confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Tag: Academic Practice

The Tyranny of Metrics in Higher Education Racialisation of Critique

Book Review

The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller (2018) Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 320 pages.

‘Metric Fixation’ is the organising concept of Jerry Z. Muller’s critique of the contemporary audit culture in public institutions.  This concept captures well the way many working in public sector institutions see the obsessions and caprices of managers and leaders, and the growth of reporting that appears to dominate professional life.  The book is centred on a series of case studies through which metric fixation is explained and explicated – Colleges and Universities, Schools, Medicine, Policing, The Military, Business and Financing, Philanthropy and Foreign Aid.  It is this personal experience of being made ‘accountable’ through various systems of performance management that led this Professor of History to write a critique of a substantial area of public policy and governance.  In part, being a non-specialist enables him to traverse across different disciplinary fields.  The weakness of this, I feel, is that the scope of the enterprise is too broad.  There are too many professional fields that he seeks to explore through the prism of metric fixation resulting in a very uneven book.  Some fields, such as higher education and medicine, receive a fulsome review, whilst others, such as policing and philanthropy attract much less attention.  The primary geographical focus of the book, and hence the case studies is America, though there are references to the UK as a leading proponent of metric fixation as a tool of public policy and governance.  The book is a review rather than a new piece of empirical inquiry.  However, it serves the purpose of clarifying how metric fixation has been deployed as an aspect of neoliberal politics across a wide range of professional fields.  Although the review is critical in that the author highlights the way metric fixation distorts professional practice and priorities, often at the expense of professional authenticity and the detriment, sometimes harm, to the public, it is not a critique in the sense of questioning the very idea of the university as a public institution involved in the constitution of subjectivities (citizens for instance) and public goods.  In this sense, the review and perspective are conservative in that it seeks to conserve certain ways of being and practising.  For me, there was a troubling tone to some of the commentary.  When reviewing Colleges and Universities and Schools the author deployed a cultural conservative interpretation of the position of African American students and communities.  Again, this reveals the underlying conservative nature of the analysis and intent.

The central organising concept of the book is that of ‘metric fixation’, the political and organisational focus on systems and processes of performance measurement that is assumed to lead to improvements in public sector bodies.  This enables Muller to investigate systems and discourses of accountability in interesting ways.  It allows him to open discourses of accountability and shift our understanding away from the political rhetoric of making public bodies democratically accountable to the government and the population at large, to an appreciation that this translates into accountability as making one´s professional practice amenable to systems of accountancy.  Of course, this insight and its epistemological and ontological consequences have been examined elsewhere.  Notably, such accounting or auditing undermines the whole idea of professional judgement, replacing it with output indices that are more easily counted and comparable.  Additionally, metrics are linked to rewards and punishments of different kinds (performance related pay, productivity targets, performance reviews, etc.).  Of note is that metrics rely on outputs of particular kinds, those that can be measured, and definitely not inputs that might require qualitative judgement.  Important to Muller’s argument is that while methods of measuring performance might well be beneficial to improved service (he draws on service improvements in health care for this mostly) he highlights how auditing systems encourage those who are measured to game the system.  A particularly troubling example he provides is of surgeons who select low-risk cases in order to meet the performance metrics, a practice that can lead to more high-risk patients not being attended to and potentially dying.   These metrics then, become a proxy for ‘quality’ without ever really explicating what that means. Technical issues (which variable or metric to use) disguise the value systems at play.  Metrics, in this regard, become systems of moral regulation.

The main body of the book consists of a series of case studies: Colleges and Universities; Schools; Medicine; Policing; The Military; Business and Finance; Philanthropy and Foreign Aid.  I will concentrate on Colleges and Universities.

Higher education systems globally have been under pressure to increase participation and completion rates on the one hand and to increase prestige through research funding and research outputs.  I have discussed this dual rationality elsewhere.  Muller refers to the ways higher education has been subject to processes and discourses of marketisation and commercialisation.  He draws attention to how this is related to the hegemony of human capital formation theory in higher education policy, the presumption that increased participation and completion will lead to an increase in the national stock of human capital, and thereby increase a country’s economic capacity and competitiveness.  Despite plenty of research to counter this theory and assumption, the policy endures. This, Muller argues, results in various forms of expansion of administration, cheating or gaming the system.  Governments, keen to achieve ‘value for money’ establish bureaucracies (auditing and accountability agencies of different kinds). The prestige economy of higher education is organised in relation to global university rankings.  Faced by this bureaucracy institutions invest in marketing and quality assurance functions, which can often be at the expense of the university’s core educational role.  It is as if the primary purpose of institutions becomes that of meeting the requirements of auditing.  Those of us in higher education and who study it are familiar with this evidence and these arguments.  Muller does not add substantively to the current knowledge base, other than linking these particular processes to similar ones across the public sector.

Muller’s argument, I propose, is a conservative one in that the implicit narrative is for a conserving of the status quo.  For instance, he points to the issue of grade inflation.  This is something that Pierre Bourdieu analysed.  Although Muller rightly points out that increasing participation and completion rates in higher education actually undermines this measurement as a proxy for human capital, he reverts to a more conservative understanding of this problem.   In the absence of a concept such as homology, as deployed by Bourdieu, Muller does not see how the restructuring of the economy, and therefore nuanced changes in class formation, is reflected in the restructuring of higher education.  Formal qualifications, such as the BA, act as proxies for skill and knowledge in order to facilitate the passage of what would formerly have been manual labour into white collar jobs.  This is not because we have all become middle class but that the structures of class and education have been re-worked.  Education continues to function as a system of social reproduction.  Muller misses this point when he refers to the problem of students entering higher education ill-prepared for higher studies.  There is an apparent assumption that there is something in the individuals themselves that means they require what Muller calls remedial education.  There is nothing in his analysis that suggests that because of the socially reproductive nature of education and the homologous structures across economy and education, the business of elite schools has always been to ‘prepare’ their students for entry to college, to learn the cultural performances required for successful participation.  There is silence in his analysis of the social and cultural strangeness of higher education (and pedagogy) to many young people now, which is why he uses the language of ‘remedial’.

