Academic Free Fall

When I left Britain in the 1970s to pursue a doctorate in the US, it was an item of faith that US universities were far more corporatized than their UK counterparts, in the social sciences as well as the natural sciences.  To be sure the British system was often stuffy and harboured a lot of dead wood, but few looked toward an American-style academia. 

Today the situation is dramatically transposed.  British social sciences are far more corporatized today than in the US, and expatriate British academics returning to the UK are regularly stunned at the wholesale intellectual destruction of UK universities.  To a non-British academic, the language of academia is almost impenetrable, aping the corporate world on which it was modeled.  Administrative memos, grant proposals, and bureaucratic correspondence —  university-wide or departmentally specific — are peppered with verbiage so vague it is vacuous: excellence, accountability, performance measures, capacity building, benchmarking, pro-active, impact factors, grant harvesting, esteem indicators, innovation, technology generation and capture, skill sets, team cohesion, outputs, and so forth.  Into such vacuous concepts, those with power can pour in whatever content is desirable.

There are many reasons for this extreme corporatization, but the most important lie in the wholesale political restructuring of the institutional framework of academia.  This restructuring began as an openly political intervention by the neo-liberalizing Thatcher government and was carried forward enthusiastically under Blair, and it has several salient dimensions.  In the first place, it was deemed desirable to be able to compare on a level plane the performances of every university in the country, and this inevitably led to a ubiquitous quantification of every aspect of teaching, research and service, from the scale of the individual through that of the department and the School or College to the university as a whole.  The vehicle for this state-mandated comparison was the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), initiated in 1986 with five subsequent such exercises. 

As all British academics are painfully aware, this had several effects beyond the forced crunching of all intellectual activity into a number.  To boost the numbers, it encouraged researchers to parse already small pieces of research into myriad fragments that could be scattered to multiple journals.  Research became increasingly shoddy — atrocious grammar and little content — with terrifying speed.  As a journal editor in the early 1990s I received a paper from one British scholar and a phone call two weeks later to inquire about and then urge acceptance of the piece “because our RAE submissions are due in two weeks.”  As it turned out a virtually identical paper had been submitted to another journal and that journal’s editor happened to use one of the same referees I used.  In various incarnations this scenario repeated itself during my tenure as editor, all involving UK academics. Not long ago, the faculty union, now the University and College Union (UCU), then the Association of University Teachers (AUT), warned that the RAE has had a disastrous effect on the UK’s Higher Education. The reworking of the RAE into a “metrics-based” Research Excellence Framework is likely to exacerbate rather than resolve the disaster.  

The education bureaucrats in the UK are making “impact factors” a centerpiece of this revamped RAE.

The underlying motivation for this move represents a clear continuation of the original rationale for the RAE: to produce practical knowledge, shovel-ready, for bureaucratic policy application.  It straightens out and speeds up the four-lane highway from research to state or corporate utility.  There are fewer and fewer off ramps from this highway, and the toll for accessing it is the guarantee of intellectual mediocrity.  But “impact factor” is an empty shell that is available to be filled with any bureaucratic content.

Twinned with the RAE is the effect of the funding agencies (which for those of us in the social sciences means primarily the ESRC), but only those departments and universities with sufficiently high RAE scores and a good track record by other measures are eligible for such funding.  Continued ESRC funding depended on timely completion of grants and mandated the completion of doctorates by graduate students within three years, four at the most, and failure to do so threatened further funding but also damaged RAE scores.  This had several consequences. First, faculty were under extreme pressure to pass dissertations whether or not they were worthy.  This not only dropped quality standards immediately but reproduced several generations of faculty who had been taught that sloppy, unfinished and sub-standard work was quite acceptable, further eroding the quality of work coming out in future PhD dissertations. By the same token, of course, a longer ‘time-to-degree’ (to use the operative bureaucratese) is no guarantee of superior quality work, and in the US for example unnecessarily long times to degree actually facilitate a casualization of academic work as graduate students are exploited as cheap instructional labour.  But time-to-degree in Scandinavia, to take another case, can also be quite long with very different results, due largely to the quite different social and financial structuring of the degree compared with the US or UK.  This is the crucial point.

Second, the strict time limits on PhDs adversely affected the kinds of topics and the geography of topics students chose.

Several years ago I visited a geography department with 33 PhD students and on inquiry I discovered that 28 of these students were working in the UK.  For a geography department to have only 15% of its postgraduates working outside the UK is a tragedy.  When I asked the students how this could have happened they explained quite casually that if they had to scout out foreign field sites, possibly learn a language, do adequate archival research, learn methodologies, then do the field work (in addition to reading the requisite theory), and write the work up, there was a slim chance of them completing in three or four years.  Much the same would apply to anthropology or history.  Third, ESRC grants come with the requirement that a significant amount — as much as 30% — of the work be policy focused.  Yet if a researcher’s work leads to critical conclusions documenting, for example, the maladies of gentrification, would the ESRC be enthusiastic about policy conclusions that advocate the funding of anti-gentrification groups and movements?  (Even the use of “gentrification” rather than the anodyne and dishonest policy euphemism “regeneration”, while it may not condemn a proposal, will at least draw extra critical attention.)  So basic research is tightly tethered to applications with the state as the exclusive target of policy proposals.  Thus the highway between research and policy runs both ways, raising the specter that ESRC funding is increasingly designed, as I have heard it put, not to produce research-driven policy so much as to produce policy-driven research.

More broadly, universities are under extreme pressure to become their own capitalist entities.  In pursuit of capital, British universities have, apart from anything else, become MA/MSc factories, often aimed at rich and foreign students who fork out the tuition fees in exchange for a commodity — the diploma.

The upshot of these and other transformations, at least for those of us looking in, is that UK academia is consumed by smaller and smaller issues, more and more frivolous topics, the victory of empirics over theory, and less and less significant research.

On top of this, the quality of work has plummeted, and geography for one has become increasingly insular.  The “impact factor” of this neo-liberalization of academia is immense.  Among British colleagues I detect very little critique of this predicament beyond a few individuals, and little or no organized opposition; rather the modus operandi is defensive rationalization. There are exceptions, of course, and the militant strike and sit-in at London’s Middlesex University, protesting the summary closing of the philosophy department, is heartening.

That this department had a critical impact in radical, Marxist and continental philosophy as well as more widely, and that punitive retaliations were meted out against participating students and faculty, only strengthens the argument that whatever else drives it, the restructuring of British academia is politically motivated, and not for the better. Overall there has been an utter deflation and flattening of the British academic landscape.  This is especially dispiriting because it is unclear, short of a major institutional restructuring of the scale pioneered by Thatcher and Blair, how this could be redressed, or where the will to do so would even come from.

Neil Smith teaches in the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at CUNY.

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