Friday, 6 August 2010

Further clarification on the PSS resistance to the self-assessment exercise

Dear all,

Following the various, kind replies of support that we have received from members of staff - but also by those who bear the institutional responsibility for postgraduate students - we thought that it is necessary to offer further clarification regarding both the specific action (self-assessment exercise) and our general position.
We are aware that the exercise is more or less the same of last years. In this perspective, we would like to clear some possible misunderstandings. Our protest is neither motivated by any major change due to the schoolification process, nor to any particular individual responsible for the way in which such process is being conducted. We are not taking issue with the SPAIS as such, or denouncing any particular administrative malfunctioning.
For us, the monitoring exercise has been the occasion to make a political point - as opposed to an administrative one - thus a point addressing systemic rather than contingent problems. In other terms, the exercise has been taken as an example of the managerial/corporative practices which have become hegemonic in the higher education landscape both in UK and elsewhere. Of course, we are not claiming that the exercise is related to this complex developments in any straightforward causal sense (in this perspective, we are conscious that there is an asymmetry between the argument underpinning our statement and the monitoring exercise as such - a certain degree of asymmetry is unavoidable for relating any particular case to general political concerns).
In this perspective, it is central to show how the exercise (this year as well as last year) can be considered as a part of a wide set of bureaucratic practices that are ultimately serving the subordination of immaterial labour - such as the pursuit of knowledge - to the hegemonic dictates of the market. As a starting point, we will elaborate on such process of subordination.

In the first place, we are referring to the transformation of universities in corporate enterprises/profit centres: the creeping neoliberal logics can be detected on funding related to criteria of marketability, evaluation of research according to its "capacity to attract funds" on the exploitation of the overseas students market, pressure to increase productivity and minimize costs - resulting in decrease of resources allocated per student, relative decrease of staff salaries, fall of academic pay in relative terms, redundancies, precariousness, the stress on competition among academics, departments and universities resulting in increasing workloads, pressures on teaching staff, etc.

In the second place, universities are increasingly required to support the needs of private enterprise. Research has to be useful in terms of potential (economic) impact: universities are being reconstructed to provide British and foreign corporations with the academic research and the skilled workers that they need to stay profitable, and are constantly invited by the government to seek partnerships with enterprises and thus to privilege "useful" research - researches that can be used by business to make money.

Where does the exercise fit in this picture? At the centre of the above mentioned intertwined dynamics is the struggle over measure. Constant monitoring and measuring by the growing universal class of public managers, bureaucrats and academics (based on the abstract homogenisation and individualization of heterogeneous creative and potentially cooperative production of ideas and thinking) is necessary both to squeeze the most out of teaching and research staff (increase productivity of the university business minimizing costs) and to measure the potential impact - profitability if you like, capacity to responds to the needs of corporations - of ongoing or proposed academic research.

It is well known how the UK government chaperoned the engagement of university and business by developing a whole set of economistic guidelines and bureaucratic measurement exercises (RAE etc.). It is important to stress how the measurement qua homogenization and quantitative evaluation (operations that are indispensable to compare and stimulate competition) does not operate on something that is already there, but, as it were, creates retrospectively - according to the criteria which are used, the measurement parameters, or the boxes in a monitoring form - what exists and what not (the job you have done and the one you didn't). In other words, the managerial establishment imposes a specific notion of productivity and impact - according to neoliberal/economistic criteria. Then intellectual labour is measured according to such parameters.

In this perspective, practices and technologies of measurement, quantification, verification and control are thus not apolitical recording instruments. Quite the contrary; their rational fa├žade is underpinned by a precise, exclusivist political conception concerning what the role of universities and of the knowledge production should and should not be (e.g. "build economic strength and social harmony" translated, make money and make sure no one creates too much trouble). As explained in the previous email, we maintain that this conception aims to suppress the spaces of independent critical enquiry which has traditionally characterized wide sectors of the higher education establishment.

In summary, the measure/monitoring mantra is not an external supplement, but shapes the research process itself - academics obviously are driven to produce the required type of knowledge - a knowledge which is quantifiable in terms of the criteria imposed by the managerial model (if they want to get founds, progress with their career better thinking in terms of producing more measurable "things" - articles, conference papers, power-point and skill-based training - in the shortest possible time, never mind about good old academic depth of engagement or long struggles with ideas, authors of fieldwork issues). As explained above, such criteria, in turn, respond to marketing - neoliberal logics. So we argue that the process of measurement (as much as innocent it may seem) is the Trojan horse of market imperatives into independent academic research.

Let's take our specific case. There is a symptomatic disproportion at work. On the one hand, most of us (including perhaps supervisors) would agree that the monitoring exercise is just a bureaucratic exercise, a little annoyance that cannot really represent what we are doing and the progress of our research, or contribute to the latter in any positive way. In this perspective, the exercise appears just not very useful. However - if we understand well - the exercise is important for the faculty in order to get funding and recognition, so it becomes a very serious issue. This contradiction indicates that there are heterogeneous logics at work here: academic and managerial logics. However, so far so good: the logics are still only potentially in conflict. We go through the small bureaucratic ordeal with no trouble whatsoever, the university gets the money and everyone is happy. However, let's image that - as surly has happened to members of staff, and will happen to us - our research can get funds, or that we can get a job from the faculty according to a competition based on our ability to fill a similar form (in more or less figurative sense), to answer to its criteria of quantification and productivity (how much did you produce in the given time? What recognized proofs of production can you present?). In this perspective, the conflict is actual, and the form is part of a constant pressure to conform (make measurable) our research in terms of a given set of standards. Let's reconstruct an over simplistic yet clarifying chain: the market decides what is useful and what not. The government devices measurement criteria to conform intellectual production to the endogenous (within higher education - university as enterprise) and exogenous (usefulness for business) needs of the market. In order to get funds, Universities are required to meet government guidelines (measure the magnitude of intellectual production according to the provided criteria of quantification). In turn, in order to get a job or funds, academic staff and PhD student are subtly, more or less implicitly driven to bend their research interests and activities towards the required areas of measurability - areas of measurability which are proposed or enforced also through tasks such as the progress monitoring exercise.

It is in this perspective that we consider such exercise as an example of wider hegemonic practices that are eroding academic autonomy and collegiality in favor of exogenous criteria enforced by a rising managerial elite. Our porpoise is to raise awareness of the above mentioned issues - which affect PhD students as well as all members of staff - rather than to contest the specific way in which this particular monitoring exercise has been conceived and delivered.

As specified in the previous email, we think these issues need to be addressed in an open debate and we would be grateful for any comment or critique from members of staff and fellow PhD students.
In this perspective, as we do not have access to the SPAIS-staff mail address, we would be very grateful if someone that has access could forward this email.

Thank you for your kind attention and contribution

Best regards

Filip Vostal

Maria Elisa Balen

Lorenzo Silvaggi

Rosa Vasilaki

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