Tuesday 24 December 2013

Academic labour, new media and why reviewers should Boycott Elsevier Journals

Elsevier's somewhat Scrooge-like take-down notices sent to Academia.edu and Universities around the world, including Harvard and Stanford has woken us up to the rather dirty business of publishing and its interface with scholarship. It also makes us aware of the issue of academic labour and those who profit from it. When University lecturers are taking industrial action in their institutions about the payment they receive for the labour they do for those institutions, Elsevier's action highlights the labour academics do for people who don't pay them a thing. I received a reviewer invitation for a paper in an Elsevier journal yesterday, and my inclination is (frankly) to tell them to get lost.

The truth is that without reviewers, academic publishers wouldn't have a business. Of course, authorship is important, but actually it is the reviewer network, which is associated with particular academic communities, that grants (or more frequently excludes) acceptance to the academic discourse; it's the status that peer review gives to authored articles which creates the dynamic whereby certain journals become more 'respected' than others. Publication itself is more open today to anybody. But publishers know that the physical presence of writing in print is no longer the game. They must harness and nurture communities of esteemed individuals who are willing to work for nothing so as to maintain the capital value of their assets - in the name of scholarship.

What does everyone else gain from this? The publisher will argue that publication in their journals (or reviewing their journals) grants individual academics increased status. Indeed, bibliometric research measurements have reinforced this view. Increasingly, the academic game is a status game - not just the status of academics, but the status of institutions who are increasingly measured by the extent to which their employees belong to high-status publication networks. This can grant individual academics some career opportunities, although they are not paid for their labour. The deal appears to be "labour for status". But for the publisher, this status transaction is extremely powerful economically, and academics (who gain from the status of association) tend to turn a blind eye to it. But the end result is to push up subscription prices to University libraries, and make academic research available only to those who can afford it. Ultimately it is students who pay the price in fees which fund thousands of journals which are rarely read.

Given that publication is available to everyone, why do these status networks still revolve around journals? Why have we not seen online communities of scholars willing to read and critique each others' work in detail? The blogosphere currently does something like this, but most of the reading is cursory and blog posts are not papers. But it seems to me that the establishment of friendly networks of scholars who are willing to read and critique papers and advance their sciences in a more open discussion that currently takes places within journals.

There are now other sources of status in the online world. One of them is the world of Open-source software. There there is genuine technical advancement and discourse completely free from from any commercial publisher. One of the interesting things about open source software organisations like Apache is that it is a different medium for the communication of ideas: one that wouldn't fit easily into the pages of an academic journal, but whose ideas (and the status of those who have the ideas) still has impact. As academics explore the affordances of new media, other ways of expressing ideas are become available which can subvert the traditional patterns of publication. One of the most interesting phenomena I have witnessed recently is the impact of R packages (for use in the statistical programming environment). These are accompanied with papers detailing the use of those packages.

So maybe we should worry less about journals: we should look to new forms of academic expression, new media and new networks. If only the government research assessment framework was as awake to the pathologies of publishers which it itself exacerbates.

Friday 20 December 2013

Knowledge Economy and Universities: Convenient Fiction?

Are we emerging out of the crisis in our so-called knowledge economy? Are we starting to have ideas again? Are our Universities, having been marketised successfully (?!) now going to lead us to world emancipation?

Without suggesting that we're 'out of the woods' in UK HE, things do seem to be a bit calmer in my institution at least. However, there is a strange unease hanging over the entire sector; a feeling that something fundamental has changed. And it's everywhere from Cambridge to Cumbria. It isn't merely fallout from the economic crisis. There are so many dimensions to the current state of things. In UK universities, the REF (research assessment exercise) for example, has been almost universally dreadful in providing managers or (in some cases) fellow scholars a means to settle personal scores, or remove 'under-performing' academics: what nonsense that is - we should be very careful lest we jettison a Higgs (as Higgs himself explained http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/06/peter-higgs-boson-academic-system) or a Darwin (peer review would have killed his ideas straight!). I wouldn't have thought that would be very good for a knowledge economy!

The academic world seems to demand greater noisiness, greater attention-seeking (but often thoughtless) publications, greater attention to bureaucratic targets (which never make sense), and increasing constraints on the capacity for teachers to do the right thing in their teaching with the students that they have. And for students, the constraints are ramping up: fees are just the start; but nobody told them about the regulations which they will fall foul of at some point, or the fact that an increasing proportion of their money will contribute towards inflated managerial salaries and grandiose development projects which they themselves will not see the benefits of.  Alarmingly, education appears to be acquiring the pathological bad habits of the Catholic Church. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. But neither should we be surprised when Martin Luther pops up!

