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 (


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.”


Universities, neoliberalisation, and the (im)possibility of critique

By Jana Bacevic

Last Friday in April, I was at a conference entitled Universities, neoliberalisation and (in)equality at Goldsmiths, University of London. It was an one-day event featuring presentations and interventions from academics who work on understanding, and criticising, the transformation of working conditions in neoliberal academia. Besides sharing these concerns, attending such events is part of my research: I, in fact, study the critique of neoliberalism in UK higher education.

Why study critique, you may ask? At the present moment, it may appear all the more urgent to study the processes of transformation themselves, especially so that we can figure out what can be done about them. This, however, is precisely the reason: critique is essential to how we understand social processes, in part because it entails a social diagnostic – it tells us what is wrong – and, in part, because it allows us to conceptualise our own agency – what is to be done – about this. However, the link between the two is not necessarily straightforward: first you read some Marx, and then you go and start a revolution. Some would argue that the reading of Marx (what we usually think of as consciousness-raising) is essential part of the process, but there are many variables that intervene between awareness of the unfairness of certain conditions – say, knowing that part-time, low paid teaching work is exploitative – and actually doing something about those conditions, such as organising an occupation. In addition, as virtually everyone from the Frankfurt School onwards had noted, linking these two aspects is complicated by the context of mass consumerism, mass media, and – I would add – mass education. Still, the assumption of an almost direct (what Archer dubbed an ‘hydrauliclink between knowledge and action still haunts the concept of critique, both as theory and as practice.

In the opening remarks to the conference, Vik Loveday actually zeroed in on this, asking: why is it that there seems to be a burgeoning of critique, but very little resistance? For it is a burgeoning indeed: despite it being my job, even I have issues keeping up to speed with the veritable explosion of the writing that seeks to analyse, explain, or simply mourn the seemingly inevitable capitulation of universities in the face of neoliberalism. By way of illustration, the Palgrave series in “Critical University Studies” boasts eleven new titles, all published in 2016-7; and this is but one publisher, in English language only.

What can explain the relationship between the relative proliferation of critique, and relative paucity of resistance? This question forms the crux of my thesis: less, however, as an invocation for the need to resist, and more as the querying of the relationship between knowledge – especially as forms of critique, including academic critique – and political agency (I do see political agency on a broader spectrum than the seemingly inexhaustible dichotomy between ‘compliance’ and ‘resistance’, but that is another story).

So here’s a preliminary hypothesis (H, if you wish): the link between critique and resistance is mediated by the existence of and position in of academic hierarchy. Two presentations I had the opportunity to hear at the conference were very informative in this regard: the first is Loveday’s analysis of academics’ experience of anxiety, the other was Neyland and Milyaeva’s research on the experiences of REF panelists. While there is a shared concern among academics about the neoliberalisation of higher education, what struck me was the pronounced difference in the degree to which two groups express doubts about their own worth as academics, future, and relevance (in colloquial parlance, ‘impostor syndrome’). While junior* and relatively precarious academics seem to experience high levels of anxiety in relation to their value as academics, senior* academics who sit on REF panels experience it far less. The difference? Level of seniority and position in decision-making.

Well, you may say, this is obvious – the more established academics are, the more confident they are going to be. However, what varies with levels of seniority is not just confidence and trust in one’s own judgements: it’s the sense of entitlement, the degree to which you feel you deserve to be there (Loveday writes about the classed aspects of the sense of entitlement here). I once overheard someone call it the Business Class Test: the moment you start justifying to yourself flying business class on work trips (unless you’re very old, ill, or incapacitated), is the moment when you will have convinced yourself you deserve this. The issue, however, is not how this impacts travel practices: it’s the effect that the differential sense of entitlement has on the relationship between critique and resistance.

So here’s another hypothesis (h1, if you wish). The more precarious your position, the more likely you are to perceive the working conditions as unfair – and, thus, to be critical of the structure of academic hierarchy that enables it. Yet, at the same time, the more junior you are, the more risk voicing that critique – that is, translating it into action – entails. Junior academics often point out that they have to shut up and go on ‘playing the game’: churning out publications (because REF), applying for external funding (because grant capture), and teaching ever-growing numbers of students (because students generate income for the institution). Thus, junior academics may well know everything that is wrong with the academia, but will go on conforming to it in ways that reproduce exactly the conditions they are critical of.

What happens once one ascends to the coveted castle of permanent employment/tenure and membership in research evaluation panels and appointment committees? Well, I’ve only ever been tenure track for a relatively short period of time (having left the job before I found myself justifying flying business class) but here’s an assumption based on anecdotal evidence and other people’s data (h2): you still grin and bear it. You do not, under any circumstances, stop participating in the academic ‘game’ – with the added catch that now you actually believe you deserved your position in it. I’m not saying senior academics are blind to the biases and social inequalities reflected in the academic hierarchy: what I am saying is that it is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to simultaneously be aware of it and continue participating in it (there’s a nod to Sartre’s notion of ‘bad faith‘ here, but I unfortunately do not have the time to get into that now). Ever encounter a professor stand up at a public lecture or committee meeting and say “I recognize that I owe my being here to the combined fortunes of inherited social capital, [white] male privilege, and the fact English is my native language”? I didn’t either. If anything, there are disavowals of social privilege (“I come from a working class background”), which, admirable as they may be, unfortunately only serve to justify the hierarchical nature of academia and its selection procedures (“I definitely deserve to be here, because look at all the odds I had to beat in order to get here in the first place”).

