Research Selectivity and the Destruction of Authentic Scholarship? The View from the (semi) Periphery


Below is the text of a proposal to the European Educational Research conference in Dublin this year.  It outlines some research under development with colleagues in Poland looking at the way research evaluation frameworks are re-shaping academic practice and the nature of what is knowledge in higher education.  Far more than being mechanisms for assessing the quality of academic research outputs, we argue that these are means by which knowledge itself is being changed but without making that an explicit object of policy.  Most disturbing of all is the way academics themselves are complicit in this.  It makes us wonder if many academics, and academic managers in particular have given up on higher education as a public good.



Research selectivity, 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). 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 selectivity 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 form 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? For the purposes of our pilot project we also wanted to inquire into how this manifested in the context of semi-peripheral disciplines, especially the humanities. The legitimacy of the humanities 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.


Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used
The paper reports on the pilot study for this project, which aims to clarify the research problematic, scope, and questions.  The lead author’s home institution was selected as the site for the empirical work, with the Polish academics taking the lead in conducting the interviews.  This was undertaken as itself an ethnographic inquiry into the paradox of the proposed research – that of critically examining research selectivity as part of neoliberal political rationality (which includes the problematic place of non-high status English as a medium of academic exchange) whilst also seeking to publish in ‘high impact’ English language outputs and use English as a medium for cross-country collaboration.  This (auto)ethnographic aspect will be part of the broad mix of approaches taken in the larger study.  Therefore the proposed research has a strong reflexive mode. The discipline of humanities was chosen because a) the problematic place it currently has in higher education, and b) the particular challenges faced by the humanities in Irish universities.  Specifically, Irish Studies and German Studies were selected.  This was partly opportunistic due to established links between these areas and the lead author.  These were selected because they also provided an opportunity to explore linguistic capital as a dimension of the field of study (see Outcomes below). Irish Studies enabled the exploration of the structural location of a European minority language (we selected scholars who wrote through the medium of Irish).  German Studies enabled an examination of the structural location of a major European language within both a semi-peripheral system of higher education and a semi-peripheral discipline. The pilot project involved 7 semi-structured interviews with full-time members of academic staff on permanent contracts (Irish Studies = 3; German Studies = 2; plus two colleagues with expertise in the field of internationalisation in higher education).  The current paper focuses primarily on the 5 interviews with Irish Studies and German Studies. It is proposed that a grounded theory approach will be utilised as a basic analytical approach for the whole project.  For the purposes of this paper an initial inductive approach is taken.  The larger project will use a mix of methods.


Although institutional practices of internal research selectivity are systemic in nature, all academics interviewed discussed how they relied upon personal strategies to negotiate the various management techniques. All spoke about the general concern within their fields and the wider discipline but that there had been no collective or solidaristic space to mobilise these concerns as public and systemic issues.

Such strategies included reorienting effort to write in English language journals as well as in Irish or German, to seek a ‘balance’ of outputs.  This was a subtractive strategy as it meant less was written in their preferred language.  It was suggested that the emphasis on research articles as the institutionally privileged output changed the nature of disciplinary knowledge development and exchange. Specifically it challenged the way a body of work was captured in the production of monographs in the humanities. This was see as being driven by institutional concern with metrics and not with authentic scholarship.

Participants stressed that writing in English was a reduced form of scholarship that did not allow them to fully articulate meaning.  Performance against institutionally defined criteria bore no relation to the objective of knowledge production and exchange in knowledge communities.  Rather than being additive research selectivity was being experienced as subtractive and diminishing.

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.
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.
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.

Academic Life#1 #AcademicLife

This is the first in a series of daily photos capturing the many moments of #AcademicLife as part of my exploration of the materiality of academic practice.


what is the point of education? why education should be about the cultivation of humane citizens


I have just listened to Derek Jarman‘s “Blue” on BBC Radio.

Of course I saw the original film and have the book, though I never got to visit his garden (pictured above).

“Blue” is a touching and poetic account of his struggles with HIV/AIDS which was eventually to take his corporeal life, though his life-force lives on in his work, the love he bestowed on humanity, in the continued fight for equality and social justice.

It made me reflect on what the purpose of higher education is (as I have done before).  As the university seeks to optimise all our efforts towards institutional advancement but with apparently little regard for knowledge or wisdom, it is worth stepping back and reflecting.  Listening to this version of Derek Jarman’s prose-poetry acted to sustain such thought.

In the prose-poem he refers to the Memorial Quilt stitched together to commemorate many of those who died of HIV/AIDS.  It made me think of friends who, like Derek, sat in waiting rooms, received medication, were subjected to abuse, but whose humanity was as startling in their dying as it was in their living.

How this contrasts with the lifelessness of modern academia and academic management in particular.  How lacking in humanity is this metric driven edifice.

Maybe I would be better off visiting Derek’s garden so that I can be witness to some true humanity and wisdom!

Should Academics be Licensed?


