notes on metricide

I read these pieces as I listened to The Smiths, Strangeways Here We Come.

it seems that the panopticon is about to be extended across the whole academic hierarchy with the introduction of ‘faculty dashboards’. These are tools which allow data on each academic to be collated into an individual profile showing publications, citations, research grants and awards won. It can be updated daily by the head of department, dean or vice-chancellor. Norms can be established, and of course, extended year-on-year. They may be changed, according to strategic priorities beyond the control, or indeed the value set, of academics.

Morrish, L. 2015. The disciplinary dashboard: from reception class to retirement

Academic Analytics’ unique “flower chart” affords the viewer a visualization of the overall productivity of the faculty within a given academic discipline. Variables on different scales (per capita, per grant dollar, per publication, etc.) and measuring different areas of scholarly productivity can be viewed simultaneously on a single comparative scale based on national benchmarks for the discipline. This powerful graphic facilitates rapid identification of the strongest and weakest areas in a given academic discipline on your campus.

Academic Analytics: Benchmarking for academic excellence

Considering research more specifically, Hazelkorn notes a number of implications arising from the use of league tables, performance indicators and quantitative measures. The central problem identified here is that academic quality is a complex notion that cannot easily be reduced to quantification – the use of proxy variables runs the risk of misrepresenting the qualities of research contributions and may lead to unintended consequences. She contests that there is considerable difficulty obtaining meaningful indicators and comparative data (nationally and internationally), and that the adoption of rankings serves to embed a metrics culture and to down-weight features of research or teaching quality that cannot easily be captured with numbers. This is a perspective echoed by the European Commission’s expert group on research assessment: “Unintended consequences can occur when indicators are taken in isolation and simple correlations are made. This may include overconcentrating on research, favouring particular disciplines of allocating resources and realigning priorities to match indicators.

Further, the use of such indicators is felt by many to risk reinforcing a hierarchical system of institutions that may lead to simplistic comparisons. Such comparisons are hard to justify when aggregate scores show statistically insignificant differences – indeed, an over-emphasis on a small set of indicators risks encouraging perverse behaviour within and across institutions. Comparisons between institutions may lead to an unhelpful focus on the ‘top’ universities worldwide and foster a narrow definition of excellence; such a focus is not likely to be relevant to the institutional goals of universities, where the balance of research and teaching, the geographical focus and disciplinary distinctiveness may vary considerably.

Wilsdon, J., et al. 2015. The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management, pp. 75-6. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4929.1363

in any situation where decisions are being made using metric data, how a subject discipline performs in relation to that data will be a critical issue for its potential fate. On the one hand, subject disciplines evolve according to an ‘inner logic’ relating to an audience of subject specialists, but they also develop as an adaptation to external audiences, including policy-makers, etc, some of which are keen to shape universities in the light of metric data.

… at the cutting edge of neo-liberal public policy, universities are no longer being subject to governance by market proxies, they are being marketised directly and metric data is part of the process by which the market in higher education is brought into being.

… Where [] discursive knowledge is aligned with the understandings of elite publics, no particular problem of credibility arises. However, where a discipline has an aspiration to engage with less powerfully placed publics, then a different issue of credibility arises, precisely that of our credibility because we represent a challenge to the certainties of neo-liberal orthodoxies and are witnesses to the consequences of the widening social inequalities with which they are associated.

Holmwood, J. 2013. Death by Metrics. Global Dialogue: Newsletter for the International Sociological Association.

You know you’re in trouble when the discourse turns to ‘journeys’ and ‘destinations’, but it gets worse. Although the government’s Education Evaluation fact sheet constitutes a total failure of logic, it displays a discursive masterstroke, with a chaining of ‘learning outcomes’, ‘performance data’, ‘accountability’, ‘interventions’, and then serving the whole salad up as a solution to ‘social mobility’. And [this] re-designates universities as mere factories for the production of labour inputs…

Morrish, L. 2015. It’s Metricide: Don’t Do It.

The excellence intensification of academic labour is shaped by three aspects (p. 32): teaching quality (TEF); learning environment [which demands that universities open themselves up to part-privatisation for the service redesign and workforce efficiencies of the Treasury’s Productivity Plan]; and student outcomes and learning gain [data]. This is Holmwood’s Academia as big data project amplified by human capital intensity, alongside the incorporation of ‘new common metrics on engagement with study (including teaching intensity) and learning gain, once they are sufficiently robust and available on a comparable basis’. This is not just the excellence intensity of work, but the intensity of motivation to work. It is also the shaming of those who do not enhance ‘Student commitment to learning – including appropriate pedagogical approaches’, or ‘Teaching intensity – measures might include time spent studying, as measured in the UK Engagement Surveys, proportion of total staff time spent on teaching’ (p. 32).

It is important students have information about the composition of the course, including contact hours, to help them make informed choices about the course they choose to study. The [Competition and Markets Authority] identified this as being material information likely to be required by the Consumer Protection Regulations, and as part of the payment, service delivery and performance information required to be provided pre-contract under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations. (p. 32)

In order to avoid metricide, or the inability to financialise positive outputs/outcomes because of poor data, competition will compel universities to drive down on staff working conditions, including new workload arrangements and increased surveillance of teaching, research and administration. As Andrew McGettigan has noted ‘if you work in HE, then pay bargaining is going to be a dismal business for the foreseeable.’

We are therefore pushed towards the acceptance of further state-sponsored privatisation of HE. This is not re-imagining the university through learning, teaching or pedagogy, but an unmaking of the university in the name of service redesign, workforce restructuring/efficiency and global, high-tech enterprise. This is HE deterritorialised for productivity, so that only those [academics, students, institutions] ‘that innovate and present a more compelling value proposition to students will be able to increase their share’ (p. 54). As a result what emerges from the Green Paper is an assault on collective work: the collective work of students unions; and of the collective work of students and staff as academic labour. Instead we are forced into asymmetrical relationship to the reality of our fetishized and rugged individualism in the market.

Hall, R. 2015. Against teaching intensity.

HE Green Paper and related stuff

This is a collection of stuff related to the Green paper, grouped into: Political economics; Sector responses; HE marketisation; Teaching excellence; Learning gain; HE governance; Quality Assurance/regulation; and Research. It is not exhaustive and I probably won’t add to it.

NOTE: I’m painfully aware of the limited range of voices in the list below, and its apparent lack of diversity, including historically under-represented and underserved communities. Is this me? Is this us? What does this mean?

ONE. Political Economics and Policy

HM Treasury Productivity Plan

HE Green Paper

HEFCE: Financial health of the higher education sector, 2014-15 to 2017-18 forecasts

Jo Johnson: Higher education: fulfilling our potential

Paul Clark: The Green Paper needs big data

Hepi: 10 points about the higher education green paper

Mark Leach: Spending review 2015: Key points for universities

Andrew McGettigan: The Treasury View of HE (variable human capital)

UCU: HE Green Paper

Andy Westwood: Spending Review 2015: In the Bleak Midwinter?

DBIS (2013): International education strategy: global growth and prosperity

DBIS (2014): Estimating Innovation Spillovers: an International Sectoral and UK Enterprise Study

TWO. Sector responses

GuildHE: GuildHE response to HE Green Paper

Million+: million+ comment on HE Green Paper (England)

NUS responds to higher education green paper

Russell Group: Higher Education Green Paper

University Alliance: University Alliance responds to the HE Green Paper

UniversitiesUK: A summary of the Higher Education Green Paper

UCAS’ response to HE Green Paper

THREE. HE marketisation

Emma Clery: Tuition Fees: 10 Reasons Against

Paul Goodman: Jo Johnson wants the higher education market to work better. Here’s a way of ensuring that it does.

John Holmwood: Slouching toward the Market: the new Green Paper for Higher Education, Part I

John Holmwood: Slouching toward the Market: the new Green Paper for Higher Education, Part II

Mark Leach: Green Paper: the closer you look, the less you see

Andrew McGettigan: 10 things you might have missed about the HE Green Paper

Andrew McGettigan: The accelerated level playing field

John Morgan: Higher education Green Paper: government support for higher, variable fees ‘crystal clear’

Chris Newfield: Are UK universities being cast academically adrift?

Sorana Vieru: We’ve got the power! No, you’ve got the power. Hang on, who’s got the power?

FOUR. Teaching excellence

Richard Black: Higher education Green Paper: have universities really neglected teaching?

Simon Clark: Refocusing universities on teaching won’t be easy

Martin Eve: What TEF is really for

Richard Hall: against teaching intensity

Richard Hall: notes on saying no to the TEF

Chris Havergal: TEF metrics plan attacked by academics

Chris Havergal: ‘Naive’ TEF metrics could undermine widening participation, v-c warns

David Kernohan: CETLs and the ghosts of teaching excellence past

David Kernohan: People in higher education: Professor Sally Brown, teaching excellence and a little bit of history

Mark Leach: The incredible machine? Our visual guide to the TEF

Andrew McGettigan: TEF & fee increases

Martin McQuillan: Remember, Remember the TEF of November

Emran Mian: Can the TEF survive the arguments made against it?

Jess Patterson: 5 Reasons the Teaching in Excellence Framework is Bad News for Higher Education

Philip Plowden: How to approach the Teaching Excellence Framework with confidence

Warwick for Free Education: The TEF: what is it, and why should we oppose it?

Joanna Williams: Higher education Green Paper: what it means for teaching

FIVE. Learning gain

Richard Hall: learning gain and kettling academic labour

HEFCE: 4 million awarded to 12 projects to pilot measures of learning gain

Cecile Hoareau McGrath et al. Learning Gain in Higher Education

Karine Tremblay et al.: Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes Feasibility Study Report Volume 1 – Design and Implementation

SIX. HE governance

Simon Baker: Redbricks, Green and Browne

Ed Byrne: Sector needs ‘oversight’ if BIS takes teaching grant in-house, says King’s principal

Udi Datta: TTIP and higher education policy

DBIS: Degree-awarding powers and criteria for university title

Martin Eve: Jo Johnson: your proposals for British higher education will not yield the competitiveness you seek

Martin Eve: HE Green Paper: response to question 23

David Kernohan: The Green Paper and devolution

Andrew McGettigan: The Great University Gamble

Martin McQuillan: ‘Goodbye to all that’

John Morgan: Pro-market regulator will have ‘different relationship with sector’

SEVEN. Quality Assurance/regulation

Andrew Boggs: Green Paper: six questions about regulation

HEFCE: Quality Assurance Review

Lee Jones: ‘Quality Assessment’ and Completing the Market in UK Higher Education

Lee Jones: ‘Quality Assessment’ and ‘Student Outcomes’: An Open Letter

Gordon McKenzie: Green Paper calls in the architects

Quality Assessment Review Steering Group: The future of quality assessment in higher education

EIGHT. Research

Martin Eve: TEF, REF, QR, deregulation: thoughts on Jo Johnson’s HE talk

Martin Eve: BIS, metrics and non-selective QR allocation

David Matthews: Higher education Green Paper: what it means for research

James Wilsdon et al.: The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management

James Wilsdon: The Green Paper: Nurse will see you now

James Wilsdon: Nurse’s watery prescription for research

Student Achievement in the Digital Age: How emergent technologies can enhance the academic experience

I’m presenting at The Northern Universities Consortium (NUCCAT) annual conference in Manchester tomorrow.

