Sunday, March 21, 2010

The other really useful knowledge: revalorising critique in the university

The other really useful knowledge: revalorising critique in the university
by Sarah Amsler

After UK universities were subsumed into the newly formed Department of Business, Industry and Skills in June of last year, it seemed that few changes in academic life could be any further surprising. Until the Times Higher Education featured a hot-pink guide on ‘20 steps to increase your ranking – ways to rise in the league tables without breaking the bank’. Neither the wisdom of the rankings nor the belt-tightening rhetoric was out of the ordinary: performance indicators, league tables and the spectre of radical budget cuts have become the grit of academic life. The banks, of course, have already been broken. But the framing of this consequential and contested political agenda as a playful popularity contest again pushed the boundaries of belief.

The guidance seemed simple, almost commonsense: hire good researchers, give them autonomy and power, and keep them happy. They bring prestige, money and networks. And if they can be transformed into managers, they can shape institutional culture and extract high levels of productivity from others.

But there was a more troubling message is in this guidance, in Tip No. 6: ‘no pain, no gain’. You must cut losses and losers to win. While elite researchers, institutional managers and ambitious young scholars are poised to accept this agenda as common sense, it is argued, ‘it is unlikely that everyone else will’. The reason? ‘We all tend to prefer the status quo.’ Within this logic, alternative positions are impossible. You can play hard and win or lose fairly, or you can win at all costs and take out whoever is standing in the way. But you cannot stop to question the rules of the game and still be included, or seriously suggest that we might all play another.

The problem is that this is not an idiosyncratic narrative. It is part of the wider and increasingly hegemonic discourse that diminishes democratic processes, marginalises opposition to the transformation of universities into fully integrated economic and political enterprises, and legitimises the withdrawal of public funds from higher education. It goes to the top. After releasing a controversial blueprint for education reforms in late 2009 and threatening what now appear confirmed as radical incisions into many university budgets, Peter Mandelson has caricatured critics as ‘people who don’t like change’, who ‘don’t want reform’ and who embody a ‘desire to maintain the status quo’.

You can be either in or out now; either for a prefigured, market-oriented vision of ‘progress’, or charged with advocating anti-values of stagnation and mediocrity. To criticise present trends in higher education policy – the institutionalisation of political-economic ‘impact agendas’ for research, the rapprochement of industry and academe, the hypocrisy of ‘raising student expectations’ while simultaneous slashing their financial support, not to mention other problems of campus surveillance and academic freedom – means to take up a position of either mediocrity or ridicule that exists beyond legitimate recognition.

Speaking when you anticipate criticism is possible, if hard. But speaking into a conversation where your positions are already discredited is absurd. This is why the pre-empting of critique and diminishing of public debate are such effective forms of disciplinary power within UK universities today. Here, academics are increasingly beholden to external validation, as skills of self-valorization give way to endless rankings by public opinion surveys and performance indicators. The prohibitions on critique are also strategically disorienting, for many academics have been tooled to expect – however so naively – that it can be recognised as a value within the university itself.

But this power throws sticks and stones as well as names. It is political; anchored outside the discursive realm in the new performative regimes of legitimacy and economic regimes of value now being embedded across the sector. Fixed prerequisites of professional participation are being defined, imposed and monitored for compliance (or in the softer language of power, for performances of ‘cooperation’ and ‘commitment’). But the particular politics of these terms remain unsaid, and can thus be performed as democratic and in the interests of the imagined common good. For what self-respecting scholar could possibly oppose change, progress, flexibility or public and social engagement? The problem is framed as the solution to the ‘other’ problems created by an (imagined) autonomous and democratic educational system. It might be called Orwellian, if the concept was much less oldthink.

From any alternatively reasonable perspective, the question is not about whether one supports a generic process of social ‘change’, but rather how the articulation of alternatives becomes framed as a generalised objection to progress itself, and as a danger to the general will. The problem is the suppression of political spaces in which this framing might itself be contested. Despite the proliferation of localised conversations and committees, genuinely public spaces for dialogue, critique and opposition are negated by pre-emptive threats of misrecognition and marginalisation. And on a more material level, critique is quietened by internalised fears that in the competitive ‘race’ for rankings and institutional survival, with jobs and reputations on the line, now is ‘not the time’ for asking such questions.

Fortunately, this logic exposes its own ironic contradictions. By legitimising technologies of control that foreclose debate, plurality and democratic process from the bottom up, the fear of the alternatives is revealed, and the stakes of the game made clear. By working so visibly to justify the restoration of elite education and research, to integrate these fully into business and industrial productivity, and to minimise or eliminate opposition to the agenda, the programme is exposed as the political struggle it is rather than the meritocratic movement it claims to be. It is known that the ‘reforms’ now being imposed on universities are divisive, disreputable and unjust. For if the proposals are so obviously progressive, why would they be impeded by public debate? And if this re-visioning of the university is so widely compelling, why is there so urgent a need to reshape academics’ perceptions and behaviour? What and whose is this pain that must be suffered in order for whom to gain what? And although it is assumed to be self-evident, it must be asked – why?

