The marketisation of scholarship is inducing a strange culture of intellectual mediocrity in academia – especially within the humanities.
Mark Carney’s first Reith Lecture warned of the:
Corrosion of values arising from pricing of goods, services and civic virtues, that have been traditionally outside the market, and the flattening of values by forcing decisions to be made according to utilitarian calculations”.
Views like this are not especially novel, but now they even bleed out of the conscience of intelligent capitalism. The university sector should take heed – not just with respect to higher education, but academic scholarship too.
Once upon a time, academics were surprisingly good at being scholars. They were given a mandate to develop their craft largely free from external pressures and returned the favour by engendering idiosyncratic wisdom, idiosyncratically. They used their talent and vocation to participate in the real world through critical reading, thinking, and writing; teaching, learning, and debating. They were well-read. They were smart. And, they had something to say. The power of these virtues was to be found in the way that others listened.
Now, “academics have internalised the language of contribution to economic growth”. A lexicon of research outputs, impact, and environment, as well as knowledge exchange and student satisfaction, is indicative – of a perfunctory, materialistic enterprise that enacts a category mistake upon scholarship before reducing what is left to a quantitative product with market value. The raison d’être of academics is to create an ongoing business case for their own existence within a market society.
This contrast between past and present is not designed to make a virtue out of some dubious nostalgia for those old days that harboured too much arrogance and inequality, but rather to establish a critical perspective on current practice.
The road to hell has been paved with good intentions.
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) tries to justify publicly funded intellectual labour in a democratic society and to some extent serves as a useful measure of what academics do. But its neoliberal principles redefine scholarship as “research” with the kind of inputs and outputs that are prone to awkward manipulation.
Marketisation breeds marketing. If only this stopped with the cringeworthy, and sometimes misleading, slogans used by universities to promote themselves at every opportunity. The problem is that a drive to be better sidesteps the principle of academic meritocracy in favour of an aspiration to be niche in the market.
The rhetoric of being niche reflects and gives further expression to a phenomenon whereby universities conspire to make academic meritocracy a function of institutional fit. Here, a commitment to scholarship is replaced with a division of labour that aims to maximise “excellence” across a range of key performance indicators – the nature of which does not so much measure scholarship as create a market-orientated substitute in the form of research. The consequences of this are both numerous and disastrous.
The REF has given rise to a fetish for novelty. It is easier to utilise the vogueishness of a fresh paradigm to lay claim to originality than it is to craft a new intervention in an established field of enquiry. It is easier to become world-leading in emerging specialism than it is in an established one. It therefore becomes expedient to perpetually innovate. And, yet, the subsequent revolving door of expertise has insidious implications for the sustainability of scholarly skills and standards, as well as academic careers.
The REF has given rise to a fetish for money. An imperative amongst grant awarding bodies to make funded research value for money ensures that successful applications typically operate on the basis of fulfilling readily achievable objectives. An imperative amongst academics to secure funding means that they set aside vast swaths of time, in which they would otherwise be doing research, to the business of writing grant applications. Success is premised not so much on intellectual ability or integrity, as on rhetorical acumen. This then aids a feedback loop whereby universities come to care less and less about the content or quality of research and more and more about the amount of money it generates.
The culture of knowledge exchange is no less problematic. Academic talking heads are typically deployed to exude authority, rather than insight. New generation thinkers are becoming media savvy presenters of academic content in a way that renders their own capacities as scholars increasingly superfluous. The temptation of self-aggrandisement is also never far away. Much of the current strain of public engagement is a perverse antithesis of the role undertaken by the public intellectual.
Research-led teaching is enveloped in dubious ideologies of research-informed learning etc., before it collapses under the weight of appeals to student satisfaction. The success or failure of a module becomes dependent upon its popularity amongst students and so the undergraduate curriculum is increasingly dominated by commodified modules contrived to fulfil student wants. Here, the market requires privileged access to experts but not the professional fruits of scholarly expertise.
It is a tragic irony that the very processes designed to make academic research relevant and meaningful to society are undermining its own intellectual credibility to do just that. Academic departments now hire and promote staff not so much on scholarly merit as on an ability to fulfil a market defined role. Little wonder that fewer and fewer academics have anything to say – and fewer and fewer people listen.
Use it or lose it
A call to reform may seem wistfully idealistic, but it is actually brutally realistic. Good scholars do not appear on this earth by magic, they emerge through the practice and practise of good scholarship. The more time we disengage from the virtues of scholarship to perform research for market value, the more we condemn our collective future to an unprecedented level of intellectual mediocrity in academia.
The grand aim for reform would be to make good on Mark Carney’s intervention by divesting a suitable portion of academia from the market so as to renew the intellectual credibility and moral value of our scholarship. Some limited objectives might include: withdrawing doctoral studies from the commodifying forces of the REF, de-emphasizing instrumentalism in the humanities, and formulating a scheme for paid no-strings sabbatical leave. However, such proposals may be dismissed as unrealistic without a change in culture. What is really needed is a new mandate to reflexively renegotiate the very principles of scholarship within our professional endeavour.
In a post-pandemic world, the issue at hand should be viewed in similar terms to securing other parts of our national infrastructure for future generations. Assuming that the Government will not take the lead on this, organisations such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, and the Russell Group must find it within themselves to work with one another to be the change we need to see. The nudge might just come from the fact that in these chastened times we can ill-afford the bureaucratic structures of research excellence in their present form. So, let us use this opportunity to renew the value of scholarship in and for our society.