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Academic Darwinism: the (logical) end of the Dawkins era.

In July The Australian reported that the salaries of vice-chancellors were edging closer to those of the corporate world, with some packages topping a million dollars a year. (1) Academics might ruefully recall when vice-chancellors were considered part of academic staff, whereas today it seems that to compare the remuneration of VCs with CEOs in the 'private sector' is largely unproblematic. In the Australian article, if any distinction was to be made between universities and private corporations, it was made ever so modestly, with one senior academic referring to the university as part of the 'non-profit sector'. That such comparisons can be made is indicative of the degree to which the idea of the university has been supplanted by business norms, and how 'knowledge' has increasingly become another commodity.

Mark Olssen and Michael Peters write that 'after the culture wars of the 1990s will be the education wars, a struggle ... over the meaning and value of knowledge'. (2) Yet there seems little evidence so far that such a war will be fought with the vigour and tenacity of the culture wars. This is not to say that academics have been entirely passive over the corporatization of the university. There have been pockets of resistance and isolated critique. So far, however, any kind of systemic resistance to what amounts to a wholesale reconstruction of the university has not occurred. This can be attributed partly to the climate of precariousness in which many academics faced the possibility of redundancy. However, it is the enhanced status of 'knowledge' within the high-tech neo-liberal economy that has undermined the public and critical role of the university. While once the university stood apart from the society it framed and interpreted, it now stands in direct competition with a society made over in its image: a technologically enhanced knowledge-driven form of the social whose commitment to ceaseless innovation and commodity creation leaves the university little ground on which to stand apart, or to defend more traditional values.

The increased 'relevance' and expansion of the university sector has been based on the shift from manual to intellectual forms of labour. Knowledge, increasingly regarded as a set of skills for use in the high-tech society, was, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, welcomed by many as a means of invigorating the university, making it a key player in the new economy. If the university was caught between its traditional role as a public-oriented institution with the means to critically reflect and interpret society and its emerging role as a generator of knowledge for the high-tech economy, this contradiction was managed (or reconciled) by many in the wake of the expansion of institutions, the increased number of students, and the apparent overthrow of the elite nature of university education.

The increasingly reductive catchphrases concerning the importance of knowledge--from the 'knowledge society', to the 'knowledge economy', to the more contemporary 'knowledge capitalism'--reveal that this balancing act was not sustainable. Having embraced the tenets of neo-liberalism (outsourcing, privatization), western governments 'found themselves as the major owners and controllers of the means of knowledge production in the new knowledge economy'. (3) This paradox has slowed the pace of transformation, or at least made it uneven. However, the introduction of student fees and vocational courses, the pressure to commercialize research, and the increasingly baroque systems of accountability for teaching and research have now stretched the model of expanded higher education set up in Australia and the United Kingdom in the 1980s to a point of unsustainability.

In this context the address made to the National Press Club in June by University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis is significant. (4) As a leading member of the 'Group of Eight', a self-styled group of elite universities within the Australian context, Davis' remarks carry significant weight. He began by fully embracing the climate of neo-liberal reform, listing the widespread economic 'benefits' of abandoning 'old patterns of public ownership and regulation'. The reconstitution of public institutions and services within a market paradigm had been successful, causing Davis to ask why similar reform ought not to be applied to the university sector. The pressures of global competition, the need to create skills for the knowledge economy, all pressed a case for the government to deregulate universities. For Davis, this would restore something of the universities' 'autonomy': a freedom obtained through the market, as opposed to a more traditional idea of free inquiry outside of it.

Davis argued that it was widely accepted that the 'Dawkins era was over' and that universities needed to become more specialized and diverse. The current situation had left Australia with '36 universities with largely indistinguishable missions'. The solution to providing skills for the knowledge economy and remaining competitive in the global education marketplace, he said, involves specialization, deregulation and market-based regimes of 'choice' involving fee-paying students and less restriction on enrolments. Essentially, Davis was arguing for a much more unregulated approach to universities, letting the market decide, with governments providing 'block' funding to prop up some essential services. It is here that the 'end' of the Dawkins era should be taken to mean not merely its passing, but also its logical outcome. The privileging of a certain mode of intellectual practice--instrumental, market-orientated contributions to the knowledge economy, the legitimizing concept behind the expansion of the tertiary sector--has come back to bite that sector as full reign is given to market imperatives. Other modalities of knowledge, as well as the practices and social relationships that underscored them, have been undermined or have lost their legitimizing force.