Muller’s cultural conservative analysis continues in the chapter on schools where it becomes highly racialised.  He spends much of the chapter considering the failure of measures to close the attainment gap in American schools, especially in relation to black and Hispanic pupils.  He does refer to the classic argument that schools by themselves cannot compensate for society.  However, he smuggles in the culturalist idea that there is something in the culture of the working class, or blacks, or Hispanics that means that they do not achieve educationally.

“Good schools” tend to be those populated by pupils who are brighter, more curious, and more self-controlled; and tend to be the offspring of people who are themselves relatively bright, curious, and self-disciplined. (98)

Social and racial reproduction through education, therefore, has no connection to class or white privilege according to Muller.  While he seeks to counter and question the paradigm of metric fixation, he does so to preserve and conserve the social order.  But, this should not lead us to think that Muller’s conservative argument against metrics is in some way an outlier in the crisis of higher education discourse.  Far from it.  There is much in the pushback against metric fixation that is blind to the normatively discriminatory practices of higher education.  If we want to think higher education otherwise we need more radical critiques.

 

 

The Darker Side of Higher Education: The Atlantic Economy, Epistemic Imperialism, and the Decolonial Option (a research project)

This blog has been dormant for a while, waiting for me to re-imagine my social media profile.  But I have been encouraged by a range of new readers to revive the blog, even if only temporarily.  I am in process of moving to Roskilde University to work with Eva Bendix Petersen.  This is an exciting opportunity for me.  Roskilde will be my academic domicile and it is because of this imminent move that I have been lax in keeping up with social media. For this post, I have chosen to share a substantial intellectual project that I am beginning.  This project builds on previous explorations presented at the Sociological Association of Ireland conference in 2017.  The broad project is to imagine higher education otherwise. The text below will be developed further over the coming months.


The Darker Side of Higher Education – a project

Everywhere around us we hear of the ‘crisis’ of higher education.  The fact that the ‘crisis’ is articulated through a generalised object: higher education and global university rankings are tabulated in terms of atomised institutions rather than national systems, provides a glimpse into an underlying logic of higher education.  The underlying logic is that the global system of higher education which, in its heartlands of Europe and America, is experiencing a crisis of purpose, is typical of the long history of higher education rather than a contemporary aberration. The underlying logic of the current moment of heightened competition and accelerated academic labour is an imperial and colonial one.  The ‘crisis’ discourse is a crisis of purpose within this logic rather than against it.  If we seek to resolve the contemporary crisis without critiquing it through a transnational history that demonstrates the intimate relationship between empire, colonisation, epistemic dominance, and institutions of higher education then we are in grave danger of re-inscribing an imperial and colonising logic.

What kind of crisis is the ‘crisis’ of higher education?

The core features of the emerging political economy of a global higher education system can be defined by the tension between two political rationalities – economic competition (demands that higher education produce discernible economic benefits for national economies ) and status competition (global university rankings and publication metrics ) and how these are translated into models of governance and funding priorities (systemic level); performance management, recruitment and progression systems (institutional level); and individual strategies to negotiate between personal and institutional objectives and work-life balance (subjective level).  A number of key critiques of this political economy have been mounted by various scholars such as Stefan Collini, drawing out what makes it a ‘crisis’, particularly in relation to various articulations of higher education and the outcomes of scientific endeavour as ‘public goods’.  This ‘crisis’ discourse, however, can be interrogated from the perspective of the global south, specifically the trenchant critiques offered by scholars/activists working with the coloniality of power perspectives such as Maria Lugones, Walter Mignolo, Ramón Grosfoguel, and Anibal Quijano. This perspective makes it possible to highlight the a-historical nature of the ‘crisis’ discourse and how it fails to engage with the conterminous history of empire, colonial expansion, violence, expropriation, and slavery and that of the emergence of the modern university, and that colonial structures of power infuse both the ‘crisis’ and its alternatives.  A transnational history of modern (Westernised) higher education is therefore required.  My work is arguing that an empirical focus on Britain, Ireland and the USA is justified in relation to the thesis put forward by Walter Mignolo that the Enlightenment, upon which the idea of the modern university is founded, is an integral part of European colonial expansion westwards into the Caribbean and Americas.  This analysis argues that in a similar fashion to the Iberian expansion west in the sixteenth century, Britain’s colonial expansion west and later eastwards has imprinted itself on contemporary higher education.  Two illustrative examples of how the emergence of higher education in Britain was co-constitutive of colonialism can be used here:  an account of how the rise of a mercantile class based on wealth from slavery in the Atlantic economy financed the growth of some of England’s leading universities and provides the economic basis for their position as leading global institutions; the second example focuses on the relationship between Scottish universities and development of medical education in the American colonies, referring to the use of the bodies of slaves to build medical knowledge and aid the establishment of modern medical education.

