Category Archives: Higher education

The freedom to be exploited: reflections on The History Man

The freedom to be exploited: reflections on The History Man

This is the first of two posts prompted by a reading of ‘The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury (1975).  This post is about why we should contemplate the past, real or imagined.  My next post will compare the university as we know it today with Bradbury’s fictional University of Watermouth.

At a recent all-staff admissions conference the marketers proclaimed we must adopt ‘future-facing’ branding and ‘future trends’ as much as possible.  We were told we can no longer rely on our old experience because, ‘what we’re facing is new’.  I wondered what they meant exactly and was reminded of my late father-in-law who, ever hopeful, would often ask ‘are you looking forward?’ as he earnestly sought affirmation that something better really would turn up tomorrow.  In the case of the marketers, however, they’re leaving nothing to chance as they drive the admissions agenda onwards to a brighter, winning future.  At the all-staff conference we were regaled with phrases such as, ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘competing head to head with the big boys’ and ‘rules of the game’, and with sporting metaphors.  We were told, ‘we HAVE that winning horse’ and as the image flashed across the screen, I was struck by a strong similarity between the horse racing world and universities; both are prone to grand narrative and the glamour of status.

It is exactly this type of future-facing discourse, which, according to Susan Clegg, valorizes only certain forms of reflexivity and limits the ways in which we might think about the future in higher education (Clegg, 2010).  I’m concerned about where the compelling narrative of the marketers is taking us, not least because it rules out the option of reflecting on what has gone before, an exercise that just might prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past.

So, it was at a recent Research in Higher Education & Society Group session that we stopped the clock and took the time to reflect on Malcolm Bradbury’s iconic novel, ‘The History Man’, his ‘darker and more troubled’ take on higher education in the post-war world (Lodge, 2008).  Whether or not ‘The History Man’ is a true account of higher education in 1972 – or indeed, of one particular university – we found it a very uncomfortable read.

The Vintage edition cover blurb describes the protagonist, Howard Kirk as, ‘the trendiest of radical tutors at a fashionable campus university.  Timid Vice-Chancellors pale before his threats of disruption.  Reactionary colleagues are crushed beneath his merciless Marxist logic.  Women are drawn by his progressive promiscuity.’

The exchange at our meeting was animated.  The veteran male professor, who first read the novel in 1975, was shocked by his second reading – “the abuse of power which was not clear then is abundantly clear now”.  The male postgraduate researcher reflected on Kirk’s manipulative strategy centred on fulfilling his desire for control and sexual conquest.  To the female researcher, Kirk is a manifestation of what society was like in those days; it was not as unreal as some would imagine.   For the male early career researcher, Kirk, as a strategist and bully, serves as a warning from history of what not to become.  Even so, the female early career researcher insisted there are characters in higher education today with those same traits as Kirk.  The male senior lecturer talked of the ’70s as the beginning of individualism – “Bradbury was constructing sexual and social morality and the bigger picture gave rise to Kirk’s position as new history was being written”.  The male international post-doctoral researcher could not comprehend the idea of inviting your students to your home – “this makes for a bad relationship”.

Bradbury described Kirk as, ‘a rogue of rogues, but at least he believed that.’  So, there was self-awareness.  Bradbury also stated, ‘No doubt in 1979 he would have voted for Thatcher, and in 1997 for Blair.  He would now be enjoying his vice-chancellorship at Batley Canalside University, and the life peerage has been a source of the greatest pleasure.  But at least Howard believed – even if it was chiefly for his own advantage – all the things that still do matter.  He believed in history, society, philosophy, ideas, human progress, mental discovery, all that’s left of the Enlightenment Project’.

David Lodge describes ‘The History Man’ as having the ‘power to grip even the resistant reader’ (Lodge, 2008).  I did find it gripping.  Like ‘Stoner’ (John Williams, 1965), it is difficult to put down.  However, whilst both novels are adroitly crafted, they provoke very different emotional reactions.  A part of my response to ‘The History Man’ is one of repugnance for Kirk, in a similar vein to the revulsion that I experienced when I saw the 1969 road movie ‘Easy Rider’, another iconic representation of that ‘progressive’ period.

