The unseen academy

As officialdom's demands for meaningless Transparency and Information multiply, Thomas Docherty asks: has clandestine scholarship become the only way to carry out real research and teaching?

November 10, 2011

For a number of years, the university, in common with much of public life in general, has become obsessed with the need to present itself to the world through the twin pillars of Transparency and Information. It is taken for granted that we will piously revere, and robustly comply with, the demands of these iconic towers. Ostensibly, demands for Transparency and Information are positively good: after all, who would want important decisions to be based on a lack of information; and who would want procedures to be covert, operated according to unspoken laws or whimsy, and governed by secretive cabals?

But Information and Transparency are not as innocuous as they seem, especially in the university. When unquestioning respect for them is simply taken for granted as an axiomatic good, they start to assume the power of the obsessive fetish, and the price of fealty exacted is high. Transparency and Information become the means of securing the university's official conformity with the prevailing social or governmental orthodoxy and dogma. When they assume a primary importance, they govern the official identity of the university, and they thereby deprive the institution of the capacity to make any serious claim for a cultural function beyond the society's or the government's official views of the academy.

This brings serious consequential dangers for the university and its proper priorities of teaching, learning, research and scholarly study. These things are all grounded in two axioms of intellectual life: first, that truth should nowhere be taken to be transparently self-evidencing; and second, that information must be subjected to critique if it is to help us seek or form knowledge.

The prevailing social norms, however, work against these fundamental principles, and a "confessional culture" of immediacy is the norm today. From reality TV to the structures of mass public surveillance, we have almost entirely lost the right to a private life, private study - or, indeed, to the time and privacy required for learning. "I confess", I give the answers immediately here and now, is the great refrain of our time.

The university is in a most troubling position. Transparency has become our poor substitute for truth; and raw Information has supplanted the curiosity-driven demands for critical knowledge that are the primary concern of a serious university.

In fact, the demand for Transparency and Information is now so axiomatically dominant that the proper activity of the university is increasingly carried out in a rather less visible, even surrogate fashion. In short, there exist at least two universities within each institution: an "Official" one and a "Clandestine" one. And it is in the Clandestine University that we find scholars and students who hold on to the idea of what a university is for, while the Official University, acting in conformity with the society's governing norms, shows no concern for those fundamental values or principles. The Official University polishes its windows, but it no longer attends to the life within.

The Official University, beloved of government and its agencies, including the higher education funding councils, the research councils, Universities UK and so on, describes itself by mission statements, mission groups, research reports, colourful prospectuses and websites, and YouTube videos. It prides itself on an essentially vacuous "excellence", supposedly transparently demonstrated by various facts and figures (Information), finally settling into position in the multiplying, and often mutually contradictory, league tables that various agencies will use as a proxy for an understanding of the life of our institutions. As Sir Peter Scott has pointed out, at least 25 UK universities claim to be in the "top 10" of UK universities. Perhaps they lack a maths or logic department. More likely, the official figures on which the claim is based occlude reality.

The Clandestine University, by contrast, is where most of us do our daily work. As academics, we do not "compete" against colleagues elsewhere for research funding; rather, we just want to do the research, and we welcome good work wherever it is done. When the research councils come up with their next Big Funding Idea, researchers will twist their activity to seem to fit the idea's criteria, while actually carrying out their preferred research. Of course, although we know this to be the case, we cannot officially say it.

In the laboratory or library, when our experiments or readings lead away from a simple rehearsal of what the grant application said we would do, then we divert from the terms of the grant and we engage, properly, in research. We do not find what we said we would. But we cannot officially say this.

When we enter the seminar room, we do not seek to confirm pre-set "aims, objectives and outcomes" for the class: to do so, we would need to circumscribe the possibilities that the seminar offers for imaginative exploration of our topic, that is, for learning. But we cannot officially say this.

Good work is done in all aspects of our academic activity; but it is now done in a clandestine and unofficial manner, despite the official criteria, and going beyond the mediocrities that conformity with official criteria - above all, of Transparency and of Information - necessarily brings.

When a culture contents itself with Transparency and Information as insipidly neutral and impoverished surrogates for truth-seeking and knowledge-making, then we start to lose sight of what the university is actually for, and to lose sight of its proper commitments. The Official University - the transparent one, replete with information - has not only eviscerated but also threatened with extinction the institution where serious work goes on. That institution, if it is to survive, has had to become clandestine.

Two things follow from this. The first is that the general public do not know what we really do, for what we really do is hidden under the official information that falsely presents our work. The second is that, within the institution, there is a growing gap between academic staff and senior management, who now literally see the world in entirely different ways. Senior managers are condemned to live in the official realm, conjuring facts and figures that have absolutely no bearing on, or even interest for, the academics who keep the university alive. The clandestine academic exists in the interstices of officialdom, and has to remain in the shade because the university is in grave danger of being betrayed.

In the most recent treachery, we are betrayed by a KIS. The latest manifestation of the information-transparency fetish - the requirement that all courses will have key information sets - explicitly politicises the situation. The KIS has been tied directly (not just by the government) to the ongoing fraught fees issue. The government - aware that its fees agenda may be technically legal but also and equally aware that it is lacking in legitimacy - proposes the KIS as a justification that excuses the ideological manoeuvrings of the Browne-stained White Paper.

