Models for a public academy

Student protests in London 2011 behind book-cover shields

At least some people still believe the humanities can defend themselves…

This is another post that represents a long thought process, and not a very conclusive one. Towards the end of 2012 I was becoming gloomy about the state of the academy, probably not least because of grave doubts over my future place in it, but also because of the various UK government initiatives that seemed set to make life in it harder and less honest, about which there’s been better commentary than mine would be. In Oxford, where I then still was, this was for many taking the form of wondering if the university might be able to go it alone, partly out of frustration at what the pressure to meet and manage targets was doing to the size of the administrative establishment even as money for teaching and research was being cut, but also out of the ability of some commentators to come up with costings that made it look as if even Oxford was unlikely to get back in research money as determined by the REF what it had put in in staff time and effort and lost research time. And if not Oxford, then who? And so on. And it all had me thinking if there might be a way to envisage a future university which did not have the reins held by government money in this way.

I am now further out of this bubble than I was in December 2012, though you can see that even much later I was still smarting with this kind of logic, but back then I was reflecting on the double-edged sword of the problems history has generating the kind of ‘impact’ on public policy now demanded by the government for its money and the continually steady recruitment this supposedly useless degree manages in so many places. History is, as Magistra put it in a different context, a cash cow, even if it’s still probably not possible to teach it at university level as a money-making enterprise except to the very rich. Still, it is usually facilities-light (no labs) and student-heavy, and this tells us surely that we are not without impact, that people think history can be useful to them (for, for example, stopping people believing rubbish) or is just interesting, and this is also suggested by the fact that books on it sell, even books with footnotes. Book sales and student recruitment are of course not counted as measures of impact, which is vexing because it is the most obvious impact we have, on people’s minds and memories.

The obvious conclusion I was being led to in December 2012 was that it might be possible, then, to operate academic history research on some kind of broad-based public subscription model. Kickstarter had just started operating in the UK, too, so some kind of model for how it might be done now existed: a plea passed around blogs and Twitter, per project. You’d have to be good at explaining why it was interesting and what your project would find out, and you’d hope to get conventional publication out of it (of which free copies would need to be available for some of the subscribers I guess), but the primary communication of progress and results would be online, with people who genuinely cared and had the best reason so to do. It might be really quite energising, if also probably exhausting, and it would escape the national constraints of so much current funding.

But after a while I realised that what it could not be is big. It would have to meet the salary and travel costs of each researcher; a year’s work probably costs £40,000, then, living fairly cheaply (because of course, unless this is still happening inside the university, you have a lot of costs for access to published materials, for the reasons we’ve just discussed). Kickstarter currently has about £190,000,000 pledged to it (says Wikipedia as of today, with conversion from dollars by UCC), and while that’s obviously not the same as money actually paid, let’s just assume for a second that that is a reasonable sum to think this initiative could raise, after the same sort of growth period. That is a university sector, a whole international university sector, sciences and all, of 4,750 researchers. The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency says that there are currently 185,535 academics employed in the UK alone, and while I’ve no idea whom they count in or out, it is still two orders of magnitude bigger than all that Kickstarter money could fund.

In any case, Kickstarter’s median funding level is in the four figures of dollars (says Wikipedia again), so pursuing that analogy means that we’re looking at maybe funding two months’ of work, not a year’s. That means six times as many individual projects but the £190,000,000 was Kickstarter’s sum for the year, not two months, so that’s the same people doing six projects a year to stay afloat. There are all kinds of bits of this comparison that don’t join up but it’s not at all encouraging. It seems more than likely that any academy that operated thus, in direct service of public pockets, would have to be dramatically smaller than the one we currently possess, or else funded substantially by commercial interests. So we are not going to get free this way.

