Primera página de la Biblia del oso, traducción al castellano de Casiodoro de Reyna, basilea, 1569.

Silenced societies are, of course, societies in which talking and writing take place but which are not heard in the planetary production of knowledge managed from the local histories and local languages of the ‘silencing’ [the dominant powers] Walter Mignolo referring to Abdelkebir Khatibi’s “Love in Two Languages


Recently I gave a presentation on “Research Selectivity and the Destruction of Authentic Scholarship”.  An earlier iteration of this was presented at a conference in Dublin and posted here.  Below I present the text of this presentation.  It deals with the way contemporary research performance management practices result in what I and my colleagues call ‘epistemic closure’.  That is we are concerned that these management practices, related as they are to the growing dominance of English as the primary means of scientific communication, and to the determining influence of global higher education rankings and the power of the major academic publishing companies, are closing down what can be considered legitimate knowledge.

My presentation is based on early stage conceptualization for a cross European research project looking at the impact of research performance management on academic practice and identity.

In this sense it approaches the broad theme of mobility in terms of the mobility of academics, and the mobility of knowledge. That is, instead of academics looking at ‘others’ mobilities and migrations, it looks at the observers; it turns the critical gaze upon systems of higher education and academic practice in the context of dominant narratives of internationalisation of higher education.

Specifically, it began life at a conference in Poland where my colleagues Marcin Starnawski and Marcin Gołębniak presented a paper discussing the increasing pressure on Polish academics to publish in ‘international’ academic journals, where international translates as English language. They raised questions about a) the transactional costs of this national and institutional pressure (e.g. the capacity to become proficient in high status academic English – who does this, and who does not, and what are the consequences of this), and b) what impact this might have on internal academic discourse, and the issue of the possible un-translatability of key terms of debate.

This has led to cooperation around developing a research project that has now involved:

  • Exploratory empirical research in Ireland, Poland and Portugal
  • Seminars and conference presentations in Ireland and Poland
  • Work on a number of journal articles
  • Development of a COST Action proposal

Although this presentation draws largely on the Irish material, it resonates closely with that found in both Poland and Portugal.

Because of where I am giving this presentation (Galway, Ireland), it takes academics working largely through the medium of Irish in the humanities as a critical case of the phenomenon of research performance management. While it is not an exploration of the position of Irish in wider Irish society, it does touch on the contested nature of Irish as a public rather than private good.

Fundamentally we are arguing that research performance management as we often experience it is to do with more than workload, but also with knowledge work itself.


So, where to start?

Reading these two documents recently I was struck by what now appears as their naivity.

The first report, “Advancing Humanities and Social Sciences Research in Ireland”, published in 2007, sought to make the case for the humanities and social sciences in the context of dominant discourses of the knowledge economy. There was a kind of strategic accommodation here, of accepting the terms of political debate – that is the very idea of the knowledge based economy, and argue the positive case for the humanities and social sciences within the logic of this discourse.

6 years later, the Higher Education Authority produced a report that seems to have come from a more innocent time, particularly when looked at from post-2008. It argued that there was no need for Irish higher education to emulate the UK and tie performance management to crude indicators of research output. Indeed, it argued that it was and should be possible for the arts and humanities to be judged on the basis of the wide array of outputs and not merely those amenable to simple statistical capture or the algorithms of the major publishing companies.


Yet, what we see is our own institutions, in the absence of clear guidance otherwise, reproducing all the known negative effects of the Research Excellence Framework.

It is as if our institutional leaders are ignorant of, or simply ignore the findings from reviews such as this.

We can view this as a local manifestation of an increasingly globalised model of higher education – of a global political economy of higher education.

Looking across Europe, as with much of the world, we see certain regular systemic features of this political economy:

  • Government support for increased participation in higher education as part of an economic strategy to maximize the stock of human capital in aid of securing economic competitive advantage in a global economy
  • Reduction in direct funding from governments whilst promoting a process of mass higher education in conjunction with competitive funding streams and diversified income streams (e.g student fees)
  • Government steering of research priorities to meet economic needs, specifically prioritising certain STEM areas that are perceived to be close to the market, and using ideas of market readiness to evaluate all research.


slide1We are all fairly familiar with key features of the global higher education landscape as it relates to research selectivity.  We can conceive of research selectivity as a site for struggles over external and internal visibility, particularly for semi-peripheral higher education systems and for more peripheral disciplines.


  • A defining characteristic of the political economy of higher education is that of STATUS COMPETITION – how well are we all doing in the global league tables
  • In other words institutional managers are concerned with visibility within the status economy of higher education. Politicians are concerned about this and gear funding priorities around securing greater visibility in the status economy as well as aligning research to economic requirements.


