Consultation As Co-Option: Negotiating A Post-Public University System

By John Holmwood

Neo-liberal governance operates through the co-production of its policy objectives. This frequently takes place through consultation with ‘stakeholders’. Of course, those stakeholders are differentially affected by proposed policies and have interests at stake. Consultation might appear to be an evidence-based process with consensus as its aim, but, in truth, interests are not reconcilable and what the parties put forward is interest-based evidence. In this context, government acts as mediator of such evidence which it collates and selects according to its own policy objectives. At the same time, stakeholders also lobby government independently of the consultation process. In this way, consultation operates in the interest of powerful stakeholders and requires wider publics (who might bear the consequences of the policies) to be represented by a stakeholder or accept the fiction that it is the government that represents their interests. It is the latter fiction that sustains the idea of a government interest in evidence-based policy, while what is being enacted is the politics of policy-based evidence and interest-based evidence.

This poses a question: how should a professional association – say, a learned society representing the social sciences, such as the British Sociological Association – respond to a consultation? By participating, it is necessarily party to the particular politics of knowledge production that neo-liberal governance entails. In such a context, the claim of neutral expertise under the idea of evidence-based policy is hollow. Moreover, those submitting to a consultation are limited to responding to specific questions and are – implicitly, by the very logic of co-production –  steered toward pragmatic damage limitation to maintain the position of being a co-producing stakeholder with at least some skin in the game, even if we are in the process of being skinned. 

Criticism has to be cautious and productive in order to hold out the possibility of influence. Although not part of a consultation, this was evident in the Campaign for Social Sciences defence of public funding of the social sciences, The Business of People, written to influence politicians and policy-makers prior to the last election. The only justifications for social science it offered were associated with policies and plans of government and corporate actors. The argument for a plural social science was criticised as one-sided, even as a one-sided justification of social science was being promoted on behalf of a stakeholder representing the social sciences.

Consultations close, recommendations are put forward for action, and published together with a dossier of submissions of evidence. Attention falls on the recommendations which are then argued to be based on the evidence submitted with no proper scrutiny of that evidence or of how different arguments have been reconciled. The screw of co-production is further tightened.

This recently came to a head in discussions on the Heads and Professors of Sociology e-mail list where I argued that we should begin to step outside the consultation process to express our views independently and to provide the evidence-basis of our claims thereby making them available for wider scrutiny and comment. One response was to suggest that this was a return to a radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s which had discredited sociology from which we had taken a long time to recover (thereby reinforcing the idea that being listened to was more important than what we might say). Once again, our professional claim on evidence-based policy was put forward, with no sociological recognition of the politics of co-produced knowledge production and policy formation. On the analysis above, it would follow that a commitment to evidence-based policy is best assured by commentary independent of consultation and that the compromises made to ensure a voice within consultation are precisely compromises to the knowledge claims believed to be intrinsic to evidence-based policy evaluation.

So, what is at issue in the recent consultations associated with the Green Paper on Higher Education: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice which will become the recommendations contained in a White Paper to be published in May setting out a legislative programme of implementation? The Green Paper had two core aspects. First, to establish a Teaching Excellence Framework, to be used to rank institutions and to justify fee increases. Second, to create a level playing field for the entry of for-profit providers by allowing them the title of university and providing a regulatory framework that did not favour existing, ‘traditional’ universities. Each of these is part of the dismantling of public higher education and the creation of a post-public university system. Nonetheless, the logic of co-production suggests that we need to be part of the implementation, lending it the legitimacy of our collaboration, and proposing that whatever measures are introduced they should, in turn, be operated through the logic of co-production (in other words that the TEF should replicate the REF).

Yet, it is clear that what will be implemented will be the outcome of the lobbying efforts of for-profit providers and various consultancies that have provided ‘evidence’ to BIS – for example, Rand, KPMG, Eversheds and Pearson among others. Vice Chancellors, and the various mission groups – perhaps, especially, the Russell group – have an interest in maximising revenue, which in this context means a continued commitment to the fee-loan system of higher education funding and accepting whatever constraints are enjoined by Government in terms of conditions for raising that revenue. So most universities made submissions to the consultation on the Green Paper that were sharply critical of what it proposed, and yet they will also calmly cooperate with their implementation and will, indeed, mirror the very processes they criticised in their own internal practices of performance review of staff. The combination of criticism, compliance and ‘boosterism’ typical of consultation responses is evident in the Russell Group response.

Yet, as a recent Sutton Group Report indicated, what is being co-produced is at the cost of prospective students in England who now face the highest indebtedness among English-speaking countries (and beyond). Of course, by placing students at the heart of the system, Government claims that it is precisely their interests it represents. It also seeks to widen participation, yet it looks to for-profit providers to create places for students from disadvantaged backgrounds or BME groups. The level-playing field that for-profit providers have secured is one in which they are freed from the research and third mission obligations of traditional universities. Moreover, their entry will be facilitated in the absence of data on ‘learning gain’ and future employability by which traditional universities will be judged, precisely because that data takes time to be accumulated. The performance of for-profit higher education in the US, including by providers active in the UK, was subject to a damning US Senate Report in 2012.

In a consultation process in which private interests are ‘collaborating’ to dismantle the system of public higher education and the wider public interests it represents, what should be the role of a professional association? Should it be to add our private interest to the consultation process, or should it be to provide arguments that might inform wider public debate? When the White Paper is published, will we enthusiastically engage in constructing the precise measures through which the new regulatory framework will operate (having a voice only to the extent to which we have passed our voice into the voice of neo-liberal governmentality)? Or will we be a voice of public reason, providing arguments about the role and significance of university education and the critical skills it inculcates?

I am not suggesting that professional associations should not be involved in consultations, but that they need to temper that involvement by public expressions of their positions and the evidence-basis for them and the normative understandings of the public role of knowledge that informs those positions. Professional associations are independent actors within the public sphere and they serve that role not by interest-based co-production of policy, but by explicit engagement in public debate.

John Holmwood, University of Nottingham.

Originally posted 9th May 2016.

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