This was my conclusion when I happened across one of Eileen Joy’s many manifestos for the university outside the university that she has herself started creating. Because of her willingness to put her lack of money where her mouth is in this respect, I take Eileen’s vision seriously: if she can live by it, so may others be able to. Despite this, she and I have never seen eye-to-eye about the scalability of such alternatives, and finding myself at the end of the same thread of apparently-inexorable arithmetic, I wrote a long comment. It was so long that I decided it was in fact part of this post, and so here it is:

“The numbers game is the problem, of course. In at least one Utopia the university is a social and economic organisation that permits scholars to focus on the production of, well, let’s not say knowledge but insight, without having to hustle for a living first and foremost. I’m going to claim that teaching is part of that process, too, though it mires us in awkward ethical positions about trying to reproduce ourselves or create structures that make our education ‘vocational’ by making spaces for our pupils, many of whom are as worthy of them as we are. When the numbers don’t add up any more to make the ideal possible, though (and to be honest I’m not clear how they ever did, or how any government ever accepted the Haldane Principle), that lack of trammeling of our work and thought is first to go, of course. At that point, and especially at this point, abandoning the structure looks like the useful and ethical thing to do. But we will still have to hustle to pay to do our work on the outside. Even if we run as vagabond scholars living on publishing and generosity, we are still selling to live and that means someone is buyer. Who’s free to think, then?”

What a cheerful man, eh? And this is all damn discouraging, but what I have also been noticing is that not everyone is being discouraged even so. Eileen is obviously the most encouraged and encouraging, but the search for direct access to the public purse to solve the problems of dealing with its appointed guardians has still been happening. The first link I had for this is now half-invisible behind a paywall, so I can no longer see what the exact basis for the headline “Crowdsourcing the search for some missing royalty” is, and I think it may be labour rather than funding. Still, it’s a way, and it seems to have done fairly well for what is now the Irish Archaeology field School. And then there was this:

Section of the PHD Comics cartoon for 6th May 2013

Section of a PHD Comics cartoon on just this issue

Again, that’s science, but in the public marketplace the two cultures punch much more equally, I think. And yet all the same the numbers are what the numbers are and I don’t feel that I’ve given up hope prematurely. This may be the way a small bit of the sector now goes. It may at least prevent us from returning to a Victorian academy where privately-funded scholars do most of the interesting, but often problematic because unchecked, work and propagate it via learned societies, but the academy it enables will still be very painfully shrunk. And yet larger alternatives still fail to be imagined

4 responses to “Models for a public academy

  1. Allan McKinley

    One question that always springs to mind whenever I read a post like this is simply why do we think universities are where research should be done. Historically universities are teaching places and research was done by a range of clergy, gentry, self-made men and worrying eccentrics. It was only last century universities became the research centres they wish to be. Indeed, I don’t know of a UK university younger than Durham whose origin is a research institute rather than a teaching one (allowing that some were totally new foundations), so I’d feel pretty happy with the statement that universities are still primarily teaching institutions – if universities are not supporting humanities research is this not arguably a return to a historical norm?

    I also note (speaking here as a technically amateur historian) that concerns about the future of academe tend to be expressed by professional academics or those who would like to be such (so me not that long ago). But if we are concerned about actual research, the starting point of the debate has to surely be to show that having most research done by a relatively small number of professionals with access to extensive and expensive resources to the exclusion of others is in fact the best model for research.

    I am not saying the current model of humanities research is wrong, just that before trying to find a way to maintain it we should establish it achieves its aims. As with debates about open access the risk is that maintaining the status quo is a purely reactionary instinct. To be convincing to those outside academia (a category into which I am not sure I can be included) surely a plea for preservation of something like a preferable version of our current system needs to argue the value of that system. Certainly, to preserve what we have/would like to have we may have to convince someone of its worth, be it benefactors or government (which to be secure means the population in general).

    • I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, but it immediately raises the following question of measures of worth. What could be said to be going on with the marketisation of higher education, after all, is a shift from an intellectual (and mostly immeasurable, in the strict sense) worth to a financial one that most subjects can’t in fact justify; even if a degree does still add more to the student’s earning potential than it costs them, it probably won’t for long. That is of course, a justification for universities as schools, as you say, however, and not for research institutions. We have for the last however-long apparently tried to fudge that one by saying that teaching and research go together in some inexpressible way that we nevertheless make people try to express every interview, despite knowing that the two skillsets needn’t in fact overlap. We do teach with the fruits of research, but as I know very well, very rarely our own and certainly never only our own. (A UK perspective, this, and quite high-level I suppose; that there are university-level courses taught essentially from a textbook, I don’t doubt for a minute.) That method, whether it needs questioning or not, could happily proceed with much of the work being done outside the academy, as long as it remained available to the teachers… Food for thought as ever, Allan, thankyou!

  2. Pingback: Can Open Access be done right? | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: A way publishers might make Open Access work (but probably wouldn’t) | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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