This largely takes the form of research performance management:

  • Management practices that increasingly seek to align individual CVs and research concerns with institutional objectives, objectives aimed at increasing the institution’s external visibility – this introduces a degree of moral coercion: if I don’t improve my visibility will this impact negatively on my institution and therefore on my colleagues
  • Alignment is enacted through various performance management practices: PMDS – annual reviews – institutional research audits – etc.



I want to present some of our initial reflections through Niamh’s Story. Niamh is a condensation of academics who work predominantly through the medium of Irish and who participated in our pilot study. However, while here I focus on Irish language scholarship, they mirror almost exactly the views expressed by the scholars from academics we have spoken to in Poland and Portugal, in a range of disciplines. It also resonates with evidence found in scholarship in critical translation studies, critical linguistics, and global English.   What I share with you here is obviously tentative, and emergent.

Initial inductive analysis of the pilot project interviews indicates a number of themes/motifs that animate academics’ experiences and concerns:

  • Although the time periods associated with the production process of academic publishing may be stretched out, with delays between submission and final publication, this sits within a context of time-pressure
  • Institutions and individual scholars are increasingly conscious of the desire to improve their relative position in annual university rankings
  • This can be exacerbated by national and institutional systems of research performance management. Improvement in research performance are evaluated over short time frames, generating demands to produce measurable outputs quickly
  • Because the bibliometrics privilege English language publications, and privilege journal articles, this can lead to increase in outputs in English as the PRIMARY language of academic output
  • This may also transform disciplinary ways of producing and disseminating knowledge.
  • Within the intensified environment of academia, scholars largely experience this systemic phenomenon as private troubles rather than public issues.

This is not about language itself, but about how a scholar relates to epistemic communities, including linguistic communities. It is about the link between the generation of knowledge and the people you commune with in order to do that, to push the boundaries of knowledge. In this way of thinking and being decisions about form of output, vehicle for communication, and language of communication are determined by this relationship to epistemic communities. This is posed as potentially different to the institutionally determined way of being, which is driven by publishing companies bibliometrics, and university rankings.

She sought personal, individual strategies to negotiate her way through the tensions of an institutionally managed CV on the one hand and being true to herself on the other. There were no collective or solidaristic spaces where these concerns could be mobilised as public issues. She spoke about how the various systems of performance management and audit undermined the capacity of academics to work collectively, and so either rely on individual strategies, or appear supine,


…the system keeps everybody in a constant state of anxiety,

trying to meet sometimes reasonable, but often

undreasonable targets across so many different

arenas of academic activity…

 As my colleague Marcin Starnawski put it, we are so busy complying with the Regime of Compliance that we don’t pause for critical reflection and so create the conditions for discussing this as a public issue rather than a personal problem.

There was a very real sense that research performance management, and feeling herself under the gaze of performance metrics Niamh managed her efforts so that she was increasing her English language publications. To make herself more visible to the institution meant making herself less visible to the epistemic communities that gave meaning to her work. This is a zero-sum game. To write more in English means to write less in another language; to create “balance” is subtractive. 

If I was to look at the ratio over the last ten years

in my own academic writing life,

the balance between writing in Irish and writing in English,

writing in English for international academic publishers,

and writing and producing material for local publishers,

it’s definitiely the direction of English,

definitely the pull is towards international publishers rather than Irish publishes;

and the presumption there is that it is superior.

This alludes to linguistic hierarchies of knowledge, even of which languages can convey knowledge, be knowledgeable. In a sense, under the dominance of English, all other languages become minor languages

Fundamentally, Niamh felt that research performance management undermined her relationship with epistemic communities, and therefore with both the nature of knowledge and knowledge production. The pressure to publish in certain kinds of English language journals broke the connection between her, meaningful exchange of knowledge, knowledge production, and authentic scholarship.


Clearly, what we are presenting here relates to wider concerns about:

  • The intensification of academic labour
  • About forms of management practice that devalue and undermine ideas of academic freedom
  • And the privatisation of knowledge that are very closely associated with the dominance of major academic publishers in determining what ‘counts’ as valued knowledge. Lets remember that the various ranking systems and metrics are controlled by profit seeking private companies.

 In the guise of technical issues of how best to measure research performance I believe we are actually seeing a transformation in what counts as knowledge and knowledge production. However, this is not being done as a result of public debate, not articulated in the public sphere. Maybe this doesn’t matter, but I believe it does, as it concerns what the role of academic scholarship is in relation to human flourishing, and concerns the values by which we think life should or could be lived. 