The abstract I agreed in appended below, alongside the key points that I will try to make about the issues and practices that are affecting how higher education institutions address the intersection of student achievement (with a proxy of future earnings and employability), digital transformation (in order to generate economic growth/productivity), and the wider academic experience (bridging institutional/social spaces and the public/private).


This discussion will highlight educational developments in student and staff digital literacy. It will highlight some of the good, bad and ugly institutional considerations that emerge from international project-work on: technology-enabled, alternative forms of accreditation such as open badges; learning analytics and data mining; education-as-a-service rooted in cloud computing; student-as-producer, connected to personalisation and content creation/curation; and digital footprint and professional identity.

The examples developed will focus upon both institutional and hosted solutions, like Blackboard, Moodle, WordPress and Turnitin, alongside technologies used for non-institutional, informal learning. The institutional and individual implications of these innovations will be related to strategies for professional development, technology and data infrastructures, and governance/legal issues. As a result participants will be asked to consider how their own practices might be affected, and what they might do as a result.

Key Points

ONE. I will discuss an institutional space that is framed in three ways. The first relates to digital transformation and productivity, as it emerges from the policy space for higher education. The second asks us to reconsider which students’ academic experiences are we referring, when we talk about achievement and enhancement? The third tries to situate the relationship between technologies and student achievement, against emergent pedagogical practices.

TWO. [slide 5] The policy/practice space for English HE and technology is being reduced to discussions about performance and productivity related to teaching intensity, student commitment to learning, and the nature of the institutional learning environment (c.f. HE Green Paper). These discussions are shaped by HM Treasury Productivity Plan, which grafts education onto ideas of digital transformation and market-led disruption of established positions. Together these two policy documents situate the relationship between education and technology in terms of human capital theory. The Small Business, Enterprise and Employability Act (2015) includes a section on ‘Education Evaluation’ that promotes human capital development (skills, expertise, employability, intellectual capital, entrepreneurialism and so on), as a catalyst for further financialisation and market-driven innovation [see slide 5 and David Willetts’ view of technology and educational disruption].

The terrain of English HE is also affected by trade liberalisation and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Innovation Partnership, through which education services are likely to be in-scope. This matters because technology enables and is enabled by a rich, transnational ecosystem that involves: academics; publishers; HE institutions; venture capital; non-profits [see slide 6, on the MOOC Universe]. In supporting institutions in making sense of this shifting terrain, Jisc is working on building digital capability with a focus on digital leadership, digital pedagogy/literacy, and digital efficiencies. Here institutions are thinking less about technologies (Blackboard, WordPress, Turnitin, whatever), and instead are thinking about services for students (Replay, Social, Assessment, Learning Resources etc.).

THREE. [slide 7] The interactions between policy and practice change the contexts that enable student achievement, both inside and outside the institution. These contexts are rooted in ideas of “intensity”, “productivity” and “gain”. In order to deliver these, institutions are thinking less about technologies and more about aggregated services for students and staff. These include the following.

  • Data services: learning analytics; open data; c.f. emerging concerns over The Patriot Act, Safe Harbour, and information governance
  • Replay/Learning Content: open repositories; enterprise reading lists; multimedia
  • Accreditation: open badges; e-portfolios; competency-based accreditation
  • Personalisation: universal design for learning; assistive technologies; productivity tools; mobile
  • Social: open education (MOOCs); cloud-based services

FOUR. [slides 8-13] There is a hegemonic or dominant view of students that emerges through the imposition of specific technologies as universal for learning, teaching, and assessment (e.g. learning management systems like Blackboard, multimedia tools like Panopto, or assessment tools like Turnitin). This applies across all levels and for all students, in spite of the developmental basis of those technologies and the enterprise implementation of them.

However, we might question whether these technologies, and our related pedagogic approaches [flipped classroom, bring your own device, universal design for learning, and so on] are enhancing the academic experience of specific students and therefore alienating/disabling others?

The dominant, universal narrative of technology is connected to universal ideas of “progress”, “efficiency”, “employability”. Thus, Pearson speak of technologies in an ecosystem that is: more global; more mobile; holistic; being absolutely obsessed with learning outcomes. Here emergent technologies are linked to the production and circulation of data, which dominates the landscape.

There are important, alternative uses of technology outside formal HE. One such is ds106 (digital storytelling 106), which enables community-based, transnational learning and accreditation. The ds106 space is user-created and curated, and connects to issues of: student-produced, multimedia content; collectively-produced and assessed student outputs or products; the ability to remix and repurpose content, including assessments; alternative forms of accreditation, including open, peer reviewed badging for skills, practices and literacies; and, the relationship between accredited activities and activities that enable sharing of the studet experience (e.g. a radio station).

A more militant story is told by student groups inside formal HE, which are forcing institutions to confront the legacies of colonialism and a racialised curriculum. These include the Why is My Curriculum White? and Rhodes Must Fall Collectives. They force us to question whether emergent technologies can enhance the academic experience for all students, if we do not understand the range of those experience. Does our use of technologies reinforce specific world views and cultural perceptions? How might we use them to challenge established forms of learning, teaching and assessment? For example, how does the digital content that we make available shape a particular, cultural frame of reference? Do our strategies for multimedia enhancement, like lecture capture (an awful phrase), risk some students being unable to speak in class, because they fear being recorded? Do our strategies for e-assessment increase stress on some groups of students?

FIVE. [slides 14-24] The relationship between emergent technologies and student achievement is shaped in a number of ways. I will focus on four.

The first is the increasing complexity of ecosystems available inside and beyond formal HE. This means that institutions are looking to create services for the delivery of: content; assessment; multimedia; social learning; personalised data/information. These are developed digitally, and mean that institutions are extending the backbone of their learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard) through: assessment tools (e.g. Turnitin); social tools (e.g. WordPress/academic commons, plus Campus Pack); interaction tools (e.g. PollEverywhere, TurningPoint, DisplayNote); content tools (e.g. Panopto, Talis Reading Lists); Productivity Tools (e.g. Google Drive, Office365); and collaboration tools (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate, MS Lync, Skype). This is mapped historically for DMU here and here. However, note that Blackboard have a range of platforms (technologies) in Learn, Collaborate, Connect, Mobile an Analytics, which themselves connect to other services (e.g. assessment and feedback).

The second is competency-based learning, like standardised testing, and which can be modelled and enable normalisation and sharing across programmes in different institutions. Here digital transformation grounded in data and content architectures, and e-assessment and e-feedback policies, map onto and potentially change pedagogic practices. Issues of academic autonomy, and tensions between what assessment is to measure and why are live.

The third is the ability to connect institutional and public/personal technologies, so that students and staff can operate across boundaries. This is a more networked approach, witnessed in public good projects like DMU’s Square Mile, and in the Domain of One’s Own project at University of Mary Washington. However, it also needs higher levels of digital literacy amongst staff and students, in order to engage with issue of professionalism, privacy, data protection and interoperability/sharing. It is also affected by institutional policies for social media use and codes of conduct/regulations.

The final point is digital transformation, which emerges from partnerships between HE and technology forms, but also from innovations in network/storage and communications. These innovations are rooted in flows of data and content, and a widening of communications channels, and they tend to blur the boundaries between the institution and the public space (e.g. in the idea of the Cloud). As a result they impact staff and student digital literacy (the skills, knowledge and practices that an individual or community can utilise to work on-line). The Digilit Leicester project is an example of wide-ranging digital, educational change.

SIX. I end with four caveats.

  • Think about data governance at all levels, especially in light of the EU ruling on safe harbour.
  • Think about how to support staff and student management of their own digital identity and footprint, for instance focused upon issues of professionalism and e-safety.
  • Think about digital privacy, for instance student/staff rights to anonymity in spaces that are to be recorded. Do technologies affect our ability to create safe spaces for dialogue?
  • Think about digital literacy, for instance the alignment of staff/student digital skills and practices.

against teaching intensity

My reading of the Higher Education Green paper sits alongside that of the Universities and Colleges Union, with its highlighting of the critical absence of staff inside education policy. My reading emerges against the UK Treasury’s Productivity Plan, Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation, which stresses the important of human capital intensity. This is a key theme that underpins the Green Paper, and is a central site of potential refusal by academics and students, with pedagogic engagement as a point of departure. My reading is then situated through recent work on social reproduction and the crisis of sociability that is enforced through the hegemony of marketization and financialisation, and which is realised as exploited and alienated academic labour.

Whilst the sector has been used as a means to enforce primitive accumulation, for instance in international markets, it is also being structurally adjusted through the processes of real subsumption. There are vanguards of academics and students who have already experienced and refused these processes and to whom we might listen in becoming our own moments of refusal. In the process we might refuse to compromise with the Government in its measurement and monitoring of academic labour and in its reduction of teaching to ideas of excellence intensity that quantify the classroom. This is a reframing of the Green Paper in the broader, social context of refusal.

ONE. A note on productivity and the loss of time

Marx saw important interrelationships between the production of surplus-value and the length of the working day, the intensity of labour, and productivity (the productiveness of labour).

[W]e have seen that the relative magnitudes of surplus-value and of price of labour-power are determined by three circumstances; (1) the length of the working-day, or the extensive magnitude of labour; (2) the normal intensity of labour, its intensive magnitude, whereby a given quantity of labour is expended in a given time; (3) the productiveness of labour, whereby the same quantum of labour yields, in a given time, a greater or less quantum of product, dependent on the degree of development in the conditions of production.

