Research Performance Management: linguistic, knowledge, and disciplinary concerns – an Introduction

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Research performance management,  such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, is becoming a feature of higher education systems worldwide (see Hazelkorn 2011) and often associated with the rise of neoliberal modes of governance (Henkel 2000; Marginson 2000). This is a process that is also driven by the development of a European Research Area committed to aligning higher education research primarily to economic growth and job creation. Higher education is therefore conceptualised by governments in ways that make the return on public investment amenable to calculation, comparison, and programmatic intervention. Through a range of policy instruments, specifically the introduction of market-like activities, academics’ daily practice is caught up between ‘actions at a distance’ and internal management techniques (see Miller & Rose 2008). For instance, ‘quality’ of scholarly activity is assessed against regular audits, such as the REF; core funding differentiates between prestige disciplines such as STEM as against the social sciences and humanities and places an emphasis on market-like behaviours and how institutions market themselves and read their markets. These translate professional decisions into methods of comparison through league tables, and in so doing make those decisions amenable to control at a distance. Internally this is matched by management techniques to align individual practice and sensibilities to those of institutional strategic objectives, which are largely framed by these ‘actions at a distance’ (see also Ball 2012). These include systems of performance management that usually involve annual reviews of performance emphasising research activity and output, and the setting of targets. ‘Research’ in this context is often reconfigured as ‘grant capture’ and publication in ‘high impact’ journals. Consequently, one powerful critique of such selectivity has focused on challenges to academic identity (Billot 2010; Davies 2005; Harley 2001; Harris 2005). However, such critiques often arise from what can be called the centres of higher education.

Drawing heuristically on Wallerstein’s (e.g. 1982 & 2013) World-System Theory we ask what this experience of research performance management and neoliberal governmentality looks like in semi-peripheral systems of European higher education. For instance, Irish higher education reform occurs in the context of public spending being overseen by the European Union, European Bank, and the World Bank following Ireland’s economic collapse in 2008 (e.g. HEA 2013). Similarly, Poland is seeking to reform its higher education system within a context of post-Communist transition, the adoption of neoliberal political rationalities, and the intensification of research selectivity in higher education (Kweik 2012). While Ireland and Poland benefit from being part of the European Union, both are politically and economically peripheral. There is also a linguistic aspect where non-English speakers are required to publish in English-language journals. Therefore, how does this structural location impact on how policy discourses, instruments, and management techniques are mobilised? How is this manifested in the context of semi-peripheral disciplines? The legitimacy of the humanities, for instance, has been increasingly questioned as higher education is more closely aligned with national economic objectives. For instance in Japan an education minister asked its national universities to either close down their humanities and social science faculties or reorganise them to be vocationally oriented.  Adapting Wacquant’s (Wacquant, et. al. 2014) concept of territorial stigmatisation we ask in what ways semi-peripheral systems are governed through regional and global systems of surveillance and measurement; how internal selectivity is arranged at both national and institutional level (e.g. how are the humanities dealt with); and how are different categories of academic managed in relation to research selectivity?

We feel it is important that research looks at three areas in particular:

  • Linguistic impact as a consequence of the prioritisation of publishing in international high impact academic journals, which normally translates as publishing in English,
  • Disciplinary impact in terms of how practices that often define particular disciplines may be transformed due to the pressure to produce particular kinds of knowledge and research outputs. In particular, this would relate to disciplines or subject areas that have become less prestigious as a result of dominant models of research performance,
  • Impact on the kinds of knowledge produced by research activity. This refers to the way certain forms of knowledge may be marginalised through research performance management practices. This can refer to more indigenous concepts that are not easily translated into English idioms without a fundamental loss of meaning, or knowledge that is seen as not amenable to ‘quick hit’ results or market application (including cultural and heritage industries).

