Thinking knowledge production without the university

This is a collaborative blog post leading up to the panel Undisciplining: thinking knowledge production without the university at The Sociological Review’s annual conference Undisciplining: conversations from the edges, Newcastle, Gateshead, 18-21 June 2018.


Jana Bacevic

If it is true that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is still easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of universities. In fact, most critics of contemporary knowledge capitalism assert that The University needs to be rescued, saved, or defended in the face of the neoliberal behemoth. Forms of imagination that hope to bring about the end of capitalism all-too-easily assume that whatever will come after the end of capitalism will see the university preserved or, better still, resurrected in a form that is often eerily reminiscent of the (myth of) the ivory tower: isolated, independent, self-sufficient, and, of course, accessible only to a minority. While rightfully identifying important challenges associated with the political and economic transformation of knowledge production, then, they often fail to challenge the assumptions about the institution strongly ingrained in the imaginaries of Western modernity – The University.

“If it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is still easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of universities.”

Our panel starts from the assumption that effective resistance to forms of exploitation and inequality perpetuated, in part, via institutions of knowledge production requires us to theoretically ‘disassemble’ the university both as an ideal-type and as a spatially and temporally situated assemblage of material and immaterial forces. In other words: in order to understand the ways in which modes and systems of knowledge production interact with social and political structures, we need to be able to think about knowledge production without the university.

This theoretical experiment (contradiction intended) requires probing concepts such as education, publishing, or community organising, and imagine what they would look like in practice absent the university. Obviously, this requires us to dismantle our own tools and concepts in order to undo the classed, raced, and gendered intellectual histories of critical thinking that are already informed by the university. Obviously, we can never fully succeed; but we believe it’s worth trying. We invite you to join us in this effort.

Below we’ll be publishing short reflections from panel participants on different aspects of knowledge production, including learning, writing/publishing, organising, and funding. You are welcome to comment, ask questions, or offer to write your own blog in response – we’ll be happy to publish it here!

The workshop takes place on 20th June 2018, 14-15.30, Meeting Room on Level 3. Please note it’s important to pre-register as organisers need to know the numbers of attendants – you can do that here. We look forward to seeing you.

How can we confront organizational issues related to working outside/on the boundaries of universities?

Sinéad D’Silva

25 May 2018

I will present an example of practice from the Global South, with the hope to reflect on potential improvement in the Global North, challenging the notion that the university is the only space in which knowledge can be produced and engaged with. For this blog post, however, I wish to focus on the situation in the UK and begin the discussion about potential issues that may arise as we begin to think of working outside the university. In some ways these are critiques of current attempts to go beyond institutional confines. I pose some questions to think through in terms of practicalities.

The first question that could be asked is: who are the experts when we move out of the university to produce knowledge? This question is perhaps an epistemological one in which we need to re-think the idea of ‘an expert’ and arguably its audience. On the one hand there are ‘public lectures’, many of which are carried out within the confines of the institutional buildings and predominantly attended by university students and academic staff – I am yet to see support and other staff attend these. On the other hand there are events like Pint of Science, made to interest the common folk who obviously hang out at the pub. In both instances, and the spectrum in between, the all-knowing university folk organise and present these opportunities for the public to engage with the self-proclaimed brilliant work taking place at the university. There are also some assumptions regarding who actually attends these events, and a stereotyping of the ways in which those outside of the university live (and produce knowledge), maintaining a sense of university exceptionalism.

This leads on to a second question regarding inclusion, and the potential for elitism to thrive at such events. How does EVERYONE become part of knowledge production? During the USS strikes earlier this year, many university Unions put together Teach Outs with events ranging from talks, discussions, film screening, poetry-reading, walks, language classes, health and fitness sessions – you name it! However I observed a severe shortcoming as I handed out information leaflets and Teach Outs on the picket line. Here is where I will call out my own faults – these leaflets did not reach non-university-going people. Furthermore, what seemed to have been forgotten – and from my Twitter feed it seems to have been the case in a number of other universities – was to physically move beyond the immediate vicinity of the university buildings. This implies that we were catering to the same people who already are included in such events were they to take place on campus. As has been seen in recent days, and known to be the case earlier, universities in the UK are often isolating and exclusionary places for students from working class backgrounds, as well as for BME staff and students alike. Failure to actively engage with excluded sections of society only serves to reproduce these problems. One might offer a simple (rather obvious) suggestion that local community centres could actively be engaged with for such activities.

Finally, when we have confronted these aspects, and perhaps something we should have thought of to begin with, how might such initiatives be sustained to ensure longevity? For example, it is often the case that at the end of a community-based research project, said community is long forgotten. Therefore, it is important to think of such initiatives beyond the confines of the hegemonic, neoliberal university and its structures when considering how knowledge can be produced outside. Such an initiative must achieve collective ownership, which need not exclude the university. That is, the university can still play a role in knowledge production beyond its existence, through, for example, the exploitation of resources within it (books, equipment, spaces and so on). Furthermore this needs to be sustained over generations, which cannot be done unless it becomes part of community social practice. The power of universities need to be broken down. However, as we negotiate this change, it also raises the awkward question about financing knowledge production outside the university, to which I have no answers.

“The power of universities needs to be broken down.”

Through these questions I have attempted to argue for thinking of knowledge production outside or beyond the university to be meaningful and non-hegemonic, inclusive and geographically accessible, and in a sense cross-generational. These can greatly complement the empowerment of communities often facing gentrification as universities continue to grow and studentify their associated geographies.