Britain’s western empire, specifically Ireland and America constitute a necessary empirical locus for a transnational history of the ‘crisis’ of higher education.  Ireland is examined in terms of how it was constituted as a semi-peripheral zone in the expanding British Empire and how higher education was constitutive of imperial knowledge entwined with domination and subjection domestically and across the Empire. It is proposed that the semi-peripheral nature of Ireland in the Empire continues to frame the development of higher education in the Republic of Ireland.  American hegemony of higher education is examined in terms of how the dominant imaginaries of higher education are based on slavery, racial science, and violence against Native Americans.

Thinking through the darker side of higher education

The Decolonial Option: Coloniality of power and its challenge to dominant studies of higher education

The main elements of the thesis are that the Atlantic economy is the foundation of capitalism; that the Atlantic economy, particularly the expropriation of resources and enslavement, generated the wealth that enabled the Renaissance and Enlightenment and thus the development of European universities; the intellectual elites in the dominant European powers represented certain strands of European thought as the pinnacle of human achievement; these ways of conceiving the world, organising knowledge, and evaluating knowledge became instruments of colonialism, that it is the close relation between modernity and colonialism that transformed local knowledge (Renaissance and Enlightenment) into universal knowledge, and that these ways of knowing and the associated global power relations persist in the modern world.  The terms of the debates in higher education studies and the ‘crisis’ of higher education present themselves as not being rooted geopolitically (in modernity/coloniality) or bio-graphically (the gender and racial structure of this knowledge).  Consequently, responses to the ‘crisis’ of higher education maintain the global hierarchy of knowledge.  The decolonial option is presented as advocating not an alternative universality but an ecology of knowledge or pluriversity.

Ireland: Settler Colonialism, Imperial Knowledge, and Platform Economy

Ireland’s integration into Britain’s Atlantic economy from the sixteenth century onwards transformed Ireland’s economic and social structures.  The Irish economy became dominated by and subjugated to the demands of the Atlantic economy – the restructuring of agriculture to feed Britain’s colonial expansion west; the organisation of Ireland’s key ports to service the westward expansion; the organisation of industry a) to service British colonial expansion and b) not compete with British industries.  Ireland’s social structure was transformed in relation to these economic and cultural processes.

The long emergence of higher education in Ireland, from the founding of Trinity College Dublin (1592) to the Queen’s Colleges (1845).  Two perspectives can be used to explain how a higher education system emerged in Ireland from the sixteenth century to the late nineteenth century.  The establishment of Trinity College Dublin (1592) can be interpreted through the perspective of settler colonialism and the role of TCD in the establishment of a colonial elite.  The move towards establishing the Queen’s Colleges (1845) in Belfast, Cork, Dublin, and Galway is explained in terms of incorporating two denominational classes into Britain’s Imperial project, particularly as Britain sought to develop its eastern Empire.  It can be argued that the founding of the Queen’s Colleges aimed to incorporate a dissenting Protestant tradition in the North East of Ireland who had been attracted to republican ideologies, particularly in the United Irishmen movement in 1789. An emerging Catholic Middle class that had been mobilised around demands for Catholic Emancipation were also a focus for incorporation within the British Imperial project.  The non-denominational basis of the Queen’s Colleges was a deliberate strategy to attract support from these denominational groups.

The Irish universities came to play a central role in the development and dissemination of Imperial knowledge.  The Geological Surveys of Ireland and then India demonstrate how scientific knowledge related to the mapping of Ireland and India were instrumental in normalising Imperial control, as cartographies of power and legitimation. The surveys also provided an infrastructure for military and mercantile control.

Human capital theory and models of inward foreign investment came to frame the development of Irish higher education policy in the 20th and into the 21st centuries.  Participation in American policy discussions led senior Irish civil servants to advance an economic and education strategy of human capital development from the 1950s onwards. The concept of the ’platform economy’ sheds light on the contemporary economic rationale for Irish higher education policy.  The economic subordination of Ireland to the USA post-1945 mirrors its subordination to British interests in the Atlantic economy.  Post-1945 is seen as the recreation of the Atlantic economy for American interests.

United States: American exceptionalism, slavery and genocide 

America’s Ivy League colleges demonstrate the intimate connection between settler colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade, and the establishment of institutions of higher education.  Burgeoning contemporary research into the relationship between higher education and slavery describe how the early colonial period established this relationship, with the emergent colleges being financed by slavery and providing a professional class for the British colonies in the Caribbean and the slave economy in the south of the American colonies.  This relationship continued into the post-independence period.  The elite nature of the Ivy League colleges and their vast endowments, premised in large part on the slave trade, have provided the material basis upon which these institutions have established their world reputation, and status in global rankings.

The historic expansion of American higher education is based on the expropriation of Native American lands and their violent expulsion from those lands.  The systematic violence against Native Americans was an aspect of the early colonial period, with the eastern seaboard being colonised through consecutive wars.  The expansion west of the United States following the Civil War also relied upon slavery.  However, the westward expansion that created the conditions for the Land Grant universities relied upon the systematic expulsion of Native Americans from their lands, leading to a catastrophic destruction of their social order.  The founding of the Land Grant universities, therefore, constitutes an act of aggression, further underlining the intimate relationship between enslavement, violence and American higher education.  America’s higher education system would provide a necessary basis for the emergence of the United States as the dominant economic force in the new Atlantic economy.

