Simon Cooper discusses academic Darwinism in the age of audit culture

From scholars to entrepreneurs: Simon Cooper discusses academic Darwinism in the age of audit culture

Simon Cooper

On 4 July The Australian reported that the salaries of vice-chancellors were edging closer to those of the corporate world, with some packages topping a million dollars a year. Some academics might ruefully recall when vice-chancellors were considered part of academic staff. Today it seems that to compare the remuneration of VCs with CEOs in the ‘private sector’ is largely unproblematic. In the Australian article, if any distinction was to be made between universities and private corporations, it was made ever so modestly, with one senior academic referring to the university as part of the ‘non-profit sector’. That such comparisons can be made is indicative of the degree to which the idea of the university has been supplanted by business norms and how ‘knowledge’ has increasingly become another commodity.

Mark Olssen and Michael Peters write in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Education Policy that ‘after the culture wars of the 1990s will be the education wars, a struggle … over the meaning and value of knowledge’. Yet there seems little evidence so far that such a war will be fought with the vigour and tenacity of the culture wars. This is not to say that academics have been entirely passive over the corporatisation of the university. There have been pockets of resistance and isolated critique. So far, however, any kind of systematic resistance to what amounts to a wholesale reconstruction of the university has not occurred. This can be attributed partially to the climate of precariousness in which many academics face the possibility of redundancy. However, it is the enhanced status of ‘knowledge’ within the high-tech neo-liberal economy that has undermined the public and critical role of the university. While once the university stood apart from the society it framed and interpreted, it now stands in direct competition with a society made over in its image: a technologically enhanced knowledge-driven form of the social whose commitment to ceaseless innovation and commodity creation leaves it little ground on which to stand apart or to defend more traditional values.

The increased ‘relevance’ and expansion of the university sector has been based on the shift from manual to intellectual forms of labour. Knowledge, increasingly regarded as a set of skills for use in the high-tech society, was, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, welcomed by many as a means of invigorating the university, making it a key player in the new economy. If the university was caught between its traditional role as a public-oriented institution with the means to critically reflect on and interpret society, and its emerging role as a generator of knowledge for the high-tech economy, this contradiction was managed (or reconciled) by many in the wake of the expansion of institutions, the increased number of students, and the apparent overthrow of the elite nature of university education.

The increasingly reductive catchphrases concerning the importance of knowledge–from the ‘knowledge society’ to the ‘knowledge economy’, to the more contemporary ‘knowledge capitalism’–reveal that this balancing act was not sustainable. Having embraced the tenets of neo-liberalism (outsourcing, privatisation), as Ollsen and Peters put it, western governments ‘found themselves as the major owners and controllers of the means of knowledge production in the new knowledge economy’. This paradox has slowed the pace of transformation, or at least made it uneven. However, the introduction of student fees and vocational courses, the pressure to commercialise research, and the increasingly baroque systems of accountability for teaching and research have now stretched the model of expanded higher education set up in Australia and the United Kingdom in the 1980s to the point of unsustainability.

In this context the address made to the National Press Club on 6 June by University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis is significant. As a leading member of the ‘Group of Eight’, a self-styled group of elite universities within the Australian context, Davis’ remarks carry significant weight. He began by fully embracing the climate of neo-liberal reform, listing the widespread economic ‘benefits’ of abandoning ‘old patterns of public ownership and regulation’. The reconstitution of public institutions and services within a market paradigm had been successful, causing Davis to ask why similar reform ought not to be applied to the university sector. The pressures of global competition, the need to create skills for the knowledge economy, all made a case for the government to deregulate universities. For Davis, this would restore something of the universities’ ‘autonomy’: a freedom obtained though the market, as opposed to a more traditional idea of free inquiry outside of it.

Davis argued that it was widely accepted that the Dawkins era was over and that universities needed to become more specialised and diverse. The current situation had left Australia with ’36 universities with largely indistinguishable missions’. The solution to providing skills for the knowledge economy and remaining competitive in the global education marketplace, he said, involves specialisation, deregulation and market-based regimes of ‘choice’ involving fee-paying students and less restriction on enrolments. Essentially, Davis was arguing for a much more unregulated approach to universities, letting the market decide, with governments providing ‘block’ funding to prop up some essential services. Here the end of the Dawkins era should be taken to mean not merely its passing, but also its logical outcome. The privileging of a certain mode of intellectual practice–instrumental, market-orientated contributions to the knowledge economy, the legitimising concept behind the expansion of the tertiary sector–has come back to bite that sector as full reign is given to market imperatives. Other modalities of knowledge, as well as the practices and social relationships that underscored them, have been undermined or have lost their legitimising force.