Here the management and intensity of work-time and free-time become a key terrain of struggle between Capital and Labour. However, the struggle is itself re-shaped by both competition and the stimulation of new, tradable needs and desires, which push the forces of production and the relations of production into tension. This underscores the tensions that emerge from Marx’s ‘Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

In Capital, Marx described these tensions in terms of: first, ‘enforcing economy in each individual business’; and second

by its anarchical system of competition, the most outrageous squandering of labour-power and of the social means of production, not to mention the creation of a vast number of employments, at present indispensable, but in themselves superfluous.

Much of our toil is superfluous to the purpose of meeting our basic needs. Instead we are compelled to generate an ever-expanding range of services or products, and to chase them into new terrains or markets. As wasteful is the realisation that we aim to become more productive in the hope that we will have more free time, and yet the system colonises and co-opts that free time, and enforces yet more productivity. We are subjected to increasing levels of excellence intensity of labour across our working lives. And this intensity of labour underscores the desperate search for surplus-value and its materialisation as profit. As a result, Marx argued that we witness how

In capitalist society spare time is acquired for one class by converting the whole life-time of the masses into labour time.

TWO. The Treasury, human capital and productivity

HM Treasury of the UK Government have attempted to re-frame the struggle between the material, productive forces of society and the existing relations of production, through its productivity plan: Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation. The Plan centres productivity and intensified work on an ideological terrain that situates our means of reproducing society or our social relationships, solely through work. All of life is our duty to capitalist work.

Productivity is the challenge of our time. It is what makes nations stronger, and families richer.

The drivers of productivity are well understood: a dynamic, open enterprising economy supported by long-term public and private investment in infrastructure, skills and science. A nation flourishes when it uses the full skills of all its people in all parts of that nation. (p. 1)

The Productivity Plan is central to an analysis of the HE Green Paper, which situates higher learning through human capital theory. This is a critical insight flowing from Andrew McGettigan’s work on The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment, which sees ‘undergraduate study as a stratified, unequal, positional good dominating future opportunities and outcomes.’ Thus, the Treasury argue (p. 8) that

Our excellent university sector cannot be kept competitive, and open to all who can benefit, unless we make hard choices about funding.

These hard choices are foregrounded here as the Teaching Excellence Framework [TEF] ‘to sharpen incentives for providing an outstanding education to students’, and also increased competition from new entrants to the HE market to ‘deliver better value for money’.

Investment is an essential part of raising productivity. In today’s economy that is not simply a matter of increasing the stock of machines, equipment and essential physical infrastructure but also, crucially, the development of human and intellectual capital. (p. 15)

The TEF is therefore a critical moment of real subsumption that intensifies academic activities, in terms of how the curriculum is structured and delivered, and how it is monitored. The TEF ‘will inform student decision-making, continue to support a high average wage premium for graduates and ensure that students’ hard-won qualifications keep their value over time’ (p. 28). Thus, as John Holmwood argues for the Green Paper, we might note that the Plan ‘represents the familiar neo-liberal package of de-regulation via markets together with strong central direction’, which reinvents work/Academia itself ‘increasingly [as] a ‘Big Data’ project’. In the case of Academia the contexts for this project are now both teaching and research.

In terms of readjusting the relations of production, the Plan hollows out a space to be governed by a modern competition toolkit and the active choices of consumers.

Competitive markets are fundamental to fostering productivity growth. They compel firms to be more efficient and innovative, allow new businesses to enter markets and ensure that the best firms grow (p. 59).

During the last Parliament, the government created the independent Competition and Markets Authority [CMA], bringing existing competition authorities into a more streamlined body and modernising the competition toolkit. The government’s role is to ensure that the regime continues to be amongst the best in the world… to ensure that consumer enforcement capability effectively supports competition and better regulation objectives (p. 60).

The disruption of cultural norms that have been negotiated over time is central to this approach. The Plan’s digital-determinism (and the re-focusing on Digital Transformation) sits at the centre of a desire to break-up unproductive positions and to forge industry transformation. In part this is by breaking established labour relations. In part it is situated through transnational engagements between service providers like universities, and service innovators like communications and infrastructure corporations, or financiers like venture capitalists. These new transnational associations, pivoting around enterprise are ‘driving productivity by ensuring that firms continually strive to improve their efficiency and better meet customers’ needs’ (p. 61). The transnational imperatives of such innovations are central to the Plan’s proposals for exports and international markets, but also to ‘further trade liberalisation’, including The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) (p. 67).

Yet, as Holmwood notes for the HE Green Paper, it elides enterprise, active consumption and growth, whilst ignoring the structuring realities of an economy rooted in precarious employment and debt:

All values are reduced to economic values, but in place of a promise to re-balance the economy, the economy is increasingly directed toward short-term profits and financialisation. Economic inequalities widen, the proportion of ‘graduate jobs’ declines, and the claim that this can help increase social mobility is increasingly hollow.

However, the Treasury view situates these entrepreneurial processes of financialisation and marketization inside the drive for public sector productivity rooted in the needs of employers. Moreover, it ties efficiencies to issues of labour intensity that are shaped by Single Departmental Plans, ‘which will identify key priorities for every department, and will act as a vehicle to link inputs to outputs’ (p. 75). The Plan notes that November’s Spending Review will focus attention on: service redesign and value-for-money; restructuring organisation and workforce; and prioritising technology and data. In part this is a response to a perception of poor decisions ‘about resource allocation across the economy, preventing capital and labour from finding their most productive uses and weighing on productivity growth’ (p. 76). However, it is also a response to ‘the relatively low cost of labour since the crisis [that] may have led firms to substitute away from investment, reducing the effective amount of capital workers can use and thus reducing productivity’ (p. 76).

The Plan places universities squarely in the frontline of this restructuring around service redesign, workforce, and technology/data. Here the key is productivity that emerges from a freeing up of the market, so that capital and labour can flow between sectors or across sectors, and so that new associations of capitals or businesses emerge. Here service redesign is a function of HE providers working in partnership with hedge funds, publishers, technology corporations, and so on, so that capital can be reallocated. Productivity also emerges from efficiencies that emerge inside and across existing providers, whereby human capital might be reallocated. Critically, for the health of the economy as a whole, the Plan supports

disruptive innovators and ensures competitive pressure on the tail of low productivity firms. This requires an open economy with flexible and competitive markets, where expanding firms can access the labour, land and finance they need (p. 81).

Open intensity. A productive life. Life as work. The new normal.

THREE. Teaching Excellence Intensity

HM Government’s Green Paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, looks to enact the Productivity Plan inside English HE, and roots its proposals as the denial of a history of work on teaching quality and quality enhancement. It collapses the contexts of struggles over: teaching and pedagogy; existing educational inputs and outputs; the idea that students are purchasers, consumers and/or producers; and determinants of value for money that are held by families as purchasers, taxpayers as underwriters, and employers as innovators. These contexts are collapsed onto one ideological terrain that seeks to delegitimise alternative conceptualisations of HE.

The HE Green paper amplifies the roll-out (c.f Stephen Ball) of a specific neoliberal agenda, which has a long ideological lineage, through which the terrain for the marketization of everyday life was prepared. In English HE this is witnessed in the recent history of: the move of universities and HE into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; the raising of fees under New Labour; the Browne Review; the ramping-up of fees, and the HE White Paper under the Coalition. These moments normalised the idea of mass HE rooted in active consumer choice and open data, career-ready human capital, and global competition (p. 10). Thus, these moments prepare Academia for short-term productivity fixes that are rooted in bureaucracy, and which demand that students and academics surveil and monitor themselves, in the name of:

the development of a positive work ethic, so that they can contribute more effectively to our efforts to boost the productivity of the UK economy (p. 11).

This is a productivity that is shaped by:

(1) the length of the [academic] working-day, or the extensive magnitude of [academic] labour; (2) the normal intensity of [academic] labour, its intensive magnitude, whereby a given quantity of [academic] labour is expended in a given time; (3) the productiveness of [academic] labour, whereby the same quantum of [academic] labour yields, in a given time, a greater or less quantum of product, dependent on the degree of development in the conditions of [academic] production.

In order to develop the forces of academic production, active consumer choice is central, and this emerges against data about ‘Course quality, teaching intensity and contact hours’ (p. 11). Entrepreneurial intensity is central to this prescription for academic productivity. UCU’s response presents a counter-narrative that teaching is an inclusive, collegial endeavour, and that is enriched through peer-review, and which depends upon the labour conditions of both teachers and students.

Everyone recognises the need for high quality teaching, but unless government places staff at the centre of the process and addresses underlying issues like casualisation, low status of teaching, lack of career progression and lack of funding, the green paper is unlikely to achieve its stated objectives

This focus on the Green paper as an attack on labour rights and conditions of work, designed to drive service redesign and workforce efficiencies, questions whether, as David Kernohan notes, ‘the TEF can become a [] vehicle for a community of interest based around a common idea’, without being centred around academic labour struggles. In particular, this is because academic labour and teaching intensity are rooted in attempts to de-professionalise HE. As UCU note, any TEF will be transplanted onto a fractured terrain.

Temporary contract working is endemic across UK higher education, with 69,000 (43%) out of a total of 161,000 contracted academic staff on non-permanent contracts. Among 40,000 teaching only staff, 29,435 (73%) have non-permanent contracts. These figures do not include the 75,000 so called ‘atypical’ academic staff who are also largely engaged in teaching but who are usually employed only on an as and when basis and have little access to CPD, career development or other scholarship opportunities

These data about teaching excellence intensity might enable conversations about: the precarious, indentured reality of English HE; how tuition fees are spent (p. 12), which discusses the labour costs of the work of students as well as staff, and then re-opens debates about wages for schoolwork; HE as exchange-value and tradable asset, rather than publically- or socially-useful value; changes to behaviour that are grounded in interpretations of projections about future earnings, which are themselves historically-hedged; changes that emerge from inside pedagogic relationships and through the curriculum; and a desire to limit higher learning to data and value-for-money:

The TEF will increase students’ understanding of what they are getting for their money and improve the value they derive from their investment, protecting the interest of the taxpayer who supports the system through provision of student loans. It should also provide better signalling for employers as to which providers they can trust to produce highly skilled graduates. (pp. 12-13)

This is the proposed structural adjustment of HE to meet the needs of the Treasury’s Productivity Plan.

