Friday, 20 December 2013

Knowledge Economy and Universities: Convenient Fiction?

Are we emerging out of the crisis in our so-called knowledge economy? Are we starting to have ideas again? Are our Universities, having been marketised successfully (?!) now going to lead us to world emancipation?

Without suggesting that we're 'out of the woods' in UK HE, things do seem to be a bit calmer in my institution at least. However, there is a strange unease hanging over the entire sector; a feeling that something fundamental has changed. And it's everywhere from Cambridge to Cumbria. It isn't merely fallout from the economic crisis. There are so many dimensions to the current state of things. In UK universities, the REF (research assessment exercise) for example, has been almost universally dreadful in providing managers or (in some cases) fellow scholars a means to settle personal scores, or remove 'under-performing' academics: what nonsense that is - we should be very careful lest we jettison a Higgs (as Higgs himself explained or a Darwin (peer review would have killed his ideas straight!). I wouldn't have thought that would be very good for a knowledge economy!

The academic world seems to demand greater noisiness, greater attention-seeking (but often thoughtless) publications, greater attention to bureaucratic targets (which never make sense), and increasing constraints on the capacity for teachers to do the right thing in their teaching with the students that they have. And for students, the constraints are ramping up: fees are just the start; but nobody told them about the regulations which they will fall foul of at some point, or the fact that an increasing proportion of their money will contribute towards inflated managerial salaries and grandiose development projects which they themselves will not see the benefits of.  Alarmingly, education appears to be acquiring the pathological bad habits of the Catholic Church. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. But neither should we be surprised when Martin Luther pops up!

What happened to us? Basically, the crisis - in the economy at large and in education - is a story of hubris, greed and apathy. The hubris centred around the rhetoric of the 'knowledge economy' and the role of education in it. "We must have more graduates!" the cry went up. "Education! Education! Education!" said Blair. Why? Because, we are told, the economy is increasingly dynamic: the job for life is over (unless you're an academic, of course!). We should be training and retraining - always on the move; always on our toes; always anxiously looking at the international competition (and learning Chinese). Despite some of my academic work being closely related to the concept of 'knowledge economy', I have to confess I don't know what it is. It seems to me that in any economy, ideas and communication are important. Political freedoms and increased communications may well oil the wheels for spreading ideas (if ideas are spread by wheels!), but deep down, we have always lived within the constraints of what we know. The fact that knowledge is unevenly spread in society creates the dynamic whereby individuals seek to spread their ideas. What a strange world it would be if every innovation was conceived by every mind at the same time!

But an 'economy' of knowledge? It seems to be an economy of money, rights and obligations, markets, families, dreams, etc - just like any other economy. We might think that information is playing a bigger role in our lives than it once did. But when asked "what is information?" we cannot answer in a satisfactorily coherent way. There is no coherent understanding of information.

Our obsession with 'knowledge economy' is symptomatic of our obsession with information technology. Yet, as with most things that information technology touches, it's fundamental effect is one of shining a new light onto something old. The old thing that technology shines a light on is "economics" itself. "Knowledge economy" - whilst it might wish to present a new "economic model" (whatever that is!) - is really a label that we give to this new light on economics which reveals (more than anything else) that we weren't that sure what an economy was in the first place (in fact all the greatest economists really concern themselves with this question: what is this thing called economics?)

Economics is an academic discipline. It is taught in Universities. Some (two in the UK) of those Universities are centres of power: world politicians of the future pass through their doors, soak up ideas, formulate them into policies and then go to Westminster or some other government to implement them. But economics is about everyday life of everybody. Yet 'everybody' is largely excluded from economic discussions amongst academics. At a recent meeting in Cambridge I asked a one of the participants "this is all very well, but we are all quite clever people. Yet we are talking about everybody else... and everybody else isn't here!" I don't think he understood me, which I found illuminating and a bit worrying.

Economics itself is a body of ideas, egos, courses, institutions, policies. Keynes was right about the impact of "defunct economists" on the future of the world. But what abstract and fundamentally exclusive nonsense is in their heads! And what a cosy conspiratorial relationship with powerful educational institutions! Economists will have comfortable careers writing books about everybody else. Meanwhile the education system feeds off their 'celebrity status' (cue a Nobel prize or two!) to entice students (and their fees) within their hallowed walls.

What does our technological torch tell us? Perhaps it is that we are (and always have been) constrained by information. We don't know how that works, but we know that it's a pretty fundamental mechanism that underpins the way that money, markets and education all work. Education promises a way of negotiating the constraints of information. Yet it rarely delivers this to those who were already heavily constrained before they started. The middle class kids who succeed may attribute their increased flexibility of choice to education, but it is likely to have happened anyway irrespective of whether they went to University or not.

The technological torch is a kind of 'negative light'. It illuminates that which isn't there, but which constrains perception of what is there. When we see and talk about 'knowledge economy', when we see and create 'education for all', we are operating within constraints that cause us to see those things. I know of a VC in a UK institution who recently asked a group of managers why they felt he'd made a particular decision. A good question! But a better one would have been why he didn't make any different decision. The answer to that would have been because he was constrained by his own ideas, preferences, personal history, prejudice - just as we all are.

It is not unassailable logic which determines that economists see a knowledge economy and the need for expanding education. It is the constraints presented by the convenience of "expanding education" that prevent them from seeing anything else. Veblen (and Bataille) would say the whole thing is essentially archaic. The negative light of technology is a way of revealing and questioning the irrationality of what we believe to be rational positions.

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