24 April 2008

Philippe Corcuff on French university reforms

By Kees van der Pijl

In Le Monde, Saturday 19 April 2008, there was a verbatim report of a debate on the need for reform of French society that included a significant part on universities reform.

Of course, 'reform' these days is a code word for deepening capitalist market discipline on every aspect of social life, and three of the four participants in the debate obviously took this understanding of the term for granted. The two politicians taking part, Xavier Bertrand for the presidential party UMP, and François Hollande for the Socialists, agreed on the need for reform; no need to repeat the generalities they exchanged. The insert with graphs and figures accompanying the article, showing that 55 per cent of all French people consider that 'reform' in the last fifteen years has mainly benefited 'the privileged' had apparently not been shown to them, or else they did not consider it relevant.

The most interesting debate was between Jacques Attali, a former associate of François Mitterrand, and a sociologist, Philippe Corcuff. Attali has headed a committee 'for the liberation of growth'. This report, according to its chair's contribution to this discussion, has established that the state in France functions to preserve a system of rentes de situation, rents appropriated on account of economic or social position (other than profitable enterprise). Basically Attali says that the welfare state still persists in France and that this gives people entitlements which should be stripped away to match what is happening in neighbouring countries such as Britain.

Corcuff challenged this idea All the talk of 'rents', he said, is simply meant to create a climate in which people's entitlements can be taken away, in a situation where the top 10 percent of the population already owns 46 percent of national wealth. Since 1982, the share of wages in the French economy has fallen by ten percentage points.

About the universities, Attali claimed that his committee's proposals concerning higher education have gone down well with everybody. The idea of creating ten top universities for instance, 'without devaluing the others'—the standard phrase to cover the obvious objection. Again no apparent awareness that this links in directly with growing inequality; the upper class, increasingly separate from the rest of society, also wants its own route through higher education.

Corcuff had valid points on this issue too. He noted that there is already widespread discontent about the new universities law (loi Pécresse). This law, he argued, is not the ultraliberal law as many claim, because the universities remain in the public domain. Instead the law has been passed under the pressure of university presidents, and under the aegis of 'autonomy' in fact turns universities into feudal institutions. University presidents, he noted, are those who have abandoned research and teaching and who as a result have little or no standing in either field. It is a shocking thought that such people are given the sovereign power of hiring academics and evaluating careers. This caste of university bureaucrats has been greatly strengthened by the loi Pécresse, which turns them into a sort of company managers. But research and higher education are not products like soap, they are public goods, Corcuff maintained. What the current university reform does in the name of autonomy, is to reinforce localism, clientelism, and bureaucratic arbitrariness.

One would think that what is happening in France has some striking similarities with what is going on in British higher education. The notion of exchanging professionalism for loyalty to institutions (led by managers who in spite of academic titles have little or no standing as professionals in most cases), is indeed a form of feudalism. It represents a sharp break with the idea that an intellectual's status is ultimately decided by a professional community which today is global, and that a good university tries to bring those with established reputations to its own institution and ensures that they flourish there . By creating an appropriate environment, such a university will also ensure that new generations of researchers and teachers are raised to the same level and that students get the best education possible. This is a matter of civilisation and something worth fighting for.

Kees van der Pijl
International Relations, Sussex


08 April 2008

The discourse of marketisation

By Charles Owen

I am one of the people quoted by John Gill in his THES article on 30 November 2007. He asked me specifically about two passages from a HEFCE Board Paper:

'To implement the outcome of this rethinking, there will need to be significant culture change. HEIs' staff will need to be more aware of and aligned to the strategic needs of the HEI. Academics' goals are often related to their discipline rather than their institution and they will need to develop institutional loyalties in addition to discipline loyalties. Corporate planning processes will need to be communicated more effectively for those processes to be more successful.'


'HEIs will need to develop their business process and become more efficient, so that they can re-invest. The Committee advises that HEIs should not be afraid of the language and culture of business.'