Our group discussion reflected on the false promise of those times, when women were free; free that is, to be exploited.  I understand this interpretation but worry about the notion of putting the exploitation down to the emergent individualism of the ’70s.  A consequence of doing so is the temptation not only to view Kirk’s behaviour as a thing of the past but to blame it on a specific ideology, like it wouldn’t happen here.  A similar explanation is used to excuse the conduct of marauding celebrities such as Stuart Hall and Max Clifford, convicted for assaulting girls and young women – it was the culture of the time.  Ah well, that explains it, then.

Kirk is not actually asserting his right to self-realisation as he rapes (yes, rapes) his female colleague.  His declaration immediately afterwards that the act is inevitable, (‘It was bound to happen…Marx arranged it’) may be tied up in a clever narrative about history (his victim had earlier named him as ‘The History Man’) but that should in no way detract from the violence and abuse committed.

I would like nothing more than to say that the era of the amoral male egoist and predator is over but let’s not kid ourselves.

Must history perpetually repeat itself?

References

‘Welcome back to the History Man – first commissioned by the Sunday Times, published in Liar’s Landscape, Malcolm Bradbury’ http://malcolmbradbury.com/fiction_the_history_man.html

Clegg, S. (2010) “Time future – the dominant discourse of higher education.” Time & Society 19(3): 345-364

‘Lord of misrule’ David Lodge, Saturday 12th Jan 2008 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jan/12/fiction1

Are you stuck in strata?

Are you stuck in strata?

David Watson, in viewing university history as geology, sets out the higher education sector ‘strata’, denoting the main layers as six distinct waves of development; specialist communities; national and regional institutions serving post-industrial society; public ‘systems of HE’; curriculum and institutional innovation; blurred boundaries and the ‘dual sector’; and the ‘for profit’ sector (Watson 2014) . His analysis mirrors Ron Barnett’s earlier description of the university itself as an intermingling set of narratives that have been laid down over time; rock formations, the separate strata being visible but also running into each other, with old strata reaching up into the new (Barnett 2011).

Judging from recent conversations with colleagues, one noteworthy event in the HE geological timeline, the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (the Act which converted thirty-five polytechnics into universities), is still uppermost in some minds. In fact, it strikes me that some colleagues have their geologic time clock stuck at 1992. They appear to be fixated on labelling certain institutions as ‘post-1992’; a term that for them signifies a university which in research terms and probably in many other respects is dysfunctional and derisory.

Tell me, what is it in 2014 that still triggers this conditioned reflex?

References

Barnett, R. (2011). Being a University. London & New York, Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.

Watson, D. (2014). The Question of Conscience: Higher education and personal responsibility. London, Institute of Education.

The utility of the economic lexicon in HE

The utility of the economic lexicon in HE

This post is prompted by a reading of Philip Roscoe’s publication, ‘I spend therefore I am: the  true cost of economics’ (2014) Viking

Roscoe’s wistful and entertaining appraisal of the discipline that is economics provides another useful reference point in my quest to go beyond the technical instruments of capital in my doctoral research analysis. In a previous post entitled, ‘Conviviality with a cause’ I observe Bev Skeggs’ assertion that as sociologists we have a duty not to reproduce the logic of capital in everything we analyse. In applying the logic of capital we convert everything into commodity. We become the subject of capital and we internalise its imperatives. The notion of a commodity or commodification in this context merits closer examination.

Roscoe’s wide-ranging treatise which includes a section on, ‘Lists, rankings and the commodification of education’ highlights the malignant legacy of the Chicago School of Economics and in particular, Becker’s theory of human capital which has helped to, ‘reinforce a myopic understanding of the point and purpose of education.’ Roscoe depressingly describes the ‘subtle repositioning’ of education as, ‘some kind of experiential commodity, like a safari or an adventure day in a hot-air balloon.’

In my post entitled, ‘The marketisation marvel in higher education’, I bemoan the existence of a discourse and managerial structure in higher education that is dominated by enterprise and an emulation of the business world although I do assert that universities are still distinguishable from private sector companies. Roscoe it seems, is less optimistic as he contemplates the commodification of university education which has recast students as customers who, according to Roscoe, do not see that buying a tin of beans from the supermarket is a profoundly different transaction from embarking upon a process of education that requires them to participate, ‘to the limits of their ability, imagination and emotional reserve.’ He echoes Mary Beard when he calls for dissatisfied students who are unsettled by what they have learned and, ‘driven to a critical examination of their preconceptions.’

