Academics, universities, politics, and publics.

Recently a Times columnist lamented what she terms as the rise of ‘gobbledegook’ in the teaching of Politics. This flippant but enthusiastic critique of academic teaching has been a good provocation for me to set out my thoughts on where the academic teaching and research of Politics (hereafter ‘Politics’) is at, and to do so in a way that emphasises the distinct and important job we do and how it can easily be seen as a good thing for society more broadly.

This is not a ‘defence’ because I am not interested in being defensive. All I want to do is set out the state of play in university social sciences and emphasise aspects of our work which are generally not recognised, misunderstood or simply disliked.

I have been teaching Politics since 1994 when I tutored seminars as a PhD student. A great deal has changed over that period. Tuition fees have been introduced and the auditing of research outputs has been ratcheted up from a fairly light process commenced in 1986 to a permanent regime in the present-day. Student numbers have rocketed. There has also been a shift in teaching towards service delivery, skills development, and knowledge transfer. There has also been a rise in the ‘managerialisation’ of universities, best seen in the growth of personnel, planning, and finance departments.

A lot of the response to these profound changes tends to polemic – either about how ‘crusty’ academics needed to have proper incentivisations and interventions to make them ‘earn their money’. It is, of course, ‘taxpayer’s money’, that wonderful phrase used only when someone wants to attack a specific group. On the other hand, some academics (usually using the word ‘neoliberalism’) offer imagery of decline and fall, issued in by commercialisation. Like a lot of decline/progress debates, they can run alongside each other quite happily. I want to make some brief assertions about this debate but move quickly to a set of points about the value of Politics which is hopefully more interesting, cheering, and engaging for people who aren’t lecturers.

It is very much my view that a lot of the external impacts on universities have been pernicious. Tuition fees have, of course, introduced concerns about ‘value for money’ – that was one reason for their introduction. But, it is still unclear how one measures ‘value’. In effect, for as long as a department can fill its quota of incoming students, ‘value’ is decided in the crudest way as ‘bums on seats’, what Economics 101 would call ‘revealed preferences’. There is an assumption that fees have increased student concern about ‘getting my £9,000 worth’, but I think this is easily exaggerated. My impression is that students understand that they are not customers receiving a service in the same way that they do when they purchase the time of a financial advisor or a sports masseur. It might be closer to a general truth to say that students want to learn what value there is in a degree rather than arriving like a cohort of enfranchised and self-interested consumers. And lecturers execute the task of revealing this to students as their degree progresses.

Lecturers do this in the ways that they think best and with a fair degree of autonomy which is well-deserved. After all, there are almost no lecturers who do not have PhDs, and therefore they have considerable expertise in their field. After five years or so, it is difficult to see who, apart from the lecturer herself, is the best judge of their teaching a specific topic. Although, of course, there is no such thing as a perfect lecturer.

In terms of research, we come to the troubled topic of research audit, currently titled the Research Assessment Framework (REF). This is an auditing institution that crunches research outputs into numbers and then generates rankings. These are vitally important because they determine government funding for departments and they are a powerful ‘branding’ to potential students about the ‘esteem’ of a department. It is only a slight exaggeration to say departments live pretty much permanently under the anxieties generated by REF.

There is a great deal one might say about REF, and a great deal has already been said about it. It is not popular. A great many jobs in the public sector have undergone increasingly detailed and disciplinary audits based in some kind of ranking exercise which has the effect of making people insecure or incentivised to work harder. This is a version of that. I can list the problems of REF fairly briefly before moving on.

  • Research quality cannot be perfectly audited through metrics. So, the best one can say is that assessments are best guesses. Audits waver between peer review (very subjective and actually impossible to do properly bearing in mind the volume of outputs) and proxies such as levels of citation by other authors or the esteem indicators of the journals in which the author has published.
  • REF is increasingly based in the notion that research quality is about impact. This means good research has to be not only (or perhaps not even) intrinsically good but rather has to be clearly connected to its effects outside the university. This can be measured in various ways – all again rather open to interpretation – such as policy change or serving to improve the ways other organisations work. Impact narratives (because these are narratives, not facts) push researchers to find ‘partners’ and to think of ways in which research might serve their needs. As a result agendas are nudged towards moderation – especially as impact is largely construed as helping government, something not all of us wish to do in our research. In other words, impact means academics generating stories about how their research, regardless of its quality, serves institutions well, and in the logic of ‘impact enhancement’ the more powerful the institution the better.
  • REF is extremely labour intensive. Like a lot of rational choice public sector reform, it combines the worst of the market with the worst of the bureaucracy. It involves considerable amount so meeting, drafting of documents, mentoring of staff, strategising, and joyless instrumental reading. I am not aware of any audit of the amount of time dedicated to REF but I would suspect it to be a considerable chunk of time, time taken from teaching and research.