Cesar Guzman-Concha

28 May 2018

We all feel uncomfortable with the current state of affairs in the university system, yet most of us attempt to accommodate ourselves to this state of affairs. We are in and, to amplify the reach of our publications. We announce our latest published article in Facebook and Twitter, in the hope that that will amplify the reach of our publications among our colleagues. We have set up our Google scholar accounts, so we can demonstrate the real impact of our publications while showing to our current and future employers that we comply with the productivity benchmark. And we fantasize with winning a huge ERC or ECRC grant. But in so doing, we end up legitimizing and naturalizing a defined set of policies, the paradigm of the performance-based university.

Universities are the only job destination that most of us are willing to accept. Through our postgraduate education we have been trained to search the rewards that the university offers: reputation, status, middle class positions, secured jobs. This put many academics in a position of vulnerability: we are too willing to accept changes or conditions that make harder our insertion and progression in the academic career, because we are not willing to give up.

We are taught that to progress in our careers we must demonstrate merit or achievements. The culture of meritocracy is at the base of the modern university. But patronage, nepotism and parochialism are too often an insidious presence in recruitment and promotion. Groups such as women, migrants, blacks and persons from lower income backgrounds suffer marginalization in the academia. Budget cuts, originated in the 2008 financial crisis, created the perfect storm that justifies a radical marketization of the university. One of the main consequences is that innovation and creativity are undermined.

“Universities are the only job destination that most of us are willing to accept.”

Therefore, the main problem is the ecosystem in which universities are embedded. If we want to imagine new communities of knowledge, we must set them up in a new ecosystem, not governed by the same incentives, rewards and penalizations of the performance-based university. We should expand the space of knowledge creation and innovation beyond the borders of universities and explore new modes of organizing.

How to break with these logics? To think of alternatives beyond the university we have to find new models of funding, management, publication and dissemination of research and creation. Only an ecosystem that articulates at least these four components can offer a sustainable non-university system.

One might think that management is the least important component, as it seems that all depends on adequate funding. While funding is indeed very important, the organization of truly collaborative, horizontal, democratic and non-for-profit spaces of research and creation is a pre-condition to make these alternatives spaces attractive to the public. Why a potential benefactor should bother to make a financial contribution to such an endeavour? What is new in these spaces, that differentiates them from foundations and think-tanks? I suggest that the organizational form to be adopted should incorporate the aforementioned principles, as many experiences of the collaborative economy (for example, cooperatives) have already done.

Alternative sources of funding that can be explored include donations, crowdfunding and patronage (as in the Italian Renaissance), but avoiding being bought out by a single sponsor. Central to the new spaces are the collaborations with other actors of the third-sector, including foundations and think-tanks, as well as social movements organizations. The formation of networks of knowledge creation should thus become a central goal.


Delinking, decamping, deprofessionalising

Sarah Amsler

13 June 2018

I would like to begin by saying that I do not think everyone who studies and works in universities and who wishes to change them suffers from a crisis of imagination. Many people already do learn differently and struggle more to imagine what learning feels like with or within the university than without it. The harder thing to imagine for people who work for and study in universities in this wage-dependent society is constructing a different relationship between institutional and functionalist knowledge-making, on the one hand, and living and livelihood, on the other. What looks like a crisis of imagination is entangled with a crisis of social reproduction – and it cannot be confronted using the tools of academic knowledge production alone.

Here, ideas of ‘unlearning’ and ‘undisciplining’ and related others such as ‘delinking’ and epistemic disobedience can help. The concept of delinking was introduced by the Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano in the early 1990s as a radical mode of critique that integrates epistemic with institutional resistance to hegemonic structures of power. It is necessary, he wrote, to ‘liberate the production of knowledge, reflection, and communication from the pitfalls of European rationality/modernity’, including the instrumentalization of knowledge to maintain power that is ‘organized as inequality, discrimination, exploitation, and as domination’. I don’t think we need to throw our minds into imagining the end of the university as much as we need to throw our hearts into hastening the end of this situation – and we can do so from within as well as beyond the institution’s walls.

The epistemic activity of measuring research ‘impact’, for example, is a site of struggle within institutions. Riyad Shahjahan and Anne Wagner have just written a wonderful paper that shows how the quest for ontological security through hegemonic constructions of scholarly impact in universities produces colonizing subjectivities, socially damaging divisions, overly linear perceptions of time and ignorance about ways of knowing that open onto alternative ways of being in this already very wounded world. He then calls in the notion of Śūnyatā, from Japanese and Chinese epistemologies, to illustrate how understanding reality through a different ‘onto-epistemic grammar’ – in this case, as an infinitely interrelated universe of fundamentally unified beings – not only requires other ways of thinking about the relationship between knowledge and social change but denaturalises the desire to ‘have’ or demonstrate ‘impact’ itself. We can imagine the end of producing this aspect of producing knowledge in this way, and therefore imagine a limit on capitalist rationality and its institutional architecture in this form of life. These new horizons appear together because they are not separate.

Such action is complemented by the delinking from hegemonic logics that happens when we produce and validate knowledge, for reasons and with others that do not belong to, serve or need and obtain permission from the dominant knowledge institutions that credential and employ. Here we can work on ‘shifting the geography of reason’. While this idea signals ‘an attempt to displace the Eurocentric monopoly over reason…and to relocate reason in a different physical space’, it also allows us to map collective higher learning in a distributed way. The UK has a rich history of self-organized, independent, community-based and activist education at all levels from supplementary schooling to adult and workers’ education, and in a multitude of forms including hedge teaching, anarchist education, experimental communities and free universities. Informal practices of higher education, learning and inquiry exist today, although most are not recognised as part of the central nervous system of higher education (except as epistemically subordinate status as subjects for ‘knowledge exchange’ or objects of inquiry). Rather than seeking such incorporation, however, I think one of today’s challenges is to disidentify with the university’s corporate forms in order to expand space for the appearance and visibility of the ‘heterogeneous totalities’ of knowledge that already flourish beyond the academy on their own terms.

