Sympathy for the Neo-Liberal Devil

By Steve Fuller

Special Section on the Future of Research Governance

Where We Are Now

The UK government has asked its Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to make a £450 million cut in its budget for this year (and presumably for the foreseeable future). All state-funded academic activity – both education (‘skills’) and research (‘innovation’) – falls under this department’s remit. To be sure, the UK has had a history of shifting the location of academia in its spreadsheet, but BIS is where it has sit at least since the time of New Labour, when Peter Mandelson as top minister started to promote the largely academically supported idea that universities are the engine of the impending ‘knowledge economy’ – the fount of job creation, domestic prosperity, competitive advantage, global esteem, etc.  I happen to believe that this was a Faustian bargain, if not a poisoned chalice – at least for those who ever thought that taking the money would entail a straightforward expansion of academia’s classic Humboldtian mission

What we’re witnessing now is a long hangover from the heady days of inflated expectations of what the existing – and perhaps even more – universities could do to grow 21st century Britain. However, the logic behind it was impeccable: A fair exchange for the state raising university student numbers and research provision to unprecedented levels is that the public purse is provided an adequate regular return on these investments. Even tuition fees should be understood in this ‘pump priming’ way. While Old Leftists (some of them young in years) still fixate on the conversion of a ‘basic human right’ (aka free education) to an ‘exchange relation’ (aka tuition fees), they would do better to appreciate the amount of faith (and capital) that this ‘neo-liberal’ state has invested in university-based activities. The bare fact that university fees were raised to 9K per annum – understood as state-backed loans – is less important than the belief that students would ever earn enough to pay them back.

Since the time of Margaret Thatcher, academics have been relatively easily co-opted into all manner of higher education innovations. The plot has a predictable arc. Most academics will swallow almost any pill as long as they can decide the mode of insertion. Thus, academics administer the Research Excellence Framework – even in matters of ‘impact’, where one might think that academic judgement is likely to be most suspect (because self-serving). As for the academic opposition to such innovations, an initial loud period quickly reveals the absence of a coherent positive alternative that commands the support of the majority of the noisemakers. Practical opposition then disappears, with some academics returning to business as usual, while others make careers adding ‘depth’ to the predicament which amounts to rationalizations for why opposing the direction of policy travel will always fail – pending some miraculous strafing of the policy fields.

Where We Should Be in the Future

There is much consternation in academic quarters about BIS’s commissioning of McKinsey consultants to audit its operating budget. At one level, I’m not surprised. McKinsey is the champion of the ‘leaner and meaner’ corporate profile. In other words, one starts the audit by looking at strategic goals, not ongoing operations. One doesn’t presume that the latter necessarily advance the former.  In particular, in some vague pursuit of ‘fairness’ (= minimizing employee blowback), firms are always tempted to make similar ‘across the board’ cuts, even if in the long-term this further impedes their meeting strategic goals. However, as McKinsey observes, making quite deep but targeted cuts may enable new productive synergies.

I happen to think that academia is well suited to this sort of treatment. Whether McKinsey will interpret the situation in the way I do – or, more to the point, whether the government will adopt policies that correspond to it – is something else entirely. In what follows, I am simply interested in pursuing this line of reasoning. I start by recalling something that David Willetts used to say when Minister for Universities, which always struck me as generous but somewhat misguided. He said that the reason the government relied on peer review rather than metrics to assess academic research – despite the additional costs and inconvenience – was that the academics themselves insisted on it. While this is very much in line with academic compliance behaviour, it is not obvious that the government’s strategic goals are being well served in what is admitted by all sides to be such a wasteful process as peer review. So, what are these ‘strategic goals’?

Anyone who thinks seriously about state funding for academic research will realize the importance of ‘basic research’ to provide the capital on which the next generation of innovations will be based. On this basis alone, research is clearly a ‘public good’. However, it does not follow that discipline-based committees of ‘peers’ are the best way to decide the direction of policy travel. The broadest level of assent to the value of peer review is as a mechanism for catching and correcting errors of various sorts. Any larger claims to peer review’s value is subject to significant controversy, which is largely masked by the fact that peer review (starting at the journal level) is the main vehicle through which disciplinary identity is reproduced. However, from the state’s standpoint, it should be an open question whether reproducing existing disciplinary structures is the best way to improve the promotion of basic research – especially given that basic research generally thrives in an interdisciplinary environment, where researchers are not burdened by the often idiosyncratic (‘path-dependent’) epistemic trajectories taken by particular fields.

But this then suggests that greater effort should be invested in developing metrics capable of surveying the entire research environment to demonstrate how researchers are voting with their feet, in terms of who, how and why they cite of their fellows. On this basis, then, projections can be made about the likely consequences of various resource allocation schemes. Thus, the state can finally think about research investment in a more ‘business-like’ manner.

To be sure, given the existing hostility that most academics express towards metrics of any sort, some initial capital and incentives will be needed to engage the full range of academic intelligence required for this task to be performed adequately (i.e. not just those who enjoy crunching numbers). However, the endgame is that disciplines will no longer be the basis on which research monies are allocated – and so one should expect a greater consolidation of the research councils. To be sure, disciplines will continue to play a significant role as market signals for students wishing to enter university (as well as the basis of their training), and peer review will continue to function in journals as the premier error-eliminating mechanism in the organized knowledge system.

Of course, if particular universities or academic societies wish to promote certain disciplines as free-standing epistemic entities, then they are welcomed to do so. But the state’s role in their promotion is not obvious.

On support for universities on the teaching side, the state should work towards an arrangement whereby all universities are given complete corporate autonomy (aka privatized) – with the exception of Oxford and Cambridge. Oxford and Cambridge should remain ‘nationalized’ because they are proven global brand leaders for the UK that would not be able to compete at their current levels (i.e. vis-à-vis the US Ivy League) without government subsidy. It may come to pass that in this ‘freer’ environment, some universities may merge or disappear altogether if they fail to find their market. However, the government should dedicate significant funds to universities that demonstrate ‘value-added’ to their students, typically meaning levels of achievement that exceed intake expectations. How exactly this is measured is bound to be contentious but necessary, in terms of the state’s overall strategy of treating higher education as a vehicle for human capital development. Moreover, this policy could be part of a more public move to steer university rankings away from purely output measures to ones that reflect input-output ratios: Do the most with the least!

Finally, there is no reason to think that academics are especially good at judging the overall impact of their research on the larger society. The very idea of having academics nominate cases is always bound to be self-serving, if not misdirected. Here the government needs to come clean about its strategic objective in wanting to determine impact all — and to develop a capacity to gauge impact appropriately. At the moment, most impact studies simply involve clients in the public or private sector saying that certain academic work has been valuable for their purposes. The better the client, the bigger the impact then?  We can do better than that. Indeed, this matter should be turned over to public relations firms capable of gauging levels of uptake, associated attitudes, as well as long-term success in the target markets. Of course, the state needs to arrive at a clear sense of what ‘success’ means in this context. But once again, this is a frame of reference that should be developed in consultation with academics but ultimately administered independently of them. 

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