confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Tag: Discourse

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.

On ‘boundary objects’, higher education and the knowledge economy

My Friday’s teaching was all sorted, or so I thought.

At the morning’s MA in Academic Practice/Higher Education Research Group session we were looking forward to a presentation on the use of phenomenography in exploring academic practice.  The afternoon’s workshop on ‘supporting postgraduate research student writing’ was organised around three guest speakers.  I could, so I imagined, put my feet up and just enjoy it.

Not quite.

There has been a nasty flu working its way around Galway and I was nursing my own version of it when I received a call from the colleague booked in to do the phenomenography session.  He was down with the flu and not able to present.

Feeling under the weather myself I seriously thought about just cancelling the morning and keeping my energy for the afternoon and the three hour drive home later.

As I sat in my chair feeling sorry for myself my mind kept coming back to this void on Friday morning, troubling me, not letting me rest.  Did I value the afternoon group more than the Friday morning one? Of course not.  I enjoy the quality of the discussions in this group and knew that if I stayed in bed then I would not relax anyway.  I started to think about my current writing project and wondered about talking about this.  But how to structure it?  I had a successful conference abstract but I wasn’t up (psychologically) for sharing my autoethnographic method just yet.  What else did I have.  I started looking through my Prezi folder and came across a presentation that brought a smile to my face.

It was a presentation I had given back in 2012 to a different group of students and explored the conceptual exploration I was conducting at the time that I hoped would lead to a publication.  But that was just before I became ill and ended up taking 2 years off work.  A life time ago it felt.  But I remembered how I had enjoyed the ideas contained in this presentation and wondered if I could share this now.

An hour later, and after a little polishing up, I had Friday morning’s session covered [http://tinyurl.com/palt84r].

The presentation examined the way discourses of the knowledge based economy, as applied to higher education, worked as a boundary object. I had come across the concept of ‘boundary object’ while reading a brilliant book by the Austrian academic Herbert Gottweiss.  In his book ‘Governing Molecules: The Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the United States‘ Gottweiss discusses the way ‘boundary objects’ produce policy effects.  This captured my imagination.  I will come back to his argument but for the moment what attracted me was the way the concept could be related to the way discourses of the knowledge based economy appeared to be reformulating the structure and content of academic practice.

Gottweiss referenced the work of Susan Starr and Graham Griesemer in their 1989 article ‘Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and BoundaryObjects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39‘.  Starr and Griesemer propose that a central problematic of the scientific enterprise is how the different social actors can communicate effectively.  Using the Berkeley Museum as a case study they inquire into how a) scientific enterprise often involves a diversity of actors from different social worlds, and b) necessitates communication between scientific and non-scientific actors.  The work of higher education involves a range of social actors – academics, administrators, politicians, students, employers, civil servants, etc.  There is an inevitable tension between diversity and cooperation.  It is in this tension that ‘boundary objects’ operate to facilitate cooperation or communication across this diversity:

Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them,yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. These objects may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation (393).

For Starr and Griesemer ‘boundary objects’ work because they are simultaneously abstract and concrete.  Conservation of the flora and fauna of California became the ‘boundary object’ that enabled different social worlds (scientific inquiry, university administration, local benefactors, local naturalists, etc.) to cooperate, a point of convergence for their different and potentially conflicting visions.  Funds can be attracted for the establishment and running of the museum, benefactors and collectors alike can acquire prestige, academics can expand their knowledge.  Conservation, meaning quite different things to each social world, can be plastic enough to mean something substantial (concrete) to each.

Similarly, the knowledge based economy works as such a ‘boundary object’, allowing for an overlapping of economic, academic, administrative, and political domains.  So successful is it that when we use or read a term such as ‘the knowledge based economy and higher education’ we are not fazed by its originality.  It passes as common sense, it appears to us as a necessary articulation.  Its arbitrariness does not immediately stand out.  Yet, a moments reflection sees the apparent obviousness of the construction fall apart.  Its political nature becomes clearly revealed.  How are these separate words – ‘knowledge’, ‘economy’, ‘higher education’ put together, and how do they construct new meaning?

This is where Herbert Gottweiss came in.

Gottweiss picks up the concept of ‘boundary object’ and re-articulates it through a Foucauldian lens. In this way Gottweiss provides policy discourse with an active role.  The knowledge based economy therefore does important policy work.

This resonated with those at the MA session on Friday morning.  The knowledge based economy was full of significance and empty at the same time.  One contribution to discussion focused on the way we engage in funding applications.  In many respects the particular formulations and key terms are meaningless, and we know it, but they are essential and act as points of obligatory passage.  As such they force us, if we are to engage in the funding game at all, to take them seriously.  We gear our research concerns around their fundability.

Of course, at a more profound level ‘boundary objects’ such as the knowledge based economy re-structure our working practices and our identities.

The conclusion to my presentation sought to capture the profundity of this.  I argue that the discourse of the knowledge based economy and higher education produces three main effects:

  • it creates new objects of higher education – innovation, commercialization, and knowledge transfer
  • it creates new subjects of higher education – students acting as consumers, academics as product innovators, and managers delivering against performance indicators
  • it creates new social relations – academic work is seen as servicing economic activity

It is not that higher education has never been involved in innovation, commercialisation or knowledge transfer before.  Academics have always been innovative, but we are increasingly being required or judged against particular constructions of ‘innovation’ that are determined by their immediate application to commercial activity.  As well as funding for the humanities and social sciences being cut in favour of the STEM subjects, we see basic scientific research sacrificed at the alter of applied science.  The same with commercialisation (of which the tradition of academic publishing is a feature) and knowledge transfer (another name for teaching?).  I raised the prospect that if these criteria had been applied to the revolution in physics that revolved around quantum mechanics we would not be living in the digital age we are.  There is an irony that the simplistic economic rationalism driving current  higher education reform could have prevented the amazing applications we now take for granted, micro-computers, iPhones, and the internet.

Similarly, it is not enough for academics to be involved in the business of knowledge production, we need to be ‘product innovators’.  This happens when we loose grip on the ideal of the free flow of knowledge and see knowledge as a commodity that requires increasingly restrictive intellectual property rights.   Would Peter Higgs (who received a Nobel Prize for his work on the ‘God particle’) have lasted in the modern university with its obsession for ‘key performance indictors’ such as research publications?  Many of those present on Friday morning attested to the way such KPIs were affecting what and how to conduct research, questioning whether this was driven by ‘scientific inquiry’ or bureaucratic aspiration.

And finally, while education has always had an economic function, I have deep concerns about the way this is conceived in policy thinking.

I left the session excited about this earlier conceptual work and a desire to get back to it soon.

Helen Kara

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