Invoking Quijano again, if the decolonial alternative is ‘the destruction of the coloniality of world power’, then we need epistemological and embodied grounds for an alternative rationality that recognises ‘other epistemologies, other principles of knowledge and understanding, and, consequently, other economies’, with special interest in those that have been denied recognition as knowledge. This provides opportunities to re-educate not only the desire for institutional recognition, but for the epistemic privilege that accrues to the educated expert. It demands that institutionalised scholars who are accustomed to ‘continuing professional development’ deprofessionalise. It is possible to imagine becoming epistemically and economically disobedient in this way, and in the process to educate radical change. Here again, the relocation of the university and the reconstruction of our relationship with capital are two faces of a single move.

Delinking from the modern corporate university epistemically, affectively and institutionally does not constitute systemic change on its own; [but] organised movements for radical change will only be possible when collective knowledge production and learning are decoupled from this hegemonic form.

Doing higher learning differently demands ‘border work’ across a plurality of different sites and forms of knowledge production. While delinking from the modern corporate university epistemically, affectively and institutionally does not constitute systemic change on its own, organised movements for radical change will only be possible when collective knowledge production and learning are decoupled from this hegemonic form. Once released, we can focus on visioning liberating knowledges as part of a humanising and sustainable form of life, rather than worrying over the future of the university and its associated employments. I’m with Richard: ‘at issue is how we find co-operative mechanisms for dissolving knowledge production that has been enclosed inside institutions into the fabric of society, in order to enable communities to widen their own spheres of autonomy.‘ Let’s work on this.


Writing our way out of neoliberalism? For an ecology of publishing 

Jana Bacevic

16 June 2018

What kind of writing and publishing practices might support knowledge that is not embedded in the neoliberal university? I’ve been interested in this question for a long while, in part because it is a really tough one. As academics – and certainly as academics in social sciences and humanities – writing and publishing is, ultimately, what we do. Of course, our work frequently also involves teaching – or, as those with a love for neat terminologies like to call it, ‘knowledge transmission’ – as well as different forms of its communication or presentation, which we (sometimes performatively) refer to as ‘public engagement’. Even those, however, often rely or at least lead to the production of written text of some sort: textbooks, academic blogs. This is no surprise: modern Western academic tradition is highly reliant on the written word. Obviously, in this sense, questions and problems of writing/publishing and its relationship with knowledge practices are both older and much broader than the contemporary economy of knowledge production, which we tend to refer to as neoliberal. They may also last beyond it, if, indeed, we can imagine the end of neoliberalism. However, precisely for this reason, it makes sense to think about how we might reconstruct writing and publishing practices in ways that weaken, rather than contribute to the reproduction of neoliberal practices of knowledge production.

Even forms of knowledge production that explicitly seek to disrupt neoliberal modes often rely on implicit assumptions that feed into the logic of evaluation and competition.

The difficulty with thinking outside of the current framework becomes apparent when we try thinking of the form these practices could take. While there are many publications  not directly contributing to the publishing industry – blogs, zines, open-access, collaborative, non-paywalled articles all come to mind – they all too easily become embedded in the same dynamic. As a result, they are either eschewed because ‘they do not count’, or else they are made to count (become countable) by being reinserted in the processes of valorisation via the proxy of ‘impact’. As I’ve argued in this article (written with my former colleague from the UNIKE (Universities in the knowledge economy) project, economic geographer Chris Muellerleile), even forms of knowledge production that explicitly seek to ‘disrupt’ such modes, such as Open Access or publish first/review later platforms, often rely on – even if implicit – assumptions that can feed into the logic of evaluation and competition. This is not saying that restricting access to scientific publications is in any way desirable. However, we need to accept that opening access (under certain circumstances, for certain parts of the population) does not in and of itself do much to ‘disrupt’ the broader political and economic system in which knowledge is embedded.

Publish or…publish 

Unsurprisingly,  the hypocrisy of the current system disproportionately affects early career and precarious scholars. ‘Succeeding’ in the academia – i.e. escaping precarity – hinges on publishing in recognised formats and outlets: this means, almost exclusively, peer-reviewed journal in one’s discipline, and books. The process is itself costly and risky. Turnover times can be ridiculously long: a chapter for an edited volume I wrote in July 2015 has finally been published last month, presumably because other – more senior, obviously – contributors took much longer. The chapter deals with a case from 2014, which makes the three-year lag between its accepted version and publication problematic for all sorts of reasons. On the other hand, even when good and relatively timely, the process of peer review can be soul-crushing for junior scholars (see: Reviewer No.2). Obviously, if this always resulted in a better final version of the article, we could argue it would make it worthwhile. However, while some peer reviewers offer constructive feedback that really improves the process of publication, this is not always the case. Increasingly, because peer review takes time and effort, it is kicked down the academic ladder, so it becomes a case of who can afford to review – or, equally (if not more) often, who cannot afford to say no a review.

In other words, just like other aspects of academic knowledge production, the reviewing and publishing process is plagued by stark inequalities. ‘Big names’ or star professors can get away with only perfunctory – if any – peer review; a series of clear cases of plagiarism or self-plagiarism, not to mention a string of recent books with bombastic titles that read like barely-edited transcripts of undergraduate seminars (there are plenty around), are a testament to this. Just in case, many of these ‘Trump academics‘ keep their own journals or book series as a side hustle, where the degree of familiarity with the editorial board is often the easiest path to publication.