Post-1945 American academia came to dominate intellectual thought globally.  At least two case studies could be used to illustrate this: the impact of American anthropology on South America, on how South America was represented to the world through this, and how it was represented back to South American intellectuals; and how American sociology came to dominate the emerging discipline.  These cases provide the means to demonstrate how epistemological imperialism (and so the coloniality of power) operates in the modern period.

Global Rankings and Human Capital as Continuities in the Coloniality of Power

This project puts forward the argument that the contemporary transformation of global higher education through the two political rationalities of economic and status competition are strategic moves to secure economic and political domination of North America and Britain against the rise of emerging economies and higher education systems, for instance in China.  Global rankings, publication metrics, research finance, and control of academic publishing concentrates epistemological power in a few countries and élite institutions.  I argue that what we see here is not the diminishing of coloniality but what Mignolo and others term the imperial divide – the contestation over domination between competing empires.  Discourses of the ‘crisis’ of higher education are insufficient if they operate within the logic of the coloniality of power and that they inadvertently reinforce epistemological hierarchies. The ‘crisis’ of higher education discourses may, indeed, be acts of epistemic violence.

DECONSTRUCTING THE LAB PRACTICAL

LAB

Sinclair Refining laboratory… at Corpus Christi Texas, by Robert Yarnall Richie via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University https://www.flickr.com/photos/smu_cul_digitalcollections/8409510090 (no copyright restrictions)

Enhancing learning in lab-based science education through re-designing assessment practices

Yesterday we had a really successful seminar with @seerym (Michael Seery) and @Breebio (Ronan Bree) opening up the lab practical for critical and practical inquiry.  The event attracted attracted over 40 colleagues from @NUIG including technical officers, post-doctoral students, educational technologists and academic developers, as well as lecturers.

In this post I will focus on the challenges offered by Michael’s contribution.

Michael was asked to problematise the lab practical as it normally appears in the science curriculum in higher education.  Those who know Michael’s work will be aware that unpacking the role of the lab practical has been a central focus of his work, so much so that he is endeavouring to write a book on the subject. An interesting resource on the ideas covered in the seminar is a post by Michael last year.  I will make some reference to it here.  The seminar offered Michael an opportunity to rehearse the central argument of his book.  I will try to outline some of the central issues and questions below.

  • Lab practicals, contrary to the professional discourse, do not warrant the effort expended on them
  • Despite the claims made that practical classes reinforce the theory and develop core skills there is no evidence to support this
  • The usual model for organising practicals result in negligible learning gains, over assess students without resulting in incremental improvements in either theoretical understanding or scientific skills, and have no demonstrable link with lecture series.

Practical classes can often be epitomised by the rush for the door where students correctly read the deep structure of the classes as being to get the experiment done as quickly as possible, write the lab report, and leave.  An average undergraduate can produce at least 125 lab reports without there being any substantial improvement in their scientific knowledge over that period related to the lab practicals.

Instead of making the false assumption that practical classes are locations for teaching theory, Michael, along with others, propose a different presumption

  • Organise lab practicals and lectures separately, each having a distinct function
  • Lectures become the means by which students are invited to engage with disciplinary knowledge, core concepts, troublesome knowledge, threshold concepts, etc.
  • Lab practicals then become the vehicles for developing and practicing disciplinary ways of doing, of practicing the scientific method. [I hope I have this distinction right…I’m sure Michael will correct me]

A number of practical ideas were offered to illustrate what a lab curriculum could look like.  I will focus on just a few.

  • Keep the traditional deductive approach but include decision points
    • Michael argued that there was nothing particularly wrong with the traditional deductive approach of practical classes.  Lab work should operate within a knowledge framework but should free itself from a ‘cook book’ approach.  The experiment would be organised around a series of decision points, where students would need to make informed choices about possible routes (having compared entity 1 with entity 2) what method would I use to test (hypothesis x)…I think.
  • Fewer but more powerful assessment points
    • There is no logical or necessary reason why students should have to produce a report for every lab.  Rather than producing 12 reports for a series of 12 labs why not 3 more substantive and focused assessment points which require students to go deeper into the topic/skill and educators to provide useful formative assessment.  In addition why not organise the assessment points so that each point build a basis for the next set of labs and assessment?
    • Based on the theory of cognitive load Michael suggested that assessment could focus on specific skill sets rather than being assessed on every dimension of the experiment.
  • Lab reports can simulate the research article
    • Michael suggested that lab reports should support the rationale that lab practicals develop disciplinary ways of doing and being by emulating the research article.
  • Diversify the modes of reporting
    • While lab reports might be perfect for some forms of assessment we should consider other modes of reporting learning.  One example provided was that of students using mobile devices to video each other practicing certain lab skills and then peer assessing this (with the added advantage that the videos can go into students’ portfolios and be used in securing internships or even jobs).

Certainly a lot of food for thought and I will certainly be back to discuss this again.

 

TAKING CONTROL OF ONES SCHOLARLY IDENTITY?

beautiful-landscape-with-bridge

Beautiful Landscape With Bridge, by George Hodan License: CC0 Public Domain

Can students take a lead on managing and promoting their own learning?

Does this have to happen in the confines of institutional virtual learning environments?

Can academics and students take back control of their digital presence?

These were all questions explored yesterday in a workshop facilitated by Jim Groom at the National University of Ireland Galway title: Student As Partner: Enhancing Student Engagement Through a Focus on Assessment As Learning in Digital Spaces.

