‘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

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