What does this all lead to? The net result is the proliferation of academic publications of all sorts, what some scholars have dubbed the shift from an economy of scarcity to that of abundance. However, it’s not that more is necessarily better: while it’s difficult (if not entirely useless) to speak of scholarly publications in universal terms, as the frequently (mis-)cited piece of research argued, most academic articles are read and cited by very few people. It’s quite common for academics to complain they can’t keep up with the scholarly production in their field, even when narrowed down to a very tight disciplinary specialism. Some of this, obviously, has to do with the changing structure of academic labour, in particular the increasing load of administration and the endless rounds of research evaluation and grant application writing, which syphons aways time for reading. But some of this has to do with the simple fact that there is so much more of published stuff around: scholars compete with each other in terms of who’s going to get more ‘out there’, and sooner. As a result, people rarely take the time to read others’ work carefully, especially if it is outside of their narrow specialism or discipline. Substituting this with sycophantic shout-outs via Twitter or book reviews, which are often thinly veiled self-serving praise that reveals more about the reviewer’s career plans, than about the actual publication being reviewed.

For an ecology of knowledge production 

So, how is it possible to work against all this? Given that the purpose of this panel was to start thinking about actual solutions, rather than repeat tired complaints about the nature of knowledge production in the neoliberal academia, I am going to put forward two concrete proposals: one is on the level of conceptual – not to say ‘behavioural’ -change; the other on the level of institutions, or organisations. The first is a commitment to, simply, publish less. Much like in environmental pollution where solutions such as recycling, ‘natural’ materials, and free and ethical trading are a way less effective way to minimise Co2 emissions than just reducing consumption (and production), in writing and publishing we could move towards the progressive divestment from the idea that the goal is to produce as much as possible, and put it ‘out there’ as quickly as possible. To be clear, this isn’t a thinly-veiled plea for ‘slow’ scholarship. Some disciplines or topics clearly call for quicker turnover – one can think of analyses in current affairs, environmental or political science. On the other hand, some topics or disciplines require time, especially when there is value in observing how trends develop over a period of time. Recognising the divergent temporal cycles of knowledge production not only supports the dignity of the academic profession, but also recognises knowledge production happens outside of academia, and should not – need not – necessarily be dependent on being recognised or rewarded within it. As long as the system rewards output, the rate of output will tend to increase: in this sense, competition can be seen not necessarily as an outcome as much as a byproduct of our desire to ‘populate’ the world with the fruits of our labour. Publishing less, in this sense, is not that much a performative act as the first step in divesting from the incessant drive of competitive logic that permeates both the academia and the world ‘outside’ of it.

One way is to, simply, publish less.

Publishers play a very important role in this ecology of knowledge production. Much has been made of the so-called ‘predatory’ journals and publishers, clearly seeking even a marginal profit: the less often mentioned flipside is that almost all publishing is to some degree ‘predatory’, in the sense in which editors seek out authors whose work they believe can sell – that is, sell for a profit that goes to the publisher, and sometimes the editors, while authors can, at best, hope for an occasional drip from royalties (unless, again, they are star/Trump academics, in which case they can aspire to hefty book advances). Given the way in which the imperative to publish is ingrained in the dynamics of academic career progression – and, one might argue, in the academic psyche – it is no surprise that multiple publishing platforms, often of dubious quality, thrive in this landscape.

Instead of this, we could aim for a combination of publishing cooperatives – perhaps embedded in professional societies – and a small number of established journals, which could serve as platforms or hubs for a variety of formats, from blogs to full-blown monographs. These journals would have an established, publicly known, and well-funded board of reviewers and editors. Combined, these principles could enable publishing to serve multiple purposes, communities and formats, without the need to reproduce a harmful hierarchy embedded in competitive market-oriented models. It seems to me that the Sociological Review, which is organising this conference, could be  going towards this model. Another journal with multiple formats and an online forum is the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. I am sure there are others that could serve as blueprints for this new ecology of knowledge production; perhaps, together, we can start thinking how to build it.



#ResNet: Wheeling and Dealing in Education and Global Trade Agreements

By Susan Robertson 

As the minutes ticked down toward the final boarding call for my late evening train from London to Brussels, I was furiously typing up notes from a research report I had just read on the Trade in Services Agreement, otherwise known as TISA. The young man sitting next to me leaned over and asked if he could compliment me. He was particularly impressed at how rapidly I was writing. The conversation quickly turned to what I did, and what was I researching. I pointed out I was a sociologist of education located in a UK university, and that one of the things I was currently researching were global trade deals. I could hear more than a hint of incredulity in his voice. His face clouded over, and brow furrowed. ‘You work on global trade negotiations? But you are a sociologist of education?’ he remarked. ‘Quite!’ I replied. ‘But if education is included in trade deals, and seen as trade, what does this do to education as a public service?’ he remarked. ‘Quite!’ I replied again. ‘It changes it dramatically!’

I went on to explain that since the launch of the World Trade Organization in 1995, major efforts have been under way by interested countries and peak interest groups to include all levels of education in the agreements between Member States, with education seen as a services sector, along with finance, health, transport, and so on.  It also means education is talked about using a similar language to the describe used to describe global trade in goods: exporting and importing nations, national treatment, most-favoured nation, consumption abroad, and so on.

This is not the first time a casual conversation like this on education and global trade deals has ended with a sense of incredulity.  And for sure it will not be the last, as the full force of the global trade deals swing into action. Here I am referring to the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement between Europe and Canada (CETA), the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) between a number of the Pacific Rim Countries recently renamed as “the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the USA and Europe, and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) between the so-called ‘friends of services’ involving mostly Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, plus a few more.  For the moment, too, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is also being renegotiated.

What do all of these Agreements have in common? The first is that education is included as a tradeable services sector – in large part as it cannot be excluded – given the criteria for exclusion being it is supplied “…in the exercise of governmental authority”…and it is “…supplied neither on a commercial basis nor in competition with one or more service providers” (WTO, GATS Article 1.3). Think of any country where the state is the only provider of education, and where the service is provided without any hint of competition in the sector. Three decades of neoliberal policies in education has created the conditions for including education in trade.

