Correlation in the Data University

Understanding and Challenging Targets-based Performance-management in Higher Education


  • The Analogue University Newcastle University



Higher education, outcomes-based performance-management, industrial relations, neoliberalism, correlation


We need new ways to understand university management in the twenty-first century. Although the literature diagnosing the neoliberalisation of universities is invaluable in helping us comprehend the increasing metricization of academic labour, it is nevertheless accompanied by a despairing tone which implies that effective resistance is virtually impossible. In this paper, we argue against this pessimism by making two interrelated arguments. First, we show that this sense of hopelessness arises from a disjuncture between this literature and the industrial relations field. We contend that by bringing these two bodies of scholarship into dialogue with each other, effective intellectual and practical resistance strategies for collective mobilization can be developed. Second, we conceptualise the datafication of universities as part of a broader paradigm shift in governance of contemporary neoliberal societies from ‘causation’ to ‘correlation.’ Universities have become less focussed upon upholding fundamental principles enshrined in their founding documents – about science and education being intrinsic goods – and instead have concentrated increasing energies upon producing metrics that correlate their activities to multiple external audit exercises. We propose that for effective resistance, we need to move away from this correlation and back towards causation. Empirically, we detail a case study example of the ‘Raising the Bar’ dispute at Newcastle University, United Kingdom, to show how successful mobilisation against neoliberal ‘outcomes-based performance-management’ (OBPM) was achieved. Using Kelly’s (1998) mobilization theory, we analyse the key strategies that enabled the Newcastle resistance, showing that successful opposition to correlative practices of neoliberalisation within the ‘data university’ is indeed possible. We conclude by highlighting the significance of reclaiming the central purpose of the university through building resistance from the fundamental premise and truth that science and education are good for society in and of themselves.


Acker, Sandra and Michelle Webber. 2017. “Made to measure: early career academics in the Canadian university workplace.” Higher Education Research and Development 36(3):541-554.

Adams, Richard 2015 University vice-chancellors' earnings 'out of control' The Guardian, Accessed on 20/04/2015

Agamben, Giorgio. 2014. What is a destituent power? Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32(1), 65-74.

Bacevic, Jana. 2018. With or without U? Assemblage theory and (de) territorialising the university. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1-14.

Beck, Ulrich. 2009. World at Risk. Polity.

Bellah, Robert, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven Tipton. 2008. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. With a New Preface. London: University of California Press.

Brenneis, Don, Cris Shore and Susan Wright. 2005. Getting the measure of academia: universities and the politics of accountability. Anthropology in Action 12(1): 1-10.

Bevan, Gwyn and Christopher Hood. 2006. What's measured is what matters: targets and gaming in the English public health system. Public Administration, 84(3), 517-538.

Bonnett, Alastair. 2014. Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places, and what They Tell us about the World. London: Aurum Press.

Burrows, Roger. 2012. Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review, 60(2), 355-372.

Campbell, Donald. 1979. Assessing the impact of planned social change. Evaluation and Program Planning, 2(1), 67-90.

Carson, Lydia, Christoph Bartneck and Kevin Voges. 2013.Over-competitiveness in academia: A literature review. Disruptive science and technology 1(4): 183-190.

Chandler, David. 2015. A world without causation: Big data and the coming of age of posthumanism. Millennium, 43(3), 833-851.

Chandler, David. 2018. Mapping beyond the human: correlation and the governance of effects, in (Eds) Bargues-Pedreny, Chandler, D. and Simon, E., Mapping and Politics in the Digital Age, Routledge: London, pp167-185.

Cohen, Phil. 2015. To Vote, Perchance to Dream, Ay There's The Rub. LW Blog. Lawrence and Wishart.

Colebrook, Claire. 2014. Death of the Posthuman. Vol. 1 of Essays on Extinction. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press.

Collier, Richard. 2014. 'Love law, love life': Neoliberalism, wellbeing and gender in the legal profession - the case of the law school. Legal Ethics, 17(2), 202-230.

Collini, Stefan. 2012. What Are Universities For? London: Penguin.

Collini, Stefan. 2013. Sold Out. Review of Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education by Brown, R., with Carasso, H. and The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education by McGettigan, A. London Review of Books [Online] vol. 35 no. 20 pp. 3-12. Available from [Accessed 5 March 2019].

Davies, Bronwyn and Eva Bendix Petersen. 2005. Intellectual workers (un)doing neoliberal discourse. International Journal of Critical Psychology, 13(1), 32-54.