Finally, the ways externally-devised challenges like fees and REF are processed by universities is increasingly through ‘professional services’ and managers, by which I mean people employed by universities to introduce perceived good practice in terms of the management of resources, personnel, teaching strategy, REF strategy, marketing and recruitment, engagement with government and business, and grant capture. The university has been increasingly managerialised. This creates a lot of headaches for academics who are already dedicating more time to teaching and research as a result of pressures relating to student fees and REF, and who are also trying to develop, diversify, and enhance their existing research. The headache derives from the fact that professional services demand a slew of reports to be filled and meetings to be attended. There is an assumption that academics can naturally or costlessly internalise the mind-set of a planner or manager. There is an assumption that academics have a kind of endless residual idle time to dedicate to new initiatives, audits, and reform implementation dressed up in irksome banalities about excellence and innovation. Academics have to perform as best they can a kind of constant translation between the management-speak of these meetings and the language of ambitious and open-ended research. Managers make no such reciprocal effort and can, in my experience, quite blithely trivialise the nature of academic teaching and research.

In summary, there is a lot to worry about if one wants to see in universities a kind of distinct characteristic in its ability to house and facilitate ambitious, high-level, inquisitive, and specialised research and teaching. The general diagnosis I am offering is a dour one. But, it is not necessarily a doom-laden one. So, having spoken in a slightly insular way about the difficulties of being a decent academic, let us match the pessimism of the intellect with an optimism of the will.

At their best, and when given half a chance, most academics do something distinct and important. This is to pursue in as ambitious a way as possible open-ended inquiry into the nature of the political (others disciplines could be inserted here) and varied points of departure and in all sorts of different settings and moments in history. Academics have the freedom not to connect their research to an institution or interest group and in doing so, nothing is exempt from critical reflection – including academics. A great deal of work goes into the open assessment and debate about existing approaches and arguments. Nothing is perfect and everything might change. Without this set of academic practices of inquiry into politics – and I think this is extremely important – the social knowledge of politics will be closed down into a series of silos of more closed institutional interest: the media’s desires to grab headlines, or to disseminate propaganda; politicians’ desire to formulate political soundbites, to legitimise policy, to represent specific interests, to ensure obedience to authority; political thinktanks need to maintain policy relevance or congruence with a funder; political consultants and lobbyists need to generate income from their clients. We do not want to add ‘University PLC’ to that list.

Academics have the wherewithal to provide a political discourse which has the potential to create counter-intuitive representations of politics, critique from places more removed from the everyday, to ask questions that others would consider irrelevant because they are not immediately useful, to reflect more deeply and theoretically, to concern oneself with a level of detail and complexity awareness that, once again, is simply not possible in other areas of political discourse, to generate new evidence through careful research. Without this set of voices (as often disagreeing with each other as agreeing), political discourse is emaciated in a profoundly anti-democratic way.

Now, I am aware that I have romanticised my image of the academic. Some are lazy, some produce poor work (and lots of it), some are pretty cynical in toeing certain lines that will give them professional advantage. But, I do not apologise for my romanticisation in that it positively portrays the distinctiveness and potential benefits of academic research and teaching in Politics. And, I don’t think it is any more scurrilous than the self-representations of many other professions who need to keep an eye on public image. And this positive, non-defensive representation allows us to think about the value of what academics do and could do more of.

Academics are not pundits. They do not serve very well as the mouthpieces for soundbites. This is anathema to research. Nor are academics generalists who can – perhaps because of the ‘Doctor’ prefix – be called into action by time-scarce journalists for a simple bland statement about which they know only a little. Academics need time. They need to have more authorial power over their narrative because they know it best. A good example to use here is the increasing use of some academics in TV and radio documentary series (my favourite is Mary Beard). These programmes offer a unique contribution from academics, not simply a statement like ‘until an agreement is reached and accepted by all stakeholders the uncertainty looks set to continue.’ There is an ambition in these documentaries. A public narrative about knowledge that only repays when attention is given.

Of course, not everyone in the university has the charisma and imagery to get a BBC Four documentary. But universities could be far more imaginative in supporting the public narratives of academics. What they do now is generally try to feed academics into journalistic networks and offer media training. This is a waste of time and resources in a world already stuffed into a prolix soundbite circus of instantly forgettable reportage. Why not have university online ‘channels’ that give academics six fifteen-minute slots to present an idea: big, insurrectionary, counter-intuitive, authoritative, ambitious. Many charitable campaigns (which seem to have far more imaginative PR departments) have youtube video channels with engaging cartoons and graphics, interviews, and lifestories. There is no good reason why universities could not invest in the distinct and hard-earned skills of academics and present these openly to the public more appropriately on their terms. Unless one cleaves to a very patronising view of ordinary people, there is no reason to suppose that this would be ‘elitist’ although of course it would not be everyone’s cup of tea. The notion that universities should find merit is catching the ear of as many people as possible is a combination of an absurdity and a suicide note.

And, there are an increasing number of blogs that either academics have set up themselves (some better than others!) or which involve a strong confident academic voice such as Open Democracy or The Conversation. Again the distinguishing feature of these is that they are not trying to be something else; they are based on expertise, some intellectual patience, a desire not to simply join in a hastily convened buzz-fest around a puffy political event whose shelf life is determined by the actions of a member of the royal family.

My point is that Government (and university management) have often berated academics for not being something that they aren’t. The university risks losing a sense of value in what academics do. And, as a result they have generally fretted about how to ‘incentivise’ academics to serve a media machine. Things could be different and better.

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