The status of education as a genuine ‘public service’ in many countries has been precisely what the struggle over the privatisation of education is about. Countries and corporations have eyed up the profits to be made if education were to be constructed as a private good, bought and sold in the market place according to market rules, in turn protected by trade rules. To do this, public education sectors have been pushed to ‘unbundle’, and to think of their activities as ‘bundles of services’ – the lucrative ones being hived off to profit seeking firms.

Families, concerned publics, and educators, have rightly pointed out that education is not a bundle of services to be regulated by trade rules. Education – despite all of its weaknesses in making more equal societies, is nevertheless a key institution in creating societies and political citizens. Education – as a key sector within the social contract – must not service narrow economic interests.  The responsibility of all national governments, enshrined in international declarations, is that they must ensure good quality free public education is available as a human right, a societal good, and the basis on which to participate as an informed citizen, with political entitlements.

The second element many of these agreements have in common is that they represent efforts to limit the possibility of governments moving in the direction of more national ownership into the future. Causes like ‘standstill’, ‘ratchet’ and ‘negative list’ mean that a country cannot reverse away from where they currently are in the direction of less market. Add to this the ‘ratchet effect’ and this essentially means the only direction of travel for future policy is to become progressively organised through the market and open to investors, and not by the state. The ‘negative list’ is also particularly pernicious. It means negotiators have to list activities to be exempted now. Yet if we don’t know the future, because we can’t, then by definition, future developments are included. Heads the investors win, tails the investors win too.

A third element in common is lack of transparency. Most of the negotiations have been carried out in secret.  Yet despite the centrality of education to people’s lives – and that governments campaign on education as a big ticket item they hope politicians will honour – in effect global trade deals that include education make hollow any promise of democracy.

What in reality will this current round of global trade agreements include and promote?  It is clear such deals aim to hasten the liberalisation of education, loosening the protections around who can invest in what.  This means powerful countries and their corporations opening up new and emerging markets in education, with regulations by a country challenged if they are seen to be too burdensome.

It means transnational firms, as well as professionals (like teachers and academics) and other experts, being able to move over national borders more easily – under mutual recognition clauses. This will profoundly challenge the nature of professional knowledge and who gets to regulate it.

Governmental procurement contracts are to be open to all of the members of the agreement for tendering, unless specific annexes have been inserted which exempt which parts. Efforts will be made to regulate intellectual property and cross border information flows in ways that suit the large tech corporations rather than the knowledge producers and users.

Labour chapters in the agreements – whilst promising protections for workers – are largely hollow. In other words, current poor conditions for teachers are not seen as a breach of labour rights and only an erosion of already poor conditions will be considered. Further, cases of breaches can only be taken by governments, and not worker unions.  Not all governments take the side of workers, and indeed the opposite is mostly the case.

In 1999, the now infamous Battle in Seattle badly bruised the multilateral institutions involved in brokering the global trade agreements. By 2005, the World Trade Organization was limping along as the main negotiation forum for global trade deals. Yet as we have come to learn, the game is never over, and that indeed a new game of cat and mouse was launched.

And this brings us to where we are now; agreements that are in a state of either having been ratified, or in the wings, that promise to further transform education into a tradeable good, and in doing so, alter the conditions for democratic deliberation over one of the key rights we have as political citizens.

The young man at the train station was right to be confused and troubled, as this skewing of power in the direction of powerful investors sounds like fiction. But fiction it is not. We need a new Battle of Seattle that fires a broad warning shot over the bows of the greedy investors whose hopes are that education is the new gold. In their rush, we need to remind them that we are in a battle to secure education as a societal good and public service.  In acting, we need to make visible and contest the wheeling and dealing over including education in global trade agreements for what it is; a toxic mix of crude capitalism in profiteering from education.

This was originally published on Worlds of Education  

Is there such a thing as ‘centrist’ higher education policy?

By Jana Bacevic

This Thursday, I was at the Institute of Education in London, at the launch of David Willetts’ new book, A University Education. The book is another contribution to what I argued constitutes a veritable ‘boom’ in writing on the fate and future of higher education; my research is concerned, among other things, with the theoretical and political question of the relationship between this genre of critique and the social conditions of its production. However, this is not the only reason why I found it interesting: rather, it is because it sets out what may  become Conservatives’ future  policy for higher education. In broader terms, it’s an attempt to carve a political middle ground between Labour’s (supposedly ‘radical’) proposal for the abolition of fees, and the clear PR/political disaster that unmitigated marketisation of higher education has turned out to be. Differently put: it’s the higher education manifesto for what should presumably be the ‘middle’ of UK’s political spectrum.

The book

Critics of the transformation of UK higher education would probably be inclined to dismiss the book with a simple “Ah, Willetts: fees”. On the other hand, it has received a series of predominantly laudatory reviews – some of them, arguably, from people who know or have worked in the same sector as the author. Among the things the reviewers commend is the book’s impressive historical scope, as well as the additional value of ‘peppering’ with anecdotes from Willetts’ time as Minister for Universities and Science. There is substance to both: the anecdotes are sometimes straightforwardly funny, and the historical bits well researched, duly referencing notable predecessors from Kingsley Amis, through C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, to Halsey’s “Decline of Donnish Dominion” (though, as James Wilsdon remarked at the event, less so the more recent critics, such as Andrew McGettigan). Yet, what clearly stood out to me, on first reading, is that both historical and personal parts of the narrative are there to support the main argument: that market competition is, and was, the way to ‘solve’ problems of higher education (and, to some degree, the society in general); and that the government is uniquely capable of instituting such a market.