 

 

References

Ball, S. J. (2012) Performativity, Commodification and Commitment: An I-Spy Guide to the Neoliberal University, British Journal of Educational Studies,  60(1):17-28.
Billot, J. (2010) The imagined and the real: identifying the tensions for academic identity, Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6):709-721.
Davies, B (2005): The (im)possibility of intellectual work in neoliberal
regimes, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(1):1-14.
Harley, S. (2002) The impact of research selectivity on academic work and identity in UK universities. Studies in Higher Education, 27(2):187–205.
Harris, S. (2005) Rethinking academic identities in neo-liberal times, Teaching in Higher Education, 10(4):421-433.
Henkel, M. (2000) Academic identities and policy change in higher education, London: Jessica Kingsley.

Kwiek, M. (2012) Changing higher education policies: From the deinstitutionalization to the reinstitutionalization of the research mission in Polish universities, Science and Public Policy 39:641-654.
Marginson, S. (2000) Rethinking academic work in the global era. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(1):1–12.
Miller, P. & Rose, N. (2008) Governing the Present: Administering Economic, Social and Personal Life, Cambridge: Polity Press
HEA (2013) Towards a Performance evaluation framework: Profiling Irish Higher education a report by the higher education authority. Dublin: HEA.
Wallerstein, I, et. al. (1982) World-Systems Analysis: Theory and Methodology, Beverley Hills: Sage.
Wallerstein I, et. al. (2013) Uncertain Worlds: World-Systems Analysis in Changing Times, New York: Oxford University Press.
Hazelkorn, E. (2011) Ranking and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The battle for world-class excellence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wacquant, L. et al. (2014) Territorial Stigmatisation in Action, Environment and Planning A, 46:1270–1280.

 

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On ‘boundary objects’, higher education and the knowledge economy

My Friday’s teaching was all sorted, or so I thought.

At the morning’s MA in Academic Practice/Higher Education Research Group session we were looking forward to a presentation on the use of phenomenography in exploring academic practice.  The afternoon’s workshop on ‘supporting postgraduate research student writing’ was organised around three guest speakers.  I could, so I imagined, put my feet up and just enjoy it.

Not quite.

There has been a nasty flu working its way around Galway and I was nursing my own version of it when I received a call from the colleague booked in to do the phenomenography session.  He was down with the flu and not able to present.

Feeling under the weather myself I seriously thought about just cancelling the morning and keeping my energy for the afternoon and the three hour drive home later.

As I sat in my chair feeling sorry for myself my mind kept coming back to this void on Friday morning, troubling me, not letting me rest.  Did I value the afternoon group more than the Friday morning one? Of course not.  I enjoy the quality of the discussions in this group and knew that if I stayed in bed then I would not relax anyway.  I started to think about my current writing project and wondered about talking about this.  But how to structure it?  I had a successful conference abstract but I wasn’t up (psychologically) for sharing my autoethnographic method just yet.  What else did I have.  I started looking through my Prezi folder and came across a presentation that brought a smile to my face.

It was a presentation I had given back in 2012 to a different group of students and explored the conceptual exploration I was conducting at the time that I hoped would lead to a publication.  But that was just before I became ill and ended up taking 2 years off work.  A life time ago it felt.  But I remembered how I had enjoyed the ideas contained in this presentation and wondered if I could share this now.

An hour later, and after a little polishing up, I had Friday morning’s session covered [http://tinyurl.com/palt84r].

The presentation examined the way discourses of the knowledge based economy, as applied to higher education, worked as a boundary object. I had come across the concept of ‘boundary object’ while reading a brilliant book by the Austrian academic Herbert Gottweiss.  In his book ‘Governing Molecules: The Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the United States‘ Gottweiss discusses the way ‘boundary objects’ produce policy effects.  This captured my imagination.  I will come back to his argument but for the moment what attracted me was the way the concept could be related to the way discourses of the knowledge based economy appeared to be reformulating the structure and content of academic practice.

Gottweiss referenced the work of Susan Starr and Graham Griesemer in their 1989 article ‘Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and BoundaryObjects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39‘.  Starr and Griesemer propose that a central problematic of the scientific enterprise is how the different social actors can communicate effectively.  Using the Berkeley Museum as a case study they inquire into how a) scientific enterprise often involves a diversity of actors from different social worlds, and b) necessitates communication between scientific and non-scientific actors.  The work of higher education involves a range of social actors – academics, administrators, politicians, students, employers, civil servants, etc.  There is an inevitable tension between diversity and cooperation.  It is in this tension that ‘boundary objects’ operate to facilitate cooperation or communication across this diversity:

Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them,yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. These objects may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation (393).