Information about the quality of teaching is also vital to UK productivity. In an increasingly globalised world, the highest returns go to the individuals and economies with the highest skills. However, the absence of information about the quality of courses, subjects covered and skills gained makes it difficult for employers to identify and recruit graduates with the right level of skills and harder for providers to know how to develop and improve their courses. (p. 19)

TEF should also prove a good deal for employers and the taxpayer. The aim is to improve the teaching that students receive, which in turn should increase their productivity and help them secure better jobs and careers. It should enable employers to make more informed choices about the graduates they recruit… With higher returns, more graduates will be able to pay back more of their loans, reducing the amount that needs to be subsidised by the taxpayer in the longer term. This is on top of the benefits to taxpayers from having a stronger economy powered by a higher skilled workforce. (p. 21)

This is the excellence intensification of academic labour rooted in a restructuring of the relations of production through explicit connections to active consumer choice and a functioning competition and markets authority (p. 27), which can ensure that the HE terrain is opened-up for trade liberalisation and the TTIP. As Datta has argued, TTIP is pivotal because it protects access to the market for corporations operating across borders. Moreover, the UK Government has made no reservations to the application of these protections in education, and indeed the coupling of the Green Paper and the Productivity Plan to TTIP mean that ‘the experiment in the market operation of the higher education sector could potentially be irreversible’.

The last leaked draft of TTIP is expressed as applying to services which are performed commercially. In an education market which is characterised by a mixed economy of both privately and publicly funded, profit-making and non-profit making institutions, education services are likely to be treated as within the scope of the TTIP treaty.

The excellence intensification of academic labour is shaped by three aspects (p. 32): teaching quality (TEF); learning environment [which demands that universities open themselves up to part-privatisation for the service redesign and workforce efficiencies of the Productivity Plan]; and student outcomes and learning gain [data]. This is Holmwood’s Academia as big data project amplified by human capital intensity, alongside the incorporation of ‘new common metrics on engagement with study (including teaching intensity) and learning gain, once they are sufficiently robust and available on a comparable basis’. This is not just the excellence intensity of work, but the intensity of motivation to work. It is also the shaming of those who do not enhance ‘Student commitment to learning – including appropriate pedagogical approaches’, or ‘Teaching intensity – measures might include time spent studying, as measured in the UK Engagement Surveys, proportion of total staff time spent on teaching’ (p. 32).

It is important students have information about the composition of the course, including contact hours, to help them make informed choices about the course they choose to study. The CMA identified this as being material information likely to be required by the Consumer Protection Regulations, and as part of the payment, service delivery and performance information required to be provided pre-contract under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations. (p. 32)

In order to avoid metricide, or the inability to financialise positive outputs/outcomes because of poor data, competition will compel universities to drive down on staff working conditions, including new workload arrangements and increased surveillance of teaching, research and administration. As Andrew McGettigan has noted ‘if you work in HE, then pay bargaining is going to be a dismal business for the foreseeable.’

We are therefore pushed towards the acceptance of further state-sponsored privatisation of HE. This is not re-imagining the university through learning, teaching or pedagogy, but an unmaking of the university in the name of service redesign, workforce restructuring/efficiency and global, high-tech enterprise. This is HE deterritorialised for productivity, so that only those [academics, students, institutions] ‘that innovate and present a more compelling value proposition to students will be able to increase their share’ (p. 54). As a result what emerges from the Green Paper is an assault on collective work: the collective work of students unions; and of the collective work of students and staff as academic labour. Instead we are forced into asymmetrical relationship to the reality of our fetishized and rugged individualism in the market. Here our pedagogic decisions and the relationships that flow from them are to be governed by the TTIP, the CMA and the proposed Office for Students.

FOUR. Value-for-money: there is no alternative.

This policy space is further constrained by money, and in particular cash-flow forecasts and the need to generate operating and investment surpluses. As noted by HEFCE in its Financial health of the higher education sector, 2014-15 to 2017-18 forecasts ‘relatively small changes in key assumptions can have a significant impact on an HEI’s ability to generate surpluses’ (p. 1). This shifting terrain of short-term signals being shaped by active consumer choice and competition is overlain onto a

trend of falling liquidity (cash) and increasing sector borrowing… The sector expects its liquid funds to fall from £7.7 billion as at 31 July 2014 to £5.0 billion as at 31 July 2018, equivalent to 67 days of expenditure; the lowest level reported since 31 July 2006. At the same time, the sector expects borrowing to increase from £6.7 billion at the end of July 2014 to £9.2 billion at the end of July 2018, by which time the sector would be in a net debt position of £4.1 billion. The trend of increasing borrowing and reducing liquidity is unsustainable in the long term. (p. 2)

Crucially, the Financial Health report notes that as ‘charities, HE institutions are obligated to ensure that they remain sustainable and do not expose themselves to undue risk. Strong liquidity is particularly important given the level of uncertainty and risk that currently exist in the sector’ (p. 2). Yet as McGettigan notes, the corporate forms of English universities and their relation to finance capital have been continually questioned.

In 2013, a government report on HE as an export suggested that universities should consider whether charitable status (and ‘objects’) had outlived its usefulness. [He quotes]

Although this [charitable status] model has many strengths, it does not lend itself to rapid growth. The governance structures and obligations of charities, or of bodies of similarly ancient pedigree established by Royal Charter or equivalent instruments, were not designed to grow rapidly, or to run a network across the world.

This trails the Green Paper’s questioning of the governance arrangements of universities so that they better reflect business needs (p. 68), and which then enable engagement with venture capital. This potentially connects to HEFCE’s argument that ‘forecasts assume that the capital markets continue to have confidence in the sector, which depends upon their risk assessments of the sector and individual HEIs’ (p. 3), and the Green paper’s focus on weak or low-quality providers exiting the market, in order that the sector can leverage confidence and finance. As McGettigan notes elsewhere, the real significance of the Green Paper may turn on the proposed changes to the corporate form and governance structures of universities, by enabling private and venture capital to establish associations or joint ventures. Through governance and corporate form, the relations of production across the sector are to be recalibrated, so that teaching excellence intensity can be normalised. Thus, HEFCE’s warning (p. 26) that ‘The reduction in cash balances, the increase in borrowings, and the increasing volatility of income streams point to an increase in finance risk’, folds pedagogic practices and the framing of teaching excellence inside a wider struggle over the financial viability of the sector and of academic labour.

FIVE. What is to be done?

Martin McQuillan asks:

is there any voice today that has the political credibility and intellectual capacity to offer an alternative vision for universities in England? Will one emerge from within the sector? University leaders should not be distracted by the shiny new bauble of achieving Level 4 TEF status. As custodians of our universities they need to think about what is best for higher education in England. Is it really the end of the post-war dispensation of public institutions and public service and the opening up of those institutions to global equity capital? There is a choice to be made here and it is a more profound one than our next mobile phone provider.

Responses from UniversitiesUK, and groups like Million+ and the Russell Group would suggest forms of compromise. Equally, the inability of groups like the Association of National Teaching Fellows to reconcile student work as a form of academic labour that might have points of solidarity with the work of academics, means that notionally professional groups are unable to confront the crisis of social reproduction that is the enclosure and marketization of HE. Moreover, as Kernohan and McQuillan note, the Green Paper either targets managers in the performance management of staff through the data-driven normalisation of practice, or it enforces structural adjustment inside institutions so that more students can be recruited and taught more efficiently. Hence we witness the abundance of technological innovations designed to reproduce the learning environment as a precursor for the restructuring that will be required in order to deliver learning gain. Here is the terrain over which collectivised teaching excellence will be lost to individuated teaching intensity.

The most meaningful questions emerge from the labour movement, from specific student groups, or from academic associations that attempt to make concrete the lived reality of Government reforms, for instance in terms of student debt or academic precarity.

Bringing in experts, we ask: what are income-contingent loans, who profits from your debt, how does the experience of having debt affect student wellbeing and life chances, and in what ways do fear of debt and the types of loans that are sold to students perpetuate inequalities? We also hear from activists on how debt can be resisted and how we can move from the idea of individual responsibility to collective action.

Students in debt

The document’s logic has “students” at the heart of the system. If and only if those students can afford to pay higher fees, study full-time, and what they want is what employers want.

Sorana Vieru

And in a terrain that is described fiscally, where money is the critical and universal reference point for academic value that is itself immanent to future earnings, it becomes difficult if not impossible to imagine, as Emran Mian argues, ‘that university teachers can choose how to influence these metrics positively, in dialogue with other subject specialists.’ The political economics are increasingly loaded against academic labour in its relationship with institutional managers who, as McQuillan argues elsewhere, are invoking a disciplinary framework designed to break collective bargaining and collective working arrangements. Moreover, even if, as Mian notes, ‘university teachers take the lead on talking and responding to their students – they’re much closer, if you like, to the critical market-moving information’, it is unclear how such depoliticised talking will trump the governing power of performance metrics that militate against the messy and complex realities of the delivery of the curriculum. It is particularly unclear how this will play-out in the face of the reproduction of an increasingly precariously employed, efficiency-scarred, technologized and redesigned academic labour force. As a result, such talking risks becoming a form of hedging against the quantified curriculum, rather than emerging over time through classroom relationships. In any case, those relationships will be increasingly and intensively squeezed by managers gaming the TEF.

SIX. On the crisis of academic sociability

There is increasing emphasis being placed on the global crisis of sociability that is Capital’s inability to re-establish stable forms of accumulation. This crisis is one of social reproduction that amplifies and exacerbates the worst excesses of the market.

  • It is witnessed through the frame of care-based work, which enables individuals to be reproduced or to get some of their physical needs met (childcare, housework, and so on), by outsourcing it to family members or employees, so that wage-earners can return to the market each day to sell their labour. This work of care is gendered and racialized.
  • It is witnessed through increasingly precarious employment, the assault on social security, State repression of marginalised groups, unaffordable rents, mental health crises, lack of access to basic amenities including water and healthcare, and disciplinary policing.
  • It is witnessed in the rise of companies purportedly involved in the sharing economy like Uber, AirBnB, TaskRabbit and Postmates, which enable a digital transformation of sectors of the economy whilst failing to provide any form of social security or employment rights.
  • It is witnessed in the inability of indebted individuals and States to lift externally-imposed capital controls, and in the profusion of anti-labour trades union legislation.
  • It is witnessed in the increasing failure of the curriculum across the globe to respond to its racialized nature, leading to academic struggles like #rhodesmustfall, #millionstudentmarch and #whyismycurriculumwhite. In large part these struggles are fuelled by the indignation of students of colour against the on-going colonial condition of the university as an export strategy for specific hegemonies.

This is the separation of workers from their means of subsistence or reproduction, or the increasingly precarious state of that separation, which legitimises particular voices, such as those promoting intensity/productivity/excellence. Keir Milburn argues that this ‘subordinates you to a timing and framing determined by someone else’s strategy’.