A precis of my comments to Mr Gill is:

"In a sense they are right, there is a big culture clash between the language of business and the way most academics view their lives.

"But as to the thesis we shouldn't be afraid of that language, that's highly presumptuous; many people dislike it but that's a quite different matter because it's often hollow and has all sorts of presuppositions built into it that we academics don't accept.

"There are big problems with language and communication within Higher Education institutions, but the language of business has colonised universities in an unacceptable and divisive way.

"The use of the word loyalty is corporate speak. Very few of us went into academic life to be loyal to a particular institution, and that is as it should be.

"We recognise that if the institution succeeds then everyone gains, but our primary duty is to our students and our discipline."

It is thus with some interest that I read the guidance in Leeds Met ACTs Source Booklet, referred to in Alexandre Borovik's last contribution to this blog. It confirms that I am just the sort of person they wouldn't want.

I am a linguist, and my concern is that the discourse of marketisation is interfering with independent thought and obfuscating serious issues of educational policy. But in this message I particularly want to consider the democracy challenge posed in an earlier comment by Frankie:

"I think it is crucial that there is discussion on the connection between the expansion of the undergraduate body at universities in the last 20 years and the marketisation of the same institutions.

"Another related point is about whether the desire to contest the university as yet another wealth creation unit in society highlights a marked lack of concern for the real proletariat who have long had to suffer working in purely wealth creation units."

I am not the first to note that it is an error to suppose that recent trends in marketisation amount to democratisation. There is much evidence to the contrary, and university management discourse is part of that evidence.

Consider a term such as 'stakeholders'. This is the kind of word which permeates university management discourse and you might think it has a democratic ring to it. I certainly had no trouble finding it in the section of the Leeds Met document entitled "More Effective Behaviours". These behaviours (note the use of the plural to garnish the word with spurious technical status) are categorised under headings such as "Working co-operatively with others" and "Building meaningful relationships and networks". A senior employee, must, under the first of these be:

"Able to pull various stakeholders together to agree course of action and achieve goals."

and under the second must:

"Build rapport by displaying empathy, tact and diplomacy with internal colleagues and external stakeholders."

My question is: 'Does the embellishment of common-sense and decency with pseudo-technical management mumbo-jumbo represent a great stride forward in university governance since the 1970s?' I doubt it.

From a practical point of view, "stakeholders" may now be so deep-rooted in our discourse (not in mine actually) that it is pointless to complain, but don't delude yourselves that these shadowy flag-carriers of democracy truly represent the great British public. Rather, they are a sharp-suited, self-interested sub-set thereof.

The irony is that this sub-set excludes some of the very people it ought to include - my office cleaner for example. In a society which believed in the universal social importance of universities, instead of focussing primarily on 'wealth creation', this man would be a stakeholder because he needs his grand-daughter to be taught punctuation by a well-trained English graduate so that she can in her turn go on to study English if that's want she wants. But in our society, stakeholders are primarily wealth-controllers, i.e. politicians, employers, funding bodies (preferably foreign governments) students with money "to invest in their futures" and parents of same. Who is more likely to serve the interests of the proletariat (as Frankie puts it)? Someone who can pull stakeholders together or someone with an interest in their academic discipline and a commitment to teach it to all-comers?

Corporate discourse, as it has colonised higher education, with its "stakeholder relations managers", "best practice implementation", "policy roll-outs", "light touch reviews", "effective and efficient strategy development" - indeed the whole dreary and deceptive lexicon - tacitly excludes the very people it pretends to include, and alienates many whose inboxes are poisoned with it daily. In this way it is far more hypocritical than the specialist jargons of academic disciplines, which do not claim to be instantly or easily accessible but, unlike corporate discourse, must continually undergo the rigours of critical analysis in order to survive.

