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.

The Crisis of Legitimation in Higher Education

You can tell that University administration has become dysfunctional when it becomes normal for everyone to refer to senior managers from the VC downwards by their first names. After all, properly functional, responsible bureaucracies are supposed to be anonymous and depersonalised – yet Universities in the UK increasingly organise themselves internally as if the effective operations and achievements of the whole institution can be accounted for by the forms of authority projected through the charisma of their ‘leaders’ (This is a just warped expression of a more basic and much cherished principle of University governance, whereby Vice-Chancellors are selected from ‘the ranks’ as it were, moving from practicing academics to senior management positions). Of course, the relationships that really matter in Universities are those structured by conventions of pastoral care between students and teachers, and by respect between professionals, not those structured by weirdly personified hierarchies of cascading “strategy”. In the UK, the consequences of the topsy-turvy distribution of personal relations of trust and suspicion in cultures of higher education management (see also my previous comments on the systematic distrust towards academic professionalism embedded in the TEF) have been fully realised in the current dispute about the future of the pension system in pre-1992 Universities. And whatever the outcome of the dispute, it seems to me that there at least two certainties upon which one can count about what life is going to be like in the future for people working in this part of the UK higher education sector.

1). Large numbers of academic and non-academic staff working in British Universities now know that senior management have, to varying degrees and with some notable and honourable exceptions, been actively seeking to systematically diminish the pay and conditions of those working in the sector – we know this because we have all been reading about this for at least a couple of weeks now, a bit late perhaps but better late than never (you can read the position of your own institution here, and more generally follow up on this issue by following the commentary by Michael Otsuka). If the UUK position on the future of the USS pension system prevails, then there will be an awful lot of University staff who will find themselves significantly less materially well off and secure in the future. I’m not aware of any plan by any University to think about compensating their staff for the financial losses which will follow from proposed changes to the USS system. Basically, we’re all expected to do the same amount of work (that is, “more and more” of it all) for less money. This is worth saying out loud to underscore the brazen quality of the collective position publicly endorsed by Universities which provoked the current strike action by University staff. Even if the UUK position does not prevail, even if in some unlikely outcome the UCU’s position wins the day (I’m not that optimistic), then what now exists is an open awareness across the sector, amongst everyone working in a University (with a few notable exceptions), that the particular institution they work for was more or less happy to try to force through this sort of restructuring as quietly as possible, without admitting it, and by attempting to ‘naturalise‘ the economics of pensions by way of justification when called out. The sheer mendacity of Universities in allowing the dispute over pensions to get to the current point (leaving aside deeper questions about longer term mismanagement of the pensions system) is not something that will just be erased from memories – it’s now a known fact about institutions that are often enough happy to circulate platitudinous congratulations to their staff when League Table results go well or REF outcomes are positive or NSS scores go up, that they were and are keen to steal money from those same staff members in order to sustain what seem like increasingly thoughtless and unsustainable strategies of institutional growth and ‘global’ competitiveness (the visible, measurable success of which we all suspect directly benefits senior management through ill-considered performance related pay schemes).

2). The irreparable damage to morale and trust that follows from the betrayal revealed by the UUK position and the way it has been meekly supported by individual institutions is only further worsened by the ways in which the more routine forms of higher education administration have been almost automatically applied to the micro-management of the current dispute. This extends from explicitly punitive and provocative efforts to bully staff into giving up on strike action through to more ordinary, often rather clumsy, but I have no doubt widespread efforts such as those at my own institution to require individual academics to provide detailed information about the impact of their strike action on teaching (somehow they never ask that question about impacts on research), as well as explicit efforts to force colleagues to make-up classes not held because of strike action (i.e. to provide teaching after the strike for which salary has been withheld because of being on strike). These sorts of heedless attempts to manage the effects of the strike action extend to the making of blanket promises to students, strongly implying to them that any missed classes will indeed be caught-up by striking academics, a promise which amounts to central University managers seeking to leverage the expectations of students in order to expose often relatively junior staff members to further stress, harassment and pressure. In one respect, this is business as usual, in so far as all of these forms of response reflect what is now an almost taken-for-granted model of top-down micro-control in which University management seeks to monopolise the right to speak in the interests of students in order to impose from above changes to teaching practices that are wholly insensitive to either sound pedagogy or well-established good practice at ‘the chalkface’. In short, if one certainty going forward is that senior University managers will not be able to put their own Humptiness back together again, the other seems to be that they will nonetheless continue for a while yet to operate with the same centralised models of internal micro-management as before, thereby only compounding the effects of demotivation, demoralization and lack of trust that follow from 1). above.

The predictable outcome of the current dispute, then, is that University senior managements are likely to be widely held in contempt by significant proportions of the staff working for their own institutions, and with complete justification. Again, with some exceptions of differing degrees (and those exceptions just underscore the degree to which the standard line taken by many Universities is an intentional decision to act in a particular manner), a large number of individual Universities and the umbrella organisation UUK have been revealed to be dishonest, out of touch, ill-informed, and manipulative (did I forget to mention incompetent?); and the embedded systems of institutional micro-management that have been rolled-out over the last decade or so have been revealed to be entirely unsuited to the cultivation and maintenance of a spirit of collegiality upon which any University community crucially depends.

Properly speaking, that all amounts to a real live crisis of legitimation – Universities no longer have the means to secure the identification of those over whom they presume to exert authority.