As Devi Sacchetto argues, this applies transnationally because ‘The geography of production is now organized in different areas depending on the kind of commodities that are produced and on the lead and sub-contracting firms’. Thus, it applies across HE because the university is being reconstituted as the producer of commodities rather than relationships and practices, in-part through changes to its corporate form and governance that usher in new joint ventures.

In response to the generalised (non-HE) crisis of sociability, there has been a call for the social strike, as a means of generating alternative political actions rooted in solidarity across social relationships. Such actions connect society and the factory through the critique of social conditions that tend to immiserate.

Overcoming the limits of present forms of organization means to cut across the artificial division between labour and social struggles, and to bring organization on a transnational level, coming to terms once for all with the fact that the national level of action is by now clearly insufficient to build an effective power. Labor and social struggles must find a common political ground of connection.

Final document from 1st Transnational Social Strike Meeting.

This is increasingly live because, as Alisa Del Re notes:

In Europe the reproduction of individuals is subject to a continuous fluctuation between “social” and “private.” The social is the space of direct manipulation, organized by laws, public expenditures, customs, and moral rules that crush the individual’s ability to desire. The private is coarsely idealized as the space of freedom, but in most cases it reveals itself as the dominion of neglect, misery, frustration, powerlessness, and loneliness.

It becomes important to ask how we might ‘organize vulnerability and turn it into political action’ on a scale large enough to enable new relations of social reproduction that respond less to the market and transnational prescriptions of what market freedom entails. Such a reimagining would focus upon a social reproduction that was rooted in equality between different human bodies, rather than being rooted in the equality of data flows. Such a reimagining has to find spaces inside the university, but increasingly it has to hear and propagate those alternatives that emerge beyond, in social centres or on the Commons, or in responses to austerity.

Thus, a critical response to the HE Green Paper is

making the new conditions visible, disrupting the circulation of capital and directly socialising, collectivising and communising our social relations, reproduction and struggles… Most obviously this involves striking (or otherwise acting) in ways that maximise feelings of collectivity and enhance general levels of sociability.

Keir Milburn

A social strike is a strike that occurs on multiple terrains and spaces. By this I mean it’s a strike that is not confined to one workplace, sector or locality. It’s not enacted by a single homogeneous subject but by a multitude of different subjects. It allows some fluidity in changing from one identity to another, say from worker to mother to student and back again. It isn’t defined by the singular identity of worker, a worker that is always a worker regardless of the multiple other demands from other ‘roles’. After all work is omnipresent, it continues long after we leave our official places of work, we work as producers but also we work on the other side of the relationship, as consumers, as clients and service providers. The social strike offers the possibility of building up relationships of solidarity, communication, knowledge, and shared culture, and in doing so recognising their importance in twenty-first century class formation. To be able to strike today means we cannot strike on only one terrain. To disrupt the flow of capital  we need to block all of its avenues – both metaphorically and literally.

Alex Long

Thus, working to situate the restructuring of HE against other social strikes and directional demands, forms one means of pushing-back against the ideas of teaching excellence intensification and of staff/students reduced to human capital. Such moments of solidarity are intentionally counter-hegemonic and would highlight how so much of social [academic] reproduction is predicated on voluntary, unwaged labour, such as that enacted in the home or by students, or by precariously employed labour. Such moments of solidarity would be rooted in specific, social and directional demands grounded potentially in the liberation of free time beyond teaching or study intensity, or in the idea of debt-free education, or in a re-focusing of education on collective well-being, or in harnessing education to global emergencies like climate change. They would need to connect, in Bue Rübner Hansen’s terms, academics and students to ‘[a] constitutive heterogeneity of the exploited and expropriated populations of the world’, which recognises ‘the self-organization and composition of differences and particularly of different strategies of life and survival.’

In these terms, common struggle is critical in refusing the precepts of the Green Paper. Such common struggled would join with those who are calling for refusal of TTIP, beyond education and in terms of other social goods like healthcare. It would connect intergenerational refusals of debt and indenture, which are shackling families with debt so that they become competitive rather than co-operative. It would connect with others who are precariously employed, in order to work-up moments of refusal and negation, and to demonstrate alternatives. Critically, Hansen notes, this is predicated upon collective work.

the practical task of class composition – which is necessary for posing the problem of the abolition of the proletarian condition concretely instead of remaining stuck in mutual competition and abstract hope – consists in developing collective strategies of life and survival which either combine, supplement or make superfluous individualized forms of reproduction.

Here academics and students have a central role because

theory, considered as a part of such movements, is the active effort to disseminate strategies of combination and struggle, and of elaborating commons and transversal points of connection between different struggles. Taking seriously the fact that resistances and networks of solidarity preexist irruptions of open struggle means to go beyond the faith in spontaneity. This entails an ethics of militant, embedded research, knowledge production, and popular pedagogy, which proceeds through practices of collectively mapping of the possibilities of composition, and reflections on how to connect and extend networks of trust and solidarity. It implies sharing tools of organizing and tactics of struggle, taking measure of the rumors and whispers, and engaging in small struggles in ways that can help them transform fear and mistrust into courage and solidarity.

As Marx argued in the Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council of the First International, this implies aiding ‘every social and political movement tending in that [same] direction’.

It is impossible to reconcile the central conditions of the Green Paper and the Productivity Plan to non-marketised/financialised pedagogic relationships. This is the prescribed direction of travel that frames the classroom economically though relations of production that subjugate people, as human capital that can be made productive through discipline.

Discipline is basically the mechanism of power by which we come to exert control in the social body right down to the finest elements, by which we succeed in grabbing hold of the social atoms themselves, which is to say individuals. Techniques for the individualization of power. How to supervise [surveiller] someone, how to control his conduct, his behavior, his aptitudes, how to intensify his performance, multiply his capacities, how to put him in a place where he will be most useful: this is what I mean by discipline.

Michel Foucault, “The Mesh of Power.”

Revealing the increased disciplining of social reproduction reveals the crisis of sociability that infects HE, and yet it also offers directions for alternatives. At issue is how to connect opposition to teaching intensity and learning gain, to rent strikes and labour relations/rights inside the University (including those of students), alongside the fight for living wages and pension rights for professional services staff, and then beyond to the complex and heterogeneous global struggles for liberation. This means that ‘a lot of things need to be changed on the ground in order for a massive economic and political transformation to be possible’ (Steven Shaviro). But we have to begin somewhere.

The University and the Secular Crisis

I’ve had an article published in the Open Library of Humanities, based on my inaugural lecture. If you want to revisit those fun-times, you can do so here.

The article is also on “The University and the Secular Crisis”, and it can be accessed here. The abstract is as follows.

The economic crisis of 2008 was followed by a persistent recession, with low levels of growth, weak aggregate demand, and high levels of underemployment or unemployment. For several recent authors this forced an engagement with the idea that the global economy is witnessing a secular stagnation or crisis. This article is situated against the changing landscape of English HE and seeks to understand the implications of the secular crisis on that sector, and on the idea of the University. It examines how responses to the secular crisis have amplified the twin forces of marketization and financialisation that are reconstituting the higher education sector for the production, circulation and accumulation of value. It then places this analysis inside the political economic realities of there is no alternative to the logic of choice and competition. The argument is then made that as this cultural turn affects the idea of what the University is for, both historically and materially, academics and students need to consider the potential for developing post-capitalist alternatives. The central point is that by developing a critique of the restructuring of higher education and of the idea of the University through political economy, alternative forms of knowing and developing socially-useful practices can emerge.

Against Commodification: The University, Cognitive Capitalism and Emergent Technologies

Two edited collections, “Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism” and “Marx and the Political Economy of the Media“, have just been published by Brill.

With Bernd Stahl, I have a chapter in the latter called: Against Commodification: The University, Cognitive Capitalism and Emergent Technologies.

This is an updated version of an article that was published in 2012 in Triple-C.

Under the licence agreement, authors are allowed to put the final pdf of their chapter on their own websites but not into institutional repositories. So if there is something you like, hit the author’s (s’) site(s).

NOTE: paperback editions of the 2 books will be published in a year by Haymarket Press.

The abstract for mine and Bernd Stahl’s chapter is as follows.

This paper investigates how four specific emergent technologies, namely affective computing, augmented reality, cloud-based systems, and human machine symbiosis, demonstrate how technological innovation nurtured inside the University is commodified and fetishised under cognitive capitalism or immaterial labour, and how it thereby further enables capital to reproduce itself across the social factory. Marx’s critique of technologies, through their connection to nature, production, social relations and mental conceptions, and in direct relation to the labour process, demonstrates how capital utilises emergent technologies to incorporate labour further into its self-valorisation process as labour-power. The University life-world that includes research and development is a critical domain in which to site Marx’s structural technological critique, and it is argued that this enables a critique of the public development and deployment of these technologies to reveal them as a fetishised force of production, in order to re-politicise activity between students, teachers and the public.

On the Open Library of Humanities

I’m really excited to have become a Trustee for the Open Library of Humanities. Martin Eve and Caroline Edwards have been working tirelessly on developing financial/governance, technological, academic and social models for the OLH as an alternative, open access publishing platform for peer-reviewed work.

In Opening the OLH, Martin and Caroline note that:

in the age of digital reproduction the circulation of our academic humanities journals is decreasing (because our libraries cannot afford to subscribe in the face of an increasing volume of published material and hyper-inflationary journal price increases), even while we have the technological capacity to disseminate and preserve our work online. Meanwhile, the benefits of open access to the humanities disciplines are clear. Unless we extend access to our work to broader publics, our claims to engender critical thinking in the demos are ill founded.

This raises critical points about the interface between academic labour and its commodities, and both the institutions inside which academics work and the publishers who control much of the terrain through which that work is distributed. In the face of a changing political economic landscape of higher education, overlain by new technological infrastructures, the idea of academic labour as a communal or public good and its relationship to the demos, becomes central. This is especially the case in the face of socio-environmental and political crises.

The OLH begins a process of engaging academics with alternative economic, governance and infrastructural possibilities for securing access to their research. This process is messy and conflicted, but it is focused upon making something that is rooted in our social wealth and our sociability.

