Productivity, baby

The Irish Times published an interesting article yesterday, ‘Inside third level'. Interesting in the sense of its approach: it can only have been written by jogging around the shelves of the corporate management potboilers at the airport, noting down random phrases, and adding education-related nouns as an afterthought. In what may be the first instance of a national newspaper publishing a Powerpoint presentation, Paul Mooney, former president of the small business college the National College of Ireland, takes us so far inside the entire ‘third level sector’ that he supersedes the need to mention any actual institutions, to reveal a truth so profound it no longer depends on facts, or stuff.

So I was going to ignore it, in the same way as most workers in Ireland, when confronted with the violent reduction of their labour and experience to the cut n’ paste truthoids of reform-whisperers, simply hope it will go away. But they don’t go away, you know. The article is currently the most read on the Irish Times online, and last night the paper’s education editor Seán Flynn was triumphantly tweeting that the article was ‘much discussed at higher level in Dept of Ed!’ Which – as opposed to such traditional aims as informed analysis and factual claims – was presumably the point all along. So the article requires a response, the only question being, what kind of response?

The rational response

The most obvious response, and one that unites standard academic and journalistic practice, is to test out the claims made and the evidence provided. Mooney’s claims amount to the following: ‘Lecturers have light workloads, research pet projects that have no benefit for Ireland Inc, and management is poor’. To establish his expertise, it would have been useful if Mooney provided metrics on NCI’s performance and contribution to ‘Ireland Inc’ during his tenure as president. Given that none are provided, we can only presume that none exist, or that if they do, they are not useful to his argument. However, the problem is far broader. Mooney does not provide any research, references, sources or proof for any of his claims. This is already ironic in a piece that is pushing for ‘robust and transparent evaluation’, more so in an article that uses the paper of record to question the nature of academic research. Take the following example:

Aside from teaching, academics spend their time completing research. This all sounds quite noble. Academics…are helping Ireland Inc move up the value chain towards becoming a smart economy. Yet if you strip away the layers, you find that a good percentage of university lecturers are actually completing their own research for a PhD during work hours.

Strip away the superficiality, and this contention fails first year research methods on an impressive number of grounds. What is a ‘good percentage’? Citing a percentage traditionally involves making a quantifiable and reproducible claim, but then, perhaps a module in postmodern percentages is an under-celebrated facet of Mooney’s educational legacy. More prosaically, anyone on even nodding terms with current university realities will know that the completion of a PhD is now a basic requirement for entry-level positions across most disciplines. Note, however, that Mooney’s claim is not that a ‘good percentage of university lecturers are still completing their PhD’. It is, in the dog whistle du jour, that they are stealing from the taxpayer by doing this during work hours. Thus the nonsensical idea of a ‘good percentage’ stands in for two unverified, verifiable claims – that many university lecturers do not have PhDs, and that they are researching them during work hours. How does Mooney know this? He doesn’t tell us, perhaps because he assumes his readers have not evolved far enough up the value chain of the smart economy to require proof of prejudicial claims.

Mooney’s bespoke percentages roam the article, and it might not, at this point, come as a shock that the section of the article questioning standards in lecturing is based on the world-historical experience of a ‘lecturer I once had’. The real problem, however, is that by basing his ‘courageous’ assault on academic privilege on a composite of personal impressions, Mooney illustrates his lack of understanding and care for the very dimensions of education he purports to defend.

A central dimension of his case is that academics do not teach enough, and that a huge increase in contact hours is necessary to both ‘grow’ lecturers’ productivity and to prepare students for the ‘real world’. As with all his contentions and prescriptions, this diagnosis and cure is proposed for all institutions, all disciplines, all degree courses, all modules, and all levels. Once again, the strength of the piece lies in the crushing weight of the contradictions that require untangling. In an article encouraging students to be ‘critical consumers’, Mooney would like all teaching, regardless of the requirements and demands of different disciplines, to be exactly the same. That is, to encourage the flexibility required by the smart economy and ‘Ireland Inc’, independent reading, study and research should give way to a return to secondary school conditions. That is, the development of intellectual, academic and personal autonomy will be assured by implementing the uniform rigidities of secondary schools, those institutions now consistently (and inaccurately) berated for an emphasis on ‘rote learning’ and insufficient flexibility.

This approach to teaching is so absurd that it marks a point where the rational response must give way to a different kind of reading. What is gained, and who gains, by making post-factual claims about academic  - and by extension, public sector – labour and using them to argue for ‘performance management’?

The strategic response

The idea of ‘reform’ has a totemic significance in crisis-era Ireland. In a context where the political hegemony insists on laundering neoliberal austerity through collective morality fables, and where the central dimension of the austerity project is the historical transformation of the state’s relation to society, public resources, services and goods are deliberately recast as luxury items: ‘unproductive’ and in need of ‘reform’ in relation to very specific kinds of instrumental criteria. Given that the central drive of ‘reform’ is ideological, claiming to identify an object of reform, and claiming the position of the reformer, operates to fully negate critique of the legitimacy of that reform. Ironically for such an anti-intellectual project, it is a fairly sophisticated language game.

