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Workshop 4 Report

Report of IAS ‘critical governance studies’ workshop 4 held on 1st July 2008

This workshop examined key themes in the history and governance of the production of knowledge.  It explored the role of the University as a critical actor in the governing arena and a path-breaking example of a research partnership between the social and natural sciences, suggesting new ways of working around the disciplinary conventions governing academic life. 

The Vice Chancellor, Professor Nigel Thrift, opened the workshop by outlining his perspective on the university as a critical actor in the governing arena.   He suggested that the University has an increasingly important role to play as a ‘critical actor in the public sphere’ given the paucity of critical thought elsewhere in contemporary society, but that it needs to think about five rights and responsibilities in doing so: 

1.      Reflecting and shaping the views of concerned citizens

2.      Generating expertise that leads to considered judgments

3.      Teaching the next generation(s) and therefore acting as repositories of culture and the disciplines of culture

4.      Stirring the pot as skeptics, not as cynics, and eschewing ‘arrogance through theory’

5.      Being aware of our undoubted privileges as scholars to undertake research in protected conditions of autonomy

While he rejected the view that association with commerce taints the university, Nigel was concerned that it is now unusual for public officials to refer to the role of universities in serving and generating the public good.  The state is increasingly closed to certain forms of critical knowledge (see Peter Galison on the secret state). Moreover, the current emphasis on ‘applications’ risks undermining the production of broad-based knowledge independent of specific uses, which by projecting complex knowledge into the public domain,  serves the ‘global public good’.  As Polanyi noticed, it is impossible to plan the development of specific scientific knowledge; universities instead have to impart and circulate skills, a congeries of underlying techniques, norms and practices.   The role of the university is to create a culture where it is possible to ‘simulate breakthrough thinking’, focusing less on innovation than on invention in spaces where unforeseeable discoveries are made.  Doing this necessitates creating spaces within the University, where a critical tone and disposition can flourish. 

Steve Fuller followed the VC by examining the history of University.  He suggested that two models have emerged; the Humboldtian (German) model, centred on forging a disposition and practice of nation building among graduates; and the ecclesiastical model based on the beneficence of alumni wanting others to be able to enjoy similar formative experiences.  Both models, in different ways, foment academic autonomy, allowing the University to distinguish itself from other knowledge institutions by integrating research and teaching.  By integrating research into teaching, the university contributes to the ‘creative destruction’ of social capital.

Steve questioned ‘golden age’ nostalgia for a lost university system that once nurtured the seed of enlightenment.  On the contrary, radical enlightenment thinkers (like Bourdieu and others on the modern university) saw the institution as reactionary.   However, the growing emphasis on performance management in the contemporary system is a problem.  For example, the end of tenure and the rise of the short-term contract make it very difficult to maintain the integration of research and teaching.  The RAE system encourages departmentalism and instrumental practice and further undermines the link.   These developments, and ongoing exposure to market risk, make it very difficult for the VC to defend a progressive concept of the university.  Steve suggested that the invention/innovation imperative is symptomatic, setting us up in competition with industry and generating a form of intellectual closure.  A better challenge for measurement would be to look at the ‘framing effects’ of university education, the ways in which the university influences public discourse in the long term.   It was suggested that teachers and students alike should be made more aware of the issues discussed by Steve and that the history of the university as concept and practice should be integrated into doctoral and P-CAP type programmes.

Wyn Grant led the concluding session on his collaborative research with colleagues in the Horticultural Research International group and the biological sciences on the governance of bio-pesticides, disease and environmental impact of horticulture.  He argued that many global problems – disease, climate change, energy production, GM technology and medical ethics - have governance implications and require cross-faculty collaboration.  Such collaboration can be enriching for all parties, if each is able to acquire a basic understanding of the issues and concerns of the other and develop a common language and methodology.  For Wyn, as a political scientist, the challenge was to acquire technical knowledge about the biological sciences with which he was engaging.   He suggested that politics could learn much from science. For example, where science is confronting the ‘big questions’ of the moment, he suggested that there has been an unfortunate tendency in political science to concentrate on micro-studies.  On the other hand, natural science can learn from politics about the realities of government decision making and how best to translate research evidence into policy.  More broadly, scientific issues in horticulture (such as cultivation in poly-tunnels) have ramifications for social science debates about the ongoing industrialization of rural space, the environmental sustainability of agro-industrialism and the social sustainability of labour migrations.  Thus, the orthodox perception, that it is difficult or impossible to do cross-faculty research, can be challenged.  However, universities need to create intellectual spaces where younger scholars are prepared to risk doing interesting research at the boundaries of disciplines, without fear of being marginalized by RAE-style silo evaluations. 



Jonathan Davies

4th July 2008

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