Given this, it was curious that at the end of his robust embrace of market principles in education, Davis seemed concerned to emphasize his 'deep and abiding commitment to education'. He also apologized for not using the forum to discuss 'the fundamental joy of learning and teaching, ideas and research'. Unfortunately 'the moment required' that greater emphasis be placed on reform. This sudden eruption of the repressed--that what is most fundamental is learning, teaching and ideas--amidst the desire for comprehensive neo-liberal reform, reveals a set of fundamental tensions within the contemporary university. What kinds of learning and teaching survive within this new framework? Are they able to exist outside of the instrumentalism of knowledge capitalism--something suggested by Davis' emphasis on the 'fundamental joy' of education? And what of the prior cultural and social importance of the university as an institution able to reflect critically upon its society? What value is placed on the survival of this kind of (non-instrumental) knowledge within the new, wholly deregulated environment? This is a very different kind of autonomy from the market freedoms desired by the University of Melbourne, amongst others.

Davis' remarks were made in the context of a larger discussion paper released by the 'Group of Eight' entitled Seizing the Opportunities: Designing New Policy Architecture for Higher Education and University Research. (5) At nearly seventy pages, this paper sets out to overhaul the way in which Australian universities are governed and funded. Underpinning the proposals for change is the need to 'unleash Australia's intellectual potential in the globalising knowledge society'. (6) According to the report this is only achievable through diversifying the higher education sector and clarifying the role and purpose of each institution. Major proposals include the establishment of a Tertiary Education Commission as an independent agency to oversee future planning, resource allocation and regulation; 'student-driven higher education', where universities would be free to charge fees and enrol as many student as demand allows; and a greater investment in research funding and in research students in order to stimulate a more productive research culture. Research would be carefully measured on a regular basis according to a 'metrics' system that would determine both research quality and output, and the allocation of resources.

Seizing the Opportunities represents the boldest attempt to reshape the organization of higher education since Dawkins' reforms of the 1980s. In some ways its aims are attractive: to release universities from the burden of centralized control and over-regulation while at the same time creating a more vibrant research culture. In a context where many universities severely lack funding and are excessively governed, the Group of Eight proposal may resonate with some sectors. Indeed the proposal contains language that many academics want to hear: a greater commitment to research, the maintenance of academic freedom, a commitment to standards, the importance of 'basic' research, and the support of communities of scholars. However, two things are worth pointing out. Firstly, within the neo-liberal framework embraced by Davis and the rest of the Group of Eight, any commitment to diversity also ushers in a competitive environment where institutions must compete aggressively for students, research funding, commercial partnerships and sponsorship. In such an environment, research 'quality' and the 'identity' of any university will inevitably be measured through reference to auditing systems: international league tables, research assessments, ranking of publications and so on. Secondly, the possibility of Olsen and Peter's 'education wars'--the struggle over the meaning of knowledge--is foreclosed in a competitive environment where audit cultures measure the value of knowledge. Only very specific kinds of knowledge are visible within this framework.

As universities seize upon knowledge to legitimize themselves as drivers of the new economy, they compete with each other in ways very different to the older and more intangible measures of 'reputation' that were created over time. Instead 'reputations' can now be benchmarked, projected, planned for over a five-year period, and visibly 'improved' though the audit culture of neo-liberalism. (7) But the new means of value-creation through auditing is arbitrary, revealed in the ever-changing methods used to measure research quality. The Australian government is currently moving towards a system largely based on the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), to be called the 'Research Quality Framework (RQF). The United Kingdom has announced that it is scrapping this system, after nearly two decades, replacing it by a 'metrics' approach based upon citation counting, journal impact factors, grant money obtained and the like. This system, yet to be fully developed, is favoured by both the Australian Labor Party and the authors of Seizing the Opportunities. Talk to academics today and you will find them attempting to predict how they should define themselves as researchers as they are forced to choose between 'quality' (RQF) or 'quantity' (metrics), depending on the outcome of the next election. The hold of the audit system has become so strong that, caught between these impossible options, academics are spending little or no time reflecting on the implications of the high-tech knowledge society to which they are being compelled to contribute.