Given this, it was curious that at the end of his robust embrace of market principles in education, Davis seemed concerned to emphasise his ‘deep and abiding commitment to education’. He apologised for not using the forum to discuss ‘the fundamental joy of learning and teaching, ideas and research’. Unfortunately ‘the moment required’ that greater emphasis be placed on reform. This sudden eruption of the repressed–that what is most fundamental is learning, teaching and ideas–amidst the desire for comprehensive neo-liberal reform reveals a set of fundamental tensions in the contemporary university. What kinds of learning and teaching will survive in this new framework? Are they able to exist outside of the instrumentalism of knowledge capitalism –something suggested by Davis’ emphasis on the ‘fundamental joy’ of education? And what of the prior cultural and social importance of the university as an institution able to reflect critically upon its society? What value is placed on the survival of this kind of (non-instrumental) knowledge within the new, wholly deregulated environment? This is a very different kind of autonomy from the market freedoms desired by the University of Melbourne, amongst others.

In some ways the drive towards deregulation has a superficial appeal. Universities are more regulated than ever before. This is an offshoot of the audit culture of neo-liberalism: the desire to measure, quantify, benchmark, make visible and ascribe value to that which has previously been valued in vague and often idealised ways. But the new means of value creation though auditing is arbitrary, as revealed in the ever-changing methods used to measure research quality. The current Australian government is moving towards a system largely based on the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), to be called the Research Quality Framework (RQF). The United Kingdom has announced that it is scrapping this system, after nearly two decades, and replacing it with a ‘metrics’ approach based upon citation counting, journal impact factors, grant money obtained and the like. This latter system, still to be fully developed, is favoured by the Australian Labor Party. Talk to academics today and you will find them attempting to predict how they should define themselves as researchers, as they will be forced to choose between ‘quality’ (RQF) or ‘quantity’ (metrics), depending on the outcome of the next election. The hold of the audit system has become so strong that, caught between these impossible options, academics are spending little or no time reflecting on the implications of the high-tech knowledge society to which they are being compelled to contribute.

The RAE (and the Australian RQF) involves ranking and measuring the publications of various departments or research ‘clusters’ so as to benchmark them against each other. Funding is distributed on the basis of ranking. In an era when funding for universities is apparently in crisis, it is ironic that this kind of data collection and measurement exercise involves the creation of a huge management and bureaucratic infrastructure. As Shore and Wright note of the UK context in a 2004 article in Parallax, ‘perversely for a system designed to promote cost-consciousness, the RAE generated unprecedented costs in terms of staff-time energy and stress’. The destructive and counterproductive effects of the UK model have been well documented. In short, the exercise provided little measure of quality; demoralised staff by creating arbitrary competition and divisiveness in place of cooperation and collegiality; and encouraged short-term, outcome-driven research at the expense of longer, more considered work.

Furthermore, such exercises tend to redefine the nature of academic work and its role. One only has to witness the advertised jobs for RQF ‘coaches’ that are now appearing in Australian newspapers. These coaches will assist research groups in defining the nature and purpose of the research undertaken; in short, help give a group its ‘identity’ in terms most likely to succeed in the RQF. This outsourcing of research identity further diminishes the autonomy of academics while at the same time framing knowledge entirely in terms of the logic of the audit. How are academics to reflect upon their own practices with respect to the wider culture if their own research is reshaped and packaged though the work of external consultants?

The metrics system proposed in the United Kingdom, and projected policy for the Australian Labor Party, is viewed favourably because it is apparently more streamlined. As a statistical measure, the metrics approach will trace the impact of published papers or grant income earned. Superficially more objective, and easier to implement, this method of measuring research contains as many problems as the RAE (or the RQF). How effective can the measure of ‘impact’ be via citation counts and related techniques? How would one compare research in popular topics with less fashionable areas? Is a ‘counting system’ that encourages quantity (impact, citations) amenable to better research? To even address these questions would require a highly complex set of formulae and expert panels, no doubt leading back to the bureaucratic load of the RAE.

