Notes on: Cribb, A and Gewirtz, S. (2013) 'The hollowed out university?  A critical analysis of changing institutional and academic norms in UK higher education'.  Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 34 (3): 338-50.  Doi: 10.1080/01596306.2012.717188

Dave Harris

A hollowed out institution is one 'with no distinctive social role and no ethical raison d'être'(338).  Trends in UK higher education are analyzed through articles appearing in the Times Higher Educational Supplement (THES) , from 1979 to 2010.  [Reported in an earlier article as in salami slicing].  The focus is on 'institutional norms and academic values'.  The work proceeds through examining May on professionalism, then considers the growth of impression management, with its attention on 'surface considerations rather than considerations of academic substance' (339).

The period in question started with protests and marches against government cuts, and there were more in 2010, although they were different, both in terms of agendas and in terms of who was actually involved in protest.  In 1979 there was much more unity of purpose between senior staff lecturers and students, but in 2010, students found themselves opposing university managers.  The themes discussed in THES turned on management change in the face of retrenchment, new faces and emphases, and gloss and spin.  Obviously this is a partial summary, and it risks relying on a mythical past.

The first theme addressed reductions in student intake numbers and in subsidies for overseas students, in the context of a general policy turn against public spending.  Cuts were met with substantial opposition them protest, teach ins, marches to parliament.  Apparently 20 university VCs were present at one demo, and their committee [CVCP - Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals] also sent support.  The UGC [a quango advising the government on university funding, originally seen as a semi independent, but increasingly as an agent of the state] intervened to help universities cope with cuts, but by reviewing strengths and weaknesses of individual university departments, which opened the door to government assessment in the form of the RAE [quinquennial research assessment exercise, now the REF - funds are awarded according to assessment of research output].  The trend was to undermine university autonomy, by introducing new managerial technologies, which are now routine - research assessment and appraisal.  These were borrowed from the private sector and they did change the culture of universities by emphasizing productivity.  The Jarratt Report suggested further changes in the direction of making universities corporations, and vice chancellors into chief executives rather than leading scholars.  There was some privatisation including the outsourcing of campus services.  Management and finance consultancy in HE grew considerably.

New faces and emphases followed from different mixes of 'staff, students, and organizational partners'(340).  There had already been a shift of funding to favour science and engineering and business at the expense of social sciences and humanities, concealed to some extent by a considerable expansion in the university sector, including making the old polytechnics into the new universities.  Nevertheless the 'humanities cultures' were diminished.  The dominance of science and technology was apparent in the new notions of research and development, continued in the current emphases of the 'need to demonstrate social and economic impact'(341) for all research, and an emphasis on skills.  This model has replaced the idea of the single scholar producing a major monograph sometimes over many years -this, 'in RAE terms, is equivalent to being non productive for long periods'. Massification also took place with the rise of student numbers and the 'proliferation of programmes'.  Student demand increased including from women mature and part time students.  For a while, this is revived the notion of HE as a National Investment, and there was some genuine widened access and some attention to social exclusion.  At the same time, there was an expansion of links with business, in the form of sponsored research, new funding schemes, talk about economic exploitation of research, and business representatives on university governing boards.  There is also a new professional group to advise on research policy and quality assurance, as well as 'business relations common knowledge exchange, fundraising and development'

Gloss and spin has been managed by new PR experts, another push towards corporate identity and a concern with reputation.  Universities now have to compete, and so they have become far more conscious of their image, and keen to develop 'slick marketing approaches and practices' (342).  There had been a number of stories about how this has affected traditional university values, 'for example the reconfiguring of graduation day as a " marketing machine"'. Universities UK, the replacement for CVCP, has shown itself interested only in minimizing negative publicity after a hike in student fees, because it might affect student recruitment.

Overall, these changes represent a policy of making large cuts in teaching grants, a move to a marketized system, and a new climate for HE [including Bologna, although this is not mentioned - this is an EU report suggesting that non vocational courses not be funded at all].  It fragmented protest, by separating university managers doubt as a stratum, and reducing '"mere" academic concerns' as a priority.

