Objectivity scepticism is loosening universities’ grasp of their purpose

Some politicians are using the supposed ideological character of research to justify imposing greater control over it, says Martyn Hammersley

September 22, 2023
A crab with pincers raised
Source: iStock/Andrey Gudkov

Over the past few decades, two major ideological trends have mounted a pincer movement against the liberal conception of the academy, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities. These trends emanate from very different parts of the political spectrum, but both challenge universities’ overriding traditional commitment to producing and disseminating expert knowledge based on research.

The first involves a shift by many governments away from funding universities based on state patronage towards an approach governed by the notion of investment. In the now-distant past, Western universities were financed, at least overtly, on the grounds that what they did was intrinsically worthwhile, with academics’ expertise in judging the value of their own work being largely respected. But now governments and citizens are anxious to judge whether spending on universities provides sufficient “return” – based on accountability mechanisms purportedly measuring this, such as the UK’s research and teaching excellence frameworks.

This shift has taken place over a long period, promoted by political parties of different complexions. In large part, it reflects the application of “new public management” ideas, which focus on making the public sector as “efficient” as the private sector is assumed to be. This was a response to criticism of the public sector for failing to supply the amount and quality of services that citizens expected. The failings of the public sector were greatly exaggerated but, aside from this, the investment model does not fit universities since they cannot “deliver” goods or services. That is not the nature of their task.

In relation to university teaching, the assumption has been that the service academics offer is enabling students to obtain qualifications that open the door to high-paying occupations. Acquiring such jobs has, of course, long been one effect of attending university for some students, but it was not previously the goal of university teaching. And, in my view, it never should be. It distorts and undermines universities’ longstanding rationale to provide students with opportunities to explore specialised knowledge for the sake of gaining greater understanding of the world.

As regards research, the investment model has led to a preoccupation with “impact”: the degree to which the knowledge produced can be “applied”, via “transfer” or “translation”. Here, too, the effect is to undermine the traditional rationale for the academy. In effect, this new model reduces all university research to an impoverished form of applied science. The pressure for “productivity” is also likely to lead to sloppy research.

The second major trend comes from a very different place. This is the insistence, by many in the humanities and social sciences today, that research and teaching are necessarily political and should be directed towards “progressive” goals. It is announced that if they are not designed to bring about “social change” they are either trivial or support the status quo. All knowledge claims are merely interpretations that rely on assumptions and values, so the argument goes, and therefore should be seen as weapons in the struggle for power. Objectivity is impossible, it is declared, and appeals to this are necessarily ideological. Consequently, academics’ claims to superior specialised knowledge are often viewed as a form of domination.

While it is widely accepted at face value, the grounds for this politicisation of research and teaching are weak, whether they lie in Marxist critical theory, radical feminism, Foucault’s post-structuralism, or critical race theory. It is not that those bodies of thought are entirely misconceived, but rather that influential versions rely on philosophical ideas – forms of historicism, relativism and scepticism – that are self-undermining. Furthermore, these are frequently applied selectively, simply to attack opposing positions. When it comes to research, the result, usually, is spurious findings that are “too good to be false”.

We are now in a crucial phase of the pincer movement represented by these two trends. Some politicians are using what they see as the ideological character of the social sciences and humanities to justify the exercise of greater control over universities, not just to steer them further towards serving “national needs” but also to ensure that they conform to the “correct” ideological line.

Bizarrely, this shift towards political control of universities is sometimes defended in the name of ensuring academic freedom or free speech. For example the UK government has established a “free speech czar” to prevent non-“woke” ideas being “cancelled”. At the same time, the government itself “cancels” academics who have criticised its policies.

Will the academy survive this pincer movement and preserve its unique mission? In the case of one of the trends, the remedy is largely in our own hands, though it seems that few of us are willing to resist the politicisation of research and teaching when it fits with our own beliefs. By contrast, unfortunately there is relatively little we can do to alter the fact that governments only value universities for their contributions to national economic goals.

Nevertheless, if we do not abuse academic freedom ourselves, by using it or condoning its use as a disguise for political activism, we will be in a stronger position to defend it when it is attacked or distorted by others.

Martyn Hammersley is emeritus professor of educational and social research at The Open University.

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Reader's comments (2)

On the other hand, the claim of scholarship masquerading as political activism has always been a way to undermine research findings. This is why civil society is being closed down in authoritarian states (Russia, China, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, etc etc) across the world. Its why universities are under attack from populists worldwide (and in the UK), and why historically books have always been burnt. I appreciate the attempt at balance in this piece, but you can also see how superficial is the balance that pits scholarship against power.
I have worked in social sciences area for years. Marxists, feminists, gender activits, trans activists, have all existed for as long. I disagree with them, but have never felt pressured by them to teacha certain way, or think a certain, or pursue research in a specific manner. The University management bosses though? Oh yes. The activists are not pushing a political agenda to reduce education to a measure of employment. They are not the system cutting access, loans, and making redundancies or shutting entire courses or departments - even when they have plenty of students. The balance this article strives for seems to equate wishful thinking with neo-liberal actions of the past four decades. Let us pursue the research we want, ask the questions we want, we happen to be pretty smart people you know. We know the cost AND the value of things. Unlike some.