To speak for reform and as a reformer is performative; it brings into being the reality it claims. Having been brought into being, the workers now subject to reform are placed in an impossible position when defending their working conditions or describing their working realities, because they have been positioned by the reformer as resistant to change. They may even be seen as a ‘vested interest’, and in contemporary Ireland, no ‘vested interest’ - other than those interests that precipitated the political-economic crisis and continue to benefit from it - can legitimately have a say in relation to their experience, reality, or working conditions. More specifically, the project of reform specified by Mooney has its basis in what Robert R. Locke and J.C. Spender term ‘managerialism’, which is

What occurs when a special group, called management, ensconces itself systematically in an organization and deprives owners and employees of their decision-making power…and justifies that takeover on the grounds of the managing groups’ education and exclusive possession of the codified bodies of knowledge and know-how necessary to the efficient running of the organization.

Mooney’s article wills the deepening of precisely such a takeover. The problem, when it comes to universities, is that they possess certain forms of historical prestige and cultural capital in relation to the production of knowledge. Therefore, the managerial coup must proceed by insisting that universities and academics produce the wrong kind of knowledge. To ground the coup, they must insist on measuring that knowledge against indicators that, regardless of their adequacy, shape a confrontation between ‘productivity’ and the unproductive, and between ‘transparency’ and the willfully unaccountable. To enact a promise of progress, managerialism transposes a model of human action and life from context to context, a model that thrives precisely because it has no referent in any of these contexts, but that promises to manage human action through pendular thumps along an axis of incentivisation and discipline (and much, much more of the latter). In a crisis that is being governed by studiously draining the public to fund the consequences of private gambling, this fantastical promise can claim moral purpose – all must be made ‘productive’.

What makes this passing spat of interest beyond the confines of the university is that this kind of managerialism is being elevated as the only acceptable form of organising social life, up to and including governance of the post-democratic state. If the energy and anxiety expended by workers in navigating these anti-human fantasies was not so vast, it would almost be funny that so many people in Ireland think that the answer to our new troubles involves evangelising out-take scripts from The Office.

However, focusing on this ideological structure does at least explain why Mooney does not see the need to supply evidence, nor his editor to insist on it. Wave the totem of ‘Ireland Inc’, and all those positioned as insufficiently devoted to it must prove, in relation to criteria they can never satisfy, how they intend to repent (it also removes the tedious need to move past such meaningless labels and discuss the role of third level education and universities in relation to educational, public, and ‘labour market’ goals, a public conversation that needs to be had, but which is beyond the scope of this piece). Such totems and forms of discipline have a wider anti-democratic impulse, and while the Irish universities have hardly proven to be important spaces of resistant, critical thinking, the move to smother any troubling potentials by colonising all forms of time and experiences of work is a political question of general interest. And this requires a political response.

The political response

The problem for academics, when faced with such an assault as this, is that their training leaves them vulnerable to a rational fallacy; that by insisting on proof, or by patiently assessing and rebutting the claims on the basis of evidence, that unfair representations of their work will be retracted. However, it should be clear that ideological assaults are not susceptible to the very values they seek to destroy. Instead, it may be useful to conceive of both a general and specific political response.

Articles such as Mooney’s constitute broadsides in a political, but also socio-cultural struggle, as to the future shape of a society where the answer to the political-economic failure of market orthodoxies is to intensify the moralized application of ‘market discipline’ to ever-more sectors of the population and workforce (Kylie Jarrett’s article on the experience of this in Australia provides a crucial testimony of how this works). Academics in Ireland could go some way towards atoning for their tepid critique of this hegemony by rejecting this assault on the public. They must do so in the name of academic freedom, but also as hugely privileged agents who still possess the resources to offer practical solidarity to those being disciplined and dispossessed by what David McNally insightfully terms the ‘neoliberal mutation’. Academics in Ireland are consistently asked to come up with ideas to convince the public of the value of universities. Taking a stand for the public good, and working to support meaningful democratic contestation and mobilisation during a period of significant political transformation might be a start.

More specifically, academics should make clear to the Irish Times that cheap professional slurs come at a cost. If the paper wishes to position itself politically by demeaning academic labour (and in the process demeaning their own editorial standards), they cannot then presume to profit from that labour by sourcing quotations, expert analysis or cheap copy in the form of research results and reports. Yesterday’s editorial praised the ‘canny consumer for seizing the day’ and warned enterprises that they ‘under-deliver at their peril’. The same goes for newspapers, particularly in a digital era: people who consistently find their lives and experiences misrepresented for ideological reasons are under no obligation to buy the paper, and if they understand themselves as being targeted in a political struggle, would be justified in organising to press home the cost.

Again, there is solidarity at stake here. Social welfare recipients have been on the receiving end of several post-factual front page stories claiming grossly unsubstantiated levels of ‘welfare fraud.’ They are presumably targeted in this way because their poverty excludes them from the paper’s new demographic of the ‘squeezed middle’. Academics, on the other hand, sit snugly in that imagined readership, and it appears to be taken for granted that they will buy the paper of record as a matter of habit. But if the record is broken, it’s time to change it. And without irony, the reformers could hardly object to change. {jathumbnailoff}


Image top: Kymberly Janisch.