It is widely acknowledged amongst those who still care that academia in the UK is in very serious trouble. The most infamous embodiment of the current malaise is a mechanism imposed upon universities by successive Westminster governments: a system of ‘research assessment’ driven by an ideology of neo-liberal commodification. Until 2008 it was called the Research Assessment Exercise; it now operates under the equally Orwellian name of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Readers fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the blight that is the REF may need an explanation: universities submit publications by their scholars to subject-oriented panels of academics, who will assess their relative ‘excellence’, awarding them scores from 1-4 to indicate just how ‘excellent’ they really are. An accompanying ‘environment’ narrative describing how wonderful these scholars’ departments are is also assessed, as are so-called ‘impact studies’ (the devising of specious measurements of the supposed ‘impact’ of academic work upon non-academics, an idea that barely works in the classical sciences, never mind the humanities). From all this, an overall score for the department will be given. That score, in turn, will determine the funding that the state gives each university, though perversely, the exact methodology for that decision has not (yet) been made public. Of course, many academics and most university bureaucrats have strong vested interests in these outcomes.
The broader ramifications of the REF are apparent in numerous contexts, long before the REF submission deadline at the end of 2013. Most universities appear to have appointed yet more managers, directors and deputy principals whose primary responsibility is to maximise their institution’s overall score for the REF. It goes without saying that many of these people are on salaries that far exceed those of the academics they are supposed to be ‘helping’. Varying levels of competency, transparency and accountability characterise such institutional engagement, as conversations with almost any UK academic will verify. The REF and its implementation corrodes the UK academic environment on all levels: for example, Phil Davis shows how citation records are being falsified in order to improve the supposed relevance of texts.
One of the most important elements of academic thinking to suffer in this context is interdisciplinarity. The REF’s structures barely cope with scholars who cross traditional disciplinary boundaries, such as those working in Critical Religion. A quick look through the list of scholars involved in the CRA highlights the nature of the boundaries issue: literature, gender, law, postcolonial studies, art, history, politics, philosophy, music, and a raft of other disciplinary descriptors feature prominently. Critical Religion is in substantial part about questioning the boundaries and categories that are seen to exist in different contexts, and related to that, to interrogate the power relations underpinning these categories – who benefits from categorisations and whose position is strengthened by maintaining them? Whether this be about interrogating ‘politics’ (e.g. here) or ‘gender’ (e.g. here) or ‘interreligious issues’ (e.g. here or here), there are innumerable categories that cannot simply be maintained in their present form without distorting the nature of human relationships. This thinking has its origins in ‘religious studies’, but perhaps the Critical Religion Association should have been called the Critical Categories Association!
These crossings form an integral part of the creative process. I have written here before on interdisciplinarity: it often involves a kind of creative thinking that needs a certain kind of space to be available. No scholar I know can squeeze meaningful engagement with their research into half-an-hour between lectures. Creativity needs a different kind of space, a space that may well lead, for example, to a loss of a sense of time or awareness of one’s immediate surroundings. In my own writing, I sometimes find myself working through the night on a chapter or an essay, not realising that I have completed 8 or 10 hours of intensive work – and outside it is becoming daylight again. These creative periods can lead to substantial leaps forward that push in some way at previous understandings, giving birth to new ideas or imagining new ways of interpreting old problems. As I have argued on my personal site, academic creativity is not substantially different to creativity in other contexts, though the forms it takes may differ. Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi calls this ‘flow’ – the creative energy that enables us to engage our creativity to the full:
As Czikszentmihalyi explains, entering a state of creative ecstasy presupposes certain training and experience. In an academic context, the degree pattern – undergraduate, taught postgraduate, and doctorate – is a way of developing this experience. Creativity, however, also needs more than just technical prowess, precisely because transgressing boundaries requires imagination: after all, the boundaries that we are seeking to overcome are frequently ossified and maintained (whether consciously or unconsciously) by vested interests.
The REF directly hinders this creativity, as do the endless funding applications we are expected to pursue (given the ridiculously low success rates, they’re largely pointless), the mindless form-filling for TRAC, and so on (Ross McKibbin eloquently describes some of the other manifestations of commodifying academia). These are mechanisms ‘human resources’ management (HRM) deploys in order to control the transgressive creativity of academic research. After all, although the REF ostensibly encourages ‘international level’ creativity that HRM desperately seeks to control, the REF’s regimentation of research activity maps onto HRM’s aims. Hindering interdisciplinarity, requiring endless completion of ‘accountability’ exercises, and rewarding only certain kinds of work… all minimise the spaces needed for ’flow’ – or even kill them off altogether.
And yet these things will not last: as David Jasper once remarked, we may one day be remembered for writing an important book, but we will not be remembered for our funding applications. As the REF deadline draws ever nearer and overpaid managers exercise ever more unwanted pressure on academics, I sincerely hope that mechanisms of solidarity, perhaps through the union or the CDBU etc., can enable resistance to these attempts at commodification to flourish. If we care about our universities, we need to resist, not least by constantly reaffirming that the preservation of creative ‘flow’ leading to boundary transgressions are the things that really matter. In so doing, we may yet manage to subvert the rampant managerialism that is destroying higher education.
(I would be interested in comments that discuss more specific ways in which this might happen…)
Warm thanks to Jason Theaker (photographer and academic at Bradford University, who sent me the video link in relation to a discussion about this image and text), and to Alison Jasper and Richard Roberts for helpful comments on a draft text).