chapter  13
9 Pages

Post-neoliberal academic values: notes from the UK higher education sector

ByNick Couldry

William Fulbright’s language of “higher” purpose, tendered in 1970, sounds quaint now, but the idea that the contemporary university has for decades experienced a conflict of values is important. A recent UK version of such a conflict is worthy of discussion. For fifteen years, UK academic production has been intensively regulated, first through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), where higher education institutions received core (basic institutional) research funding, calculated by reference to the performance of those disciplinary units that submitted for peer evaluation sample research “outputs” and documentation on overall research production. This is to be replaced by a Research Excellence Framework (REF). My focus addresses the link between such research regulation and wider economic pressures within the discourse of neoliberalism.2 Developing a counter-rationality to neoliberalism provides one test of whether the university itself can still matter. The UK higher education sector is distinctive. Excepting sectors such as medicine,

law, and business, UK universities have (by US standards) low or non-existent endowments, relying more on public funding and student fees. Public funding is managed nationally (by the government’s agency for the university sector, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE) and open to lobbying by university unions, industry, and other national sources. The management of higher education is, in other respects, less centralized than in some European countries, such as France, with no central government control over appointments, teaching contracts, or curricula, and an open labour market. Research funding is potentially available across the disciplinary field, including the arts and humanities, and not limited to the physical and medical sciences and the most policy-focused social sciences. This

chapter considers how research is regulated in this context.3 The form that market forces have taken in the UK higher education sector is unique. Under the RAE, assessment has been managed through a structure of subject panels operating through peer assessment; in the past two to three years, the university sector, particularly the arts and humanities and social sciences, has diverted a UK Treasury attempt to switch evaluation entirely to a citations base. Note the rigid disciplinary divisions that underlie the subject panel structure. This is like a family tree, which allocates academic areas to different family branches. It is proposed to reduce the number of subject panels. Until now, media and communications research has been evaluated as a subpanel (called Communication, Cultural and Media Studies) within a larger main panel that includes Library and Information Management. Next time, media research can hope at best to comprise an informal subgroup within a panel partly populated by library scientists. The powers of such informal groups are unclear; the likely recognition of interdisciplinary research – for example, with Philosophy (dealt with by a different panel from Media) or Sociology (in an entirely different branch of the family tree from Media) – is even more unclear.The regulatory “teeth” of this system lie not in the harmless-sounding values that it serves (“research excellence”), but in the self-regulatory behaviour it engenders. Of course, other systems can have similar effects. So, in the largely US debate about “public sociology,” a number of writers complain about the culture of overproduction generated by the US tenure system.4 This has long been the complaint of UK academics labouring under the RAE, where the requirement of at least four outputs per assessment period (usually one monograph and three peer-reviewed articles over five to six years) has been the norm. But the proposed new framework (REF) deepens and widens government’s management of the research process in ways that are worth following.