As with most dreams of universal education, though, there has often been staunch resistance in the humanities to open access. One of the principle reasons for this is that the economic models that are being implemented by traditional publishers are uniquely unsuited to our disciplinary areas. Article processing charges (APCs), in which authors or their institutions are asked to bear the entire labour costs (and any profit/surplus) of a publisher, become unaffordable in the humanities disciplines, as opposed to in our counterpart fields in the natural sciences where the model may work. The diversion of scant humanities funding to compensate lost profits for journal publishers undermines the claimed meritocratic nature of academic publishing as well as damaging the career prospects of those without recourse to such funding… What we have so far is the seed of a scalable model for journal transition to open access in the humanities that does not rely on payment from authors or readers.

You can find out more about the OLH here.

So far 101 institutions have signed up to support the federated model that the OLH describes. There is a list here.

The current OLH cost model, with information on institutional sign-up, is here.

Seven journals are now hosted on the OLH, including the OLH megajournal. Check out 19, an interdisciplinary studies journal on the long nineteenth-century. If you are an author you can submit here.

There is an important reference point for research integrity here, and about the connection with the REF here.

This is an important moment because it is about generating alternatives that are publically- or communally-facing, and which begin to push-back against the outsourcing of the distribution of knowledge to for-profit entities. In this way it forces a re-engagement with, or a re-questioning of, the purpose of academic labour, including its governance and financing. It forces us to ask questions about how and where we engage, and about the ways in which academics might work co-operatively in order to take back power-over the things/relationships that they produce.

Perhaps this is also a moment to think again about the collective, social, common wealth of our labours, and their social uses rather than their exchange-values. Perhaps we might then question how, rather than being a different form of appearance (for-profit) of the wealth that is produced through academic labour, open access (or openness) might instead enable a discussion about a different, concrete (as opposed to abstract) reality.


Becoming a Trustee of the OLH is also a really important, therapeutic moment for me. In 2011 I gave up being a Trustee of Birmingham Christmas Shelter, and being Deputy Chair of Governors at Forest Lodge Primary School in Leicester. I gave these roles up because doing a job outside of my full-time work was debilitating. Also, I was en route to a second breakdown and the weight of extra responsibility was too much. Four years later, I received an email asking me to consider becoming a Trustee on the day I found out I was accepted as an Independent Visitor for a looked-after child. Serendipity is an amazing thing. These two new roles are fundamental to a process of healing, and to anchoring the new, concrete narrative (of a life beyond anxiety) that I am trying to internalise.

learning gain and kettling academic labour

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths

Banquo, Act 1, Scene III, Macbeth.

“Kettling is a police tactic to control crowds where officers surround a group of people on all sides. In some instances, police direct protesters toward a predetermined location. As the crowd grows, the police presence tightens around them. Police control access to the location and decide how to allow people to leave, perhaps through a predetermined spot.”

CBC News. 2012. Crowd control: What is kettling?

Academic kettling is a management/policy tactic to control academics and students where management surround a group of people on all sides. In some instances, protesters are directed toward a predetermined location. As the crowd grows, performance management tightens around them. Management control access to the location and decide how to allow people to leave, perhaps through a predetermined spot.

And so it goes.

We witness a barrage of new public management techniques for internalising control and producing value. A bureaucracy for impact, learning gain, teaching excellence. Strategies for internationalisation, enterprise, employability, community, quality assurance.

We are told that everything pivots around the student experience, to the extent that we forget ourselves. And we begin to internalise value-added.

We are led towards learning gain, and fail to notice the noose of financialisation that is being prepared. That our hopes for student outcomes form their means of hedging against future performance.

We let ourselves believe that student outcomes will be too messy to translate into measures of teaching quality, against the lessons of history and the messages of their corporate reports.

We forget the lessons of league tables and performance management in secondary education, and the relentless testing that eviscerates self-actualisation beyond the market.

We forget that their learning gain can never be defined by us, and that we will be co-opted by them in our attempts to use it for good. We refuse to believe that we might refuse.

We refuse to believe that learning gain and teaching excellence are two sides of the same process of hyper-financialising education.

We forget that this is about labour rights. The labour rights of students as well as staff. We risk losing ourselves.

And so it goes.

what defines learning gain? variable human capital and the rule of money

p. xi “such measures can be seen as important to the debates about the quality and impact of higher education, how we evidence the value of investment in it, and how we evidence students’ skills acquisition for employers.”

p. xi “the concept of ‘learning gain’ is defined as the ‘distance travelled’, or the difference between the skills, competencies, content knowledge and personal development demonstrated by students at two points in time. This allows for a comparison of academic abilities and how participation in higher education has contributed to such intellectual development.”

This allows for a comparison of academic abilities and how participation in higher education has contributed to such intellectual development. A comparison between individuals, courses, institutions on a national and global scale. Your pedagogy as their financialised data. The market will decide, once the market has the data. And who will facilitate that process?

p. x “the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), working in partnership with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), commissioned RAND Europe.

p. xii-xiii “Learning gain measures… can also be used to support accountability, promote transparency and enable comparability of the outcomes of higher education”

beyond learning and the student experience

p. 2 “The learning gain in England project is influenced by two principal drivers, as detailed below.

1.1.1. Higher education financing mechanisms: “The change in funding arrangements and diversification of provision has contributed to greater pressure to justify to students, employers and governments increased investment in higher education.”

1.1.2. Quality and accountability in English higher education: “Changes in financing of higher education have also served both to underline the importance of quality in higher education, and position student choice as a key concern for the sector. Students’ expectations in terms of their course and experience are increasingly becoming a concern of universities and policy makers, and institutions have sought to provide more information to prospective students on the value of degrees…”

learning gain as a disciplinary tool, rooted in performance management and accountability

p. 12 “Indicators and measures of learning gain could also be used to help increase accountability in higher education (as they have in secondary education, for example) and could help governments justify value for money of investments in higher education to both students and other stakeholders.”

p. 14 “Comparison between student performance, disciplines, institutions and countries are all potentially valid uses of a measure of learning gain.”

McGrath, C..H., Guerin, B., Harte, E., Frearson, M. and Manville, C. 2015. Learning Gain in Higher Education. Cambridge: Rand Corporation.

learner excellence and labour rights

Phil Race: A5 #lthechat Learning gain is perhaps more about learner excellence than teaching excellence. Much learning happens without teaching anyway

Simon Lancaster: the more one understand’s about the practicalities the less likely to think it suitable for building league tables #LTHEchat

because those with power think it’s about human capital which is in itself de-humanising

p. 16 “higher education represents a critical factor in innovation and human capital development and plays a central role in the success and sustainability of the knowledge economy”

and this has to play out internationally and competitively because of rising costs, the rising organic composition of capital, and a globally falling rate of profit.

p. 26 “The first phenomenon of rising costs is a direct consequence of the expansion of higher education systems and wider participation, which have increased the financial burden of higher education as most countries have tried to expand their systems while limiting the adverse impact on unit costs and expenditure to maintain quality. Indeed higher education provision offers limited scope for economies of scale”

p. 26 “a second phenomenon of fiscal pressure to curb costs has arisen in many countries. Indeed, economic growth over the past two decades has been insufficient to sustain the rising costs of higher education resulting from massification in most countries across the globe”

p. 26 “the allocation of public funding for tertiary education is increasingly characterised by greater targeting of resources, performance-based funding, and competitive procedures.”

p. 28 “Competition has also been advocated as a tool to improve teaching quality, as well as institutions’ responsiveness to the needs of society, the labour market and students”

it’s producing and circulating data to signal social mobility and the autonomy of the market.

p. 28 “Signalling is an integral aspect of these increasingly competitive markets. Indeed, higher education has many features of an experience good, i.e. a service whose characteristics such as quality are difficult to observe prior to consumption. With such information asymmetry, consumers struggle with their consumption choices and reward reputation in the absence of more transparent measures of quality. Accordingly, HEIs as well as systems use a range of signals and marketing tools to showcase their worth and build their reputation… The emergence of global rankings and their growing importance is illustrative of this compelling search for signals and recognition”

and so we are told that we need learning gain and teaching excellence, as productivity tools

p. 30 “Performance indicators and external quality evaluations are an integral aspect of the new model of distant steering”

p. 31 “drop-out and underachievement incur economic costs as a result of lower returns to non-degree higher education compared to full degrees, while costs per student are the same in both cases… This raises questions about the scope for improving the “productivity” of higher education through targeted policies to enhance the quality of service provision, and as a consequence, students’ retention and success.”

p. 33 “most notably for the learning outcomes of higher education, while it would appear to be among the most important pieces of information on higher education, available data remains scarce in many systems”

p. 34 “a growing need has emerged to develop direct measures of learning outcomes to overcome the limitations of current proxies for the quality of teaching and learning”

p. 36 in the Bucharest Communiqué of Bologna Ministers in 2012: “To consolidate the European Higher Education Area, meaningful implementation of learning outcomes is needed. The development, understanding and practical use of learning outcomes is crucial to the success of ECTS, the Diploma Supplement, recognition, qualifications frameworks and quality assurance – all of which are interdependent”

p. 41 “Students’ learning outcomes are a key factor of institutional performance, and hence of aggregate system performance. While some indirect evidence can be gained from graduate destination surveys and student engagement surveys, to date, there are no instruments for international measurement.”

Tremblay, K., Lalancette, D., and Roseveare, D. 2015. Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes Feasibility Study Report Volume 1 – Design and Implementation. OECD.

and this will ensure a new hyper-financialised architecture for higher education or higher learning or higher pedagogy

“So the reforms we will set out in the green paper will improve teaching quality, empower students, open up the higher education market and drive value for money. To deliver our ambitions, we also plan to reform the higher education and research system architecture.

“We are a deregulatory government, and much of the higher education system is ripe for simplification… Our regulatory regime is still based upon a system where government directly funds institutions rather than reflecting the fact that students are the purchasers, and needful of all the protections that consumers of complex high value products receive in other regulated markets… Students are the primary source of income for undergraduate study, but their interests are insufficiently represented in our structures and systems.”

Johnson, J. 2015. Higher education: fulfilling our potential. BIS.

and this hyper-financialised architecture, rooted in reductionist approaches to outcomes and value-added and learning gain and efficacy, is being lobbied for and evidenced

p. 2 “It is increasingly possible to determine what works and what doesn’t in education, just as in healthcare. The elements of learning can be mapped out, the variables isolated and a measurable impact on learning predicted and delivered. This can be done at every level – a single lesson, a single individual, a classroom, an institution or a whole system. It can also be done for a product or service that’s designed to help people learn. As a result, there has been progress and there is now a real sense that we are on the brink of a revolution.”

because learning is about value and consumers, rather than humane values

p. 3 “things which are important, and which command a high level of investment, should be approached in a systematic, evidence-based fashion”

p. 4 “The expansion of education models that deliver measurably better outcomes, combined with the growing transparency of results, is leading to increased consumer expectations and demand for quality, as well as access.”

