the defence of ‘the humanities’ always already suffers from a populist deficit when articulated from within the confines of the two cultures genre, however refined that has become in the hands of Stefan Collini or Martha Nussbaum. ‘Neoliberalism’ is, of course, a social science concept, but not a very good one, especially in this context, because in its most sophisticated varieties, it doesn’t allow you to recognise that contemporary political-economic processes involve the reconfiguration of the means and ends of public life, rather than just a straightforward diminution of public life (here represented by ‘the humanities’) in the face of privatisation, individualism, and competition.

Herein lies the real problem with the elision of social science into a precious view of ‘the humanities’ as the repository of irreducibly qualitative values: the defence of the humanities is generally made via a simplistic conceptual vocabulary of ‘the market’, ‘the state’, ‘bureaucracy’, and other hoary old figures of the forces of philistinism. There is a critique, certainly, to be made of trends in higher education in the UK, but it probably requires better social science, better social theory, than the prevalent defence of ‘the humanities’ seems able or willing to muster. It would require, amongst other things, giving up on the idea that critique is a special preserve of ‘the humanities’, or indeed that it requires discerning access to structural analysis.

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.

Region

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?