We need to change, but don’t know why


Jan Blommaert 

Students of the University of Amsterdam have occupied a number of university buildings, protesting against the lack of democratic transparency of their university’s decision-making practices. Inevitably, this local issue broadened into a larger issue of vision – the vision on academic training and research articulated for some years now by the Dutch government. And an even broader issue can be pasted onto that: the vision articulated by the EU regarding these matters, developed over the past decade and easily summarized in a number of key terms. Universities are suppliers of finished products for a labor market defined almost exclusively by private enterprise interests; research likewise needs to be immediately economically profitable – it needs to lead and contribute to “economic growth”, and note that “growth”, too, is defined almost exclusively in terms of private enterprise interests. As for science itself, it needs to be “value free” and “objective” as a practice, and “valorized” afterwards in terms of economic parameters – “value” becomes sales, the amount of money that can be made through a scientific product which, in itself, is not value-laden.

This definition of vision has, over the years, led to shifts in baseline funding structure for universities, to a logic of profitability at the level of university policy and management, and to so-called “hard choices” between disciplines and programs that were judged to be useful in light of this vision, and those that were useless. The latter, by and large, include the Humanities – it is not greatly pleasurable to be a professional philosopher at Dutch universities these days – and students are encouraged by means of “price setting” tactics (fee structure and student loans) to choose useful programs.

The vision is fundamentally anti-scientific, as it tends to exclude or marginalize exactly those forms of scientific activity that cause growth, if you wish, in science: explorative and speculative research, theory formation and hypothesis building. It replaces them by an ethos that stresses what is already known as the “safe” basis of academic training, rather than the limits of what is known and the principles of how to transcend them. The contemporary equivalent of Albert Einstein – a speculative and hypothesis-forming scientist not doing much useful stuff – would have a hard time finding an academic job these days. Output measuring systems, “valorization” appraisal and external funding targets, annual evaluation cycles, competitive assessment between peers – the organisational effects of this vision on academic practice – would prevent swift career mobility if he/she were appointed at all.

Critical response to these developments has been rife: the past years have seen a flurry of opinion articles in newspapers, public debates and grassroots activism combating this shift in vision both in individual universities, faculties and departments and in broader public fora. Often, such responses were quickly dismissed as reactionary – academics complaining about these changes simply opposed change in itself, it was claimed, they preferred the comfort of status quo (not questioning, of course, how comfortable the present status quo actually would be). Discussions on fundamental assumptions – the presuppositions used in debate – are thus evaded. There is hardly any substantial discussion in which the actual academic “producers” are involved; consequently there is hardly any debate on the particular nature of academic products and the specific conditions of production they demand. Generic management technique is enough, it seems.

Let us for a moment accept the vision and its assumptions. Debate on them has proven futile, as we have seen. Let us for a moment accept that academia needs to change into a better performing system of production, guided by management technique and defined by criteria of immediate economic usefulness; still one question needs to be answered.

Change defines a trajectory between two points: an anterior “inferior” stage and a posterior “improved” stage. Official documents never cease repeating this: universities need to “improve”, they need to become “more” of X and cease to be Y and Z, they need to “do better” and “score higher” on criteria set by management. Fine, but what exactly are the anterior and posterior states? Simply put: what is “wrong” and “inferior” about the present state of universities, and what would be the “ideal” and “improved” state we need to move towards? In business terms: what is the “target” of change?

To be more precise: if universities today host good numbers of “eminent” and highly performing scientists (and precisely those are often put in charge of the brainstorming for change), what is it that makes their past performance insufficient now? If their work belonged to an “inferior” culture of academic work, in which ways was it wrong? What is it in the present criteria for academic excellence that warrants redefinition? And in view of what? For this is never addressed: what is “good science” in this new vision? What are the criteria for excellence of the future world of science?

Current answers to this are recognized to be grotesquely unsatisfactory, even by those who define them. Increased numbers of articles in so-called “top” journals, and victories in battles over competitive funding (often overly narrowly defined in terms of funding sources) are offered as “objective” criteria for measuring quality – while Diederik Stapel “objectively” proved them false. So they are offered without much conviction, by lack of better stuff, even if almost everyone realizes that they have passed their sell-by date. And as for the “rankings” of individual universities in several international lists: even hard-nosed academic managers only mention them with sarcasm. Intellectually, no other criteria are offered.

So, please, let us have this intellectual debate and talk about academic relevance in terms of contents; let us stop hiding behind the curtains of so-called “measurable” quality and discuss the science that society really needs in the future. I say “society”, because private enterprise is just one of the stakeholders in this development – universities in the EU are currently overwhelmingly funded by society at large, not by private enterprise, so ownership entitlements are an issue here as well. Let us talk about what this society needs as “surplus value” generated by science. In doing this, we may rediscover that science has a value different from the sales figures it might yield, a value lodged in the work of science itself, not in its managerial and marketing handling and packaging.

What exactly are we currently doing wrong? And what exactly should we do better, in which specific ways? These are justified questions which even neoliberal policymakers and academic managers cannot dodge, lest they alienate the people who have to actually perform the change in their daily practices. Any decent manager will agree that a workforce lacking ownership of transforming processes will also lack the necessary motivation and direction for effective change. And that such directionless change is a recipe, not for improvement but for disaster.



Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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