Let me quote from the advertising text to give you a flavour of what this event sought to deal with

The Student as Producer model advocates a pedagogic approach foregrounding student voice, choice and creativity so that students can recognise themselves in a world of their own design and take responsibility for their own learning. This has broad ramifications across the institution with respect to digital technology, learning spaces, and assessment (Healy et al., 2014; Neary et al., 2015). The Domain of One’s Own initiative emphasises a partnership approach to teaching and learning, and reworks the relationships between research and teaching; producing and consuming; and educators and students (Groom & Lamb, 2014). Partnership with students, not only as learners but as teachers and assessors, can contribute to developing graduate attributes and personal learning networks that can sustain students/graduates well beyond their time in higher education.

References:

Groom, J., & Lamb, B. 2014. Reclaiming innovation. Educause Review (June 2014).

Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. 2014. Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in Higher Education. York: Higher Education Academy.

Neary, M., Saunders, G., Hagyard, A. & Derricott, D. (2015). Student as Producer: Research-engaged teaching, an institutional strategy. York: Higher Education Academy.

 

It is time for me to own up to the fact that I was co-responsible for this event along with my colleague Catherine Cronin.  I am not an educational technology person so the event was conceived as an exploration of the space between different sets of ideas, specifically those of ‘student as producer’ and ‘open educational practices‘ (OEP), using Domain of Ones Own (DoOO).  Catherine has already written about her hopes for the workshop and will write refections on it shortly.   I want to focus on the elements I was mostly interested in and the thoughts I have had following working with Jim.

I was particularly interested in how ideas of students as producers (SaP) could articulate with technologies associated with open educational practices.  In the workshop I outlined SaP as covering at least three dimensions;

  • Students as researchers: students engaged in different kinds of research like activity, and presenting the outcome of their inquiries.
  • Students devising learning materials: students involved in the development of curricular materials.  For instance a project at the University of Lincoln UK involved undergraduate students producing a range of learning materials for an Introduction to Chemistry course.
  • Students as assessors: biology students at Vanderbilt University USA were engaged in devising laboratory based experiments and the assessment of these as an alternative to the traditional lab practical.

From my perspective students are engaged in assessment as learning in all of these examples.  Students not only need to know what to learn, but why  that knowledge is important (compared to alternatives), and to determine how they can learn.  When further developed students also engage in generating new knowledge and meaning.

But how does this dovetail with OEP?

One way of understanding how approaches such as DoOO align with SaP is articulated by Audrey Waters recently as concerning,

  • Students have lost control of their personal data

  • By working in digital silos specially designed for the classroom (versus those tools that they will encounter in their personal and professional lives) students are not asked to consider how digital technologies work and/or how these technologies impact their lives

  • Education technologies, particularly those that enable “algorithmic decision-making,” need transparency and understanding

(You can substitute the word “scholar” for “student” in all cases above, too, I think.)

 

Whether it is VLEs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Academia or other platforms, we exchange our personal data and learning outcomes and teaching materials (in the case of VLEs) in exchange for use of these proprietorial services.  DoOO offers the opportunity to control how our personal data is used and to control our digital presence.  Jim shared examples of how academics were able to fashion strong digital identities that were not confined to the institution they happened to work in at any particular moment.  This meant they could construct digital identities that were not confined to corporate priorities and branding.  The same can be done by students.  This relates to an issue raised both by Audrey Waters in her blog post and Catherine Cronin at the workshop – that the nature of VLEs and proprietorial platforms means that students and academics do not really engage with digital literacies such as protection of personal data, privacy, copyright, etc.

DoOO, for me, is attractive because it can be supportive of public and open scholarship.  Similarly, it can support students to be producers of knowledge and meaning rather than consumers.

 

HOW RESEARCH PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT KILLS EPISTEMIC DIVERSITY

bilbia-oso

Primera página de la Biblia del oso, traducción al castellano de Casiodoro de Reyna, basilea, 1569.

Silenced societies are, of course, societies in which talking and writing take place but which are not heard in the planetary production of knowledge managed from the local histories and local languages of the ‘silencing’ [the dominant powers] Walter Mignolo referring to Abdelkebir Khatibi’s “Love in Two Languages

 

Recently I gave a presentation on “Research Selectivity and the Destruction of Authentic Scholarship”.  An earlier iteration of this was presented at a conference in Dublin and posted here.  Below I present the text of this presentation.  It deals with the way contemporary research performance management practices result in what I and my colleagues call ‘epistemic closure’.  That is we are concerned that these management practices, related as they are to the growing dominance of English as the primary means of scientific communication, and to the determining influence of global higher education rankings and the power of the major academic publishing companies, are closing down what can be considered legitimate knowledge.


My presentation is based on early stage conceptualization for a cross European research project looking at the impact of research performance management on academic practice and identity.

In this sense it approaches the broad theme of mobility in terms of the mobility of academics, and the mobility of knowledge. That is, instead of academics looking at ‘others’ mobilities and migrations, it looks at the observers; it turns the critical gaze upon systems of higher education and academic practice in the context of dominant narratives of internationalisation of higher education.

Specifically, it began life at a conference in Poland where my colleagues Marcin Starnawski and Marcin Gołębniak presented a paper discussing the increasing pressure on Polish academics to publish in ‘international’ academic journals, where international translates as English language. They raised questions about a) the transactional costs of this national and institutional pressure (e.g. the capacity to become proficient in high status academic English – who does this, and who does not, and what are the consequences of this), and b) what impact this might have on internal academic discourse, and the issue of the possible un-translatability of key terms of debate.

