The Nu-Bureaucratic Zombie Academy

Whither UK academia? Last month scientists blossomed with anger when Vince Cable, a man of advanced learning no less, wildly misrepresented the state of research excellence. Such a transparently false ’empirical’ case for cuts depends heavily on the trope of pointless, money-sucking academics [1], as if billions in state rescue packages had been precipitated by feckless spending on the Large Hadron Collider. Although social science and humanities is a sideshow [2], the claims are just as misleading for those of us working in politics, since 72% of the stuff we pump out is ‘world leading’ or ‘internationally recognised’.

The travesty of the RAE is what provides the commonsensical gloss for this redoubling of efforts to ‘magnitise’ investment, realise profit and ‘link to’ (read: subsidise) business. All of which conforms wonderfully to k-punk‘s diagnosis of capitalist realism, business ontology and nu-bureaucracy:

…the drive to assess the performance of workers and to measure forms of labour which, by their nature, are resistant to quantification, has inevitably required additional layers of management and bureaucracy. What we have is not a direct comparison of workers’ performance or output, but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output. Inevitably, a short-circuiting occurs, and work becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of representations rather than to the official goals of work itself.

Academics know this, and say so all the time. Naturally, exercises like the RAE produce their objects, and push exactly the behaviour that they claim to eradicate. The obsession with publication, completion time and measurable productivity gifts a strategic narcissism of minor difference – a repetition of the same ideas in barely distinguishable garb – and a burgeoning market in journals and book series to accommodate this ‘new knowledge’ safely behind a paywall.

Take the farce at King’s this year. Militant paleography knew the score:

According to the College’s own accounts, administrative costs rose to £33.5 million in 2009 from £28.5 million the year before – a rise of 17.5 per cent and more than twice as fast as the rise in cost of academic departments. In 2003, administration cost £16.5 million – making a 103 per cent rise over the six years…King’s is now proposing to decimate the Humanities to save £2.4 million. This will claw back less than half of the increase in administrative expenses for 2009 alone.

What we have is a system of assessment that is deeply flawed. Yet scholars, despite their loud and repeated misgivings, are being good little producers and paying the sacrificial prices demanded of them. They are now being rewarded by being roughed up with their own efforts. A reminder, if one was needed, that ideological arguments are never ‘merely’ discourses, but can actualise the realities which they imagine.

And yet we remain in the realm of pre-emption. Cuts haven’t been worked out in detail, but it is considered entirely appropriate to force all the scholars across several Departments at one of the country’s ‘premier’ institutions to re-apply for their jobs and justify their existence, all at huge cost. So far, the response to crisis  from within the academy is either to redouble efforts to conform to the means and ends so thoroughly implicated in its very emergence, or to use this opportunity to repeat the argument for increasing fees. What remains apparently unthinkable is that senior managers should take a pay-cut, reduce their parasitism on the research of others or re-apply for their positions before a panel of academic inquisitors.


[1] cf. ‘the University’.

[2] AHRC and ESRC money accounts for only 4.4% of research cash spent.

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2 thoughts on “The Nu-Bureaucratic Zombie Academy

  1. Pingback: The University, Limited. « The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: Comprador Intellectuals in the Education Crisis « The Disorder Of Things

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