In practice, this leads to the following. Senior academics stay inside the system, and, if they are critical, believe to work against the system – for instance, by fighting for their discipline, or protecting junior colleagues, or aiming to make academia that little bit more diverse. In the longer run, however, their participation keeps the system going – the equivalent of carbon offsetting your business class flight; sure, it may help plant trees in Guinea Bissau, but it does not obfuscate the fact you are flying in the first place. Junior academics, on the other hand, contribute through their competition for positions inside the system – believing that if only they teach enough (perform low-paid work), publish enough (contribute to abundance), or are visible enough (perform unpaid labour of networking on social media, through conferences etc.) – they will get away from precarity, and then they can really be critical (there’s a nod to Berlant’s cruel optimism here that I also unfortunately cannot expand on). Except that, of course, they end up in the position of senior academics, with an added layer of entitlement (because they fought so hard) and an added layer of fear (because no job is really safe in neoliberalism). Thus, while everyone knows everything is wrong, everyone still plays along. This ‘gamification’ of research, which seems to be the new mot du jour in the academia, becomes a stand-in term for the moral economy of  justifying one’s own position while participating in the reproduction of the conditions that contribute to its instability.

Cui bono critique, in this regard? It depends. If critique is divorced from its capacity to incite political action, there is no reason why it cannot be appropriated – and, correspondingly, commodified – in the broader framework of neoliberal capitalism. It’s already been pointed out that critique sells – and, perhaps less obviously, the critique of neoliberal academia does too. Even if the ever-expanding number of publications on the crisis of the university do not ‘sell’ in the narrow sense of the term, they still contribute to the symbolic economy via accruing prestige (and citation counts!) for their authors. In other words: the critique of neoliberalism in the academia can become part and parcel of the very processes it sets out to criticise. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the content, act, or performance of critique itself that renders it automatically subversive or dangerous to ‘the system’. Sorry. (If you want to blame me for being a killjoy, note that Boltanski and Chiapello have noted a long time ago in “The New Spirit of Capitalism” that contemporary capitalism grew through the appropriation of the 1968 artistic critique).

Does this mean critique has, as Latour famously suggested, ‘run out of steam’? If we take the steam engine as a metaphor for the industrial revolution, then the answer may well be yes, and good riddance. Along with other Messianic visions, this may speed up the departure of the Enlightenment’s legacy of pastoral power, reflected – imperfectly, yet unmistakably – in the figure of (organic or avant-guarde) ‘public’ intellectual, destined, as he is (for it is always a he) to lead the ‘masses’ to their ultimate salvation. What we may want to do instead is to examine what promise critique (with a small c) holds – especially in the age of post-truth, post-facts, Donald Trump, and so on. In this, I am fully in agreement with Latour that it is important to keep tabs on the difference between matters of fact, and maters of concern; and, perhaps most disturbingly, think about whether we want to stake out the claim for defining the latter on the monopoly on producing the former.

For getting rid of the veneer of entitlement to critique does not in any way mean abandoning the project of critical examination altogether – but it does, very much so, mean reexamining the positions and perspectives from which it is made. This is the reason why I believe it is so important to focus on the foundations of epistemic authority, including that predicated on the assumption of difference between ‘lay’ and academic forms of reflexivity (I’m writing up a paper on this – meanwhile, my presentation on the topic from this year’s BSA conference is here). In other words, in addition to the analysis of threats to critical scholarship that are unequivocally positioned as coming from ‘the outside’, we need to examine what it is about ‘the inside’ – and, particularly, about the boundaries between ‘out’ and ‘in’ – that helps perpetuate the status quo. Often, this is the most difficult task of all.

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Here’s a comic for the end. In case you don’t know it already, it’s Pearls Before Swine, by the brilliant Stephan Pastis. This should at least brighten your day.

P.S. People often ask me what my recommendations would be. I’m reluctant to give any – the academia is broken, and I am not sure whether fixing it in this form makes any sense. But here’s a few preliminary thoughts:

(a) Stop fetishising the difference between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. ‘Leaving’ the academia is still framed like some epic sort of failure, which amplifies both the readiness of precarious workforce to sustain truly abominable working conditions just in order to stay “in”, and the anxiety and other mental health issues arising from the possibility of falling “out”. Most people with higher education should be able to do well and thrive in all sorts of jobs; if we didn’t frame tenure as a life-or-death achievement, perhaps fewer would agree to suffer for years in hope of its attainment.

(b) Fight for decent working conditions for contingent faculty. Not everyone needs to have tenure if working part-time (or going in and out) are acceptable career choices that offer a liveable income and a level of social support. This would also help those who want to have children or, godforbid, engage in activities other than the rat race for academic positions.

(c) This doesn’t get emphasised enough, but one of the reasons why people vie for positions in the academia is because at least it offers a degree of intellectual satisfaction, in opposition to what Graeber has termed the ever-growing number of ‘bullshit jobs’. So, one of the ways of making working conditions in the academia more decent is by making working conditions outside of academia more decent – and, perhaps, by decentralising a bit the monopoly on knowledge work that the academia holds. Not, however, in the neoliberal outsourcing/’creative hubs’ model, which unfortunately mostly serves to generate value for existing centres while further depleting the peripheries.

* By ”junior” and “senior” I obviously do not mean biological age, but rather status – I am intentionally avoiding denominators such as ‘ECRs’ etc. since I think someone can be in a precarious position whilst not being exactly at the start of their career, and, conversely, someone can be a very early career researcher but have a type of social capital, security, and recognition that are normally associated with ‘later’ career stages.