Pennies for your thoughts

August 16, 2002

If UK universities do not stop the culture of audit and do not secure full funding for the sector, humanities may go the way of the dinosaur, says Martin McQuillan.

Let us say right from the beginning that the closure of the Centre for Contemporary British Cultural Studies at Birmingham has nothing to do with the current state of cultural studies. But it certainly presents us with a moment for reflection on the condition of cultural studies and British universities in general. I do not wish to intrude on personal grief or to offer ill-informed speculation regarding the centre under the guise of journalism. But the story of university "restructuring" following disappointing research assessment exercise results, and the subsequent failure by the government to fund those results adequately, is a familiar one.

I took over as head of the school of fine art, history of art and cultural studies following our own RAE trauma of slipping from a 5 to a 3a. Like the CCBCS in Birmingham, the school of fine art in Leeds has been historically associated with revolutionary developments in its constituent areas: defining the very idea of theory-practice, practically inventing the social history of art and, in later years, pioneering cultural analysis in the UK. Unlike the CCBCS, we were met by a sympathetic university management and have been able to offset the results of RAE 2001 by substantially increasing our undergraduate student base.

Since the RAE results, the school has been rated the number one department of art and design in higher education league tables, completed the first year as the Arts and Humanities Research Board Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History, and attracted the 2003 conference of the International Association of Philosophy and Literature. A string of results that make a mockery of our 3a.

We have been fortunate. Other departments in other universities, of which the CCBCS is only the most noticeable example, have not been so lucky. But it has to be said that this situation was inevitable from the moment the RAE was introduced. Thinking is not auditable. Thinking, the business of the university, should be inimical to categorisation, measurement and commodification. Thought should disrupt and transform, opening new directions in knowledge and experience. How could one audit the work of Socrates, Michelangelo, Blake, Kant or Heidegger? The moment that the articulation of thought is reclassified as "research" (a "product" that is auditable) then thought itself is compromised by the conditions under which it can emerge. It emerges - and can only emerge - not as speculation but as product. It has always seemed absurd to me that an auditing system can account for and grade a book of deconstructive theory. Yet this is what has been happening in British universities for more than a decade, with little dissent from an academy saturated by the very theory that this audit takes such delight in measuring but that it could never truly account for. For example, fine art "research" (what we used to call practice, sometimes simply art) has been on a path of "university-fication" since the 1970s (the PhD in fine art is a recent invention). It is now inextricably caught up in the research audit as a condition of its production. Newer "disciplines", such as creative writing, will follow the same path and soon research-as-practice will be forced to compete in an apparatus that will determine and transform the object it captures.

Books have been written on audit culture (then no doubt submitted to the RAE for inspection), individuals have left these shores vowing never to return and many thousands have left the academy either in disgust or as victims of the prevailing ethos of survival of the research-active fittest. Of course, this is a situation created by consecutive governments in thrall to monetarism, but academics must also bear a responsibility here for not having resisted this nonsense more vigorously. It is a bit late in the day for disappointed departments to turn round and denounce the silliness of the RAE. This should have been the position of the unions and professional organisations from the very beginning. Funding from the RAE is now so crucial to the structures of university finance that it is hard to see a way by which some form of research audit could be abandoned. This is why, when research funding goes awry, as in the case of the CCBCS, it is so difficult for individual departments to correct.

Academics, university managers and the government have been complicit in imprisoning thought in an audit culture. Fortunately, thought, being more porous and unmanageable than this system imagines, somehow manages to survive. After all, doesn't the general inflation of RAE grades in 2001 demonstrate this? In this respect, the RAE has failed. It set out - let us not pretend otherwise - to separate the old universities from the new and in this regard has not only spectacularly failed to do so but has shown itself to be a system in decline unable to make good on its own promises.

Competition, audit and the market are not an effective strategy for nourishing real thinking and the intellectual enterprise of universities. This is not a plea for an Humboldtian Eden. Rather, if speculative thought requires monetary speculation, and Enlightenment requires exchange value, then the transformation of British universities into technologised transnational universities located within the global economy cannot be done on the cheap.

The closure of the CCBCS has nothing to do with the condition of cultural studies and everything to do with the simple fact that British universities are not funded properly. The government's most recent ruse of lifting the cap on undergraduate student numbers under the guise of widening participation will solve little. It will enable old universities to poach students from the traditional catchment of the new, forcing the new into closure, merger and restructuring, while transforming the nature of provision, for good or ill, in the old. Again the unions and professional organisations remain silent.

Meanwhile, the future of cultural studies has never looked brighter. Cultural studies seems to have won all the battles it has had to fight. The canon has been complicated, theory is the mainstream across the western humanities, otherness and difference are the watchwords of the academy, interdisciplinarity is everyone's preferred modus operandi . Once, the CCBCS made an intervention into the academy to challenge those who laid claim to dominant culture; now the vocabulary of cultural studies is the language of power. This is something we should welcome. It is also something that should worry cultural studies greatly. We might pose this dilemma in the form of the question: why at the moment cultural studies has achieved a certain intellectual hegemony within the academy should the CCBCS close down?

If cultural studies began as a political intervention into a stratified university system then such an intervention cannot be allowed to ossify into a thematic concern. Cultural studies as a political intervention is not reducible to a set of revised reading lists or the valorisation of popular forms. If this were the case then it would only have reproduced the conditions of disciplinarity it set out to challenge. Rather, cultural studies must be the vigilant crafting of an intellectual practice that holds open a space for thought (a space that allows thought to be imagined otherwise) within the academic system into which it intrudes. This is what the CCBCS did in its early years.

Apart from the obvious distress of those involved (students as well as staff - this should be felt as a wound to all academics in Britain), I am not particularly concerned about the passing of the CCBCS, anymore than a neutral might mourn the inevitable closures of, say, a Preston North End or a Burnley. This sort of intervention and thinking has long since left Edgbaston. What is important for cultural studies is that its spirit of intervention is not exorcised by the emerging transglobal university.

To this end, the greatest respect that British academics could pay to the historic work of the now deceased CCBCS would be to campaign vigorously for a dismantling of the audit culture in our universities and for the full funding of the sector. If universities in the UK are not financed properly, the humanities will go the way of the dinosaurs and the CCBCS will be only the first of many casualties.

Martin McQuillan is head of the school of fine art, history of art and cultural studies at the University of Leeds.

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