Has higher education become a commodity? Is it now ‘fungible’ (a term deployed by Roscoe); something that is freely traded; one degree or university being indistinguishable from the next with the ‘student experience’ being the differential?

What other signs are there of commodification in higher education?

At the Engage 2013 Conference in Bristol, Professor Ella Ritchie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor with specific responsibility for Engagement and Internationalisation (University of Newcastle), warned that we were in danger of treating university-community engagement as a commodity. And in my post entitled, ‘Why extreme volunteering is too extreme’, I express concern about the industry that has of late emerged around student volunteering or ‘employability’ as it is called these days and suggest that we are in danger of commodifying the very act of student volunteering.

So, does our use of terms and notions such as ‘capital’ and ‘commodity’ REALLY restrict our ability to critically reflect on these important issues? It seems to me that utilising the concept of commodification in this context actually galvanises the sort of reflection that is so badly needed in higher education today on many levels.

It is sometimes necessary to administer a little jolt!

Roscoe wants us to look beyond the ‘machinery of calculation’; beyond the ‘lists, rankings, scores, tabulations and algorithms that populate our lives’ and says that humans are, ‘distinctive because we can treat others as persons, distinctive in our ability to empathize with, commit to and understand one another, and to build relationships that are strong and mutually nourishing.’

But Roscoe does NOT want us to abandon economics altogether. Instead, he wants us to ‘occupy’ economics; make economics subservient to a higher social and democratic vision.

And why not; the economic lexicon does have its uses.

References:

Bev Skeggs, ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’

2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 17th October 2013 –

http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2057

 

Conviviality with a cause

Conviviality with a cause

This is the second of two posts prompted by a reading of Colin Rochester’s publication ‘Rediscovering Voluntary Action: The Beat of a Different Drum’ (2013) Palgrave Macmillan

My first post, entitled, ‘The marketisation marvel in higher education’ (26th March 2014) included observations about the relationship between the state and the voluntary & community sector:

https://jebounford.net/the-marketisation-marvel-in-higher-education/

This post is about voluntary action and the research agenda.

In critically appraising the historiography of voluntary action, Rochester embraces notions of ‘conviviality’ and ‘expressive behaviour’, providing a fresh insight into the roots of volunteering.  Breaking free of a ‘narrow paradigm’, he looks beyond the restrictive archetype of volunteering as a philanthropic act and explores what he describes as a desire for ‘conviviality’ that is closely allied to recreational activities and the constructive use of leisure time.  I don’t believe for a moment that Rochester is claiming we use all our spare time for idle pursuits.  I do believe that he is retelling the traditional chronicle and in doing so, providing a new lens through which we may see the act of volunteering as ‘serious leisure’; a term used by Rochester as he works towards his, ‘truly ‘round earth’ map of the territory’.

Rochester draws upon Hemming’s conclusion that participation in volunteer groups provides, ‘a sense of camaraderie and fellowship; a sense of belonging or identity; and above all, ‘an excuse to escape’ and ‘an adult form of play’.  It contributes to a sense of community (Hemming 2011).  He believes ‘expressive’ volunteering enables people to pursue an interest out of love for the activity rather than financial reward, and to act upon their most cherished beliefs.

In my blog entitled, ‘Why ‘extreme’ volunteering is too extreme’ (31st Jan 2014), I pleaded for us not to ignore the mundane, as without it, society would come unstuck; meeting basic needs, such as having some form of day-to-day human contact via a simple act of kindness, no matter how small:

https://jebounford.net/why-extreme-volunteering-is-too-extreme/

It’s about community on many levels.  Since moving to Great Gransden, for example, I’ve been struck by the way in which the expressive and the mundane are fused in friendships of all kinds, in all scenarios, responding to need, and sharing recreation, joy and troubled times.

I would call it conviviality with a cause.