It should be said that this is far from an unambiguous state of affairs. University management in the UK is already suffering from a very serious PR problem thanks to scandals about vice-chancellor pay and expenses. The cultural politics of that issue are far from obviously aligned with the interests being defended by the UCU in its campaign for secure pensions (remember, the same person who thinks that levels of VC pay is a scandal also thinks that academics’ spend half their time on holiday, which is another way of saying we are underworked and overpaid). This dispute, however enlivening and affirming for all of those involved in it, is taking place in a context in which a decadent and decaying Tory government is intent on forcing through a series of ill-considered structural changes to higher education, including revisions to student fee systems, intrusive regulatory regimes (TEF, again), heightened competition by allowing ‘new entrants’, and further compromising the autonomy and integrity of research at the altar of ‘innovation’ and ‘regional growth’ and ‘impact’ and ‘global challenges’. For an entire culture of higher education senior management and leadership to have been so thoroughly delegitimized in the eyes of those who, remember, do all the teaching and deliver all that research excellence, is in this wider context a far from unambiguous process. There is, after all, nothing about ‘crisis’ situations that tends naturally to encourage progressive outcomes. This is a moment for heightened vigilance not only towards the unfolding of this particular dispute but also of the ways in which this dispute might be spun and appropriated by various interested on-lookers.

The ‘crisis’ that the current dispute over pensions represents is, one might suggest, in no small part an effect of a systematic form of hubris shared across a whole stratum of University managers, a stratum which has for more than two decades happily embraced and promoted the idea that Universities can do everything – deliver social mobility, help drive national economic growth and technological innovation and revive productivity, generate cultural diversity and creativity, anchor local and regional dynamism, and various other functions too. Taking on these undeniably public responsibilities has, however, been associated not only with the adoption of particular models of University financing but also with the consolidation of ill-starred systems of centralised and hierarchical management that are, in practice, at odds with the fundamentally pluralistic qualities of the modern University. There is behind all of these issues a series of questions about the opacity and unaccountability of University governance, beyond and above questions about the management of Universities, that too often remain hidden from view – time for the co-operative University, anyone?

 

 

Here Comes Love for Ever

I had a conversation the other day with my colleague Sean Carter on the subject of the apparent lack of songs about University life (we were on strike, so whether talking about this absence quite counted as a work-related conversation remains a little unclear). I think we agreed that there is no equivalent of the campus novel in pop – no identifiable genre of the ‘campus pop song‘. Anyway, provoked by that conversation, here’s a stab at a playlist to keep up spirits on [the way to] the picket line next week to support the UCU’s campaign against plans to gut the pensions of University staff. I realise that this reflects the tastes of a man of a certain vintage (but that’s OK – after all, I’m on strike to protect my PENSION). And in my defence, remember that most pop songs are about falling in love and/or broken hearts, and that most pop songs which are not about those things aren’t very good.

Songs to help energise and maintain mobilisation:

Which Side Are You On

Fight the Power

Standing in the Way of Control

Something Better Change

I Won’t Back Down

Not Ready to Make Nice

Weird People

 

Songs to remind you about the causes and stakes of this particular dispute:

Respect

Liar, Liar

Communication Breakdown

Save It For Later

Career Opportunities

Birth, School, Work, Death

Heads Will Roll

Us V Them

 

Songs to help you keep things in perspective (that is, to help us all remember why Universities matter, as well as why there is more to life than an education and that all sorts of things can be educational):

Why Theory?

The One on the Right is on the Left

Closer to Fine

Don’t Go Back to Rockville

Lazy

There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards

Waking Up

Resist Psychic Death

 

 

 

The Politics of Knowing in the Modern University

Source: Ian Cook et alOne 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‘?

Why We Strike

My colleagues and I all received a sombre message from our Vice-Chancellor yesterday, informing us all that the position of the academic’s union, the UCU, on the future of the nation-wide pension scheme, around which quite drastic industrial action is taking place from today, is actually based on us not really understanding the complexity of pension financing. Because news travels slowly to Devon, of course, our VC seems to assume that no-one down these parts has noticed that a significant number of his VC peers from other Universities (Warwick for example, or Essex, to pick just a couple) around the country have very publicly dissented from the UUK-party line on the un-sustainability of the current system. Perhaps unintentionally – or perhaps it’s just a lack of shame, because there is certainly a patronising tone of tut-tutting about how senior University managers pretend to know better than everyone else about complex finance questions (that’s why they HAVE to be on those remunerations committees, I guess) – the University of Exeter’s line, repeated in this VC message but already circulated to students over the last week, manages to say out loud what is at the heart of the dispute – a fundamental commitment by a powerful fraction of UUK to disinvest in uniformly high quality pay and conditions across the sector: Exeter’s VC claims that the “additional cost” to the University that would be involved in committing to sustain a version of the current pensions system “would inevitably result in a reduction to our resources, and would limit our ability to deliver our key missions around research and education as well as our ability to invest in, and improve, the facilities we provide.” Or, to put it another way, investment in quality provision for all academic staff is no longer considered a worthy cost contributing to delivering the “key missions around research and education” of a University like Exeter, and especially not if it interferes with the scope for somewhat unaccountable senior University management groups to invest in “facilities”, otherwise known as speculative vanity projects. Because everyone knows that the quality of the education provided by a University is a direct function of the shininess of its buildings, not the degree of investment or respect extended to academic staff.

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 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.