What happened to us? Basically, the crisis - in the economy at large and in education - is a story of hubris, greed and apathy. The hubris centred around the rhetoric of the 'knowledge economy' and the role of education in it. "We must have more graduates!" the cry went up. "Education! Education! Education!" said Blair. Why? Because, we are told, the economy is increasingly dynamic: the job for life is over (unless you're an academic, of course!). We should be training and retraining - always on the move; always on our toes; always anxiously looking at the international competition (and learning Chinese). Despite some of my academic work being closely related to the concept of 'knowledge economy', I have to confess I don't know what it is. It seems to me that in any economy, ideas and communication are important. Political freedoms and increased communications may well oil the wheels for spreading ideas (if ideas are spread by wheels!), but deep down, we have always lived within the constraints of what we know. The fact that knowledge is unevenly spread in society creates the dynamic whereby individuals seek to spread their ideas. What a strange world it would be if every innovation was conceived by every mind at the same time!

But an 'economy' of knowledge? It seems to be an economy of money, rights and obligations, markets, families, dreams, etc - just like any other economy. We might think that information is playing a bigger role in our lives than it once did. But when asked "what is information?" we cannot answer in a satisfactorily coherent way. There is no coherent understanding of information.

Our obsession with 'knowledge economy' is symptomatic of our obsession with information technology. Yet, as with most things that information technology touches, it's fundamental effect is one of shining a new light onto something old. The old thing that technology shines a light on is "economics" itself. "Knowledge economy" - whilst it might wish to present a new "economic model" (whatever that is!) - is really a label that we give to this new light on economics which reveals (more than anything else) that we weren't that sure what an economy was in the first place (in fact all the greatest economists really concern themselves with this question: what is this thing called economics?)

Economics is an academic discipline. It is taught in Universities. Some (two in the UK) of those Universities are centres of power: world politicians of the future pass through their doors, soak up ideas, formulate them into policies and then go to Westminster or some other government to implement them. But economics is about everyday life of everybody. Yet 'everybody' is largely excluded from economic discussions amongst academics. At a recent meeting in Cambridge I asked a one of the participants "this is all very well, but we are all quite clever people. Yet we are talking about everybody else... and everybody else isn't here!" I don't think he understood me, which I found illuminating and a bit worrying.

Economics itself is a body of ideas, egos, courses, institutions, policies. Keynes was right about the impact of "defunct economists" on the future of the world. But what abstract and fundamentally exclusive nonsense is in their heads! And what a cosy conspiratorial relationship with powerful educational institutions! Economists will have comfortable careers writing books about everybody else. Meanwhile the education system feeds off their 'celebrity status' (cue a Nobel prize or two!) to entice students (and their fees) within their hallowed walls.

What does our technological torch tell us? Perhaps it is that we are (and always have been) constrained by information. We don't know how that works, but we know that it's a pretty fundamental mechanism that underpins the way that money, markets and education all work. Education promises a way of negotiating the constraints of information. Yet it rarely delivers this to those who were already heavily constrained before they started. The middle class kids who succeed may attribute their increased flexibility of choice to education, but it is likely to have happened anyway irrespective of whether they went to University or not.

The technological torch is a kind of 'negative light'. It illuminates that which isn't there, but which constrains perception of what is there. When we see and talk about 'knowledge economy', when we see and create 'education for all', we are operating within constraints that cause us to see those things. I know of a VC in a UK institution who recently asked a group of managers why they felt he'd made a particular decision. A good question! But a better one would have been why he didn't make any different decision. The answer to that would have been because he was constrained by his own ideas, preferences, personal history, prejudice - just as we all are.

It is not unassailable logic which determines that economists see a knowledge economy and the need for expanding education. It is the constraints presented by the convenience of "expanding education" that prevent them from seeing anything else. Veblen (and Bataille) would say the whole thing is essentially archaic. The negative light of technology is a way of revealing and questioning the irrationality of what we believe to be rational positions.

Thursday 12 December 2013

Segregation and the International Business Model of Universities

The train-crash interview with the head of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge on BBC Radio 4 this morning is symptomatic of the sheer confusion Universities find themselves in (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25331877). Caught between temptation to capitalize of rich international pickings, and concern about their own financial viability, Universities have embedded themselves within countries whose cultural values are very different to our own, but whose oil wealth, or wealth from other sources (including political corruption) entrances Vice Chancellors like the Siren song of the Lorelei. There are few academics, myself included, who have not been caught up or affected by these kind of initiatives.

As institutions which stand for truth, Universities are attractive partners for politically deficient regimes. And we should be clear than any culture that demands the segregation of men and women, or sanctions persecution on the basis of sexual orientation, or maintains unrepresentative forms of government is politically deficient. There are degrees of this, and we are all sullied at one level. But some of us can talk, think, campaign and write about it freely, and the place to do that is in the University.