The development of higher education in Britain, in this sense, is told as the story of slow movement against the monopoly (or duopoly) of Oxford and Cambridge, and their selective, elitist model. Willetts recounts the struggle to establish what he (in a not particularly oblique invocation) refers to as ‘challenger’ institutions, from colleges that will become part of the University of London in the 19th century, all the way until Robbins and his own time in government. Fees, loans, and income-contingent repayment are, in this sense, presented as a way to solve the problem of expansion: in other words, their purpose was to make university education both more accessible (as admittance is no longer dependent on inherited privilege) and fairer (as the cost is defrayed not through all taxpayers but only through those who benefit directly from university education, and whose earnings reflect it).

Competition, competition, competition

Those familiar with the political economy of higher education will probably not have problems locating these ideas as part of a neoliberal playbook: competition is necessary to prevent the forming of monopolies, but the government needs to ensure competition actually happens, and this is why it needs to regulate a sector – but from a distance. I unfortunately have no time to get into this argument ; other authors, over the course of the last two decades, have engaged with various assumptions that underpin it. What I would like to turn to instead is the role that the presumably monopolistic ‘nature’ of universities plays in the argument.

Now, engaging with the critique of Oxford and Cambridge is tricky as it risks being interpreted (often, rightly) as a thinly veiled apology of their elitism. As a sociologist of higher education with first-hand experience of both, I’ve always been very – and vocally – far from uncritical endorsement of either. Yet, as Priyamvada Gopal noted not long ago, Oxbridge-bashing in itself constitutes an empty ritual that cannot replace serious engagement with social inequalities. In this sense, one of the reasons why English universities are hierarchical, elitist, and prone to reproducing accumulated privilege is because they are a reflection of their society: unequal, elitist, and fascinated with accumulated privilege (witness the obsession with the Royal Family). Of course, no one is blind to the role which institutions of higher education, and in particular elite universities, play in this. But thinking that ‘solving’ the problem of elite universities is going to solve society’s ills is, at best, an overestimation of their power, and at worst a category error.

Framing competition as a way to solve problems of inequality is, unfortunately, one of the cases where the treatment may be worse than the disease. British universities have shown a stubborn tendency to reproduce existing hierarchies no matter what attempts were made to challenge them – the abolition of differences between universities and polytechnics in 1992; the introduction of rankings and league tables; competitive research funding. The market, in this sense, acts not as “the great leveler” but rather as yet another way of instituting hierarchical relationships, except that mechanisms of reproduction are channeled away from professional (or professorial, in this case) control and towards the government, or, better still, towards supposedly independent and impartial regulatory bodies.

Of course, in comparison with Toby Young’s ‘progressive’ eugenics and rape jokes, Willetts’ take on higher education really sounds rather sensible. His critique of early specialisation is well placed; he addresses head-on the problem of equitable distribution; and, as reviews never tire of mentioning, he really knows universities. In other words: he sounds like one of us. Much like Andrew Adonis, on (presumably) other side of the political spectrum, who took issue with vice chancellors’ pay – one of the rare issues on which the opinion of academics is virtually undivided. But what makes these ideas “centrist” is not so much their actual content – like in the case of stopping Brexit, there is hardly anything wrong with ideas themselves  – as the fact that they seek to frame everything else as ‘radical’ or unacceptable.

What ‘everything else’ stands for in the case of higher education, however, is rather interesting. On the right-hand side, we have the elitism and high selectivity associated with Oxford and Cambridge. OK, one might say, good riddance! On the left, however – we have abolishing tuition fees. Not quite the same, one may be inclined to note.

There ain’t gonna be any middle anymore

Unfortunately, the only thing that makes the idea of abolishing tuition so ‘radical’ in England is its highly stratified social structure. It makes sense to remember that, among OECD countries, the UK is one with the lowest public and highest private expenditure on higher education as percentage of GDP. This means that the cost of higher education is disproportionately underwritten by individuals and their families. In lay terms, this means that public money that could be supporting higher education is spent elsewhere. But it also means something much more problematic, at least judging from the interpretation of this graph recently published by Branko Milanovic.

Let’s assume that the ‘private’ cost of higher education in the UK is currently mostly underwritten by the middle classes (this makes sense both in terms of who goes to university, and who pays for it). If the trends Milanovic analyses continue, not only is the income of middle classes likely to stagnate, it is – especially in the UK, given the economic effects of Brexit – likely to decline. This has serious consequences for the private financing of higher education. In one scenario, this means more loans, more student debt, and the creation of a growing army of indebted precarious workers. In another, to borrow from Pearl Jam, there ain’t gonna be any middle anymore: the middle-class families who could afford to pay for their children’s higher education will become a minority.

This is why there is no ‘centrist’ higher education policy. Any approach to higher education that does not first address longer-term social inequalities is unlikely to work; in periods of economic contraction, such as the one Britain is facing, it is even prone to backfire. Education policies, fundamentally, can do two things: one is to change how things are; the other is to make sure they stay the same. Arguing for a ‘sensible’ solution usually ends up doing the latter.


Recovering the political in the idea of education as a public good – and why this matters

By Susan Robertson

Between legitimation and imagination: epistemic attachment, ontological bias, and thinking about the future

By Jana Bacevic

A serious line of division runs through my household. It does not concern politics, music, or even sports: it concerns the possibility of large-scale collapse of social and political order, which I consider very likely. Specific scenarios aside for the time being, let’s just say we are talking more human-made climate-change-induced breakdown involving possibly protracted and almost certainly lethal conflict over resources, than ‘giant asteroid wipes out Earth’ or ‘rogue AI takes over and destroys humanity’.

Ontological security or epistemic positioning?

It may be tempting to attribute the tendency towards catastrophic predictions to psychological factors rooted in individual histories. My childhood and adolescence took place alongside the multi-stage collapse of the country once known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. First came the economic crisis, when the failure of ‘shock therapy’ to boost stalling productivity (surprise!) resulted in massive inflation; then social and political disintegration, as the country descended into a series of violent conflicts whose consequences went far beyond the actual front lines; and then actual physical collapse, as Serbia’s long involvement in wars in the region was brought to a halt by the NATO intervention in 1999, which destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, including parts of Belgrade, where I was living at the time*. It makes sense to assume this results in quite a different sense of ontological security than one, say, the predictability of a middle-class English childhood would afford.

