In the grip of a hostile takeover

Killing Thinking
May 27, 2005

June Edmunds assesses a polemic on market culture's stifling of creativity

In a style accessible to a wider audience than academe, Killing Thinking critically charts the transformation of higher education in postwar Britain. Mary Evans, professor of women's studies at Kent University, identifies two watershed changes: first, the postwar expansion induced largely by the generational clashes of the 1960s and the ensuing "culture wars"; and, second, the rise of the entrepreneurial university, based on the "market", with its emphasis on raising productivity and consumer-focused packages of lecturing and research.

While some sympathy is shown for the first, the second is roundly condemned. Evans's principal target for attack is the conversion of universities into corporate enterprises. The culture of audit and assessment, introduced in the 1980s, is singled out as the most pernicious of these changes, exemplified by the teaching quality assessment, research assessment exercise, benchmarking and internal auditing - all characterised as new forms of "surveillance and policing".

These developments are traced to the interests of global capitalism and to governments intent on expanding higher education without incurring extra costs. The 1997 Dearing report makes clear that the driving force should be education for "business". It represents an unapologetic appeal for forging an alliance between universities and the economy, recommending that they meet labour market needs and foster research aimed at attracting investment. Commercialisation has created new trends: the language of "enterprise" and the "needs of industry" now pervades higher education, and individuals and institutions have begun to "buy" university appointments for prestige.

The central contention of this book is that far from furthering democracy (an alleged consequence of expansion), this shift has led to the "double achievement of devaluation and de-democratisation" of university life.

Bureaucratisation has subordinated intellectual culture to a handout culture, which is producing a generation of graduates who leave university highly skilled in processing "bowdlerised knowledge". Entrepreneurialism lays the foundation for a pyramid structure, enabling starred departments to consolidate their standing. Elite universities win over newcomers, age and experience over youth, and men over women, whose double burden weakens them in the competition to produce (undermining the symbolic gain of their growing presence among postgraduates and university staff).

In Evans's view, genuine creativity has been the greatest victim of the regulation, as more rule-bound and quota-driven forms of competitiveness are superimposed on an already competitive profession. Recognising the power of external audit to amplify traditional petty rivalries and power games, she foresees a new wave of sanctioned academic infighting if the Roberts recommendation, under which individual academics as well as departments will be starred, is accepted.

Her position could be understood as elitist and anti-democratic. However, her appeal is for a separation between university and the economy, which would allow space for true democratisation and challenge privilege associated with the possession of "cultural capital". The unequal possession of such capital is not the sole preserve of Oxbridge - Killing Thinking suggests that it is central to university life: the winners in the market-driven universities are those who possess the greatest cultural capital - privilege is sustained rather than levelled out. The RAE reinforces elitism as academics jostle for a "starred" position in the new fast-growing hierarchies (the Russell Group and research-led universities as well as Oxbridge).

Intellectual inquiry depends on isolated activity and research free of the management and accountancy imposed by the new bureaucracies. The provision of real education has been jettisoned in favour of packaged degrees. The idea that universities should operate along market principles has become hard to contest. Apparently worthy concepts such as "accountability" and "transparency" are difficult to oppose. But, in accepting them, they help to sustain bureaucratic regulation of their activity.

Avoiding nostalgia for ivory towers, Killing Thinking projects the incipient present (market-led education) into a dystopian future (vacuous acquisition of skills) if unchecked. It is probably the boldest argument to date that social, as well as academic, progress requires renewed separation of the university from economic interests. Unashamedly polemical, Evans makes scathing attacks on many of the new practices and policies permeating university life. However, she remains true to her purpose by keeping her arguments intellectually grounded, showing the relevance of themes associated with Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Max Weber to understanding current trends. Literary references and anecdotes maintain the book's readability and reinforce the central theme - that education has an intrinsic worth that relies on its independence from vested political or economic interests.

June Edmunds is lecturer in the sociology and politics of development, Cambridge University.

Killing Thinking: The Death of the Universities

Author - Mary Evans
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 172
Price - £65.00 and £22.50
ISBN - 0 8264 7312 1 and 7313 X

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