Charles Owen
Department of English
University of Birmingham


05 April 2008

Loyalty to corporation, services to customers

By Alexandre Borovik

HEFCE wants from staff loyalty. From an article by John Gill in THES, 30 Nov 2007:

A report from the Leadership, Governance and Management Strategic Committee of the Higher Education Funding Council for England says that the sector is "on the cusp of substantial and complex change" and calls for staff to adopt new attitudes.

It says: "Staff will need to be more aware of and aligned to the strategic needs of the higher education institution.

Academics' goals are often related to their discipline rather than their institution, and they will need to develop institutional loyalties in addition to discipline loyalties."

It also warns universities not to be "afraid" of the language and culture of business, and says that managerial leadership is not valued or rewarded highly enough.

So, the new corporate mentality of universities make them love loyalty and demand loyalty from their staff.

But it is widely accepted that a person's answers to the question "What you do not like?" provide more insights into his/her personality than answers to a positively charged question "What do you like?" Let us apply the same approach to universities and see what they do not like.

A case study is provided by the Leeds Metropolitan University's programme document "Leeds Met ACTS: Attitude, Character & Talents" for its new staff performance development system, see Leeds Met ACTs Source Booklet. Staff attitudes are divided in two groups: More Effective Behaviours and Less Effective Behaviours. It is the Less Effective Behaviours list that is interesting. A few gems:

Does not accept the concept of "customer" or "service user"
Does not demonstrate respect for rules, regulations and procedures
Does not prepare written or verbal communication effectively for meetings and other interactions
Does not engage with the Vision & Character of Leeds Met
Does not volunteer new ideas/suggestions for improvement
Sceptical about change – lets negative reaction to change affect morale of self and others
Fails to explain the need/reasons for change
Talks negatively about others and the university
Uses learning and development opportunities purely for own self development or recognition

We see the prominent role of the concept of "customer" or "service user". It is another key buzzword; I feel that it is directly linked to the loyalty issue.

Indeed, Lewis Elton's brief letter to THES ("Client not customer", 25 November 2005) contains a remarkably precise formulation:

Students are neither customers ("persons who buy"), nor consumers ("persons who purchase goods or services") - they are clients ("persons who seek the advice of a professional man or woman"). [...] (All quotes are from the Collins English Dictionary.)

If we accept that students are clients who seek the advice of a professional man or woman, we instantly recognise that the relations between a client and a professional are regulated by professional codices controlled by a wider professional community. You cannot just come to a solicitor, hand her money and dictate what she has to do for you -- a solicitor's primary responsibility is compliance with the law and extensive professional regulations. Similarly, you cannot come to GP and demand a prescription -- it is a doctor's duty to decide what is best for you on the basis of his experience and, again, norms of his profession.

In my humble opinion, only loyalty to their disciplines and their communities makes academics what they are. In the present disputes about the future of academia, we have to insist that we are professionals, that only the peer review and peer control of professional communities ensures both rigour of research and high standards of education -- and, of course, we have to insist that students are our clients. Moreover, it is crucial for survival of universities that some of our students become our disciples and absorb the ethics norms of our communities.

HEFCE wants to de-professionalise university staff by cutting their connections to professional communities and professional networks.

It could be part of a wider picture: anecdotal evidence suggests an increasingly hostile stance of the Government towards learned societies. But this is a serious issue which has to be properly discussed on its own.

Disclaimer. Should I remind you that my views are mine alone and not those of my employer, or of any professional organisation, or anyone else, for that matter?

Alexandre Borovik (Mathematics, Manchester)
Reposted from his blog Managerialism in Academia


03 April 2008


By Gordon Finlayson

Thanks Andrew for setting up this blog. It is vital that we raise these issues, and we need a place where we can do this.

A word on economic impact.

One thing that we should bear in mind is that even if the only value of Higher education were its economic impact (which is untrue, but this is another matter) there is a great deal that can be said about the economic value of teaching and research in the Humanities, that is not currently being said.