This is a time for questioning and for critique. However, provided that people can muster the will to speak into the absurdity of a discourse of foreclosure, concern and resistance must develop into acts of reclamation. We need to reclaim the commons within the university, to establish it where it has never been, to clarify in which intellectual and professional values we should defend and which should be transformed, to articulate and build alternative relationships between universities and other social institutions, and subject all of this to ongoing public and professional scrutiny. These things must be asserted collectively, despite whatever sort of name-calling and marginalisation might ensue. It is probably not a task well-suited to anyone whose self-respect, professional identity or intellectual relevance imbricate with the ratings game, and it is not the sort of programme that can be summarised, as recommended in ‘Raise your game’, in a ‘simple list of key priorities’. But that’s okay. It could be really useful knowledge.


BIS (2009) ‘New Department for Business, Innovation & Skills to lead fight against recession and build now for future prosperity’, online at: The department was created by combining the departments of Universities, Innovation and Skills, and Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Goodall, A. (2009) ‘Raise your game’, Times Higher Education, 18-24 February, pp. 32-37 and online at:

Thirft, N. (2010) ‘It’s now or never’, Times Higher Education, 4 March, p. 41.

BIS, Higher Ambitions: The Future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy, online at:

Morgan, J. (2009) ‘Defenders of the academy? More like the status quo, says Lord Mandelson’, Times Higher Education, 18-24 February, p. 8 and online at:

Dr Sarah Amsler
Lecturer in Sociology
Aston University
s . s . amsler [at] aston . ac . uk

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sign the petition Trust Researchers

Dear friends and colleagues,
many of us feel that we spend too much time on proposal writing, project management, evaluation, and reporting.
As we have more important things to do, I have decided to sign the following declaration, which made a serious impression on me.
"The funding of European research should be based on trust and responsible partnering. Today researchers in Europe face a lot of red tape and cumbersome financial regulations. We are not against rules.
But we need to simplify.
Those who have signed this declaration ask the European Council of Ministers and the Parliament to simplify the administrative procedures and the financial provisions of European research funding."
If you would like to support this declaration as well, you can sign it at , which just takes 2 minutes of your valuable time. I hope this can move things ahead towards a science funding system that supports more science and less administration.

Thank you for considering this and best wishes,

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Network of Struggles and Resistance

from the edu-factory list:
To Build Up a Transnational edu-factory Network of Struggles and Resistance
Since its beginning, edu-factory has tried to be a place of political discussion and communication, a site of the free circulation of knowledge and networking at the global level. In the “double crisis” (i.e., the global economic crisis and the crisis of the university in ruins), the edu-factory list and web site have been enriched by communiqués from different collectives, news of university occupations and demonstrations, as well as proposals for political organization. In fact, on March 4th there will be a day of mobilization in universities across the United States (; on the 11th and 12th of March there will be a European mobilization against the Bologna Process ( in Vienna; and, in general, many struggles are challenging the corporatization of the university all over the world.

Please find attached a flyer to read, improve, share, print, and diffuse. It is a text that is an open proposal: the construction of a transnational network of struggles. Please comment and add, in order to build up a common process of transnational discussion and organization. And please use and distribute the flyer, the 4th of March in US, the week after in Vienna, and everywhere there are struggles and conflicts.
edu-factory is not a logo: edu-factory is a common name for the resistance within and against the corporate global university.
edufactory mailing list

Elements of British Press cause pressure upon academic freedom

A strange story indeed. At 31 December 2009 you could read this in a Times Higher Education report by Professor Malcolm Grant:
"Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was arrested on Christmas Day for the attempted bombing of an aircraft on a flight to Detroit from Amsterdam. Had he succeeded in his mission, it would have been an act of terrorism causing mass murder on an appalling scale."
"What induced this behaviour remains a mystery. He has not emerged from a background of deprivation and poverty. He came from one of Nigeria’s wealthiest families. He was privately educated, and to a high level. He gained admission to University College London, where he studied mechanical engineering with business finance between 2005 and 2008, and was president of the UCL student Islamic Society in 2006-07."
"Elements of the British press have taken a different line. Mr Abdulmutallab studied at UCL, therefore he must have been “radicalised” at UCL; after all, according to The Daily Telegraph, “[e]ven though Abdulmutallab is not even a British citizen, he was still allowed to be elected president of the Islamic Society at [UCL]”. And more: “It is easy to imagine that the authorities at UCL took quiet pride in the fact that they had a radical Nigerian Muslim running their Islamic Society. You can’t get more politically correct than that. They would therefore have had little interest in monitoring whether he was using a British university campus as a recruiting ground for al-Qaida terrorists such as himself.”"
"This is quite spectacular insinuation. And without so much as a shred of evidence in substantiation. The Telegraph blog that follows the publication of this piece displays quite disturbing Islamophobia, anti-immigration rants and even postings calling for the bombing of UCL itself." (Link to Grant's whole article).

See the media release "UUK to establish working group following arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab" of 06/01/2010 here.
And see the "Update on Universities UK academic freedom working group" of 26/02/2010 here.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Establishing academic standards

A report from University World News by Gavin Moodie:
The privatisation of higher education in many countries has increased the financial incentive for institutions to compromise standards to maintain their viability. It has also led to the increased influence of institutions and their managers over lecturers and their academic decisions which were previously more strongly influenced by disciplinary norms and the expectations of the ‘invisible college’.
Full report on the University World News site