But I want to touch on something in my conclusion that relates specifically to academics working with what are often called minority languages, but also makes sense in relation to large language communities that are made peripheral by a zero sum approach to research performance management as it articulates with the dominance of English.


I want to briefly discuss this in relation to concepts used by the Portuguese academic Boaventura de Sousa Santos, specifically the idea that current systems of research performance management act as forms of epistemic dominance and violence, even that the imperialism of certain ideas of what counts as knowledge constitute epistemicide, the death of what Niamh referred to as an ecology of research and Santos calls an ecology of knowledge.


  • Research selectivity, as I have discussed it here, can be seen to be re-ordering Europe (and I will keep my remarks to Europe) in relation to hierarchies of knowledge
  • Clearly certain domains of knowledge, those deemed applied or close to the market, are privileged over more speculative knowledge practices. This is very much why the humanities is under such pressure, but also areas of epistemic practice.
  • The linguistic dimension of this new terrain is illuminating
  • We can see from Niamh’s account that her practice is indeed one of an ecology of research or an ecology of knowledge. She regularly speaks from between Irish and English, both seen as capable of articulating knowledge
  • However, the intense pressure she and her colleagues experience to render their research amenable to only certain audiences and certain forms of publication (where the mode of publication appears to be more important than the rigour of scholarship) works to make invisible Irish as a legitimate language of knowledge, in deed as not being a knowledgeable language in its own right. To different degrees the same can be said of Polish, or Finnish, or Latvian, or Hungarian, or Russian, or possibly French and German.
  • So, the Irish language, literature, artefacts can be objects of scientific inquiry, but Irish cannot be a legitimate medium for thinking.
  • The increasing requirement to produce or reproduce work in English, carries with it the inequality of languages, the suggestion that English has a unique capacity to articulate all meaning adequately. English is presumed to have the robustness to convey meaning originally conceived in a different linguistic and cultural frame.
  • This attitude leads, I believe, to epistemic closure.

This is not an argument against English as a shared language of scientific exchange, but it is an argument against a diminished ecology of research, and a call to think higher education otherwise, and not to collude in epistemicide.

The Ethics of Academic Practice: Combatting Exploitation and Working for Social Justice

Is modern academia an economy of theft?

I am continuing with my contemplations on the 5 Mindfulness Trainings and how they can inform an ethics of academic practice.

In this second post I take the training on ‘True Happiness’:

True Happiness

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.


What is meant by this ambitious declaration and how might it be imprinted on my academic practice?

I want to begin at the end, as it were, and the direct referencing of a commitment to reversing global warming.  This is a kind of aside but bear with me.

In referencing global warming specifically I feel that Thay is indicating that while the ‘trainings’ are universal, in the sense that their core orientations can be applied in any context, they should be adapted to the specific contexts within which we live.  This understanding of the universal yet contextual nature of the ‘trainings’ is important.  The ‘trainings’ are to be worked with rather than simply applied.  They are designed to sensitise us to certain ways of being rather than rules to be imposed.

The only authority behind the ‘trainings’ is our own commitment to ethical practice.

…and now down to business.

There are a number of topics that arise during discussion with colleagues on the academic development programmes I run that deal with issues of integrity and honesty.  They can arise in two specific contexts, those of academic integrity/plagiarism, and the ethics of authorship.  But I want to add another, that of the increasingly institutionally ‘managed’ nature of our academic CVs.

Plagiarism, authorship, and integrity

I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others

When writing, as academics or students, we are entering into discussion with communities of thinkers and writers – past, present and future.  Central to the idea of scholarly activity is the dispassionate exchange of ideas in the common pursuit of knowledge – that is, the ideal of the Republic of Letters (see the Networking the Republic of Letters, 1550-1750 project for an interesting piece of research on this).  I know this is an idealised notion of academic and scholarly activity.  I also know that it can hide the imperial and gendered natured of the enterprise.  But there is something in the idea that offers different ways of being an academic in the contemporary moment.

What I take from the idea is the notion that we are never the ‘owners’ of knowledge, of ideas, of text, but only ever the custodians.

Viewing knowledge-work in this way places a slightly different emphasis on issues of academic honesty and integrity.  Often, we come to these issues in relation to students who ‘cheat’.  Actual scholarly work on this demonstrates that it is seldom as easy or straightforward as our anecdotes would suggest.  This is usually how it is initially surfaced in discussions with colleagues in academic development programmes.  Then the discussion shifts towards considering the issue in terms of enculturation of students into the disciplinary forms of academic writing and of how we, as academics, deal with referencing.

