September 13, 2015

Higher Education's Silent Killer

Sometimes the antagonist isn’t wielding a gun. In this kind of attack, there is no person or event that can be met head-on with a protest or a strike. There is no explosion, no great conflict, no epic battle. Such is the case with higher education’s silent killer: the slow, incremental creep of “audit culture.” Insidious “new public management” technologies first used by the Thatcher regime to weaken the public sector are restructuring post-secondary education today.

This enemy has no public face but instead makes its appearance in the banal metrics of a standardized bookkeeping program. The corporate transformation of universities has by now been well-documented in books like The Corporate Campus (2000), Universities for Sale (1999), and, more recently, Free Knowledge: Confronting the Commodification of Human Discovery (2015) and A Penny for Your Thoughts: How corporatization devalues teaching, research, and public service in Canada’s universities (2015). The capsule summary of such assessments is this: as a direct result of successive governments’ chronic underfunding of post-secondary education, the traditional university is being transformed away from an accessible institution dedicated to fostering critical, creative, and engaged citizens while generating public-interest research, to an entrepreneurial training centre churning out atomized workers and corporate-directed “R&D.”

...Audit culture is one of the more subtle aspects of the corporatization of universities. It contributes measurement and a new rise in managerialism to market in order to complete the “3M” trifecta of a fully neo liberalized academy. These forces operate in a variety of overlapping ways to affect what types of research are permissible; they determine which scholarship is legitimized and which is delegitimized. Such pressures on research have traditionally been exerted externally via corporations, foundations, and granting agencies, but the 3M trifecta has now moved with stealth to retool the everyday operations, policies, and practices of universities from the inside.The audit culture distorts scholars’ work by tabulating academic worth through the simplest algorithm: one that consid-ers, for the most part, only peer-reviewed publication, journal impact rankings, and the size of research grants. Whole realms of endeavour are devalued or left out of the equation altogether, including activities such as “slow” research, alternative forms of scholarship and dissemination, devotion to teaching, or actually acting on one’s research findings – all vital aspects of the academic enterprise...

Take participatory action research (PAR), a research methodology rooted in community engagement, collective inquiry, and on-the-ground experimentation. Under the strict publish-or-perish injunction of audit culture, I would be channelled away from projects like producing and distributing a city survival guide and map for the homeless – which I did in response to a community call as part of a PAR project – and I would be pushed instead to write a peer-reviewed paper on homelessness (to be read by few) rather than fulfilling a need that the community itself had identified. Research becomes a question of whose needs? To whose benefit? In this case, despite being in a position through my scholarship to contribute to the community in a tangible way, I’d be channelled away from community needs toward my own career demands and the requirements of an audit culture that rewards redundant scholarship...