This has led to cooperation around developing a research project that has now involved:

  • Exploratory empirical research in Ireland, Poland and Portugal
  • Seminars and conference presentations in Ireland and Poland
  • Work on a number of journal articles
  • Development of a COST Action proposal

Although this presentation draws largely on the Irish material, it resonates closely with that found in both Poland and Portugal.

Because of where I am giving this presentation (Galway, Ireland), it takes academics working largely through the medium of Irish in the humanities as a critical case of the phenomenon of research performance management. While it is not an exploration of the position of Irish in wider Irish society, it does touch on the contested nature of Irish as a public rather than private good.

Fundamentally we are arguing that research performance management as we often experience it is to do with more than workload, but also with knowledge work itself.

slide1

So, where to start?

Reading these two documents recently I was struck by what now appears as their naivity.

The first report, “Advancing Humanities and Social Sciences Research in Ireland”, published in 2007, sought to make the case for the humanities and social sciences in the context of dominant discourses of the knowledge economy. There was a kind of strategic accommodation here, of accepting the terms of political debate – that is the very idea of the knowledge based economy, and argue the positive case for the humanities and social sciences within the logic of this discourse.

6 years later, the Higher Education Authority produced a report that seems to have come from a more innocent time, particularly when looked at from post-2008. It argued that there was no need for Irish higher education to emulate the UK and tie performance management to crude indicators of research output. Indeed, it argued that it was and should be possible for the arts and humanities to be judged on the basis of the wide array of outputs and not merely those amenable to simple statistical capture or the algorithms of the major publishing companies.

slide1

Yet, what we see is our own institutions, in the absence of clear guidance otherwise, reproducing all the known negative effects of the Research Excellence Framework.

It is as if our institutional leaders are ignorant of, or simply ignore the findings from reviews such as this.

We can view this as a local manifestation of an increasingly globalised model of higher education – of a global political economy of higher education.

Looking across Europe, as with much of the world, we see certain regular systemic features of this political economy:

  • Government support for increased participation in higher education as part of an economic strategy to maximize the stock of human capital in aid of securing economic competitive advantage in a global economy
  • Reduction in direct funding from governments whilst promoting a process of mass higher education in conjunction with competitive funding streams and diversified income streams (e.g student fees)
  • Government steering of research priorities to meet economic needs, specifically prioritising certain STEM areas that are perceived to be close to the market, and using ideas of market readiness to evaluate all research.

 

slide1We are all fairly familiar with key features of the global higher education landscape as it relates to research selectivity.  We can conceive of research selectivity as a site for struggles over external and internal visibility, particularly for semi-peripheral higher education systems and for more peripheral disciplines.

EXTERNAL VISIBILITY

  • A defining characteristic of the political economy of higher education is that of STATUS COMPETITION – how well are we all doing in the global league tables
  • In other words institutional managers are concerned with visibility within the status economy of higher education. Politicians are concerned about this and gear funding priorities around securing greater visibility in the status economy as well as aligning research to economic requirements.

INTERNAL VISIBILITY

This largely takes the form of research performance management:

  • Management practices that increasingly seek to align individual CVs and research concerns with institutional objectives, objectives aimed at increasing the institution’s external visibility – this introduces a degree of moral coercion: if I don’t improve my visibility will this impact negatively on my institution and therefore on my colleagues
  • Alignment is enacted through various performance management practices: PMDS – annual reviews – institutional research audits – etc.

 

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I want to present some of our initial reflections through Niamh’s Story. Niamh is a condensation of academics who work predominantly through the medium of Irish and who participated in our pilot study. However, while here I focus on Irish language scholarship, they mirror almost exactly the views expressed by the scholars from academics we have spoken to in Poland and Portugal, in a range of disciplines. It also resonates with evidence found in scholarship in critical translation studies, critical linguistics, and global English.   What I share with you here is obviously tentative, and emergent.

Initial inductive analysis of the pilot project interviews indicates a number of themes/motifs that animate academics’ experiences and concerns:

  • Although the time periods associated with the production process of academic publishing may be stretched out, with delays between submission and final publication, this sits within a context of time-pressure
  • Institutions and individual scholars are increasingly conscious of the desire to improve their relative position in annual university rankings
  • This can be exacerbated by national and institutional systems of research performance management. Improvement in research performance are evaluated over short time frames, generating demands to produce measurable outputs quickly
  • Because the bibliometrics privilege English language publications, and privilege journal articles, this can lead to increase in outputs in English as the PRIMARY language of academic output
  • This may also transform disciplinary ways of producing and disseminating knowledge.
  • Within the intensified environment of academia, scholars largely experience this systemic phenomenon as private troubles rather than public issues.

This is not about language itself, but about how a scholar relates to epistemic communities, including linguistic communities. It is about the link between the generation of knowledge and the people you commune with in order to do that, to push the boundaries of knowledge. In this way of thinking and being decisions about form of output, vehicle for communication, and language of communication are determined by this relationship to epistemic communities. This is posed as potentially different to the institutionally determined way of being, which is driven by publishing companies bibliometrics, and university rankings.

She sought personal, individual strategies to negotiate her way through the tensions of an institutionally managed CV on the one hand and being true to herself on the other. There were no collective or solidaristic spaces where these concerns could be mobilised as public issues. She spoke about how the various systems of performance management and audit undermined the capacity of academics to work collectively, and so either rely on individual strategies, or appear supine,

 

…the system keeps everybody in a constant state of anxiety,

trying to meet sometimes reasonable, but often

undreasonable targets across so many different

arenas of academic activity…

 As my colleague Marcin Starnawski put it, we are so busy complying with the Regime of Compliance that we don’t pause for critical reflection and so create the conditions for discussing this as a public issue rather than a personal problem.