This question was raised in the context of a session on ‘Evaluation of Teaching’ on a postgraduate course on teaching and learning in higher education.  The ‘students’ are all academics who have chosen to do this course.  And this aspect is important because in a way they are a self-selecting sample of those who are interested in developing their practice as university teachers.  So, it is of note that this question should arise in this context.

Another aspect of the context was the immediate focus of the afternoon – evaluation of teaching.

In a way this focus of attention could have produced a good deal of defensiveness, of complaints about unfair student commentary.  Sure, there was some discussion of the difficulty of interpreting student feedback on teaching, of contradictory statements.

But what would provoke the above question?

Well, it arose in a broader discussion about the ethics and politics of institutional systems for collecting student feedback on teaching.

The question was asked whether it was ethical to collect such feedback if it was not going to be used improve teaching and learning at an organisational level.  In other words – why bother, why should students or educators bother if academic managers do not use this information wisely?

Why, it was asked, were incompetent teachers allowed to continue?

It is important to remember that this question came from university teachers about university teachers.  It did not come from a tabloid journalist or populist politician.

This led to a further question: in what sense are academics a ‘profession’ like others?

If we are not required to undertake regular professional development then in what sense can we claim to be professionals like clinical psychologists, or medical doctors, or nurses and midwives – all of whom are require to demonstrate engagement with continuous professional development (CPD)?  Indeed, in Ireland over recent years, Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians have been required to undertake CPD in order to continue practicing.  So, why not university teachers?

One defence could be that the gaining of a PhD is a suitable proxy for a license to teach.  But is it?  It might be a requisite qualification to join the ranks of academic researchers, but teaching?  In many respects, as academics, our identities are formed around knowledge and acceptance by an epistemic community.  But teaching?  Is a PhD an adequate proxy for a license to teach?

I leave this as an open question because I don’t know.  I say I don’t know because I am not necessarily trustful of university managers (who are also academics) to act wisely in the face of a possible call for this particular form of professional license.

However, governments and academic leaders turned higher education business leaders may lead the charge towards such licensing as a way of achieving other objectives, such as greater managerial control over academic labour. There is a growing trend in the UK of promotion for early career academics being requisite on completion of training in teaching and learning in higher education courses, membership of the Higher Education Academy, and possibly achievement of a Higher Education Academy teaching award.  This was not planned.  It has emerged.

So, the current situation is not stable.  To paraphrase Marx, the only constant is change. The question is – who will determine the direction of that change?

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’?

What is the value of academic identity?


A recent post by the Thesis Whisperer dealt the the issue of academics living in one place but working in another – or ‘fly-in-fly-out’ academia.

The post dealt positively with this phenomena in the sense that it offered suggestions for how to use the enormous amount of travel time experienced and how best to reduce stress and boredom.  Much related to my own experience of #fifoacademic life.

But, and this is a big BUT, the post made me really wonder what value we place on academic identities that would compel us to live such dispersed, displaced and torn lives.  Many people in the world are forced into such measures due to poverty and discrimination, a phenomena often referred to as ‘forced migration‘.  But, as academics in the global north we are privileged.  We are not displaced due to conflict, disaster, or imposed development (such as those being ‘removed’ in order to accommodate the World Cup in Brazil).  We CHOOSE to live these lives.

When I say ‘we’ I mean me.

I am about to start a new job that will see me travel hundreds of miles from my family and close friends to work in another city.  At my age (52), and having entered academia late in the day (and having been highly ambivalent about the career path thing), I find that I have few choices open to me in order to stay in this – and lets be honest here – relatively well paid and extremely pleasant occupation.

Most of my academic career has seen me work ‘elsewhere’.  I have only ever spent 2 years working in the same location as my family.  What a strange way to live.  What a strange choice to make.  Its not that somebody forced me into that situation.  I chose it.  I choose it again.  In choosing it I lived many lonely nights where I pretended that the pay-off was worth it, the ‘pay-off’ being career progression, or pension, or…  There was always an excuse.  For 8 years I even worked in a different country.

That is until the stress of that and my ambivalent relationship with academia resulted in a massive breakdown, a complete disintegration of the ‘self.

Which begs the question: Why am I doing it again?

In all honesty, I am not quite sure.  Now is not then.  There is the fear that I will end up in the same distress.  But, were it not for the unbelievable psychic pain and despair that accompanies depression, I would recommend a breakdown to anyone.  The learning that can come from such experience is invaluable, if you are lucky and wealthy enough to get the right support.  I was.  I have learned a lot that should make life ‘away from home’ less dangerous and toxic.

Depression is one term but I have come to the conclusion that what I, and many others experience, is better understood as ‘existential disruption”.  Such ruptures in our lives caused by choosing lives if displacement the #fifoacademic a curious phenomena indeed.

But existential disruption brought with it a re-centering of identity around more substantial things than publication record, committee work, conferences, and the like.

I hope it sustains me.

I plan to write about my experience of existential disruption and academic life soon.  But I would be interested to know how other people have ‘lived’ with FIFO.