But does predictability actually work against the capacity to make accurate predictions? This may seem not only contradictory but also counterintuitive – any calculation of risk has to take into account not just the likelihood, but also the nature of the source of threat involved, and thus necessarily draws on the assumption of (some degree of) empirical regularity. However, what about events outside of this scope? A recent article by Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde offers a good formalization of this problem (the Black Swans and ‘unknown unknowns’) in the context of the (limited) possibility to imagine different outcomes (see table below). Of course, as Beck noted a while ago, the perception of ‘risk’ (as well as, by extension, any other kind of future-oriented thinking) is profoundly social: it depends on ‘calculative devices‘ and procedures employed by networks and institutions of knowledge production(universities, research institutes, think tanks, and the like), as well as on how they are presented in, for instance, literature and the media.

Screen shot 2017-12-18 at 3.58.23 PM
From: Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde: Unknowns, Black Swans and the risk/uncertainty distinction, Cambridge Journal of Economics 41 (5), August 2017, 1279-1302

Unknown unknowns

In The Great Derangement (probably the best book I’ve read in 2017), Amitav Gosh argues that this can explain, for instance, the surprising absence of literary engagement with the problem of climate change. The problem, he claims, is endemic to Western modernity: a linear vision of history cannot conceive of a problem that exceeds its own scale**. This isn’t the case only with ‘really big problems’ such as economic crises, climate change, or wars: it also applies to specific cases such as elections or referendums. Of course, social scientists – especially those qualitatively inclined – tend to emphasise that, at best, we aim to explain events retroactively. Methodological modesty is good (and advisable), but avoiding thinking about the ways in which academic knowledge production is intertwined with the possibility of prediction is useless, for at least two reasons.

One is that, as reflected in the (by now overwrought and overdetermined) crisis of expertise and ‘post-truth’, social researchers increasingly find themselves in situations where they are expected to give authoritative statements about the future direction of events (for instance, about the impact of Brexit). Even if they disavow this form of positioning, the very idea of social science rests on (no matter how implicit) assumption that at least some mechanisms or classes or objects will exhibit the same characteristics across cases; consequently, the possibility of inference is implied, if not always practised. Secondly, given the scope of challenges societies face at present, it seems ridiculous to not even attempt to engage with – and, if possibly, refine – the capacity to think how they will develop in the future. While there is quite a bit of research on individual predictive capacity and the way collective reasoning can correct for cognitive bias, most of these models – given that they are usually based on experiments, or simulations – cannot account for the way in which social structures, institutions, and cultures of knowledge production interact with the capacity to theorise, model, and think about the future.

The relationship between social, political, and economic factors, on the one hand, and knowledge (including knowledge about those factors), on the other, has been at the core of my work, including my current PhD. While it may seem minor compared to issues such as wars or revolutions, the future of universities offers a perfect case to study the relationship between epistemic positioning, positionality, and the capacity to make authoritative statements about reality: what Boltanski’s sociology of critique refers to as ‘complex externality’. One of the things it allowed me to realise is that while there is a good tradition of reflecting on positionality (or, in positivist terms, cognitive ‘bias’) in relation to categories such as gender, race, or class, we are still far from successfully theorising something we could call ‘ontological bias’: epistemic attachment to the object of research.

The postdoctoral project I am developing extends this question and aims to understand its implications in the context of generating and disseminating knowledgethat can allow us to predict – make more accurate assessments of – the future of complex social phenomena such as global warming or the development of artificial intelligence. This question has, in fact, been informed by my own history, but in a slightly different manner than the one implied by the concept of ontological security.

Legitimation and prediction: the case of former Yugoslavia

Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had a relatively sophisticated and well developed networks of social scientists, which both of my parents were involved in***. Yet, of all the philosophers, sociologists, political scientists etc. writing about the future of the Yugoslav federation, only one – to the best of my knowledge – predicted, in eerie detail, the political crisis that would lead to its collapse: Bogdan Denitch, whose Legitimation of a revolution: the Yugoslav case (1976) is, in my opinion, one of the best books about former Yugoslavia ever written.

A Yugoslav-American, Denitch was a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. He was also a family friend, a fact I considered of little significance (having only met him once, when I was four, and my mother and I were spending a part of our summer holiday at his house in Croatia; my only memory of it is being terrified of tortoises roaming freely in the garden), until I began researching the material for my book on education policies and the Yugoslav crisis. In the years that followed (I managed to talk to him again in 2012; he passed away in 2016), I kept coming back to the question: what made Denitch more successful in ‘predicting’ the crisis that would ultimately lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia than virtually anyone writing on Yugoslavia at the time?

Denitch had a pretty interesting trajectory. Born in 1929 to Croat Serb parents, he spent his childhood in a series of countries (including Greece and Egypt), following his diplomat father; in 1946, the family emigrated to the United States (the fact his father was a civil servant in the previous government would have made it impossible for them to continue living in Yugoslavia after the Communist regime, led by Josip Broz Tito, formally took over). There, Denitch (in evident defiance of his upper-middle-class legacy) trained as a factory worker, while studying for a degree in sociology at CUNY. He also joined the Democratic Socialist Alliance – one of American socialist parties – whose member (and later functionary) he would remain for the rest of his life.

In 1968, Denitch was awarded a major research grant to study Yugoslav elites. The project was not without risks: while Yugoslavia was more open to ‘the West’ than other countries in Eastern Europe, visits by international scholars were strictly monitored. My mother recalls receiving a house visit from an agent of the UDBA, the Yugoslav secret police – not quite the KGB but you get the drift – who tried to elicit the confession that Denitch was indeed a CIA agent, and, in the absence of that, the promise that she would occasionally report on him****.

