Talk: the Idea of a Digital University, David Berry, 12 June 4-5.30PM

12 June, 4-5.30pm, Faculty of Education, 184 Hills Rd., Donald Macintyre Building, Room 2S3 (second floor)

In this talk, I set out to examine the ways in which the university, as an idea, was discussed, written about and actively debated over a long period of history.  I aim to develop a set of critical research questions and problematics in relation to the university, and also to reassemble a set of concepts for thinking about the university in a digital age. When and why the question of the “idea of a university” becomes important? Are there particular historical patterns or social conflicts that generate the conditions for the questioning of the university? Why has the university become such an important site of criticism today?

I also think it is important to ask who it is that is thinking about the idea of a university in each period, as this is, I think, another important aspect to explain both the specificity of the questioning, but also the kinds of answers that are generated in each historical period. Lastly, I want to highlight that asking the question of the idea of the university is important for another reason, and that is that it brings to the fore moments when the university itself is under contestation, whether by the academics and staff that inhabit it, by the state, or from other social forces that may create the conditions for the university’s radical reconfiguration.

David M. Berry is Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex, Visiting Fellow at CRASSH and Wolfson College, Cambridge, and an associate member of the Faculty of History, University of Oxford.

His most recent books were Critical Theory and the Digital and Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age (with Anders Fagerjord).

All are welcome. The Faculty of Education is about 15′ cycle and 30′ walk from Central Cambridge, and 10′ from Cambridge train station.

Donald Macintyre Building is fully accessible.

For questions about the seminar, contact Jana Bacevic (


Social media habits and routines

By Tyler Shores

Over the past few weeks Mark Carrigan and I have been running a series of sessions on social media for academics at the Faculty of Education. One of the purposes of this series has been to try and develop a shared conversation amongst those in the Faculty who are interested in such topics: why to use social media in the first place; how to get the most out of social media; what social media practices mean for us as academics; and other related issues.

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 13.14.17

Mark did an excellent post in advance of our May 1st session, talking about how he integrates his social media use into his everyday practices — using social media for teaching, for writing, and for thinking.

I started thinking along related lines, in terms of what our social media use means to us on a day to day basis. For example, the average adult is spending around two and a half hours to almost three hours on social media per day by some estimates. Those figures really don’t feel terribly surprising. That is a lot of time on social media, either in dedicated blocks of time or interstitial moments that we manage to fill in between other tasks and our other non-social media things. One point that I took away from our session as well as the lively discussion was that it could be quite helpful to think more about our everyday routines; in this case, are our social media habits working for us? If not, why not?

As busy academics, many of us also worry about how much of a time suck social media can be on our seemingly already quite overburdened lives. For me, I find myself occasionally prone to bad (or perhaps more accurately, less helpful) social media habits and then become very mindful about wanting to fix them. Habits and routines are incredibly useful for our daily productive. Except of course, when they aren’t.

Not to mention social media apps are very, very good at making us want to use them and creating those kinds of habit loops:

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 13.14.31

Essentially, this formula breaks down to something like the following:

1) Cue = I am bored,

2) Routine = check Twitter, check Facebook, check email, repeat

3) Reward = sense of connection, sense of accomplishment getting rid of those notifications, positive reinforcement of getting likes!

There are a few quite useful apps that can help give you a distractions audit. A quicker and easier (but more approximate) way to get a more objective account on the most time-consuming apps is a quick check of the battery usage breakdown for iOS or for AndroidFor instance, I found myself checking social media out of sheer boredom more often than I would have liked (note: it was a lot). Therefore, I started to think about the kind of routine this was and what it meant for my day to day routine.

It’s not always easy to change those kinds of habits and routines that become so automatic. But I’ve found that taking even one initial moment to think about what and how you engage with social media can make a helpful difference. For me, time posting and engaging with others on social media felt purposeful, so I mentally have categories of social media use in mind whenever I pick up my phone:

  • Posting and engaging on both personal and professional accounts
  • Checking for news and/or information
  • When I’m bored and want to be distracted

I’m not anti-distraction by any means. I don’t even think it’s that realistic to try and do away with boredom and taking distraction breaks completely, but even the simple act of being aware of your different purposes is something I’ve found to be surprisingly liberating.

If you’d like to check out some of the things we touched upon, you can find a collection of links here.

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.


The USS strike and the winter of academics’ discontent

Long read from Times Higher Education featuring commentary from our member, Dr Jana Bacevic. Read the full article here

“Pensions became a potent – if somewhat unlikely – symbol for how academic leaders imagine the development of higher education: high-risk investment in the ‘student experience’ and declining investment in people,” explains Jana Bacevic, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education.

Bacevic, a sociologist who during the strikes helped to organise “teach-outs” on the effects of neoliberalisation on higher education, believes that the discontent over pensions cannot be separated from academics’ “visceral experience of the declining quality of working conditions” caused by the growing marketisation.

“For those working at universities, the USS scandal destroyed the vestiges of the myth that precarity at present can lead to security in the future,” she says. “The remarkable solidarity between academic staff and students can be seen as a collective effort to reclaim that future.”

The proposed move to a more uncertain pension plan and UUK’s failure to understand why this was so unpalatable to academics merely underline the gulf between academics and management, Bacevic adds. “There is a growing realisation that employers view academics and the things that they value – job security, time to reflect and research, and decent retirement conditions – as a liability rather than an asset.”


‘Class-work’ in the Elite Institutions of Higher Education

On Wednesday 21st February, Laura Bentley gave a talk on ‘Class-work’ in the elite institutions of higher education organised by the Jesus Education Society. Currently finishing a PhD at the University of the West of England, she worked on the Paired Peers project alongside her PhD. Laura began by stressing the importance of the topic, its relevance to her own life and the significance of this event taking place at the University of Cambridge. It is a topic which is rapidly unfolding within a changing landscape of higher education, as institutional reforms carry different consequences for different cohorts. Tuition fees in England are now over 10 times higher than the European average and students accrue more debt than their American counterparts. While some have access to private capital to help mitigate these debts, these are the minority and the poorest graduates accrue double the debt of their wealthier counterparts. The much hyped ‘graduate premium’ needs to be qualified in terms of the financial situation with which graduates finish, as well as recognition of its continued decline.

For a working class young person, going to university carries economic, cultural and social risks. The Paired Peers research project, a collaborative project between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England, sought to understand these risks through analysis of 45 pairs studying the same discipline at their respective institutions. Through this paired analysis, it was possible to understand how widely the trajectories into, through and out of university varied between students at the two institutions. The project produced rich qualitative descriptions of the lived experience of these differences, as they were lived out in relation to other students within the two universities occupying the same city. Behind apparently unitary notions of the student experience were radically different experiences of being a student, compounding the risks faced by working class students due to a pervasive failure of understanding by others within the university and the city. This is most dramatically illustrated by the difference between middle class students who could rely on the financial cushion of their parents and worked, if at all, to afford luxury items and working class students who were reliant on paid work in order to make ends meet.

It was a thoughtful, informative and insightful talk which skilfully blended empirical data, theoretical analysis and autobiography. After walking us through the classed landscape of higher education, Laura told her own story of being a working class woman in higher education and her experience of the costs entailed by the ‘third space’ she now inhabits. Her talk ended with a powerful account of how she rejects individualising notions of class mobility before offering practical suggestions for bringing about the cultural and structural transformation of universities. Thanks to Anna Vignoles and Arif Naveed at the Jesus Education Society for organising it and most of all to Laura for sharing this work with the audience on a cold February evening in Cambridge.