There was a very real sense that research performance management, and feeling herself under the gaze of performance metrics Niamh managed her efforts so that she was increasing her English language publications. To make herself more visible to the institution meant making herself less visible to the epistemic communities that gave meaning to her work. This is a zero-sum game. To write more in English means to write less in another language; to create “balance” is subtractive. 

If I was to look at the ratio over the last ten years

in my own academic writing life,

the balance between writing in Irish and writing in English,

writing in English for international academic publishers,

and writing and producing material for local publishers,

it’s definitiely the direction of English,

definitely the pull is towards international publishers rather than Irish publishes;

and the presumption there is that it is superior.

This alludes to linguistic hierarchies of knowledge, even of which languages can convey knowledge, be knowledgeable. In a sense, under the dominance of English, all other languages become minor languages

Fundamentally, Niamh felt that research performance management undermined her relationship with epistemic communities, and therefore with both the nature of knowledge and knowledge production. The pressure to publish in certain kinds of English language journals broke the connection between her, meaningful exchange of knowledge, knowledge production, and authentic scholarship.

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Clearly, what we are presenting here relates to wider concerns about:

  • The intensification of academic labour
  • About forms of management practice that devalue and undermine ideas of academic freedom
  • And the privatisation of knowledge that are very closely associated with the dominance of major academic publishers in determining what ‘counts’ as valued knowledge. Lets remember that the various ranking systems and metrics are controlled by profit seeking private companies.

 In the guise of technical issues of how best to measure research performance I believe we are actually seeing a transformation in what counts as knowledge and knowledge production. However, this is not being done as a result of public debate, not articulated in the public sphere. Maybe this doesn’t matter, but I believe it does, as it concerns what the role of academic scholarship is in relation to human flourishing, and concerns the values by which we think life should or could be lived. 

But I want to touch on something in my conclusion that relates specifically to academics working with what are often called minority languages, but also makes sense in relation to large language communities that are made peripheral by a zero sum approach to research performance management as it articulates with the dominance of English.

EPISTEMIC VIOLENCE/EPISTEMICIDE

I want to briefly discuss this in relation to concepts used by the Portuguese academic Boaventura de Sousa Santos, specifically the idea that current systems of research performance management act as forms of epistemic dominance and violence, even that the imperialism of certain ideas of what counts as knowledge constitute epistemicide, the death of what Niamh referred to as an ecology of research and Santos calls an ecology of knowledge.

 

  • Research selectivity, as I have discussed it here, can be seen to be re-ordering Europe (and I will keep my remarks to Europe) in relation to hierarchies of knowledge
  • Clearly certain domains of knowledge, those deemed applied or close to the market, are privileged over more speculative knowledge practices. This is very much why the humanities is under such pressure, but also areas of epistemic practice.
  • The linguistic dimension of this new terrain is illuminating
  • We can see from Niamh’s account that her practice is indeed one of an ecology of research or an ecology of knowledge. She regularly speaks from between Irish and English, both seen as capable of articulating knowledge
  • However, the intense pressure she and her colleagues experience to render their research amenable to only certain audiences and certain forms of publication (where the mode of publication appears to be more important than the rigour of scholarship) works to make invisible Irish as a legitimate language of knowledge, in deed as not being a knowledgeable language in its own right. To different degrees the same can be said of Polish, or Finnish, or Latvian, or Hungarian, or Russian, or possibly French and German.
  • So, the Irish language, literature, artefacts can be objects of scientific inquiry, but Irish cannot be a legitimate medium for thinking.
  • The increasing requirement to produce or reproduce work in English, carries with it the inequality of languages, the suggestion that English has a unique capacity to articulate all meaning adequately. English is presumed to have the robustness to convey meaning originally conceived in a different linguistic and cultural frame.
  • This attitude leads, I believe, to epistemic closure.

This is not an argument against English as a shared language of scientific exchange, but it is an argument against a diminished ecology of research, and a call to think higher education otherwise, and not to collude in epistemicide.

Struggling for Visibility in Higher Education: Caught Between Neoliberalism “out there” and “in here” – an autoethnographic account

Below is the abstract for an article that is coming out in the Journal of Education Policy shortly.  I have worked on this article on and off on this blog for a while.  It has been difficult as I have had to re-live many painful and traumatic experiences.  While it has always been a personal project, my intention was that this public articulation of some private pain should contribute to a more collective endeavour of challenging the logic of the contemporary university and academic practice.

Struggling for Visibility in Higher Education: Caught Between Neoliberalism “out there” and “in here” – an autoethnographic account

Abstract

What happens when neoliberalism as a structural and structuring force is taken up within institutions of higher education, and works upon academics in higher education individually? Employing a critical authoethnographic approach this paper explores the way technologies of research performance management, specifically, work to produce academics (and academic managers) as particular kinds of neoliberal subject. The struggle to make oneself visible is seen to occur under the gaze of academic normativity – the norms of academic practice that include both locally negotiated practices and the performative demands of auditing and metrics that characterise the neoliberal university. The paper indicates how the dual process of being worked upon and working upon ourselves can produce personally harmful effects. The result is a process of systemic violence. This paper invites higher education workers and policy makers to think higher education otherwise and to reconsider our personal and collective complicity in the processes shaping higher education.