We can explain the 'shifting normative terrain' by referring to May on American HE.  The focus is on how managerialism affects the subjectivities and careers of academics.  May talks about the difference between the liberal arts college, the positivist vision, and the 'counter cultural protest vision' of the university (343).  The first featured the 'cultivation of the well rounded person', emphasis on central values, 'questioning and discriminating students', 'breadth and aesthetic intelligence…  respect for persons rather than credentials…  wisdom and insight more than specialised expertise',  vocation and the common good were encouraged, the 'intelligent amateur'[Bourdieu would have a lot to say about this!].  The positivist university was more accessible, did large scale research, but was anonymous, impersonal, and less interested in values.  Instead the emphasis was on 'technical intelligence, careerism and the production of marketable skills'.  People built careers through publication, and this began 'what May calls the "miniaturization" of knowledge' with increasing specialism.  Self display and hustling were no longer frowned upon.  The counter cultural version was supported by some academics wanting to 'nurture the critically conscious self', aiming at emancipation an encouraging activism.

All these might coexist within contemporary universities, although counterculture seems to have been particularly submerged, and liberal arts increasingly threatened.  The emphasis on technical rationality has led to 'various forms of instrumentalism' (344), and 'what May describes as "verbal hustling" - all the replacement of understatement by overstatement'.  This has reduced the distinctive rationality of universities, which have become another large scale social organization, 'what we are calling a hollowed out university', less a community of learners, more a site for social engineering aimed at social functions.  Marketing, corporate identity, competition, make the university like any other corporate institution.

This might be an exaggeration, although it can be 'a useful heuristic'.  There is a risk of underestimating the extent to which gloss and spin just operate at the corporate level: there are 'powerful relay mechanisms' which transmit them to every level, including academic identity.  It may be that some academics are playing at being mere assets, but management increasingly is driven by a discourse about reputation that leads to the individual assessment of academics in terms of their numbers of grants from funders, their publications or their impact, although we know that these are only 'indirect indicators of the value of academic work'.  Some academics might be playing a cynical game, but the discourse affects real choices, motivations 'and habitual forms of framing that inform the work' (345) [needs some empirical stuff here, maybe a revisit to Deem on the split personalities of academic managers?].

Again this indicates a convergence with the other corporations.  For Marxists, it is a sign of commodification, the results of a ' which all transactions outside the family have become effectively market transactions', and where the brand becomes the product itself.  Another way of putting this is to see the university 'as part of the "triumph of spectacle"'[citing Hedges], similar to 'pornography and professional wrestling', 'the generation of successful illusions'.

This analysis could be too simple, and reflect '"golden-ageism"'.  Some developments have indeed been positive including expansion and diversity, and changes in university life is a necessary price to pay to overcome elitism.  There is a danger of a mythical sense of loss, which might tell us more about 'current projects of identity making' (346) [the professional ideologies and special pleading of academics].  The danger of the politics of nostalgia is that it offers retreat into the past rather than an attempt to confront present reality.

Perhaps we should say that the argument is 'at least partly true' as a guide to further discussion, including consideration of alternatives.  If hollowing out does proceed, it could even lead to corruption, as we have seen in the banking sector and in parliament.  In these cases, financial self interest, and 'performance oriented cultures' have overcome any 'meaningful internal systems of accountability and effective civic governance'.  University staff still seem to retain some integrity, although there have been some scandals like the links between the LSE and the Gaddafi regime - again this has been analyzed as associated with the changes in UK HE as a whole, with its obsessional search for funding.

There also more positive currents, and we have to beware developing 'a reductionist and totalizing narrative'.  The alternatives are listed above are still act as 'potential moral resources'(347), indicating at least a certain 'ethical plurality and contestation' -- but these risk being drowned out [they have no systematic institutional power base any more].  We need to revive more theoretical and philosophical debates, including a recent defence of 'the academic virtues of respect, or authenticity, courage, passion, magnanimity, autonomy and care'.  We should be accompanied with organizational change that embody these values, such as 'broader based community organizing' as in 'the American Commonwealth Project'. [see also Cohen on this]  A recent campaign in defence of higher education is also useful (Campaign for the Public University): this revives the mission for social justice, and opposes market based visions.  However, it is debatable whether 'these things can really still count and be recognised, as virtues in the hollowed out university' (348).  Instead, we have two sorts of opposed politics, Marxist inspired counterculture, and liberal pluralism, but 'managerialism and marketization'threatens to neutralise both through incorporation - the latter is indicated by taming and incorporating protest over widening access into a public corporate ethos.  Gloss and spin are real threats, and we should use 'the remaining spaces' to promote then realise academic values - there is no way of avoiding them and academics should struggle against them.

[I like the look of Hedges, C.  (2009).  Empire of illusion.  New York: Nation Books]

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