Friday, October 16, 2009

The currency of knowledge: or, the PBRF in ruins. Part 2

So that was the pragmatist’s tale. Now let me stand back from that for a moment. The metaphor of ‘the currency of knowledge’ in my title today stands for two things: for the demand to be ‘up to date’ – to know what is ‘current’ – and also for the monetary unit of value. To call money ‘currency’ is in itself a metaphor. The currency that flows from the sovereign’s decree can be seen as both cause and effect of knowledge, and the PBRF partakes of this. The PBRF is a fiscal instrument that produces incomes for institutions, and it also uses the commodity logic of knowledge that sees knowing new things as a means to producing wealth and augmenting power. Research and the researcher come to be measurable in monetary terms (Duncan 2008). Some of us enjoy that; others don’t. Out of that situation, there appear to emerge two kinds of discourse within the academic community. One of these seeks to accept the power of this system, and indeed calls upon it to complete its project. Within this discourse, if there are criticisms of the PBRF, it is likely to be of a kind that says that there are loopholes that should be closed, normally involving even more paper-work, or that the assessment should include and hence validate something that presently may appear not to be included, like practice-based or commercially applied uses of research. The PBRF is the gaze of the master, and so we want more of it, we want its recognition, and we want it to be distributed fairly. Some of my comments about design-flaws within the PBRF may fit this type if those flaws are taken as matters to be addressed and corrected.

The alternative discourse places the PBRF in a prominent role within a history of the university that is typified by a corruption of values and an undermining of the traditions of learning and scholarship, within which the future of the humanities, as a traditional foundation of the university, appears to be in jeopardy. Rather than see the PBRF as a productive project that must be progressed and completed, the PBRF is examined and found wanting. It is seen to create a partial or incomplete representation of knowledge. My own comments about academic freedom and the PBRF perhaps fit into this second type of discourse. The danger with such talk is that it may depend upon a nostalgic view of a university that never really was.

Whether one demands more or less of the PBRF – or some alternative method – one may remain stuck within its horizons. Instead of talking about research, academics talk about the PBRF; or, they discuss the purpose and value of their research and publications in terms of the demands of the PBRF. Even if we tried, we cannot be completely innocent or ignorant of it. It does not merely count and evaluate researchers, leaving the field of research in academic disciplines untouched. It does actually change the perception of and motivation for academic activities. Some think that’s a good thing. I don’t.

I think academics need to stop asking for more recognition from this external assessment, and start asking why it has managed to insinuate itself so deeply into the universities.

Is this irritation that I’m expressing a symptom of something? The PBRF is certainly not the only bureaucratic policy structure to be created lately in the universities under the banners of accountability, incentives, performance, and the like. If anything, we can expect the funding, and hence the management, of universities to be increasingly performance-based in future. This represents a dramatic shift in the nature of the university as a bureaucracy: that is, to view the university as a hierarchical organization of offices whose activities are based upon the routine administration of policies and procedures.

Maybe not all of us would like to see the university in that Weberian light, but the university is a bureaucratic organization, and a particular model of bureaucratisation, closely linked to governmental policy instruments, is developing and can be seen quite clearly through the example set by the PBRF. It is worth considering, then, just what bureaucracy represents to us, psychologically. A proposition in psychoanalytic organizational theory, which could work as a premise, has it that participation in organisations generally, and bureaucratisation in particular, serve as a defence against anxiety (de Board 1973; Diamond 1993). At the obsessional extreme this can lead to a lifeless rigidity of behaviour and a narrowing of the field of perception. In academic terms, that would breed the kind of learning that is highly specialized and devoid of much reference to the complexities and pleasures of everyday life. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Let’s add to that, though, this new form of anxiety that is controlled, if not produced, by the new emphasis on performativity – on the questions of what can our learning do or produce, how it competes, and how much can it earn – as distinguishable from the question of what our learning may tell us about the world and the mind that apprehends it. The PBRF and the concern for external funding and commercialisation of research all participate in that kind of anxiety of performativity, as does the herding and corralling of students when counted as EFTS. Should I suggest, therefore, that the new university is a university of performance anxiety? Were I to do so, I would not deny the implications of an anticipated failure to ‘measure up’ or to achieve pleasure and generativity that the idea of performance anxiety evokes. The only thing I would want to correct there arises from the fact that performance anxiety tends to be a masculine anxiety, and so perhaps the metaphor is too partial.

After all, the university is still referred to as Alma Mater by its alumni. Checking the OED, I learned that Alma Mater translates as ‘bounteous mother’ and was a title given by the Romans to goddesses, such as Cybele, who represented fertility and growth. For some, surely psychologically significant, reason, Englishmen adopted the term in the nineteenth century to refer to the schools and universities that had nurtured them in their youth. Is the notion of the university as an embracing and nurturing maternal institution that encourages ethical-intellectual growth still possible?

If things like the PBRF are symptomatic, they may be products of the anxiety and the excitement that we feel about knowing and not knowing – and this is frequently a matter of who knows, or who uses what they know, before others do, in the pursuit of some strategic purpose. And since we no longer consider knowledge as the thinking of an isolated Cartesian subject – in favour of relational, or even conflictual, understandings and utterances – the idea of competitiveness as productive of knowledge is not alien to us as theorists. So, is the notion of the university as an institution shaped by performance anxiety really a reflection of the dominant present-day ‘discourse of the university’? The performativity and the utilitarian ethics of the disciplines of economics and management do seem to dominate decision-making. If we try to re-establish a voice for the humanities in the university, is that voice doomed to be speaking in a space defined by managers, economists and the like? And, if one were to rebel against that idea, would this only be a form of nostalgia, based upon the old Newmanesque notion of a university of impartial, but perfectly useless, knowledge? Though I hasten to add that I too am proudly capable of producing work of no apparent utility, and I would defend any academic’s right to do so.

