Third-level revolution sees conformity replace creativity


OPINION:Excellence in research and teaching is being replaced in universities by the employment demands of the labour market. Academic freedom is under threat, writes ANDREAS HESS.

ALMOST 100 years ago, the maverick economist Thorstein Veblen was the first to take notice of the prevalence of “received schemes of use and want” and how they made their way into higher education. For Veblen, the new attitude had its origins in the conditions of the state of the industrial arts, eg the requirements imposed by a new system of ownership and its pecuniary values.

The link to higher education was obvious. After all, the “captains of solvency” were not that far away from the “captains of learning”. A consequence, according to Veblen, was that modern learning turned into “a matter-of-fact, mechanistic complexion”, which lent itself to dry exercises, “statistically dispassionate test and formulations”. The net result would be a “highly stylised, germ-proof system of knowledge, kept in a cool, dry place”.

Veblen thought that such an attitude was the end of idle curiosity, or “the sense that a knowledge of things is sought, apart from any ulterior use of the knowledge so gained”. He also appears to echo the argument of sociologist Max Weber, who, almost at the same time, argued that whereas the quest for knowledge had once been regarded as an end in itself, higher education had reached a situation in which the search for knowledge had turned into a mere employment of a means towards simple premeditated ends.

Reading Veblen and Weber, it seems that the prediction of bureaucratisation in higher education has been with us for at least a century. However, while Veblen and Weber were astute observers of these tendencies in their time, their critique does not fully explain the latest turn in higher education.

French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello, in their groundbreaking 1999 study The New Spirit of Capitalism, have provided an updated account and critique of the latest management follies in higher education. They argue that the latest wave of managerialism is different when compared to what went on before. While in the past there was a distinction between managers and employees, the new philosophy is about the dissolution of top-down command structures. These days, it’s all about motivation and projects people can identify with. Money matters, but only to a certain extent. The new driving force consists of the appeal to the employee’s imagination, creativity and dream of self-realisation. In other words, life and work do not just overlap but have become identical.

Direct, personal supervision and control are no longer needed; rather, people are kept on the long electronic leash. Translated into higher education, this means the professorial head of department is dead: he or she has been replaced by the new cadre type.

Employability and flexibility rather than excellence in research and teaching are crucial. It does not take that much to see that this new managerial attitude, which Boltanski and Chiappello identify as being conceptualised in the late 1990s, has become omnipresent. Developments in the US, the UK, Ireland, France and the German-speaking countries make clear that even the remaining pockets of academic freedom have become subject to the “benign” treatment of those who pretend to know better. The “treatment” follows the same pattern: the quest for obedience has to clean from the university the creative forces that are potential obstacles to restructuring: the independent minded, the last intellectuals, the anti-totalitarian liberals, in short, all those who think differently.

But how to squeeze them out? The answer is by re-designing the objectives – taking stock, including the numerous counting and auditing exercises. This is then followed by the streamlining of departments. What makes the whole “reform” package so effective is that is helped simultaneously by major restructuring in academic publishing. Monographs and edited books are the losers, a no-go area for many publishers. Instead, printed and electronic journals are considered to be the academic publishers’ money makers. Library subscriptions guarantee a steady profit. In the meantime, scholars and researchers are pushed into the middle and into mainstream academic paradigms by the two players who were once their greatest supporters, the university and publishing.

The consequences of this academic revolution are disastrous: not only has the new audit and evaluation philosophy replaced judgment with counting. Worse, because the counting takes place in a scientific fashion, scholars and researchers won’t get as much out of the process as they put in. It is in this context where “scientific” managerialism is most dangerous. Be it in the form of a legitimation exercise vis-a-vis the taxpayer with mainly the higher education authorities and ministries in charge, or be it for departmental assessments at university level or individual promotion purposes. Listing, ranking and counting are the only activities that matter. I don’t mean to question evaluations or other attempts to make higher education more transparent. The worrying trend derives from the new cadres’ reluctance to make use of their human facilities of judgment.

Doing the sums has replaced judgment. On the other side, not making the entry into peer-reviewed journals has led to a state in which a sense of failure mixes with a hard to specify fear. Kafka’s K and Orwell’s Winston have become the new academic prototypes.

In a recently published study of Germany’s search for academic excellence, The Academic Elite, sociologist Richard Münch has identified major problems such as streamlining research, rewarding the already successful and following science models, irrespective of whether it makes sense or not for the humanities and social sciences.

Higher education is complex and will therefore always be unpredictable in terms of a planned outcome. However, it is as if the new cadres knew this already, otherwise their control games would be hard to comprehend. If this is true, we have encountered a new and very cynical power game. It means the new cadres either won’t listen to advice or that they are simply resistant to better arguments.

That we have become subject of a human experiment on such a grand scale with clearly very little scientific rationale is one of the saddest things to have happened in academia.

Andreas Hess is a senior lecturer in the school of sociology at UCD