Rochester also calls for a radical revision of the research agenda in this field.  Critical of an academic tradition that has, ‘not produced much in the way of additional ‘usable theory’’ (his ‘honourable exceptions’ include Horton Smith 2000, Lohmann 1992 and Milofsky 2008), he wants research to move away from quantitative methods, that is, collecting evidence by measuring e.g. organisations, resources and time spent on volunteering.  Existing qualitative research is also judged to be of limited scope, diverting attention from what volunteers actually do, and how they work together; what is the balance – or tension – between expressive aims (or member benefit) and instrumental aims (or public benefit)?; why and how do people join non-bureaucratic groups?; how is the ‘work’ of the group organised?  He says we need qualitative research that develops ‘usable’ theories to explain ‘how things work’.

In attempting to move away from the concentration on measuring the instrumental impacts of volunteering, Rochester looks to the IVR Impact Assessment Toolkit which groups ‘the major ways in which stakeholders can be affected’ into five types of ‘capital’ – physical, human, economic, social and cultural.  He clearly approves of this societal level analysis, saying it captures much – but not all – of the constellation of roles and functions played by volunteering.  Social capital, for example, contributes to the creation of a ‘more cohesive community through building relationships, networks and bond of trust between people’.

My concern is that having criticised a ‘dominate paradigm’ that characterises volunteering as a gift of time (analogous to a gift of money) Rochester then appears to endorse the notion of capital which itself is contested as a tool of analysis in certain academic quarters.  For example, Bev Skeggs, in her 2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture last October, concluded that as sociologists we have a duty not to reproduce the logic of capital in everything we analyse.  In applying the logic of capital we convert everything into commodity.  We become the subject of capital and we internalise its imperatives.

http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2057

I am currently grappling with this issue in my own research where I am asking if ‘community’ may be construed as a form of capital and exploring the conditions necessary for the existence of community inside the academy.  I am, for example, seeking signifiers of personal, physical and institutional attributes that may reveal the existence of ‘community’ capital.  Last week my supervisor asked me how I intended to ‘measure’ these forms of capital.  I didn’t have an answer and, to be honest, that doesn’t worry me.

As I work through the final analysis, I am minded to heed Skeggs’ call for us to look for where the theories don’t work, where they can’t be applied.  This is where, in my view, Rochester’s plea for us to embrace the expressive and Skeggs’ entreaty for the expression of ‘values beyond value’, come together.

I’m now wondering how ‘community’ may be understood in its expressive form… in 2015 I may have an answer.

References

Bev Skeggs, ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’

2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 17th October 2013 –

http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2057

Hemming, H. (2011) Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, London: John Murray

Lohmann, R. (1992) The Commons: New Perspectives on Nonprofit Organisations and Voluntary Action, San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass

Milofsky, C. (2008) Smallville: Institutionalizing Community in Twenty-First Century America, Hanover, NH and London, University Press of New England

Smith, D. H. (2000) Grassroots Associations, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

The marketisation marvel in higher education

The marketisation marvel in higher education

This is the first of two posts prompted by a reading of Colin Rochester’s publication ‘Rediscovering Voluntary Action:  The Beat of a Different Drum’ (2013) Palgrave Macmillan

After 45 years of working with and writing about, volunteers and voluntary organisations, Rochester is better qualified than most to stimulate and inform a debate about the notion of a ‘invented’ unified voluntary and community sector in the UK; to observe the nature of the relationship between government and this sector as it takes on the ‘mainstream’ delivery of state services; to revise the typology of voluntary action; and to call for a radical revision of the research agenda in this field.  My second post will be about voluntary action and the research agenda.

Rochester’s seminal work is published against the background of the rise and rise of a neo-liberal discourse that has seeped into every aspect of our lives.  It is a refreshing and timely addition to the congregation that is calling for a different approach to how we understand what it is to be a person in the western world; an approach that enables us to acknowledge and embrace expression as a form of sociality and being.

The beginning of the neo-liberal agenda in this country, in this context, is marked as the election of the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 which Rochester sees as a milestone, alongside 1945; a marker of a new phase of political and social history.  As many have observed elsewhere, this agenda continued to thrive through the New Labour administrations and we now have a new multi-party consensus about the, ‘parameters and driving forces of public and social policy’.  Rochester declares that the rise of neo-liberalism has led to the permeation of voluntary organisations and volunteering by the values and norms of the market as part of a profound and far-reaching change in the political culture, not only of the UK but also of much of the World.

