Doing things differently: embracing the politics of higher education


John Turnpenny discusses the role of arts and humanities and the state of higher education.

There is an ongoing and powerfully important discussion about the state of British higher education, especially the role of the arts and humanities.  Marina Warner, Sarah Churchwell and others identify the marginalisation of arts and humanities scholarship, the role of top-down administration, and the ‘marketisation’ of universities.  These contributions reveal bigger challenges to the purpose, vision, direction and administration of higher education.  Clearly something is not working.  This article attempts to challenge two important sets of arguments in the debate.  But it also attempts to offer some hope, both in taking the debate forward and in laying the ground for doing things differently.

The first set of arguments, to summarise crudely, run along the lines that:

“STEMM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine] subjects are the most important because they make a direct contribution to the economy.

The arts, humanities and (to a certain extent) social sciences are an indulgence unless they can be tied to helping STEMM.

Studying humanities will not get you a good job but studying STEMM will.”

The implication is that there is only one particular way universities can make a significant contribution to public life.  What seems to lie behind those arguments is a re-statement of a very old ‘linear-rational’ model of the role of evidence in policy-making: academics generate research, which is then communicated to policy-makers, who then use it directly in their decision-making.  The message is that academics should be ready to answer the questions asked by those in power, but not question the basis of those questions, or encourage thinking about a wider agenda beyond that already set.  “You do the number crunching, we’ll do the strategic thinking.  Academics should be ‘on tap, not on top’.”  But this fundamentally misunderstands the point and role not just of humanities scholarship, but of academic research in all disciplines.  Indeed, the linear-rational model has been comprehensively challenged by several decades of research in public policy analysis, science studies, and human geography.  Longer-term dispersal of ideas into the public realm as a way of generating debate, challenging perceptions and reframing problems is at least as important.  Climate change is a good example of a problem that emerged from academics challenging and re-framing the agenda.  Another model of the use of academic knowledge is the ‘political’: knowledge as ammunition to back up political arguments, shore up power relations, delay unwelcome decisions or discredit opponents.

So why is the linear-rational rhetoric so persistent?  Partly because it keeps being repeated unchallenged, by research councils, REF guidance, government ministers, the general public, and by academics themselves.  If something is repeated enough, people forget there are other ways of understanding.  But it is partly because it suits some people to portray the academic contribution to public life like that.  This gives a clue as to why we are having this discussion in the first place.  If ‘world-leading’ research means just that – setting the agenda – then ‘four-star’ research should be challenging to read for those in power and authority.  Academics, through research and teaching, explicitly or implicitly challenge the linear-rational model, and also challenge existing interests and accepted norms about authority.  They encounter the world of the political use of knowledge, and face strenuous attempts to put them back into the ‘safer’, linear-rational box.

The question ‘how does this play out?’ leads us to the second set of arguments.  Again summarising crudely, these run that:

“academics who object to any policy or practice are simply scared of losing their privilege.

Academics must be closely managed using performance targets.”

These arguments deliberately foster a certain perception of academics’ motivations, tie them (where no tie is necessarily logical) to a particular style of public management, and develop doubt and division between academics of different disciplines, or the same discipline at different universities.  In short, this is politics.  It is taking a legitimate and relatively uncontroversial issue (‘academics should make a significant contribution to public life, and should be accountable for their work’) and making it seem there is only one answer to exactly how.  The answer that keeps academics on tap, and not in any danger of being on top.

There has been a detailed, impassioned and inconclusive debate over many decades about what motivates public servants like academics, teachers, police officers, park-keepers, soldiers, Job Centre staff, nurses and fire-fighters.  The idea that all are motivated ultimately by maximising self-interest has been comprehensively challenged by research showing that public service, loyalty and dedication to the aims of the service are vitally important.  But if academics are assumed to always be self-interested utility maximisers, this will shape how higher education is administered and run.  Incentives and rewards will assume academics respond to events in a certain way, for example, individual competition for influence, prizes, selection, promotion, and equipment.  It can also assume that academics need to be monitored to avoid them maximising their own interests rather than the interests of the ‘principal’.  If academics feel their complex range of motivations are not being heard, or they are forced to behave as if they are motivated by something else, it leads to anger, disillusionment, sullen box-ticking compliance, gaming the system, or simply despair Nadine Muller.  Or an underlying sense of guilt and self-doubt.  And since it is easy in any human activity to ‘hit the target and miss the point’ – to try and maximise the target rather than what the target is trying to measure – problems can be painted as a personal failure of individuals rather than a distorted institutional structure, or acknowledged as a piece of deliberate politics.

So what can academics do? It might be seen as awful that academics should be drawn into politics.  But everything we do as public servants is political, whether we like it, or recognise it, or not.  It is better to embrace our role as political actors.  It has benefits.  Political actors have influence.  How can this influence be best exercised?  In a political situation, reasoned arguments like more and better justification and explanation of academic work are not necessarily useful – they may actually make things worse.  Taking action to shape higher education policy itself is much more useful.  How?

Generally, policies are not just created at high levels and imposed on those further down who have to implement them to the letter.  Policy cannot feasibly be made as a set of instructions with every eventuality specified.  There is a necessary reliance on large amount of discretion among those at ‘street-level’ as to how policies are carried out.  Police officers on the beat, for example, have a huge influence on how policing policy is implemented, by deciding who to arrest, who to question, and what offences to pursue as priorities.   This discretion also shapes and changes the policy itself.  The actions of ‘street-level’ public servants actually help create policy in their specific areas, whether those people recognise it or not.  So there is a choice.  Academics grudgingly ticking boxes will have some influence on policy, but probably not the desired one.  We can do better than that. By acknowledging that higher education policy is something we help create, rather than something that is wholly done to us, we can start to make a difference.  Our detailed response will help shape the future of higher education in the UK.

John Turnpenny is a Senior Lecturer in public policy and public management at the University of East Anglia.


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One thought on “Doing things differently: embracing the politics of higher education

  1. Hi John, thanks for the article – can you point me in the direction of your or others’ work that explores this in more detail, especially the latter portions about ‘street-level’ participation/creation of policy?

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