 

Research Performance Management: linguistic, knowledge, and disciplinary concerns – an Introduction

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Research performance management,  such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, is becoming a feature of higher education systems worldwide (see Hazelkorn 2011) and often associated with the rise of neoliberal modes of governance (Henkel 2000; Marginson 2000). This is a process that is also driven by the development of a European Research Area committed to aligning higher education research primarily to economic growth and job creation. Higher education is therefore conceptualised by governments in ways that make the return on public investment amenable to calculation, comparison, and programmatic intervention. Through a range of policy instruments, specifically the introduction of market-like activities, academics’ daily practice is caught up between ‘actions at a distance’ and internal management techniques (see Miller & Rose 2008). For instance, ‘quality’ of scholarly activity is assessed against regular audits, such as the REF; core funding differentiates between prestige disciplines such as STEM as against the social sciences and humanities and places an emphasis on market-like behaviours and how institutions market themselves and read their markets. These translate professional decisions into methods of comparison through league tables, and in so doing make those decisions amenable to control at a distance. Internally this is matched by management techniques to align individual practice and sensibilities to those of institutional strategic objectives, which are largely framed by these ‘actions at a distance’ (see also Ball 2012). These include systems of performance management that usually involve annual reviews of performance emphasising research activity and output, and the setting of targets. ‘Research’ in this context is often reconfigured as ‘grant capture’ and publication in ‘high impact’ journals. Consequently, one powerful critique of such selectivity has focused on challenges to academic identity (Billot 2010; Davies 2005; Harley 2001; Harris 2005). However, such critiques often arise from what can be called the centres of higher education.

Drawing heuristically on Wallerstein’s (e.g. 1982 & 2013) World-System Theory we ask what this experience of research performance management and neoliberal governmentality looks like in semi-peripheral systems of European higher education. For instance, Irish higher education reform occurs in the context of public spending being overseen by the European Union, European Bank, and the World Bank following Ireland’s economic collapse in 2008 (e.g. HEA 2013). Similarly, Poland is seeking to reform its higher education system within a context of post-Communist transition, the adoption of neoliberal political rationalities, and the intensification of research selectivity in higher education (Kweik 2012). While Ireland and Poland benefit from being part of the European Union, both are politically and economically peripheral. There is also a linguistic aspect where non-English speakers are required to publish in English-language journals. Therefore, how does this structural location impact on how policy discourses, instruments, and management techniques are mobilised? How is this manifested in the context of semi-peripheral disciplines? The legitimacy of the humanities, for instance, has been increasingly questioned as higher education is more closely aligned with national economic objectives. For instance in Japan an education minister asked its national universities to either close down their humanities and social science faculties or reorganise them to be vocationally oriented.  Adapting Wacquant’s (Wacquant, et. al. 2014) concept of territorial stigmatisation we ask in what ways semi-peripheral systems are governed through regional and global systems of surveillance and measurement; how internal selectivity is arranged at both national and institutional level (e.g. how are the humanities dealt with); and how are different categories of academic managed in relation to research selectivity?

We feel it is important that research looks at three areas in particular:

  • Linguistic impact as a consequence of the prioritisation of publishing in international high impact academic journals, which normally translates as publishing in English,
  • Disciplinary impact in terms of how practices that often define particular disciplines may be transformed due to the pressure to produce particular kinds of knowledge and research outputs. In particular, this would relate to disciplines or subject areas that have become less prestigious as a result of dominant models of research performance,
  • Impact on the kinds of knowledge produced by research activity. This refers to the way certain forms of knowledge may be marginalised through research performance management practices. This can refer to more indigenous concepts that are not easily translated into English idioms without a fundamental loss of meaning, or knowledge that is seen as not amenable to ‘quick hit’ results or market application (including cultural and heritage industries).

 

 

References

Ball, S. J. (2012) Performativity, Commodification and Commitment: An I-Spy Guide to the Neoliberal University, British Journal of Educational Studies,  60(1):17-28.
Billot, J. (2010) The imagined and the real: identifying the tensions for academic identity, Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6):709-721.
Davies, B (2005): The (im)possibility of intellectual work in neoliberal
regimes, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(1):1-14.
Harley, S. (2002) The impact of research selectivity on academic work and identity in UK universities. Studies in Higher Education, 27(2):187–205.
Harris, S. (2005) Rethinking academic identities in neo-liberal times, Teaching in Higher Education, 10(4):421-433.
Henkel, M. (2000) Academic identities and policy change in higher education, London: Jessica Kingsley.

Kwiek, M. (2012) Changing higher education policies: From the deinstitutionalization to the reinstitutionalization of the research mission in Polish universities, Science and Public Policy 39:641-654.
Marginson, S. (2000) Rethinking academic work in the global era. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(1):1–12.
Miller, P. & Rose, N. (2008) Governing the Present: Administering Economic, Social and Personal Life, Cambridge: Polity Press
HEA (2013) Towards a Performance evaluation framework: Profiling Irish Higher education a report by the higher education authority. Dublin: HEA.
Wallerstein, I, et. al. (1982) World-Systems Analysis: Theory and Methodology, Beverley Hills: Sage.
Wallerstein I, et. al. (2013) Uncertain Worlds: World-Systems Analysis in Changing Times, New York: Oxford University Press.
Hazelkorn, E. (2011) Ranking and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The battle for world-class excellence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wacquant, L. et al. (2014) Territorial Stigmatisation in Action, Environment and Planning A, 46:1270–1280.

 

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