UCU Teach Out VI

What kind of uni do we want?

  • This report is a part of the following series: UCU Teach Out.
  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

I don’t want the energy that’s risen out of the strike to die out when UUK eventually roll over (fingers crossed).

Dr David Tyfield

Today’s event was a talk entitled Futures of Knowledge Capitalism, or the University Towards the Wisening Civilisation, presented by Dr David Tyfield, a Reader within the Lancaster Environment Centre at the University of Lancaster. I was excited by the title of the event; after a handful of afternoons spent hearing different people identify the problems within the current university system, I was excited to hear someone propose a solution. It…got weird.

Dr Tyfield first gave a shout-out to the student demonstration happening simultaneously back on campus, and then declared that the strike is an opportunity to learn together, before admitting that whilst it was inspiring and demonstrated solidarity, it was also painful. He asked an open question: in the context of a destructive Arctic wave, China becoming a dictatorship and thousands dying in Syria, aren’t pensions a bit trivial? No, he thought, followed by the quote that opened this report.

The idea of the public university, Dr Tyfield claimed, was still widely held. Public was broadly considered to mean in service of the public good, but is actually a capitalist term of art that that refers to those sectors in which market failures are inherent in production. The original view of the university as a site of pure knowledge, which is then used for the public good was no more, he argued—between the credit ratings and the tuition fees, the university was no longer a public sector institution. There was a debate, however, between Marginson‘s view that this system of academic capitalism was doomed and Mason‘s view that it was an omen of the impending collapse of capitalism.

Dr Tyfield characterised Mason’s argument as digital knowledge capitalism is not possible, and that the intangible aspect of economic growth is now greater, with marginal costs of production, which in turn destroys the price mechanism on which capitalism is based Dr Tyfield, however, believed that Mason was too hasty, citing his previous criticisms of Mason’s PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. Dr Tyfield contended that intangibles are too mediated by material substrates, including everyone in the room in the case of knowledge, to be considered truly intangible. Instead, Dr Tyfield predicted the qualitative acceleration of the price mechanism, not the death of it.

What this will mean, in practice, is that: the capacity of a business for continuous innovatio will become key to their competitive advantage; the need for political/cultural capacity of society to absorb, accept/reject and govern the acceleration of innovation; and the development of the individual and system capacity of labour to adapt to and create new innovation. So far, so wordy. In (slightly) less academic terms, Dr Tyfield identified the progression of mercantile capitalism to industrial capitalism, and then on to digital knowledge capitalism. In mercantile capitalism, the main competitive advantage was manufacturing ability, which led to industrial capitalism. In industrial capitalism, the main competitive advantage was innovation, which has led to digital knowledge capitalism. He suggested that the primary divide of this current stage was between the working rich, or high-skilled labourers, and the working poor, or low-skilled labourers.

This, according to Dr Tyfield, necessitated a new social contract for universities. As provision of knowledge was now ubiquitous, and the university was at risk of becoming irrelevant at our own game. Here, Dr Tyfield cited the research of financial analysis firms, due to the volumes of data they have to analyse, being far ahead of that of most universities. I, meanwhile, thought of the Pornhub Insights blog, which has probably found out more about human nature than thousands of years of the humanities. But I digress.

It was at this point that Dr Tyfield made perhaps his most controversial point: the public university is dead, we need to say goodbye to it. The financialisation had gone too far, he said, and there was no political momentum (not even amongst Momentum) for a renewed state-backed public sector. We don’t get to brush our collars and say we’re in knowledge production—everyone is in knowledge production. To do so would risk becomining second-rate knowledge producers, or just an intellectual elite talking to itself. (At this point I became very aware of just how much time I’ve spent listening to sociologists and social scientists discuss the death of capitalism lately). In light of the developments within capitalism, the way we do knowledge has to change. We now have cosmopolitanised globalism, rather than the presumed national public. We are in the Anthropocene now, which is far beyond our traditional natural and social disciplines. There is now too much complexity, too much knowledge being produced, too many projects.

We had a minute’s silence for the public university, 1945–2008. After that, things went a bit off the rails.