It seems obvious from documents such as the White Paper, and the Science and Innovation Investment Framework, and I have heard this confirmed by various moles with their ears close to Government, that there is a belief that the Universities are not paying their way, that the Government has not seen a return on its investment in Universities, that they are funding too much research that is without economic value. Hence the move to include "stakeholders" (i.e. Government and business people) on the Research Councils to encourage funding of projects with high economic impact.

But what is the real economic impact of the output of research intensive universities in the Arts and Humanities? And how would one measure this? Unless the government has a pretty firm idea of what the economic impact is already, and has been for the last ten years or so, presumably it cannot know if its new policy is having the desired effect.

I have not seen any plausible figures on this. What is the combined economic value of the skills, acquired by Arts and Humanities graduates and post-graduates in the course of their higher education, over a life time of work, at research intensive Universities? I would like to know what the government figures are, and how they arrive at their calculations.

The AHRC, which is, of course, anxious to show the Government that it is delivering economic impact, gives the numbers of Ph.D students flowing into the labour market, in its 2008 Delivery Plan, mentions a PricewaterhouseCooper audit (Case study on economic impact of research grant Polynesian Visual Arts: meanings and histories in Pacific and European cultural contexts. PricewaterhouseCoopers 2006), and cites another highly exceptional case study:

"Economic Impact Case Study - AHRC Research on recycled glass for structural and aesthetic applications led to a new product, TTURA that is used in public art works and is sold to the construction industry for worktops and flooring. According to PwC, the economic impact of this research includes a projected Gross Value Added from sales of TTURA in the range of £2.4m to £3.2m over 25 years and projected licensing income from intellectual property ranging from £530k to £930k over 25 years."

(Yes this is the AHRC! And it wants the exception to become the rule.)

One might reasonably infer from this that the Government is in fact pressurising the Research Councils to increase funding to research projects with a likely demonstrable economic benefit, because among other things the Government and the AHRC are part of a target culture, and for various reasons need to be able to show that they have increased (sorry, delivered a step change in) economic impact. But 1. their measures of economic impact are extremely crude, and 2. anyway increasing demonstrable (and auditable) economic impact is not the same thing as increasing economic impact. A policy that results in an increase in the former might lead to a decline in the latter.

So among the questions we should ask are these:

Is government policy going to make studying arts and humanities disciplines more attractive to the best foreign post-graduate students, than it currently is? If it has the opposite effect, what will be the economic impact on Universities?

Will one of the effects of ring-fencing large sums of money for Government strategic research priorities end up funneling academics and (Research-themed Universities) towards these lucrative areas?

Will that, in turn, lead to a decline in quality of research (and research led teaching) in other areas? What will the economic effect of that be?

What will the effects of this be on the disciplines of the Humanities?

Interdisciplinarity versus Lone Scholar Research

I'm not against interdisciplinary research where it can be done, and where there is reason to think it might be fruitful. But one hears all the time now (from government and other sages), that the days of lone scholars is over and that all the most important research is done by crews of interdisciplinary researchers. One reason that lone scholar research might be in decline (if it is) is that the effect of government policy is to make it more difficult. And one reason that much important research in the arts and humanities is being done by large crews of interdisciplinary researchers (if it is) is that the government has put in place large financial incentives, which have of course generated interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects. What the long to medium term effects of these incentives are going to be, is a good question. They will certainly change behaviour of academics. Economists know that financial incentives generate rent-seeking activity. Whether this is leading the research agenda in the right direction, it is too early to tell. No congratulations are in order yet. Let us wait and have a look at the results (deliveries) of these projects in 10 years time.

Still no amount of hand waving towards Government funded interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects will persuade me that the model of the lone scholar, driven by intellectual curiosity, is not an entirely appropriate and fruitful one for most humanities disciplines. Come to that, all the best interdisciplinary research I have read in the last ten years - whether by Habermas, Thomas Franck, or T. J. Clark - has been by, guess what, lone scholars. And so far as I can see, in most if not all Humanities disciplines, the best Universities continue to publish high quality single authored monographs. Are they living in the past, one wonders?