More importantly, such quality audits obscure the huge changes that have occurred in scholarly publishing. James and McQueen-Thompson detail this development in Arena Publications’ 2003 book Scholars and Entrepreneurs: the takeover of independent journals by transnational publishers; the move towards specialised and expensive journals over more broadly focused publications; the move to electronic publication; plus the fact that large publishers own many of the programs designed to gauge ‘impact’ as well as other forms of gate-keeping that occur though filtering software such as CrossRef and journal-alerting systems. These changes have reduced the scope and range of possible research so that broad-ranging, speculative and interpretative work–perhaps the work of a general, rather than a specific intellectual–is often not found in the highly specialised, high-impact journals, whose micro-debates have value to be sure, but which do not reflect upon or interpret the larger culture.

The expansion, renewed ‘relevance’ and diminished elite status of the contemporary university–a transformation once welcomed by the Left as much as the Right–could only arise when knowledge had ceased to operate in the more traditional mode of ‘framing’ and interpretative activity and plunged fully into a drive for innovation aimed squarely at the market. The indirect benefit of more traditional modes of knowledge, particularly in the humanities and pure sciences, could not acquire value within a neo-liberal framework. Hence the need for audit systems that, among other things, create artificial and fleeting forms of competitive value. The result is a culture of research audits that promote instrumental knowledge, teaching audits designed to promote ‘skills’ rather than specific content, and various league tables pitting colleagues and institutions against each other in a form of academic Darwinism. The contradictions that surround the ’emancipation’ of knowledge are numerous and destructive, not merely to the university as an institution, but to the social as a whole.

In his desire to reform the university so as to ready it for the deregulated education market, the University of Melbourne is shifting to a ‘US-style’ model with a reduction of undergraduate courses (from 96 to 6) and the introduction of professional courses at postgraduate level. Despite the apparent ranking of the Arts Faculty as seventh in the world, The Age reports that the faculty budget will be cut by twelve per cent, resulting in mass redundancies. Heads of schools are now being asked to justify why their areas should continue as a major. Given the apparent uselessness of a top-ten global ranking, one can only speculate on the language and principles with which they might defend the existence of their discipline.

It is not surprising that the University of Melbourne would restructure itself in the style of an ivy-league institution, or that its leader would encourage the government to further open up the market for education. Such institutions can trade on their reputations ‘obtained in a long slow accumulation of social investment’, as Simon Marginson has put it. It may well be that after the job cuts and course reductions the institution will superficially resemble an old-style elite university able to compete within the flows of knowledge-capitalism. Indeed, the Howard Government has shown that a certain kind of conservatism can, at least provisionally, operate within the expanded market. In the longer term, however, the contradictions will prove unsustainable. The explosion of commodified knowledge has undermined the kinds of activity and collegial relations that once governed the university. The consequence of this, as well as the growth of knowledge competitors within the private sphere, has led to the creation of arbitrary value systems through which we now rank knowledge. It is this larger context that ultimately hollows out the university, leaving it no more than an ivy-covered brand name. Equally significantly, this process leaves us without a major institutional resource by which we might consider the implications of living in a world almost entirely governed by flows of instrumental knowledge–one where innovation leads to the break up of taken-for-granted ways of life–leaving many stranded and others facing a life-world of transient meanings obtainable only through the market. If ever universities needed to stand outside this particular context of knowledge, now is the moment’.

For background to the present situation, see S. Cooper, G. Sharp and J. Hinkson (eds), Scholars and Entrepreneurs: The Universities in Crisis, Melbourne, Arena Publications, 2002.

For the critical literature on Research Assessment see C. Shore and S. Wright, ‘Whose Accountability? Governmentality and the Auditing of Universities’, Parallax, vol. 10, 2004; L. Elton, ‘The UK Research Assessment Exercise: Unintended Consequences’, Higher Education Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 3, 2000; and L. Broadhead and S. Howard, ‘”The Art of Punishing”: The Research Assessment Exercise and the Ritualisation of Power in Higher Education’, Education Policy Analysis Archives, vol. 6, no. 8, 1998.

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor. The full-length version of this article appears in issue 28 of Arena Journal.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Arena Printing and Publications Pty. Ltd.

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