Showdown at the Sausage Factory

Posted on April 30, 2011



A schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of the scholars, (s)he works like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation / Karl Marx, Capital

As Karl Marx suggested in Capital Volume 1, the university is akin to a sausage factory in that it is a site of capitalist production – in this case the production of knowledge. Writing from our experience as four doctoral researchers within the higher education system, we want to add to Marx’s analysis and argue that, since Capital was first published in 1867, academic research & teaching has been increasingly subordinate to, and reorganized in the interests of, capitalist value. Every stage of the knowledge production process – from the choice of topic, to the allocation of funding, to the criteria against which research is assessed – is becoming increasingly guided by values that guarantee the conditions for the reproduction of capitalism. Over the past two decades, this has taken the form of the introduction of metric systems into the university – under the guise of guaranteeing ‘quality’ and ‘competition’ – in order to subject teaching and research to quantitative measurement. This move to quantify the value of academic work is a key strategy in facilitating the marketisation of higher education. The financial crisis has proven the excuse for accelerating the extension and introduction of further systems for the measurement of university labour, not least in the form of ‘academic profiling’. We contend that resistance to these metric systems must be at the heart of strategies to prevent the marketization of the university.

The incoming ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF) (which is replacing the old Research Assessment Exercise) and the ‘National Student Survey’ (NSS) are two mechanisms applied to all university research and teaching across the UK. Their purpose is to assess the ‘quality’ of teaching and research by subjecting it to quantitative measurement, facilitating the direct comparison of qualitatively different research and teaching. Although the exact framework is currently unclear, the REF will almost certainly operate on the basis of grading the research ‘quality’ of an individual university department according to a sample of four journal articles per academic, with premium grades awarded to articles that are published in the ‘top-ranked’ journals. The NSS meanwhile assesses universities according to student ‘satisfaction’ with the university experience. These are two of the primary measurement mechanisms that allow universities to make claims such as being a ‘top ten research university’, and to stake out management goals of ‘becoming a top 50 university worldwide’. As a result of these quantitative assessments, the theory goes, we should be able to compare universities based on the quality of their research and teaching. We believe, however, that this mechanism serves another purpose – it allows teaching and research to be subjected to the disciplinary logic of capitalist value production.

The ability to directly compare the ‘performance’ of universities is fundamental in creating a competitive market in higher education, as will become ever-more evident with the rising the ‘cap’ on tuition fees. In terms of teaching, how could one university justify charging more than another unless it could ‘objectively prove’ its superiority through a system of direct comparison? In terms of research, all funding is tied to your departments performance in the REF, with only a handful of elite universities set to receive about 80 percent of available funding. The primary reason for your research has therefore become to guarantee access to further funding through performing in the league tables; competition for money has ‘necessarily’ taken precedence over all other values.

According to the neoliberal ideology of market-fetishism, this competition should lead to an improvement in standards across the board, as academics are forced to work harder and teach ‘better’ so as to work their way up the league rankings, which yields the rewards of more funding and larger student numbers. In reality, rather than guaranteeing or improving the quality of universities, these quantitative assessments lead to a sort of short-circuiting, as research and teaching becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of ‘representations’ of quality rather than towards the research or teaching itself. In the context of market discipline, it matters less and less how well you teach or what you research, only that you are able to meet-or-beat your performance indicators. Managers increasingly bully researchers into abandoning any research that isn’t guaranteed to provide a short-term influx of REF-able papers; academics are coerced into publishing three or four vacuous papers before the next REF deadline instead of taking their time over one meaningful contribution (leading to a glut of substandard research); and teaching becomes a watered-down exercise in customer service.

Increasingly, as the geographer Noel Castree observed in Border Geography, the ‘content of (academic) work is (not) valued for itself, but because it can be abstracted into the contentless currency that serves as the measure of academic value in Britain today’. Engagements with research subjects that should be based on social utility and desire become confused with the disciplinary compulsion to secure one’s livelihood by meeting externally imposed quantitative targets. Rather than a creative activity over which the producer enjoys intellectual autonomy, academic work comes to resemble all other work under capitalism (including that carried out in a sausage factory), assuming the form of abstract labour. By ‘abstract labour’ we mean an activity that is performed not primarily for its specific content – in this case the outcomes of teaching or research – but for its ability to be exchanged for a wage. When viewing the world from the perspective of ‘abstract labour’, one becomes increasingly indifferent to the specific content of the productive act itself, and increasingly concerned with for how much one is able to ‘exchange’ the results of production.  As research and teaching becomes increasingly perceived from the perspective of abstract labour, the compulsion to hit abstract targets takes precedence over the compulsion to produce and share ideas that are potentially world changing. This has the disciplinary effect of closing down the university’s potential as a space for radical and transformative thought.

Whilst the REF and NSS are central to the abstraction and qualitative devaluation of research and teaching, a series of other ‘metric’ systems are being introduced that will have similar effects.  Most frighteningly, we are beginning to see the formalization of ‘academic profiling’, creating a database for the quantitative comparison of individual staff. This is nothing short of the creation of ‘academic Top Trumps’, as each university worker can be given a score out of 100 based on their ‘teaching capacities’, ‘admin efficiency‘, and ‘research production speed’. The ‘best’ universities can afford to buy all the highest scoring cards, whilst it is the responsibility of the underpaid and overworked academic to constantly strive to improve their Top Trump score. We work harder, faster, and longer – with no punch card to tell us when we are clocked in – in an attempt to ‘trump’ each other’s stats, all on the false premise that we will one day be able to teach or research something that actually matters. Meanwhile, there is a complete collapse in any form of solidarity or collaborative research, as everyone feels obliged to prioritise their own statistics over any form of collective pursuit. The only collaborative projects that occur are those in which you wager on your ability to exploit the outcomes of the project more efficiently than your colleagues. Meanwhile, life gets tougher for all of us.

What scope is there for knowledge workers to resist the imposition of these metric systems? Situated, as we are, in the contemporary academy it is depressing that we see all too limited evidence of organised, collective activity to resist the restructuring of education according to the logic of capital. What’s more, there is all too much complicity with the implementation of neoliberal technologies of measure such as the REF and the NSS, under some misled belief that it either improves the quality of teaching and research, or that you are in someway getting a ‘better deal’ as a result. Sadly, the focus of many self-styled ‘radical academics’ is often far removed from the ongoing struggles and conflicts within their own workplaces.

Any effective struggle over the academy, whether it be over working conditions, pay, the quality of teaching and research, or student fees, must necessarily identify these metric systems as fundamental in the neoliberal transformation of the university. It is untenable for us to fight against cuts when done so within the framework of these supposedly ‘objective and fair’ metric systems; political aspirations are rendered utopian, and acts of injustice are rendered unfortunate but necessary in the face of the ‘objective reality’ of our situation. What will be perhaps most rewarding in finally abolishing these metric systems will be our ability to engage with one another as humans again, rather than as cold, calculating and competitive machines. It is time for us to author a different future for the university; to do so means affirming our collective strength and consciousness.

Posted in: 4. Ed Two