No doubt Rochester would agree that these market values and norms have pervaded many domains of our existence; personal and professional.  The marketisation of higher education, for example, observed daily by those of us who work in the sector, gained impetus this month with the publication of the OFT Call for Information on Higher Education in England.  In response to the OFT findings, Paul Clarke (Director of Policy at Universities UK), acknowledges that in the opinion of the OFT, some higher education structures and practices, ‘belong to an era that has now passed.’  The parallels between Rochester’s analysis of the voluntary & community sector and what is happening in higher education today are striking.

According to Rochester, the ‘invention’ of a unified voluntary sector in Britain facilitated the casting of voluntary sector organisations in a more central role on the stage of social policy in the delivery of state services.  He describes the promotion of a unified voluntary sector as a ‘massive sleight of hand’, whereby the organisational norms of bureaucracy and the culture and practices of the private sector has ensured that the real beneficiaries of this greater role in the provision of state services are the top two percent of voluntary agencies including NCVO and ACEVO, and those in government bent on privatising public services.  He says that Government has been able to implement its policies under the cloak of ‘public esteem for charities’ and the argument that voluntary organisations have distinctive characteristics which given them ‘unique’ advantages over statutory bureaucracies.

Rochester questions these ‘distinctive’ characteristics as he observes the increasing homogenisation of the voluntary and community sector.  He is not referring to all voluntary organisations but the small minority that have been trusted with this new role of providing state services.  He says they are unrepresentative and that they have, ‘more in common with the agencies they have supplanted than they have with the bulk of the organisations that comprise the sector and provide the evidence for the characteristics featured in government rhetoric.’

My experience of working as a manager in the public and voluntary sectors concurs with Rochester’s observations.  Indeed, as a boundary-crosser, moving between these sectors (and then into higher education), it could be argued that I have been culpable in transmitting new managerial norms and practices from one sector to the next.  Rochester is particularly critical of the infrastructure organisations, the CVSs which have actively played their part through initiatives such as the ChangeUp programme and says that voluntary organisations have been, ‘nudged, bribed and sometimes coerced into becoming more and more similar in their structure and behaviour to the bureaucratic agencies of the state and the market.’

As someone who has been involved with the voluntary sector as a volunteer and as a manager, I have observed the colonisation of some of the larger charities by former local government employees who have in many respects turned their charities into the mirror image of the organisations they had left behind.  And in the circumstances you can hardly blame them.  As Rochester points out, the biggest voluntary organisations have been given a more central role in the delivery of public services and have gained substantial new resources as a result.

Rochester concludes that the models of business organisations have come to dominate our society and social institutions over the past thirty years.  He says that being ‘business-like’ was the ‘desirable characteristic’ and this meant imitating the approaches and techniques used in the private sector without questioning how appropriate and/or helpful they might be in organisations that were based on very different values and principles.

Many of us can bear witness to a similar trend in higher education.  What has elsewhere been described as the ‘economic ideology of education’ is a phenomenon much debated. But it is not a recent revelation.  In 1890 German university professors complained that their world was increasingly dominated by blind economic processes, by the power of money, and by the weight of numbers (Salter and Tapper 1994).  In universities today, this manifests itself in a discourse and managerial structure dominated by enterprise and an emulation of the business world.  As a member of the new management clan in a university, I am no innocent bystander though at times it feels like I’m drowning in an alien discourse that bears little or no resemblance to my own academic practice.

According to Rochester, many voluntary organisations have lost sight of their original purposes and functions, and apart from not distributing their profits or surpluses as dividends, they are indistinguishable from private sector companies.  I believe that universities ARE still distinguishable from private sector companies.

As the marketisation marvel glides confidently into the admissions arena, I hear colleagues declare “it’s official, we are now a ‘private enterprise’”.

Really?

This post represents my own views and not those of my institution.

References:

OFT report: higher education is a market, but the student-university relationship remains unique – UUK Blog posted on 14 March 2014 by Paul Clark

http://blog.universitiesuk.ac.uk/2014/03/14/oft-report-higher-education/

Salter, B. and Tapper, T (1994) The State and Higher Education The Woburn Press