For Starr and Griesemer ‘boundary objects’ work because they are simultaneously abstract and concrete.  Conservation of the flora and fauna of California became the ‘boundary object’ that enabled different social worlds (scientific inquiry, university administration, local benefactors, local naturalists, etc.) to cooperate, a point of convergence for their different and potentially conflicting visions.  Funds can be attracted for the establishment and running of the museum, benefactors and collectors alike can acquire prestige, academics can expand their knowledge.  Conservation, meaning quite different things to each social world, can be plastic enough to mean something substantial (concrete) to each.

Similarly, the knowledge based economy works as such a ‘boundary object’, allowing for an overlapping of economic, academic, administrative, and political domains.  So successful is it that when we use or read a term such as ‘the knowledge based economy and higher education’ we are not fazed by its originality.  It passes as common sense, it appears to us as a necessary articulation.  Its arbitrariness does not immediately stand out.  Yet, a moments reflection sees the apparent obviousness of the construction fall apart.  Its political nature becomes clearly revealed.  How are these separate words – ‘knowledge’, ‘economy’, ‘higher education’ put together, and how do they construct new meaning?

This is where Herbert Gottweiss came in.

Gottweiss picks up the concept of ‘boundary object’ and re-articulates it through a Foucauldian lens. In this way Gottweiss provides policy discourse with an active role.  The knowledge based economy therefore does important policy work.

This resonated with those at the MA session on Friday morning.  The knowledge based economy was full of significance and empty at the same time.  One contribution to discussion focused on the way we engage in funding applications.  In many respects the particular formulations and key terms are meaningless, and we know it, but they are essential and act as points of obligatory passage.  As such they force us, if we are to engage in the funding game at all, to take them seriously.  We gear our research concerns around their fundability.

Of course, at a more profound level ‘boundary objects’ such as the knowledge based economy re-structure our working practices and our identities.

The conclusion to my presentation sought to capture the profundity of this.  I argue that the discourse of the knowledge based economy and higher education produces three main effects:

  • it creates new objects of higher education – innovation, commercialization, and knowledge transfer
  • it creates new subjects of higher education – students acting as consumers, academics as product innovators, and managers delivering against performance indicators
  • it creates new social relations – academic work is seen as servicing economic activity

It is not that higher education has never been involved in innovation, commercialisation or knowledge transfer before.  Academics have always been innovative, but we are increasingly being required or judged against particular constructions of ‘innovation’ that are determined by their immediate application to commercial activity.  As well as funding for the humanities and social sciences being cut in favour of the STEM subjects, we see basic scientific research sacrificed at the alter of applied science.  The same with commercialisation (of which the tradition of academic publishing is a feature) and knowledge transfer (another name for teaching?).  I raised the prospect that if these criteria had been applied to the revolution in physics that revolved around quantum mechanics we would not be living in the digital age we are.  There is an irony that the simplistic economic rationalism driving current  higher education reform could have prevented the amazing applications we now take for granted, micro-computers, iPhones, and the internet.

Similarly, it is not enough for academics to be involved in the business of knowledge production, we need to be ‘product innovators’.  This happens when we loose grip on the ideal of the free flow of knowledge and see knowledge as a commodity that requires increasingly restrictive intellectual property rights.   Would Peter Higgs (who received a Nobel Prize for his work on the ‘God particle’) have lasted in the modern university with its obsession for ‘key performance indictors’ such as research publications?  Many of those present on Friday morning attested to the way such KPIs were affecting what and how to conduct research, questioning whether this was driven by ‘scientific inquiry’ or bureaucratic aspiration.

And finally, while education has always had an economic function, I have deep concerns about the way this is conceived in policy thinking.

I left the session excited about this earlier conceptual work and a desire to get back to it soon.