The RAE (and the Australian RQF) involves ranking and measuring the publications of various departments or research 'clusters' so as to benchmark them against each other. Funding is distributed on the basis of ranking. In an era when funding for universities is apparently in crisis, it is ironic that this kind of data collection and measurement exercise involves the creation of a huge management and bureaucratic infrastructure. As Shore and Wright note in relation to the UK context, 'perversely for a system designed to promote cost-consciousness, the RAE generated unprecedented costs in terms of staff-time energy and stress'. (8) The destructive and counterproductive effects of the UK model have been well documented. In short, the exercise provided little measure of quality, demoralized staff by creating arbitrary competition and divisiveness in place of co-operation and collegiality, (9) and encouraged short-term, outcome-driven research at the expense of longer, more considered work. (10)

Furthermore, such exercises tend to redefine the nature of academic work and its role. One only has to witness the advertised jobs for RQF 'coaches' that are now appearing in Australian newspapers. They will assist research groups in defining the nature and purpose of the research undertaken; in short, help give the group its 'identity' in terms most likely to succeed in the RQF. This outsourcing of research identity further diminishes the autonomy of academics while at the same time framing knowledge entirely in terms of the logic of the audit. How are academics to reflect upon their own practices with respect to the wider culture if their own research is reshaped and packaged though the work of external consultants? The more the audit process attempts to define and measure the relative value of academic work in terms of output, the more such external definitions become necessary. The 'community of scholars' is undermined in a process where 'what is lost is the working assumption that despite their different trajectories, members of staff may be engaged on common purposes simply not captured in their research publications'. (11)

The metrics system proposed in the United Kingdom, and the projected policy of the Australian Labor Party, is viewed favourably because it appears to be more streamlined. As a statistical measure, the metrics approach will trace the impact of published papers or grant income earned. Superficially more objective, and easier to implement, this method of measuring research contains as many problems as the RAE (or the RQF). How effective can the measure of 'impact' be via citation counts and related techniques? How would one compare research in popular topics with less fashionable areas? Is a 'counting system' that encourages quantity (impact, citations) amenable to better research? Just to begin to address these questions would require a highly complex set of formulae and expert panels, no doubt leading back to the bureaucratic load of the RAE. More importantly, such quality audits obscure the huge changes that have occurred in scholarly publishing: the takeover of independent journals by transnational publishers; the move towards specialized and expensive journals over more broadly focused publications; the move to electronic publication; plus the fact that large publishers own many of the programs designed to gauge 'impact' and other forms of gate-keeping that occur through filtering software like CrossRef and journal-alerting systems. (12) These changes have reduced the scope and range of possible research so that broad-ranging, speculative and interpretative work--perhaps the work of a general, rather than specific intellectual--is often not found within the highly specialized, high-impact journals whose micro-debates have value to be sure, but which do not reflect upon or interpret the larger culture.

The expansion, renewed 'relevance' and diminished elite status of the contemporary university--a transformation once welcomed by the Left as much as the Right--could only arise when knowledge had ceased to operate in the more traditional mode of 'framing' and interpretative activity and plunged fully into a drive for innovation aimed squarely at the market. The indirect benefit of more traditional modes of knowledge, particularly in the humanities and pure sciences, could not acquire value within a neo-liberal framework. Hence the need for audit systems that, among other things, create artificial and fleeting forms of competitive value. The result is a culture of research audits that promote instrumental knowledge, teaching audits designed to promote 'skills' rather than specific content, and various league tables pitting colleagues and institutions against each other in a form of academic Darwinism. The contradictions that surround the 'emancipation' of knowledge are numerous and destructive, not merely to the university as an institution, but to the social as a whole.

