‘Immediate Commodifiability’; Or, A Virtual Teach-In on Austerity in Education

As a public service, some of the best of recent (and older) diagnosis and critique, largely an extension of work already done over at Infinite ThØught:

It is fascinating, and very revealing, to see how Browne’s unreal confidence in the rationality of subjective consumer choice is matched by his lack of belief in reasoned argument and judgment. The sentence that immediately follows the vacuous one about students’ ‘wants’ reads: ‘We have looked carefully at the scope to distribute funding by some objective metric of quality; but there is no robust way to do this and we doubt whether the choices of a central funding body should be put before those of students.’ It is, first of all, striking that the only alternative envisaged to the random play of subjective consumer choice is an ‘objective metric of quality’, i.e. some purely quantitative indicator. And second, it is no less striking that instead of allowing that an informed judgment might be based on reasons, arguments and evidence, there are simply the ‘choices’ made by two groups, treated as though they are just two equivalent expressions of subjective preference. We can have the money for a national system of higher education distributed either in accordance with the tastes of 18-year-olds or in accordance with the tastes of a group of older people in London: there’s no other way to do it.

Stefan Collini, Browne’s Gamble

György Lukács used to say that the objective unity of the capitalist order was never so apparent as in a phase of crisis. Then, the relative autonomy of expansionary times, which were so often asserted as the reality of social relations, would be abruptly suspended. The power of discretion would flow back to the centre, to the strategic politics of the state and to those prepared to launch a fundamental challenge to it.

What is objectionable is the ascendency of quantification, the emergence of quantifiability as a qualifying condition of relevance and admissibility. A species of transcendental reductionism. We need look no further than the familiar, degraded world of academic research. Scientific and scholarly projects, we all know, do well in these times to internalise the definitions, the priorities and the timescales of the REF as a main condition of finding institutional support. Reputation – the regard of one’s peers and serious audiences – is a frothy measure of achievement if it cannot be captured in scores and tables…League tables generally do not only reduce particular and distinct activity to a single numerical scale. As numerical procedures, they offer perverse compensation by generating distinctions where none can credibly be thought to exist in reality. 10 or 15 institutions differ within the space of 1%. But the visual code of the table – equal spacing in the plane of the vertical – renders such trivia grave and lapidary, carves them in stone…These processes of quantification and financialisation are effecting a progressive abstraction of university functions, in which exchange value is the homogeneous substance of working life. Now the labour of perfecting and defending these processes calls for an equally abstract organisational stratum of leader-managers, in a classic process of bureaucratisation.

Francis Mulhern, Humanities and University Corporatism

Wendy Brown, Why Privatisation Is About More Than Who Pays


There is a large element of play-acting in this spending review. If the situation is as serious as the government insists, it could have charged the banks much more than the petty sum that’s proposed. If the dead weight of interest payments is as Osborne has described it, the government could introduce a capital levy, a kind of one-off wealth tax designed to be gathered in non-recurrent fiscal crises from the banks and those with the ‘broadest shoulders’ more generally. (Lloyd George’s coalition government thought of doing something similar after the First World War.) In that way fairness could be achieved and a good part of the debt paid off in one go. Even to describe such a levy, however, is to know why this government would never even contemplate it. Not merely because it would outrage its principal supporters but because the crisis is not as serious as it pretends.

Ross McKibbin, Nothing To Do With The Economy

[The] school master is a productive labourer, when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his scholars, he works like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, does not alter the relation.

Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (via The Really Open University)


Addressing these three starting points [funding, access and impact] in more or less compliant terms is currently taken to be a measure of one’s realism. And of course we are constantly told that it is imperative to be realistic in making the case for universities…It would be interesting to submit the speeches and articles about universities by some politicians, academic administrators, business leaders and others to a small textual experiment. We could try removing all references – to economic prosperity, growth, wealth creation, and so on – and then consider whether there is anything left which looks at all like an argument in favour of the value of universities and the activities they pursue. I suspect the resulting text would resemble those pictures of pre-modern battlefields, where small clumps of survivors are left going through the motions of military activity, though they have lost contact with the main army and will be fatally vulnerable to the first concerted attack by the enemy. A few nominal values will be left wondering through the scarred and vacant landscapes of these denuded paragraphs – this one with the one proud title ‘culture’ still legible on its shrivelled pennant, that one left dragging a limber marked ‘excellence’ to which no piece of artillery is attached – but they have no fight left in them, and no sense of their place in a larger strategy.

The mythical beast that haunts this particular discussion is ‘The Taxpayer’. This morose, prickly creature is intensely suspicious of all contact with others, fearing the abduction and loss of its hoard, the fruits of what it always likes to call its hard-earned labours. Actually, it’s surprising that this beast has any time in which to labour, since it’s always represented as devoting itself to the scrutiny of what various predators threaten to do with its possessions, itself ever ready to pounce at the slightest suggestion that they might be shared with other creatures.

Stefan Collini, Holding Our Nerve

Very much recommended, but not malleable to the spatial requirements of the blog post:

§ Quentin Skinner, Why The History of Philosophy? [in fact, all the talks from the Why Humanities? Conference]

§ Gareth Dale, Changing Interests

§ The New York Times, Questionable Science Behind Academic Rankings

One thought on “‘Immediate Commodifiability’; Or, A Virtual Teach-In on Austerity in Education

  1. Pingback: Freeing the Pluralist Imagination, or on the wisdom of escaping Weber’s “Iron Cage” « The Disorder Of Things

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