Fallon, J. 2013. Preface to Barber, M. and Rizvi, S (2013) Asking More: The Path to Efficacy. Pearson.

p. 42 “we intend to embed efficacy into the heart of our organisation. The key is to consider how to ensure that every major decision delivers both financial and learner outcomes”

Barber, M. and Rizvi, S., 2013. The Incomplete Guide to Delivering Learning Outcomes. Pearson.

and this is an anti-vision of higher education

p. 2 “The focus of policy has been the transformation of higher education into the private good of training and the positional good of opportunity, where the returns on both are higher earnings. Initiation into the production and dissemination of public knowledge? It does not appear to be a concern of current policy. Such an anti-vision of higher education – let the market determine what should be offered – unfortunately meshes with a stratified higher education sector which mirrors an increasingly unequal society.”

an anti-vision rooted in a disciplinary architecture of data and performance management

pp. 2-3 “Potential applicants to colleges and universities will in future benefit from information on the ‘employability and earnings’ of each institution’s alumni and alumnae. I quote:

[The measures] will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students.”

because the rule of money will dominate your pedagogy

p. 3 “If different degrees from different institutions result in very different levels of earnings for students with similar pre-university qualifications and from similar socio-economic backgrounds, then this might affect both student choice and policies designed to increase participation and improve social mobility.

That paragraph captures the two angles to this debate: it is not just applicants who want to know what their monetary return on further study might be. Moving beyond consumer choice, the government as lender is becoming increasingly concerned by the size of the subsidy built-in to the student loan scheme as the latter is buffeted by recession, low bank base rates, a troubling graduate labour market and earlier mistakes in the modelling of future repayments.”

your pedagogy reduced to human capital investment

p. 4 “The 2011 Higher Education White Paper presented undergraduate degrees as a human capital investment that benefits the private individual insofar as it enables that individual to boost future earnings. Universities and colleges are then to be judged on how well they provide training that does indeed boost earnings profiles. Such ‘value add’ would displace current statistical concoctions based on prior attainment and final degree classification. The key device is loans: they go out into the world and the manner in which they are repaid generates information. Graduates then become the bearers of the units of account by which HE performance is set into a system of accountability: ‘What level of repayments is this graduate of this course likely to produce over the next 35 years?’”

p. 5 “And here is the rub. The growing and unexpectedly large subsidy built into the current iteration of fee-loan regime points to that same problem: the government is not getting the maximum from borrowers or from universities”

p. 7 “the coming wave of ‘education evaluation’, threatens to supplant traditional understandings of universities as communities advancing public knowledge. Current regulations governing the awarding of degrees aver that standards are maintained and safeguarded only by the critical activity of the academic community within an institution. It will be harder and harder to recall that fact”

McGettigan, A. 2015. The Treasury View of HE: variable human capital investment. Goldsmiths: PERC.

and they need the data, so, you know, test everything

“The generic, non-subject-specific exams will be trialled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to evaluate whether they could be used to measure undergraduates’ “learning gain” – the improvement in skills and competencies made by students during their time at university.

“The results of any nationwide standardised test could also be used to compare institutional performance, and may form a key metric in the planned teaching excellence framework.”

Havergal, C. 2015. HEFCE to pilot standardised student tests. Times Higher Education.

This research shows there is a wide range of approaches to measuring learning among students in higher education. Understanding the methods and the results from these pilots will help assess teaching quality and excellence and ultimately provide better value for all students.

Johnson, J. 2015. In HEFCE, £4 million awarded to 12 projects to pilot measures of learning gain.

Learning gain, value for money, teaching excellence and quality assurance, as a regime of control. And architectures of control. Kettling academic labour.

p. 15 “A significant number of responses to the discussion document identified a need to undertake a major shift in quality assessment and assurance activity to focus more on student outcomes than institutional processes. The proposals in this consultation take such a shift in focus as essential if a quality assessment system is to be accountable to students and other stakeholders in the areas that matter to them.”

“this collection of student outcomes data will be important in two key areas:

  • its use within an individual provider at the heart of their mechanisms to drive continuous improvement in learning and teaching and in the student academic experience
  • its use by the relevant funding body to undertake routine monitoring of institutional performance as a way to identify signs of concern about that student academic experience.”

HEFCE. 2015. Quality Assurance Review.

‘Quality Assessment’ and Completing the Market in UK Higher Education

Over at The Disorder of Things, Lee Jones has posted a response made by 80 academics to HEFCE’s Review of Quality Assessment. I have added my name to this, and I am grateful to Lee for his leadership and energies on this response/refusal.

HEFCE proposes a radical shake-up of these arrangements. Its main ideas are as follows.

  • The funding bodies will shift from assessing quality directly to merely certifying HEIs’ own internal QA processes as meeting a ‘baseline quality’ threshold. This is described as a ‘light touch’ approach that would supposedly reduce the regulatory burden. The proposals are open-minded about whether any routine checks would ever be conducted once HEIs are certified with a proposed ‘kite mark’. HEIs’ governing bodies, which would assume overall responsibility for quality, would merely certify their ongoing compliance in annual reports. The QAA is apparently to be scrapped. But funders would ‘intervene’ rapidly if there is suspicion of a collapse in standards.
  • Internal QA would be guided by data on ‘student outcomes’, presented in an easy-to-follow format (though the proposals, for now, eschew ‘star ratings’ – that’s probably for the TEF). The proposed goal is ‘constant improvement’. This is presented alongside contradictory goals like curbing grade inflation. This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the proposals, as discussed further below.
  • The system of external examiners would be ‘professionalised’ (which assumes we are not already professionals). Externals would be trained and accredited by some additional body. While this is not quite an ‘OFSTED’ for HE, the tendency of the bureaucracy to expand to meet the growing needs of the bureaucracy means it could well evolve into an external inspectorate. At the very least it means external examiners are likely to become progressively divorced from the activities they are meant to be judging.
  • To help curb grade inflation, there are also calls for internal and external examiners to form (inter-)disciplinary groups to develop shared assessments of work – a sort of nationwide moderation process. The idea is to help police the pass/fail and 2(i)/2(ii) borderlines. Anyone who has ever marked assessments (i.e. virtually no one at HEFCE) will know that even expert judgements within a single department can vary substantially, but the notion here is that hundreds of academics working within very different traditions and environments with very different learning objectives can somehow agree definitively what constitutes a ‘59’ and what constitutes a ‘60’. At the very least, coupled with ‘professionalised’ external examination, this is likely to create pressures for curriculum standardisation.

Our response focuses upon the following.

  1. This is not a ‘light touch’ regime at all. The proposals would merely displace regulatory activity into HEIs themselves and into new regulative spaces such as the external examiner accreditation and macro-moderation bodies (which, of course, HEFCE does not wish even to fund).
  2. The proposals do not acknowledge that self-regulation in an era of markets always fuels over-compliance because of its inherent vagueness and because the reputational costs of non-compliance are potentially disastrous.
  3. These proposals seek to extend the marketisation of HE. Post-Browne, whilst the cap on fees was lifted to £9k, universities were expected to compete on price, driving ‘efficiency’. The provision of ‘Key Information Sets’ including earnings data for degree programmes would enable ‘consumers’ to make the ‘right’ choices about how to ‘invest’ in their ‘human capital’. The assumption was that students would only be willing to pay high prices for a high ‘return’ on their ‘investment’. Universities would accordingly be pressured into maximising the employability of graduates. Higher quality and institutions and subjects which offered more intellectual capital would expand, while lower-quality universities and ‘irrelevant’ subjects would contract.
  4. HEFCE’s QA proposals are an effort to disrupt this status quo by lowering barriers to ‘market entry’ for private providers and thereby trigger the price competition that has so far largely failed to materialise. HEFCE seeks to do this in two ways.
    • By relativising the notion of ‘quality’. HEFCE states that because there is growing ‘diversity of providers, provision, and students’, we should abandon a ‘one size fits all’ approach to quality. It suggests that ‘there are “student experiences” – and therefore different conceptions of “quality” – that could and should be determined by the mission of the provider, the type of provision, and the needs of the student.’
    • By making it easier for ‘new providers’ to attain and retain their accredited status. Rather than being exposed to ongoing inspections by the QAA, all they would need to do is demonstrate compliance with a low baseline and then self-certify thereafter (with or without a ‘probationary’ period included in the proposals).
    • NOTE: the rationale of all this is to deflate the notion of what constitutes ‘quality’ higher education in order to allow private providers who cannot meet current standards to enter the market. An example of what is presumably envisaged is Coventry University College Ltd (CUCL), a subsidiary of Coventry University. CUCL offers part-time degrees in vocational areas like law and accountancy. Its staff teach 40+ weeks per year and consequently are not engaged in research; most are not ‘academics’ but merely ‘deliver’ teaching. It students are denied access to facilities afforded to Coventry University students, like library borrowing rights or participation in the student union – justified explicitly on the grounds that such things are ‘added extras’ and not all students want the same ‘student experience’. As a result of shaving its provision and costs to the bone, CUCL charges fees below £6,000 per year.
  5. There is no reason to believe that price competition will benefit students or have any beneficial impact on quality. The whole logic of these proposals is to destroy an existing notion of ‘quality’ HE, defined by tough regulation and the historic culture of British universities, and introduce a variety of possible definitions of ‘quality’, some lower than the current definition. What is called a set of proposals on ‘quality assessment’ actually seeks to reduce average quality. This is a deliberate attempt to usher in a multiple-tier HE system with HEIs having ‘different missions’ and ‘different students’. The implication is clearly that it should be acceptable for some students to opt for cut-price, low-quality (sub-prime) HE if it meets a low baseline standard, and the low expectations of their particular ‘consumers’.
  6. We are concerned that private providers will specialise in cheap-to-provide vocational courses that are attractive to students seeking remunerative post-graduation employment. This will drain established HEIs of income that they currently use to cross-subsidise more expensive subjects. If universities are forced to compete on price, or lose market share, cross-subsidy may become impossible and render many departments financially unviable.
  7. Moreover, price competition can only be pursued by worsening the wages and conditions of staff.
  8. A final highly problematic element of the proposals is the use of data on ‘student outcomes’ as a proxy measure for teaching quality.