Deeply deficient political regimes want legitimacy (thanks are due to a friend for really nailing this). University partnerships give them legitimacy. But in doing so, the Money God wins over the Truth God, and the legitimacy of the University is compromised. The current battle over segregation is not about religion. It is about political legitimacy for illegitimate regimes, and the threat to legitimacy to those institutions which we look to to maintain civil society.

The corrupting force, as always, is money (actually, it's sometimes sex, but that probably boils down to money too!). We need to understand what money does to truth: we're now seeing some powerful evidence (and perhaps we should welcome it). The segregation is not caused by some religious doctrine; it is caused by money. Money splits, compartmentalises, excludes, cuts. Truth loves, embraces, heals. We need to look at where  the education system increasingly is seeking to split, compartmentalise, exclude and cut society. It is these acts which we must oppose and ask ourselves how a University can love, embrace and heal and not grant legitimacy to those who seek the opposite.

Monday 9 December 2013

University Brands Behaving Badly

If one wanted evidence of a particular kind of naivety in University management today, one wouldn't have to look much further than the University of London's knee-jerk policy-making regarding student protests (see http://www.channel4.com/news/university-of-london-student-protest-ban-senate-house-occupy) What's going on here? What's the calculation on the part of management that they think this kind of action will be beneficial to them?

Universities have become extraordinarily 'image conscious' recently. This partly is a reflection on those who lead them: the 'boss' must look good, and since the bosses of educational institutions are largely unaccountable their vanity translates directly into institutional policy. The great fear is that in a highly competitive international market, a brand tarnished by protest will cause next year's students not to come, sponsors to turn their back, and research grants to be awarded elsewhere. So, basically, the mantra is that the brand must be protected at all costs.

Brands regularly get into trouble. Apple's problems in their manufacturing plants in China, or clothing brands use of overseas sweatshop workers all pose serious problems for those businesses. Boycotts are bad news. However, whilst the practices of these organisations remain pretty dreadful, businesses have to respond to ethical concerns. Increasingly ethics has become a major issue for business; ethical failure can kill a business - particularly where ethical failure can be seen to lead to catastrophic operational failures (BP is the classic example here, but failures in the banks are also attributable to ethical failures).

How to respond to a threat to the brand is an art - and it is an art that Universities seem rather poor at. The problem with London's banning of student protest is that it makes their situation worse. Any brand is really a 'risk creation' exercise: it demarcates something desirable that some people can associate themselves with providing they pay, are clever enough, or high-status enough to do so. Brands are typically exclusive, maintaining their exclusion on price; Universities maintain their exclusion on accessibility.

There are many branded products we buy where the initial risk of owning the brand introduces new risks: the iPhone presents us with the risks of owning the latest (branded) apps; the new games console introduces new risks of owning the latest games, etc. Universities introduce a plethora of new risks: the risk of failure, the risk of exclusion; financial risk; the risk of irrelevance or uselessness. Once a student agrees to the initial risk of joining the institution, they cannot escape the other risks. Unfortunately, this could give the University a license to do whatever it likes with the students: they could take the majority of their fees to fund vanity projects, or trips for senior managers overseas, and students wouldn't be able to do anything about it. More than that, Universities can now threaten to exclude or otherwise discipline (even legally sanction) students who voice concern at their own exploitation. What does this do to the brand?

Subtle contradictions can work for brands (that's how Apple survives!). But a contradiction which becomes patently obvious to everyone, where everyone can laugh at it, is a different matter. The University of London will no doubt extol the virtues of freedom of speech whilst clearly suppressing it in their own back yard. The danger is that this obvious contradiction 'toxifies' the brand - the message goes out loud and clear: "they are not to be trusted". A degree at the University of London becomes tantamount to acquiescence in student oppression.

The deep problem here is not just with the University of London. It is with the divide that has now emerged between Universities as businesses creating the risks of 'not having a degree' and the actual learning needs of a free and democratic society. Universities as businesses will seek their viable operation through this kind of behaviour, undermining their own legitimacy.

Ironically, I don't think "student fees" are the problem - it is, after all, just another form of tax. But what is urgent is the need to rethink the social contract between the needs of society and the learning needs of individuals. Few people in University management are thinking about the needs of society: their focus is on maintaining their own fiefdoms. We might hope that the backlash from the actions of the University of London may take us closer to changing this.

Friday 6 December 2013

Branding and Status among Universities and the Latest Reforms to Student Number Controls

To create a brand (whether you are Apple, Microsoft, Cambridge University or Manchester United) is to create the risk of not being associated with the brand. The level of risk created is to be measured against the communities within which individuals seek to maintain their identity and status. To children, the brand of trainers matters among their peers; the pressure to help children maintain status then falls on parents (particularly at Christmas) - who will seek to maintain their own status with their children. By these forces, which are fundamentally interpersonal and deeply associated with attachments, communities, love and identity, the economics of capitalism rolls on - even when people appear to have run out of money. Inevitably, the running out of money merely feeds new economic cycles of attempting to maintain the appearance of having money, where its sources become increasingly murky and dangerous. Enter Wonga-woman (or man!).