Despite these minor throwbacks, the research continued: Legitimation of a revolution is one of its outcomes. In 1973, Denitch was awarded a PhD by the Columbia University and started teaching at CUNY, eventually retiring in 1994. His last book, Ethnic nationalism: the tragic death of Yugoslavia came out in the same year, a reflection on the conflict that was still going on at the time, and whose architecture he had foreseen with such clarity eighteen years earlier (the book is remarkably bereft of “told-you-so”-isms, so warmly recommended for those wishing to learn more about Yugoslavia’s dissolution).

Did personal history, in this sense, have a bearing on one’s epistemic position, and by extension, on the capacity to predict events? One explanation (prevalent in certain versions of popular intellectual history) would be that Denitch’s position as both a Yugoslav and an American would have allowed him to escape the ideological traps other scholars were more likely to fall into. Yugoslavs, presumably,  would be at pains to prove socialism was functioning; Americans, on the other hand, perhaps egalitarian in theory but certainly suspicious of Communist revolutions in practice, would be looking to prove it wasn’t, at least not as an economic model. Yet this assumption hardly stands even the lightest empirical interrogation. At least up until the show trials of Praxis philosophers, there was a lively critique of Yugoslav socialism within Yugoslavia itself; despite the mandatory coating of jargon, Yugoslav scholars were quite far from being uniformly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about socialism. Similarly, quite a few American scholars were very much in favour of the Yugoslav model, eager, if anything, to show that market socialism was possible – that is, that it’s possible to have a relatively progressive social policy and still be able to afford nice things. Herein, I believe, lies the beginning of the answer as to why neither of these groups was able to predict the type or the scale of the crisis that will eventually lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.

Simply put, both groups of scholars depended on Yugoslavia as a source of legitimation of their work, though for different reasons. For Yugoslav scholars, the ‘exceptionality’ of the Yugoslav model was the source of epistemic legitimacy, particularly in the context of international scientific collaboration: their authority was, in part at least, constructed on their identity and positioning as possessors of ‘local’ knowledge (Bockman and Eyal’s excellent analysis of the transnational roots of neoliberalism makes an analogous point in terms of positioning in the context of the collaboration between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ economists). In addition to this, many of Yugoslav scholars were born and raised in socialism: while, some of them did travel to the West, the opportunities were still scarce and many were subject to ideological pre-screening. In this sense, both their professional and their personal identity depended on the continued existence of Yugoslavia as an object; they could imagine different ways in which it could be transformed, but not really that it could be obliterated.

For scholars from the West, on the other hand, Yugoslavia served as a perfect experiment in mixing capitalism and socialism. Those more on the left saw it as a beacon of hope that socialism need not go hand-in-hand with Stalinist-style repression. Those who were more on the right saw it as proof that limited market exchange can function even in command economies, and deduced (correctly) that the promise of supporting failing economies in exchange for access to future consumer markets could be used as a lever to bring the Eastern Bloc in line with the rest of the capitalist world. If no one foresaw the war, it was because it played no role in either of these epistemic constructs.

This is where Denitch’s background would have afforded a distinct advantage. The fact his parents came from a Serb minority in Croatia meant he never lost sight of the salience of ethnicity as a form of political identification, despite the fact socialism glossed over local nationalisms. His Yugoslav upbringing provided him not only with fluency in the language(s), but a degree of shared cultural references that made it easier to participate in local communities, including those composed of intellectuals. On the other hand, his entire professional and political socialization took place in the States: this meant he was attached to Yugoslavia as a case, but not necessarily as an object. Not only was his childhood spent away from the country; the fact his parents had left Yugoslavia after the regime change at the end of World War II meant that, in a way, for him, Yugoslavia-as-object was already dead. Last, but not least, Denitch was a socialist, but one committed to building socialism ‘at home’. This means that his investment in the Yugoslav model of socialism was, if anything, practical rather than principled: in other words, he was interested in its actual functioning, not in demonstrating its successes as a marriage of markets and social justice. This epistemic position, in sum, would have provided the combination needed to imagine the scenario of Yugoslav dissolution: a sufficient degree of attachment to be able to look deeply into a problem and understand its possible transformations; and a sufficient degree of detachment to be able to see that the object of knowledge may not be there forever.

Onwards to the…future?

What can we learn from the story? Balancing between attachment and detachment is, I think, one of the key challenges in any practice of knowing the social world. It’s always been there; it cannot be, in any meaningful way, resolved. But I think it will become more and more important as the objects – or ‘problems’ – we engage with grow in complexity and become increasingly central to the definition of humanity as such. Which means we need to be getting better at it.


(*) I rarely bring this up as I think it overdramatizes the point – Belgrade was relatively safe, especially compared to other parts of former Yugoslavia, and I had the fortune to never experience the trauma or hardship people in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, or Croatia did.

(**) As Jane Bennett noted in Vibrant Matter, this resonates with Adorno’s notion of non-identity in Negative Dialectics: a concept always exceeds our capacity to know it. We can see object-oriented ontology, (e.g. Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects) as the ontological version of the same argument: the sheer size of the problem acts as a deterrent from the possibility to grasp it in its entirety.

(***) This bit lends itself easily to the Bourdieusian “aha!” argument – academics breed academics, etc. The picture, however, is a bit more complex – I didn’t grow up with my father and, until about 16, had a very vague idea of what my mother did for a living.

(****) Legend has it my mother showed the agent the door and told him never to call on her again, prompting my grandmother – her mother – to buy funeral attire, assuming her only daughter would soon be thrown into prison and possibly murdered. Luckily, Yugoslavia was not really the Soviet Union, so this did not come to pass.