The reasons why using student outcomes data are wrong are outlined in an open letter on the Disorder of Things, which all academic colleagues are invited to sign.

on disorder and faith

Tied up in disgrace/How can we keep a man so long/Waiting for a fate/Stripped of all our hearts/Never dreamed we would belong/In a world, a world that’s just gone wrong

And if we try to stand alone/We’ll be playing with a force beyond control/Our faces pressed against the glass/In the knowledge you belong to us

Hot Chip. 2015. Need You Now.

You don’t have to stay in this game.

Mardy Fish, the former World Top 10 ranked tennis player, recently disclosed how anxiety had erupted inside his life. He went on to describe his debilitation as it subsequently disordered him. It begins at the US Open in 2012.

I am hours away from playing in the biggest tennis match of my life: the fourth round of the U.S. Open … on Labor Day … on my dad’s birthday … on Arthur Ashe … on CBS … against Roger Federer. I am hours away from playing the greatest player of all time, for a chance at my best-ever result, in my favorite tournament in the world. I am hours away from playing the match that you work for, that you sacrifice for, for an entire career.

And I can’t do it.

I literally can’t do it.

It’s early afternoon; I’m in the transportation car on my way to the courts.

And I am having an anxiety attack.

Actually, I’m having several anxiety attacks — at first, one every 15 minutes or so, but pretty soon every 10. My mind starts spiraling. I’m just freaking out.

My wife is asking me, “What can we do? What can we do? How can we make this better?”

And I tell her the truth: “The only thing that makes me feel better right now … is the idea of not playing this match.”

She hesitates, and looks at me for a second, to make sure I’m serious. I am serious. This isn’t me thinking — this me reacting, feeling, trying to survive. She answers plainly. “Well, then, you shouldn’t play. You don’t have to play. Just… don’t play.”

You don’t have to stay in this game.

look at what they make us give

Friday 5 April 2013. A year after my Mom’s death. I’m increasingly exhausted. And when I get off the bus and see my parents’ house, I’m lost. Maybe PTSD. Maybe dissociation. Definitely trauma unlocked. And the worst set of panic attacks. Way worse than 7 December 2000, in the middle of my first breakdown. Because this time I was supposed to be getting well, right? And there I was, frying my synapses.

And with nowhere to run, and with my mind on fire, I got drunk so that I could survive. And I put living on hold. And next day I went to Stafford and then to Burslam to watch some meaningless football. And then I fled to my friends in the vain hope of staying sane; of finding safety. Because after 24 hours at DefCon1, and with cortisol pouring into my marrow, I was fucked.

It was relentless. And I was fucked.

And three days later I did what was normally normal. I got on a train to London. To speak at a conference with my friend Joss. On a non-stopping train that would deposit me in London in one hour and six minutes.

A breeze.

No time at all.


And by Market Harborough I was barely holding it together. Wondering if I could get the guard to sit with me whilst I went insane. Wondering who in the carriage would sit with me so I could survive. Texting my wife to ask if she could pick me up because, if I could face it, I was getting straight back on the next train home. Texting my therapist to ask for an extra session. And the realisation that I had 50 minutes left to survive. And seriously doubtigthat I would?

Because the very thought of travelling and being away and presenting and being alone was too much. Too unsafe. Overwhelming. Unliveable.

Given what had been unlocked, living my life felt overwhelming.

And in wondering whether living my life was self-harm or self-care, all that was left was confusion.

And now I remember the on-going, missed opportunities to stay and engage with people. Because on one warm April day, it became the fight of my life simply to agree to speak, and then to get on a train and to stay on a train. And what was normally normal was lost. And the disorder of my anxiety became the order of the day.

And is this disordered life normal for me now? How did I live in India for six months in 1993? How did I get on a plane to Syria in 1998? Or travel to New York in 2010? How did I defend my Ph.D.? How did I manage to teach and to present so often? How did I travel to the ends of the country on my own to support Walsall away? How did I trust myself? How did I have faith in the core of me?

This inner trauma of being out of control, and of being in harm’s way, and of potentially losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe. Of normality not being safe. Because, when the only thing that feels normal is anxiety, what is normal? And unfortunately I am really good at re-producing really fucking epic levels of anxiety.

the disorder of performance anxiety

And Mardy Fish connects his anxiety to specific forms of performance and heightened expectations, which shattered his Self-perception.

[M]y expectations changed, both externally and internally, along with my ranking. Looking back, this wasn’t necessarily the healthiest thing. My dissatisfaction with the status quo — that had been so helpful when there were 20 players ranked in front of me — crossed over into something more stressful, and then destructive, I think, when that number became reduced to seven.

The idea that I wasn’t good enough was a powerful one — it drove me, at an age when many players’ careers are winding down, to these amazing heights. But it also became a difficult switch to turn off. I was, objectively, doing great. And looking back, I wish I had been able to tell myself that. But doing great wasn’t something that my frame of mind back then had time to process. All I could focus on was doing better. It was a double-edged sword.

And then it infected everything. Work, life, Self, everything. Infected.

when I returned to the court that summer, around Wimbledon … that’s when I began to get these really weird, new thoughts. Uncomfortable, anxious thoughts. Like I was nervous about something that was going to happen — even though it kept not happening.

I was a guy who loved being on my own. I loved traveling on my own, that solitude. That feeling of shutting off your phone and heading on a long flight … that used to bring me peace. But I couldn’t travel on my own anymore. My parents had to come out to Wimbledon. I needed people around me at all times, period.

And through it all, I just kept having these … thoughts. This anxiety. I became consumed by this exhausting, confusing dread.

And the attacks just kept… getting… worse.

It was only away from the court that this problem existed, and compounded. That these thoughts kept creeping in. And they were becoming more and more frequent: from once or twice a day, to a handful of times a day, to eventually — when it got really bad, by the end of the summer — every 10-to-15 minutes. Anxious, overwhelming attacks of thought. When I’m back at the hotel, I’m googling “anxiety disorder,” “panic disorder,” “depression,” “mental health” … but really I knew nothing about any of it. I didn’t know what to do. I just had no idea.

At least, I told myself, it wasn’t happening on the court.

And then it happened on the court.

Everything infected.

hoping for scabs; praying for scars

I used to think that the depression was the worst thing. But as it passes I see that it isn’t/wasn’t.

And in the great unbundling of therapy, this is the result: two years of anxiety and dread, because we have revealed the core of me, and all I have left is to persevere in reordering my disorder. Finding faith in myself.

And I remember the meltdown before my inaugural. That in front of 200 friends I would have to run. Or be so overwhelmed that performance would be impossible and hatred (mine and others) would follow. And my mate Johnny texted me to ask “how badly are you shitting yourself?”, and I smiled and normalised it and held it together.

And I remember getting on a train to London to see my buddy Martin, only the train was non-stop so I had to get off as the doors closed. Because otherwise there would be no safety valves for an hour. And so I waited for the slower train that stopped everywhere. Because you to have an escape route.

But escape from what?

And I remember a meltdown in Nuneaton waiting for a train to Coventry to examine a Ph.D.. That it was too much responsibility. And having to call my therapist for reassurance that staying in this game was enough. And in persevering, the collection of positives was added to and remembered.

Whilst the trauma was unpicked, so that the scabs could form, and then the scars.

And I remember the panic of a night away from home in Brighton. And the terror of speaking the next morning. The most nervous I have ever been before speaking. So that the exquisite irrationality made me want to run. And I spoke and then I left, because staying would have shredded me alive.

Home. Safely. Safety.

Because staying and speaking, and answering questions and then leaving, was everything. And at the time I felt I gave nothing. And now I know that I gave everything. All played out.

And there were visits to Crewe (a 1-1 draw); and to Wembley (a 2-0 defeat); and to the Globe (for Richard II); and to the Oval (in the sun). Each a trial. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Just stay in the game.

I remember that this inner trauma of being out of control, and of being in harm’s way, and of potentially losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe, has a longer lineage. That once I wrote that:

The reality was that I would be sitting in meetings wondering what excuse I could use for leaving: sickness, headache, whatever. Only if I did leave, then what? Go insane? Self-harm? Run until I dropped? So, as I sat in an interview with a PVC, another Professor and a member of senior management, I survived the rage in-between my temples. They would not have known how close I was to screaming.

Persevering whilst the trauma is unpicked, and the scabs form, and then the scars.

It won’t always be like this.

Do you wanna know how far you’ve gone?/Do you have any idea?

Everything Everything. 2015. The Wheel (Is Turning Now).

against persistent undoing

And I am reminded by a friend that Keguro Macharia writes that she has battled a dual reality. Trying to face trauma inside/against/beyond work, and trying to understand how narratives about trauma reinforce or undermine identity and Self, and our relationships to work/not work. She tells friends that

I’m wrestling with my own disorganization. My own “persistent undoing” given the occasion of the social. I am “undone” when I leave the house, walk down the street, encounter an absenting normality.

Exhausted and medicated. Under assault. Still performing as a form of self-harm. A cover for something else.

And the moment of self-care comes when she describes

the real story, the one I have been telling and not telling over the past many years of blogging, [] a Fanonian story about toxicity and exhaustion. It is a story about slavery’s long shadow and racism’s insistent pressing.

I was tired of performing a psychic labor that left me too exhausted to do anything except go home, crawl into bed, try to recover, and prepare for the next series of assaults.

And in holding her “real story”, I feel the concrete, on-going toxicity of past trauma reinforced in the present through culturally-acceptable self-harming activities like overwork. Reinforced and replicated through the performances we make each day, and the narratives we tell about ourselves, in order to keep going. Only the boundaries between keeping going and giving extra are blurred. Overlaying our abstracted labour on-top of our disorder. Our persistent undoing.

And I recognise that work and overwork, and the search for status and identity, are overlain on top of the fear of losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe. And this rationally irrational anxiety feels normal because it is rooted in time. Stitched into my DNA from way back when.

A complex of: them/me; then/now; work/unwork; doing/being; lost/found; alone/together.

So that living has been my greatest fear. A fear to be worked on.

So that my anxieties emerge from the core of my existence.

So that my performing/being is both the seat of my self-annihilation and my ultimate means of self-care. If only I would find some faith.

And in holding Keguro’s real story, I recognise that this is exhausting. These falsehoods. These false stories. This lack of faith in Self. A life lived survived this way. It is exhausting.

It won’t always be like this.

It is an uncertain business, said the old man. You must persevere. To persevere is everything.

Cormac McCarthy. 1998. Cities of the Plain.