The widespread recognition that audit cultures constitute arbitrary and inadequate forms of measurement, yet have real effects upon individuals and institutions, has widened the sense of cynicism experienced in the cultures of the intellectually trained. According to Paolo Virno, this is a significant phenomenon within information cultures:
 [C]ynicism is connected with the chronic instability of forms of
 life and linguistic games ... [A]t the basis of contemporary
 cynicism lies the fact that men and women first of all experience
 rules far more often than they experience concrete events. But to
 experience rules directly means also to recognise their
 conventionality and groundlessness. (13)


The deregulation of universities may lead to diversity, but it also leads to competition, the effects of which are to create precisely this kind of 'chronic instability' that can only erode the conditions of scholarly community. More significantly, the kind of 'innovative' knowledge now measured and privileged is itself contributing to the instability of forms of life across the social, as the flows of the knowledge economy--declaring older ways of being obsolete--compel subjects to continually upgrade, re-skill and acquire flexibility so as to function within ever-shifting environments.

Other modes of knowledge, such as the critical and culturally interpretative, the kind of knowledge able to question whether a commitment to the ceaseless innovation that drives knowledge capitalism is desirable or even sustainable, is marginalized in such a process. These alternative paradigms of knowledge, once sustained within humanities and social science departments, as well as in sections of the natural and pure sciences, are increasingly couched as merely residual forms of knowledge: markers of cultural distinction perhaps, or subject to the vagaries of federal funding. One only has to glance through Seizing the Opportunities to see the dominant emphasis on the techno-sciences as the source of value in the future university. Knowledge, and the universities' capacity to foster and develop it, is framed almost exclusively within a techno-scientific framework with a focus on productivity and the attraction of commercial funding. (14) A clear indication of the dominance of this framework is revealed in the rare instances where the humanities and social sciences are mentioned. The social sciences are important because they address 'people factors ... including resistance to innovation' (my emphasis), while the humanities are mildly endorsed because they are 'domains that flourish on originality, creativity and flair'. (15) Knowledge is valuable only to the extent that it can contribute to this narrowly conceived commitment to 'innovation'.

Behind the language of diversity and commitment to research in the remarks of Davis and in the larger policy documents of the Group of Eight lies a wholesale embrace of a culture shift in terms of how we are to understand, value and generate knowledge. The rise of a pernicious auditing culture that strikes at the heart of the university is merely a symptom of a larger shift in the relation of knowledge to society. As Daniel Miller observes, 'the rise of auditing ... is symptomatic not of capitalism, but of a new form of abstraction that is emerging, a form more abstract than the capitalism of firms dealing with commodities'. (16) It is this abstraction of knowledge as a productive force that both leads to the audit culture that de-contextualizes academic work, and drives policy papers like Seizing the Opportunities to harness the potential of knowledge-as-commodity to upgrade the contemporary university.

In this emerging climate the question remains: what will happen to the humanities and to other modes of knowledge that lie outside the dominant framework? Glynn Davis' readying of the University of Melbourne for the deregulated education market represents a shift to a 'US-style' model, with a reduction of undergraduate courses (from ninety-six to six) and the introduction of professional courses at postgraduate level. Despite the apparent current ranking of the Arts Faculty as seventh in the world, The Age reports that the faculty budget will be cut by twelve per cent, resulting in mass redundancies. Heads of schools are now being asked to justify why their area should continue as a major. (17) Given the apparent uselessness of a top-ten global ranking, one can only speculate on the language and principles with which they might defend the existence of their disciplines.

It is not surprising that the University of Melbourne is attempting to restructure itself in the style of an ivy-league institution, or that its leader would encourage the government to further open up the market for education. This is only what any well-remunerated CEO would do with their organization, and institutions like the University of Melbourne can (for the present) trade on their reputations 'obtained in a long slow accumulation of social investment'. (18) It may well be that after the job cuts and course reductions the institution will superficially resemble an old-style elite university able to compete within the flows of knowledge capitalism. Indeed, the Howard government has shown that a certain kind of conservatism can, at least provisionally, operate within the expanded market. In the longer term, however, the contradictions will prove unsustainable. The explosion of commodified knowledge has undermined the kinds of activity and collegial relations that once governed the university. The consequence of this, as well as the growth of knowledge competitors within the private sphere, has led to the creation of the arbitrary value systems through which we now rank knowledge. It is this larger context that ultimately hollows out the university, leaving it no more than an ivy-covered brand name. Equally significant, this process leaves us without a major institutional resource by which we might consider the implications of living in a world almost entirely governed by flows of instrumental knowledge; a world in which innovation leads to the break up of taken-for-granted ways of life, leaving many people stranded and others facing a life-world of transient meanings obtainable only through the market. If ever universities needed to stand outside and look back upon a particular context, now is the moment.

