Openness must be a two-way street

April 11, 2013

The feature about openness in universities (“Show and tell”, 4 April) implicitly makes a point about asymmetry. If institutions are not open, how can they make claims (in the pursuit of knowledge) that require other people to be open?

For example, social research requires the public to share private information (about themselves, about household circumstances and so on). This requires the public as the subjects of research to trust the academic researchers and must surely also imply a degree of reciprocity. Usually academics answer this by insisting that their research is invigilated by ethics committees and similar.

But what if universities become (if they are not already) closed corporations jealously protecting their data? What does that imply for reciprocity? As we move towards more rigorous exploitation of “administrative data”, these questions become more pressing.

David Walker
Council member, Economic and Social Research Council

 

The mantra that “access to information is an unqualified good” (Leader, “A clear balance of interests”, 4 April) is arguably a politically correct Enlightenment myth, a modern “regime of truth” that says far more about our chronically “low-trust” society and our pathological attachment to an anxiety-driven fantasy that it is in principle possible to know everything, than it does about what an appropriately organised society might look like. Even a cursory look at the likes of Renata Salecl’s book The Tyranny of Choice and/or Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, and engagement with the subtle psychodynamics of choice and Foucauldian notions of governmentality and surveillance suggest that the uncritical advocacy of total transparency can itself all too easily become a kind of unthinking, robotic obligation to be transparent, rather than a freely and healthily chosen one.

There is, however, nothing mythical about universities fast becoming “evidence factories” in our Brave New Marketised World. Those of us for whom the culturally constructed notion of “evidence” is highly problematic, and often nothing more than an ideological and politicised chimera, will likely be exiting the academy in droves once this inexorable instrumental logic plays out - perhaps even to found a new kind of free institution that retrieves and re-establishes the original idea of “the university”, free of the destructive instrumental logic of the market. Watch this space.

Richard House
Department of education studies
University of Winchester

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