google-site-verification: googlea33552291e834fff.html Education: The New Brutalism in Higher Education

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The New Brutalism in Higher Education

Marina Warner has a fascinating essay in the latest London Review of Books. Seeking to explain why she resigned from her position at the University of Essex, Warner describes a rapid collapse of the University's traditions of scholarly openness and institutional democracy under the pressure of the Coalition government's new funding model and (lack of) scholarly commitments. As she reveals, the tentacles of the new audit technocracy are infiltrating the University by means of the faculty review process.

Describing a meeting presided over by the Vice-Chancellor Anthony Forster, Warner describes a situation that may sound all too familiar:
At the meeting, Forster was galvanising the deputy vice-chancellor, and his leadership style was making a colleague�s chin wobble in her eagerness to meet his requests. Others round the table hung their heads, staring sullenly at their laptops. The Senate had just approved new criteria for promotion. Most of the candidates under review had written their submissions before the new criteria were drawn up, yet these were invoked as reasons for rejection. As in Kafka�s famous fable, the rules were being (re-)made just for you and me. I had been led to think we were convened to discuss cases for promotion, but it seemed to me we were being asked to restructure by the back door. Why these particular individuals should be for the chop wasn�t clear from their records. Cuts, no doubt, were the underlying cause, though they weren�t discussed as such. At one point Forster remarked aloud but to nobody in particular: �These REF stars � they don�t earn their keep.�

In England, as you probably know, academics have been subject for many years to a two-step system of accountability.  Individuals have been asked to provide proof not only that they are producing things but of their impact on society and on their fields.  It has led to a Kafkaesque system of evaluation and surveillance (with manifold levels of arbitrary categories masquerading as hard, quantitatively defined accomplishments) to force individuals, departments, and higher education institutions to prove their worth.  Without certain scores you receive little or no research funding.

But with the Coalition government's attempts to force a new market structure on Higher Education (considered as a consumer good) there is a new level of managerial intrusion at work.  For the government has cut direct funding for Universities and raised student fees (and loans) while effectively forcing universities to try to recruit international students to make good the shortfalls in funding.  As Warner's story of her personnel meeting makes clear, the upshot of this is that while academics are still being subject to the system of research surveillance, or in this case subject to a new system that they had not been prepared for, the demands for scholarship were increasingly irrelevant for the funding of the university or for the allocation of resources within the university:


At that stage, everyone in the university was still obsessively focused on meeting the demands of this year�s REF. By the end of 2013, all the evidence had been gathered, and the inventory of our publications fought over, recast and finally sent off to be assessed by panels of peers. Everyone in academia had come to learn that the REF is the currency of value. A scholar whose works are left out of the tally is marked for assisted dying. So I thought Forster�s remark odd at the time, but let it go. It is now widely known � but I did not know it then � that the rankings of research, even if much improved, will bring universities less money this time round than last. So the tactics to bring in money are changing. Students, especially foreign students who pay higher fees, offer a glittering solution.

In this new system scholarly activity was only worthwhile as a symptom of consumer desirability.  In England, you still needed to manage your REF profile--but only while you did more and more teaching to more and more students.  And it is the managers, not the faculty, who decide if you are desirable enough.

Warner began her account by describing the visit of a friend from California who noticed that the library (from the 1960s) had been built in the style of the "new brutalism" (Think of most old UC or CSU buildings). But as Warner herself notes, "new brutalism in academia was taking on another meaning."  Although it has happened with ruthless ideological will in England, it is not an alien story to the US.  Indeed, what has happened over the last few years under David Cameron is really just a fast-forward version of what has been going on in the US more slowly and in less centralized fashion.  We are in the midst of our own new brutalism.  Although not as centrally directed we have been witnessing it for years: the recent intrusions by governing boards at the Universities of Illinois, Kansas, and Virginia; the shuttering of small language departments; the dramatic rise in tuition at public universities; increasing student/faculty ratios; ever growing reliance on adjuncts; cuts in Federal support for scholarly research; and our own, albeit less developed, auditing system.  In England, the transition occurred with such speed as to catch most people off-guard (despite the efforts of individuals like Stefan ColliniAndrew McGettigan, or the Campaign for the Public University).  But we have no excuse.This is the time to master the details to be able to oppose the systems being put into place on campuses across the country.

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