(1.) D. Illing and M. Rout, 'Salaries for Uni Chiefs Pass $1m', The Australian, 4 July 2007, available at www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867, 22014487-12332,00.html>.

(2.) M. Olssen and M. Peters, 'Neoliberalism, Higher Education and the Knowledge Economy: from the Free Market to Knowledge Capitalism', Journal of Education Policy, vol. 20, no. 3, 2005, p. 341.

(3.) Ollsen and Peters, 'Neoliberalism, Higher Education and the Knowledge Economy', p. 339.

(4.) G. Davis, National Press Club Address, 6 June 2007, available at <www.go8.edu.au/policy/papers/2007>.

(5.) Seizing the Opportunities: A Go8 Policy Discussion Paper, available at <www.go8.edu.au/policy/papers/2007>.

(6.) Seizing the Opportunities, p. 5.

(7.) For instance, M. Power, The Audit Explosion, London, Demos, 1994, or M. Strathern (ed.) Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability Ethics and the Academy, London, Routledge, 2000.

(8.) C. Shore and S. Wright, 'Whose Accountability? Governmentality and the Auditing of Universities', Parallax, vol. 10, 2004, p. 105.

(9.) On this point, John Hinkson observes that 'collegial relations flourish in the interpretative, as opposed to the instrumental function of intellectuality': J. Hinkson, 'Perspectives on the Crisis of the University', in S. Cooper, G. Sharp and J. Hinkson (eds), Scholars and Entrepreneurs: The Universities in Crisis, Melbourne, Arena Publications, 2002, p. 259.

(10.) The literature critical of the Research Assessment is extensive. For a brief example, see C. Shore and S. Wright, 'Whose Accountability?'; L. Elton, 'The UK Research Assessment Exercise: Unintended Consequences', Higher Education Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 3, 2000, pp. 274-83; and L. Broadhead and S. Howard, '"The Art of Punishing": The Research Assessment Exercise and the Ritualization of Power in Higher Education', Education Policy Analysis Archives, vol. 6, no. 8, 1998.

(11.) Strathern, 'The Tyranny of Transparency', British Educational Research Journal, vol. 26, no. 3, p. 314.

(12.) See P. James and D. McQueen-Thompson, 'Abstracting Knowledge Formation: A Report on Academia and Publishing', in S. Cooper, G. Sharp and J. Hinkson (eds), Scholars and Entrepreneurs, pp. 183-206, for a more extended discussion of these changes in relation to the formation of knowledge.

(13.) P. Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, New York, Semiotext(e), 2004, p. 87

(14.) Seizing the Opportunities, p. 14

(15.) Seizing the Opportunities, p. 14

(16.) D. Miller, Virtualism: A New Political Economy, Oxford, Berg, 1998, p. 2045. Miller uses the term abstraction, largely to denote a mode of epistemological inquiry, one he argues is increasingly central to the theory and practice of economics. While this mode of inquiry has material effects, his use of 'abstraction' differs from the position generally found in the pages of Arena Journal in the sense that it does not encompass the more widespread social transformation made possible through 'constitutive abstraction' a process enabled through the techno-sciences as much as through intellectual modes of inquiry. See, for instance, G. Sharp Constitutive Abstraction and Social Practice', Arena (old series), no. 70, 1985, pp. 45-83.

(17.) 'Academics Face Axe at Top Faculty', The Age, 11 July 2007, pp. 1-2.

(18.) S. Marginson, 'Competition and Contestability in Australian Higher Education, 1987-1997', Australian Universities Review, vol. 40, no. 1, 1997, p. 326.
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Author:Cooper, Simon
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Date:Mar 22, 2007
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