Derrida (2001) insisted on even more than what we know of as academic freedom, and said that the university should be granted an unconditional freedom to assert and to question, and to profess whatever may be considered to be the truth. Certainly, the statutory academic freedom that we are permitted in New Zealand is not unconditional. But, can we even profess, truthfully, the notion of an unconditional freedom? Is not the ‘free’ subject, including the scholar, always somehow under the permissive gaze of the Sovereign? Can we support an image of a university as a Platonic Academy, suspended in a pure abstract form of freedom, and not contingent upon the world around it and the norms within it? I don’t think we can. Academic freedom is a product of sovereign and strategic relations of power and cultural norms, and it exists always in a relation of tension and compromise with the world around it. By one means or another, it must be paid for and granted; and it sits alongside similar liberties and privileges, such as parliamentary privilege, freedom of the press and judicial independence. Academics are largely timid people who are afraid to speak out, and thus afraid to exercise the conditional freedom that they do have; and they thus allow others to lead the renegotiation and struggle over the administrative practices, such as the PBRF, that impinge upon, if not undermine, academic freedom. If academic freedom really is being eroded, then the academics themselves are partly responsible for that, due to their own anxiety.

What, then, is a University? Constitutionally, it is a creature of statute, but this fact will not satisfy the motives for that question. For most of my life, I have been occupied within the university, and yet I am reluctant to make a general statement to characterise what it is. Obviously, whatever it is, it is changing, due to new requirements and imperatives. Different people in different disciplines occupy themselves in the university for different reasons and with different understandings about their surroundings. I suppose, then, that there will be different kinds of universities for different kinds of scholars. That’s one of the good things about a university.

What I am sure the university ought not to be is a mere corporation whose business is to maximise its income through the production of skilled professionals and economically useful inventions. Universities may always have achieved such aims, but they also must do much more than that. I work within a University – thought of as a global institution with no walls – that has an intellectual heritage of more than two millennia and that began to appear as a recognised autonomous institution in the middle ages. I have a very tiny part to play in that long tradition, and the worth of what I do – in the sense of a worth that sustains my own work – is based in a number of qualities. That worth begins with my own curiosity and sense of intrinsic interest, but it’s also sustained by a striving to do justice to the authors who have come before me, to use my native language to the best possible effect, to use both my intuition and my capacity for logical argument, to rely upon the best evidence when I can find it, and to acknowledge the merits of a good argument, regardless of whether it pleases me. That includes engaging with the world in a range of different registers, sometimes practical, sometimes scholarly, sometimes poetic, but always examining what has enduring value in what we can know and what we can say. These are some of the intellectual and ethical qualities of learning that I try to use and to display, and to develop in my students. These qualities are needed well beyond the privileged space of the university and will stand our students in good stead as they become informed readers, theatre audiences, parents, barristers, journalists, scientists, politicians, physicians, and leaders in their various fields.

We work here for the intrinsic worth and the self-discipline of our careful reading and writing. The qualities of thought and action that such disciplines can develop are crucial for our ability as a society to conduct our affairs civilly, creatively and progressively. The University is not the only place where people can learn such ethical and intellectual lessons, but it does play a vital and enduring part in that. A life in the University enriches the capacity to speak and to act mindfully.


Adams, J. (2008). Strategic Review of the Performance-Based Research Fund: The Assessment Process. Leeds: Evidence Ltd.

Curtis, B. (2007). Academic life: Commodification, continuity, collegiality, confusion and the Performance Based Research Fund. New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations, 32(2): 1–16.

de Board, R. (1978). The Psychoanalysis of Organizations. London: Tavistock.

Derrida, J. (2001). The future of the profession or the university without condition (thanks to the “Humanities,” what could take place tomorrow). In T. Cohen (ed.), Jacques Derrida and the Humanities: A critical reader (pp. 24-57). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Diamond, M. (1993). Bureaucracy as externalized self-system: A view from the psychological interior. In L. Hirschhorn and C.K. Barnett (eds), The Psychodynamics of Organizations, Philadelphia: Temple University, 219–236.

Duncan, G. (2008). Counting the currency of knowledge: New Zealand’s Performance-Based Research Fund. In I. Morley and M. Crouch (eds) Knowledge as value: Illumination through critical prisms. Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi (pp. 23–42).

Evidence Ltd (2007). The Use of Bibliometrics to Measure Research Quality in UK Higher Education Institutions. London: Universities UK.

Readings, B. (1996). The University in Ruins. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Smart, W. (2009). Making an Impact. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Smart, W. and Weusten, M. (2007). (ex)Citing Research: A Bibliometric Analysis of New Zealand University Research 1981–2005. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Smith, A.G. (2008). Benchmarking Google Scholar with the New Zealand PBRF research assessment exercise. Scientometrics, 74 (2): 309–316.

Taggart, M. (no date). Some Impacts of the PBRF on legal education. Unpublished conference paper.

Tertiary Education Commission (2007). Performance-Based Research Fund: Evaluating Research Excellence. The 2006 Assessment. Wellington: Tertiary Education Commission.


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