But I think there is some value in also contemplating how we are custodians rather than owners of knowledge.  The idea of the custodian of knowledge can encourage practices of care and consideration which are, in my view, healthier and more productive kinds of sensibility than mere attention to the rules of referencing, or how to punish students who cheat.  The attention to proper referencing should not be an issue of rules but rather of the ‘public’ nature of our knowledge-work.  We not only share our knowledge-work, but make ourselves accountable through such mechanisms as referencing.  In modern parlance there is an ‘open source’ element to academic practice – we are revealing the code.

A possible negative side to the custodian metaphor is that we can become reverential towards knowledge, of attending to the gatekeeping function of protecting cannons of knowledge.  Such approaches are inevitably conservative and restrictive.  But if we think of the custodian role as one of care, and respect, this still leaves knowledge-work as open and as something we then leave to others to continue working with.

I feel that there is some mileage in this metaphor, but I need to explore it further.

…and institutional ‘management’ of academic CVs

But, perhaps the issue most pertinent to this ‘training’ is the increase in the way the institutions we work for seek to manage our scholarly activity in the pursuit of market advantage.

What do I mean by this?

The emergence of the what scholars such as Simon Marginson call the ‘global university’ and heightened global competition in higher education has brought in forms of management that views our individual scholarly ambitions as little more than institutional assets.  What I mean by this is the idea that my scholarly research and writing are viewed as contributing to or undermining my employing organisation’s stock of status capital.  The ethical, social, or cultural content of my scholastic activity is therefore of no real importance other than in its capacity to contribute to the university’s competitive ambitions as measured by various ranking systems.

This fundamentally undermines the idea of the Republic of Letters and of the scholar as a custodian.

It introduces a subtle, I think, change in the nature of social relations in academic practice.  This change is in the direction of making academic practice one of ‘value relations’ in the classic Marxist sense.  For more on this perspective I think it is worth looking at the work of Joss Winn.  In this change of relations the university acts much more like the traditional capitalist enterprise directly and indirectly appropriating my academic labour.  The drive is not to have control over my labour (and here I am referring specifically to academic writing and the direction of academic research) in order to produce better or ‘higher quality’ research, but as a private good (private for the university) in its efforts to improve its market position.

As well as leading to a ‘carelessness’ in the way academics and students are treated in universities, it changes the social relationship to knowledge.  Rather than being custodians of knowledge, as individual academics, we are increasingly encouraged to view writing and research and teaching as private property that can improve our individual status within academic markets.  It also means that our employers, universities, seek to appropriate (steal) the fruits of our labour.  Knowledge is there to be plundered.

Stealing from the poor….

It is one thing for employing organisations to be seen in the role of capitalist ‘robber barons’ of academic labour.  But when we see our role as custodians of knowledge then this also implies a certain social relationship to those who participate in our research and so form the basis for our writing.  Surely we have a duty of responsibility here as well?

Much of my research has been concerned with the impact of policy on different groups, often with an explicit social justice dimension.  When this work involves interviews I am inviting folks to talk with me about their experiences, concerns, interpretations, etc.  Some of these people will be those in positions of power, others not.  I believe that there is a duty placed upon me then to treat their participation with care, responsibly.  We are used to the various ethical protocols we are asked to sign up to.  But there is something that is not mentioned in these protocols – the duty of not appropriating their generosity and commitment of time, or their openness, simply to build a career.

Indeed there can be two levels of appropriation going on simultaneously.  As the academic I may appropriate their involvement in my research as part of a strategic manoeuvre designed to improve my career prospects.  And, my employing organisation may appropriate this as part of its strategy to improve its advantage in relation to other institutions.

Both are forms of theft.

The ethical cost of eroding the custodian role

What can we do in such circumstances?

It seems to me that we (academics), collectively, are allowing and enabling  this theft to continue.  Apart from complaining privately we seldom refuse, let alone resist this economy of theft.

The question remains, then, what can we do?

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 [].

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.

Migration, the University, and What the Hell is a Knowledge Economy?

I tend to go to work relatively early – not out of any conscientiousness, simply because I wake early and get bored.  While much of the day the corridors and stairways thong with students and faculty going about their ‘knowledge work’, the early morning presents a different kind of labour.  I greet the cleaners, the silent bodies of our public buildings, clearing away the debris left by student and staff alike, making the place ready for another day of knowledge-intensive activity.  There is a sense in which my articulated identity as a knowledge worker, of an academic identity construed in large part by identification with epistemic communities, is quite separate from that of the cleaners I say hello to.  I am forced to contemplate the nature of this encounter, and in particular my privileged position.  I encounter something more than just different functional roles – after all there is a symbiotic relationship here whereby their work makes my work more feasible and comfortable and my work makes it possible to employ them. I find myself entering into an international division of labour, and a very hierarchical one at that.