Transparency and Information are indeed powerful if they will justify this. Should we allow them to be so? And is the word "clandestine", with its hints of oppression, samizdat and censorship, too dramatic? I do not think so.

It is worth situating the ideologies of Transparent Information a little more historically. In the 1980s, with the rise of a neoliberal economic agenda and its emerging orthodoxies, US News & World Report started to produce university rankings. Overnight, the university was subjected to the Chicago-School economistic mantra that "science is measurement": its real existence was reduced to only those things that could be measured as commodities.

Neoliberalism is totalising: it is justified only if everyone participates in its markets, and if all human inter-relatedness becomes mercantile transactions. Hence, we get the agenda for "widening participation", but for widening participation in a market, not in a university education. In that market, the university's "product" needs its own measurements and standards. Everything is now a commodity; and anything that is not obviously a commodity is either eradicated or officially ignored: it goes underground. And the Quality Assurance Agency will measure; but it will measure and validate only that which is official or transparent, only that which it can call a commodity.

The QAA, a key driver of the Transparent-Information mythology, makes one basic error: it confounds a concern for standards (meaning quality) with a demand for standardisation (assured by quantity-measurement); and this drives the sector steadily towards homogenisation. Homogenising measurement (standardisation) is possible only if we reduce the heterogeneous complex facts of actual daily life to comparable factors, or numbers. Thus, in the Official University, a module in literary deconstruction is "equivalent" to a module in molecular endocrinology, and this equals one in world macroeconomics: all are "priced" at 30 credits.

In reality, we know that such vastly different modules simply cannot be compared in any meaningful sense; but their "credit rating" elides their difference by finding a lowest common denominator (120 hours of teaching, say) that makes them into "equivalent" commodities, exchangeable in the market. It is as if we were bankers and not teachers or students (the very thought!). In this lowest-common-denomination validation, QAA accreditation steadily drives towards mediocrity, endangering actual quality work while singing its official praises.

In all of this, pure learning and basic teaching disappear from the official record. The KIS, promising value, instead leads inexorably to mediocrity, because teaching is not a commodity transaction or transparent dealing in information. Teaching is a collaborative activity that leads to the expansion of imaginations and discoveries on all sides. In sum, teaching, too, is research; and, in the Clandestine University, we have teaching-led research. But we cannot say that either.

The Official University stands in a situation akin to that satirised by Martin Amis in his 1995 novel, The Information. His two central characters enter a pub, where the drinkers play a gaming-machine. They call it "The Knowledge": "The Knowledge posed questions, offering multiple-choice answers (buttons A, B and C) for modest cash prizes, depending on how far you travelled along learning's trail." The machine's trademark name is "Wise Money". Entirely beyond satire, this is what the Official University is reduced to; and the only thing left for vice-chancellors and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to do is to promise more and bigger winnings - provided the pub's punters take higher-stake gambles. It is politically and pedagogically unacceptable to anyone who has a serious interest in the proper activities of a university.

And yet, it remains true that Information is indeed extremely powerful. George Orwell, for one, knew that all totalitarian regimes have an interest in reducing knowledge to the level of mere information. This is the real import of Winston Smith's job in Nineteen Eighty-Four where he "corrects" the historical record of events: "But actually, he thought as he re-adjusted the Ministry of Plenty's figures, it was not even forgery. It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another. Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connexion with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connexion that is contained in a direct lie."

The information in the historical record can be changed, because it is simple fantasy. No one is to have knowledge any more, with the critical thinking that knowledge-formation entails. The task of any authoritarian government - or indeed any oppressive economy - is, first and foremost, to control knowledge by emptying it of content, or ignoring the evidence that it offers. You can't buy knowledge, as everyone except Lord Browne knows; but you can marketise mere information; and you can arrest criticism by doing so.

For the replenishment of content in intellectual life, we go to those who operate in the shadows of the Official University: teachers, learners, researchers who are actually getting on with unquantifiable activities. Those activities require that we go into a seminar or a laboratory or a library not knowing what we will have found out when we leave. What we learn there will actually make the world darker, more mysterious, more demanding of further research and enquiry. But we cannot say this.

And, as in Orwell's dystopia, the Official University is effectively a fantasy, dressed up in figures unconnected to reality, figures that are there to serve political ideologies and party power. And we had best not say this.

While the University Grants Committee was being established in 1919, and its block-grant awarding powers were demonstrating the state's national interest in research and learning, a young writer was making her way outside the Official University framework. That year, Virginia Woolf wrote a celebrated essay, "Modern Fiction", in which she attacked H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy - the established writers and public figures of the day - on the grounds that their novels, although well written, contained nothing of reality, being concerned only with the official etiquette and superficial decorum of an Establishment world. "Look within," she said, and we will see that "Life is not like this...Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo...[an] unknown and uncircumscribed spirit".

The Clandestine University attends to the governance and maintenance of that spirit. The Official University, with all its well-arranged gig-lamps lighting our Transparent and Informed world, will kill learning, research and public interest in what we do stone dead. It would be good if the Clandestine University could come in from the cold. We could then present our activities honestly, and in ways that reunite academy with sector leaders.

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