Dr Tyfield ended the minute’s silence with a cheer: the university is dead; long live the university! He praised the palpable energy and vitality within the strikes, but said that the task at hand was not to defend the university, but to rebuild it. The strike, he claimed, was just the beginning. We can, and will, beat zombie neoliberalism. To do so, Dr Tyfield feels, we must first move beyond materialism. I thought, at first, that he was referring to economic materialism. Nope, he was referring to the monist kind. If we failed to do so, he cautioned, we would always lose to neoliberalism. I will let Dr Tyfield sum up what he meant in his own words:

[Materialism] entails the belief that each of us are separate individuals, engaged competitively in the effortful production of the artifice called knowledge, with benefits accruing only to ourselves as individuals.

In this view, knowledge and its benefits become defined by a political economy of scarcity—a sitation amplified by social media. In this environment, researchers are damned if [they] do, and damned if [they] don’t—if you publish articles and try to spread them in pursuit of academic esteem, you are propping up the materialist system, but you fail to do so, you don’t stay employed for very long. What we need, Dr Tyfield believed, was a paradigm shift [uh-oh] to mind being of equivalent ontological standing as matter, in what Dr Tyfield called noetic monism. In this paradigm, knowledge is to be viewed as one expression and medium of mind, but not the sole one. Additionally, academics are to consider themselves not in the business of knowledge production, but as stewards of a deliberate, transhuman (planetary) mind.

This represented, for the university, a spiritual death and rebirthmaterialism ends in death at the end, whereas the reality of mind allows living through the death of the university. The reality of mind also enables a political economy of knowledge [based around] giving and commons. We are knowledge, claimed Dr Tyfield, not our outputs. The idea of the the knowledge economy is to be replaced by that of the wisening society. Dr Tyfield believed that the primary mechanism of competition in knowledge capitalism is the situated culture of creativity, and that developing these would be the thing that leads us to trans-capitalism, just as the development of industry led us to industrial capitalism. Also part of his proposed paradigm shift was a shift from the teleological view of knowledge—that knowledge develops towards an end point independent of any outside force—to a teleonomical one—that there is no guarantee of this and that we have to make it happen. Knowledge capitalism is the arena for this epochal birth.

Dr Tyfield finished, and there was a brief silence as everybody processed what they had heard. We then moved onto a workshop task led by Dr Nadia Von Benzon, Lecturer at the Lancaster Environment Center. Appreciating the lack of immediately-apparent practical application of Dr Tyfield’s ideas, we were given a handful of questions to discuss in groups, such as how to we share the resources of the university. These were to help us to think about what our uni risen from the ashes might look like. First, however, we went through a brief Q & A with Dr Tyfield. Someone asked about how, if we can’t go back, he expects us to be able to rebuild. Dr Tyfield replied that he didn’t want to come with a negative message, that there was no road to the promised land and that what he thought was that we all need something to cling to during the cold winter. Then we had a question about the appropriation of wisdom by Hindu nationalists in India, followed by some expressions of indignance at Dr Tyfield’s claim that the idea of the public university was dead.

Returning to Dr Von Benzon’s task, we came out with a handful of ideas about how universities could continue to achieve value from research. I proposed some sort of consortium of universities—the 1994 Group, for example—who would share the intellectual property rights of their collective research, and the consequent financial benefits, amongst themselves. I now appreciate, on reflection, that that’s basically just a return to the nationalised university system. Another group member suggested that instead of imposing a financial tax on students based on the promise of increased future earnings, we instead tax companies based on the number of graduates they employ, since they are the ones receiving the direct benefit of the expertise. Another group made an interesting point about Amherst not classifying its degrees at all, and then we were done.

Disappointed at the fact that a talk that promised concrete suggestions instead ended up the most ephemeral yet, I stayed behind for the first time to talk to a woman who had been in my workshop group. I noted the dearth of academics from STEM faculties, such as my own Faculty of Science & Technology, in favour for an over-representation of social scientists and the like. She concurred, and we talked about why that might be: likely, a qualified engineer is in a far less precarious career position than a sociologist or a gender studies academic. We also discussed the recent debate, and how the UCU had failed to adequately explain why they had not considered a less student-detrimental act of industrial action than 14+ days of strikes. The woman made a better point than all three of the debaters had managed then, pointing out that the proposed research grant boycott wouldn’t have had an immediate effect and would have been difficult to implement, with academics at a variety of points in the process at any given time, and those who had previously put a lot of work into it unlikely to throw that away now. We concluded that industrial action is hard, and talked productively about some further ideas, which I think I will develop and write up in a future post, likely after all this strike stuff has blown over.

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