The risks that are created by the branding of universities are particularly interesting. Nothing is more of a 'risk game' than education (even insurance!). Degrees are a risk-manufacturing operation in themselves: as Illich says, they create failure - the risk of not having a degree. The demarcation of programmes on the curriculum creates risks of not being qualified for particular areas of employment (the MBA is most fascinating here!). Assignment deadlines and examinations feed on these risks as mechanisms of institutional compliance for effective operation. Now the funding game adds to the pre-existing network of risk manufacture. At one level, this is like any other form of risk-creation: one pays to mitigate risk. Middle class parents will pay by sending their children to the private schools and tutors that teach the children to mitigate the risks of the assessment regime. The poor and exploited families however are left exposed to a disproportionately large number of risks which they are unable to mitigate through payment or capability. The State education system can do its best to help children manage the risks of education and life (it does a far better and more efficient job than its private counterpart), but it often finds itself fighting a losing battle as families attract more and more threats to their viability.

The risk of "not having a degree" is relatively new. The level of the risk is proportional to the number of people who are exposed to it. There was a dramatic increase in the risk level with the widening participation agenda in education: if 50% of the population have degrees, that creates a bigger risk of not having one. The Chancellor's announcement of the removal of caps on university recruitment clearly indicate that the education system is ramping-up for Wonga-style risk creation. There is a perverse economic rationale to this, and it does suggest that Ulrich Beck's social analysis is pretty close to the mark.

There comes a point where we should not think of education as 'opportunity'. It is potentially a threat to those who are least able to mitigate the risks they are exposed to in education. These, typically, are the least-able students who find themselves increasingly vulnerable without a degree, but equally at risk in being exposed to pathological processes of educational institutions. They do not have the choice of wealthy middle-class kids who went to 'crammers' to get them into Durham or Manchester. They have few choices about where they go to study - ending up in institutions that aim to 'widen participation'. The more those particular institutions (which include my own) aim to become like elites (and create risks in line with the elites), so the risks mount up on students. It's not so much the risk of failure (most widening participation institutions desparately try to help their students succeed). It's more the risk of continued "impoverishment of spirit", the risk to personal confidence and the financial risk in the face of a style of education which doesn't work for them. It barely works in Cambridge, but it cannot work with the diversity of students faced by widening participation institutions. And yet even these institutions will seek to emulate those institutions which they see as being 'better' than them (and about which they often have little knowledge or experience).

What happens here? Why does every institution want to become like Cambridge?

It's branding again. Brands are a hierarchy - and the branding and status of institutions plays with the minds of Vice-Chancellors. Institutional league tables become a spin-off industry in the risk manufacture game as organisations like the Times Higher Educational Supplement try to set themselves up as academic 'Credit rating agencies'. Cambridge creates the risk of institutions not being Cambridge - a message reinforced by these other industries. What do institutions (and their VCs) do? They want to say "but we are Cambridge!". How do they defend their 'being Cambridge'? By attempting to emulate Cambridge's "prestige" - at least in a few academic areas - attempting to be something they are not - buying academics with lots of publications (even if nobody has actually read them), establishing 'glamour' courses, deriding staff who are deemed not to fit the "future vision". Who funds it all? The students that the aspiring University says it doesn't want any more!

We mustn't do this - its ethics are deeply troubling, and I believe the moral difficulties will eventually catch up with us. We must recognise the dangers our education system poses to the poorest sections of our society. We must recognise that those institutions which open their doors to disadvantaged students are potentially malevolent in their well-meaningness. We will open our doors smiling at the "opportunity" we are providing to disadvantaged students; we will pay our salaries with students' fees (which many will be repaying after we are dead); but we will shrug our shoulders if those students do not benefit from the degree which we will try to ensure they get (so as to retain them) all along using their money to attract 'better students' and become like Cambridge. This is unforgiveable.

The education industry and the economy surrounding it is a radical (and potentially pathological) new way of organising society - it is not a natural evolution of some prior state of nature of education in the past. It is a way of managing the 'time-bombs' that each human individual potentially is now that other methods (like mass industrial employment) have gone. We need new kinds of institutions and new kinds of educational practices. Most importantly, we need to renegotiate the contract between the needs of society and the learning needs of individuals. The nascent market in education cannot deliver this - it will only deliver pathological institutional reproduction. The job requires vision and leadership not just by government but by Vice-Chancellors.

Politicians will believe all they need to do is twiddle with the attenuators on the system they believe to be real (e.g. student number caps). They may get away with it for their political term (and feel rather smug). But we should fear the consequences for institutions and society when the ontological failure of the political vision becomes apparent.