It has become a truism of late capitalism that we are ‘in’ a period of the ‘knowledge economy’.  The engine of economic growth is seen to be characterised by the ‘added value’ that accrues from human capital, particularly in the form of continuous innovation.  At its most sexy the knowledge economy is represented by bright young things working in high tech companies.  Look at the image below:


The photo is taken from the Google website and comes with the following caption:

We think Google is a great place to work, but don’t just take our word for it. Fortune awarded Google the number one spot in its 2013 list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.” This marks our fourth time at the top and the honor reflects our ongoing efforts to create a unique workplace and culture.

We are used to these images.  Bright young things excited and animated, often clustered together in open plan spaces, thinking ‘beyond’…But we do not see the invisible workers that make all that brightness possible.

Office Cleaners

Higher education (and often the term ‘university’ is used) is identified as both a major contributor to the development of the knowledge economy and as a beneficiary of the knowledge economy discourse.  Documents such as Ireland’s ‘Building Ireland’s Knowledge Economy‘ position higher education as a major site for basic research that contributes to an innovation environment.  The ‘Hunt Report‘, which still frames the reform of Irish higher education, contextualises the need for systemic change in terms of the NEED for Ireland to develop as a knowledge economy and innovation society.  Therefore Irish higher education MUST become more aligned with economic goals.  Universities and other institutes of higher education are corralled into a national mission of increasing the stock of human capital and producing the research that will lead to innovation and economic growth.  We are all familiar with the narrative.

Semiotically higher education seeks to achieve a careful balancing trick.  It wants to allude to the status that comes from connections with ‘heritage’ whilst also projecting themselves as leading edge.  But that will have to wait for another time.

We can perhaps view higher education as not just producing knowledge and skill-rich workers but as KNOWLEDGE-INTENSIVE ORGANISATIONS, indeed KNOWLEDGE-INTENSIVE COMPANIES.

I think this is appropriate for many reasons:

  • Higher education is increasingly positioned as a kind of service industry for the wider economy
  • The policy thrust for greater academic-industry links constructs higher education professionals as involved in using their disciplinary knowledge to support product development and problem solving in industry and wider society
  • There is often a kind of ‘client’ relationship at play
  • The ‘knowledge’ that higher education often deals with, produces, and applies is expert, specialist or esoteric in character.

In conceptualising higher education in this way I am particularly influenced by Mats Alvesson’s discussion of ‘knowledge intensive firms’ and his more recent look at higher education in his book “The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education, and Work Organization” (I am currently reading this and may write on some of its themes).

Alvesson warns us that apparently self-evident terms such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowledge work’ (let alone ‘being’ a knowledge worker) are ambiguous.  So if the terms by which we seek to portray ourselves are problematic, what about the things we do, the activities we engage in?  To what extent can we be secure that they ARE knowledge (let alone knowledge-intensive) activities.  He suggests that the language and the actions take on a persuasive character, that they work to both convince ourselves and wider publics of the importance and specialness of what we do and who we are.

Work by Alvesson and others resonates with the wisdom expressed in Buddhism about the non-essential nature of all phenomena.

As I walk through the doors and encounter those cleaners I am clear that ‘I am because they are’.  My status as a knowledge worker requires that there are others who are designated as non-knowledge workers. In a kind of zero sum game my fortune is directly at the expense of somebody else’s lesser fortune.  These cleaners are an effect of the expansion of the European Union, the partial welcoming of ‘workers’ (units of human capital) from Poland, Latvia, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, places poorer than here.  So, despite being relatively well educated they take on cleaning jobs, they keep our hotels and cafes and restaurants going.  They are (in this ‘service’ position) because I am (able to accrue symbolic and monetary benefit from my association with ‘knowledge’).

When I think about my job, what do I actually do?

Knowledge work is made up of non-knowledge activities especially as imagined in the knowledge economy.  It is made up of the cleaners who maintain my office space, the cooks who prepare my dinner in the canteen, the bus drivers, the shop assistants, the porters, the builders who constructed this building, the workers who make sure that clean water arrives in my tap each day, the often third world children who probably sweated away to make my clothes, the Bangladeshi sailors who made it possible to ship goods across the world for me to consume.  I am because they are.  I make tea and coffee – all of which requires the labour of people I will likely never meet and who often could only dream of the luxury I call normal living.  They are because I am.

They are because I am – I am because they are.

What exactly is this thing called ‘knowledge’ that makes my work, my identity and the institutions I work in so special when it and I are so completely dependent on non-knowledge activities?  There is a deep ethical quality to these questions.  What should my role as a knowledge worker be in the face of the fact that ‘they are because I am’?