Davies, Bronwyn. 2005. The (im)possibility of intellectual work in neoliberal regimes. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(1), 1-14.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59 (1992): 3-7.

Dyson, Lynda. 2015. The knowledge market. Soundings, 60 (14), 57-70.

Espeland, Wendy Nelson and Micheal Sauder. 2007. Rankings and reactivity: How public measures recreate social worlds. American journal of sociology, 113(1), 1-40.

Foucault, Michel. 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics: lectures at the College de France 1978-1979 (translated Graham Burchell), Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Franco-Santos, Monica, Pilar Rivera and Mike Bourne. 2014. Performance Management in UK Higher Education Institutions: the need for a hybrid approach: Full academic report. London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Galloway, Alexander R. 2014. Laruelle: Against the Digital. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Gamson, William. 1995. Constructing social protest. In, Johnston, Hank and Klandermans, Bert (eds.), Social Movements and Culture. London: UCL Press, pp. 85-106.

Gill, Rosalind. 2010. Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of the Neoliberal University. In, Ryan-Flood, Róisín (ed.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge, pp. 228-244.

Graham, Hannah. 2016. Newcastle University professors set to refuse to mark exams and essays in targets row. Chronicle, (29/05/2016 Available at

Grove, Jack. 2015a. Newcastle University Staff Express Fears over New ‘Targets'. Times Higher Education, (17/12/2015),

Grove, Jack. 2015b. REF: static ranking rasies questions about management policies. Times Higher Education, (24/12/2015 Available at

Grove, Jack. 2016. Target led culture in universities analysed in major project. Times Higher Education, (31/03/2016)
Gulson, Kalervo and Sam Sellar. 2018. Emerging data infrastructures and the new topologies of education policy. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, DOI: 10.1177/0263775818813144

Kalfa, Senia, Adrian Wilkinson and Paul J Gollan. 2018. The academic game: compliance and resistance in universities. Work, Employment and Society, 32(2), 274-291.

Kallio, Kirsi-Mari, Tomi J. Kallio, Janni Tienari and Timo Hyvönen.2016. Ethos at stake: Performance management and academic work in universities. Human Relations, 69(3), 685-709.

Kallio, Kirsi-Mari Kallio and Tomi J. Kallio. 2014. Management-by-results and performance measurement in universities – implications for work motivation. Studies in Higher Education, 39(4), 574-589.

Kearns, Gerry. 2009. Geopolitics and Empire: The Legacy of Halford Mackinder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kelly, John. 1998. Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilization, Collectvism and Long Waves. London LSE.

Laruelle, François. 2013. Principles of Non-Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury.

Lorenz, Chris. 2012. If you're so smart, why are you under surveillance? Universities, neoliberalism, and new public management. Critical inquiry, 38(3), 599-629.

Lowe, Toby and Rob Wilson. 2015. Playing the game of outcome-based performance management. Is gamesmanship inevitable? Evidence form theory and practice. Social Policy and Administration, 51 (7), 981-1000.

Lowe, Toby. 2016. Outcomes-based performance management makes things worse. In, Pell, Charlotte, Wilson, Rob and Lowe, Toby (eds.), Kittens are Evil: Little Heresies in Public Policy. Devon: Triarchy, pp. 37-52.

Lynch, Kathleen. 2010 . Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 9(1), 54–67.

Chander, David and Pugh, Jonathan. 2018. ‘Islands of Relationality and Resilience: the shifting stakes of the Anthropocene, e-pub ahead of print doi/full/10.1111/area.12459

MacIntyre, Alasdair [1981]. 2007. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edn. South Bend, IN, University of Notre Dame Press.

McAdam, Doug. 1988. Micromobilization contexts and recruitment to activism. International Social Movement Research, 1(1), 125-154.

Morrish, Liz and The Analogue University. 2017. Academic Identities in the Managed University: Neoliberalism and Resistance. Australian Universities Review, 59(2), 23-35.

Mountz, Alison, Anne Bonds, Becky Mansfield, Jenna Loyd, Jennifer Hyndman, Margaret Walton-Roberts, Ranu Basu, Risa Whitson, Roberta Hawkins, Trina Hamilton and Winifred Curran. 2015. For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4), 1235-59.

Kinpaisby, M. 2008. Taking stock of participatory geographies: envisioning the communiversity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 33(3), 292-299.

Murphy, Sinead. 2017. Zombie University. London: Repeater.

Nazerian, Tina. 2018. Can AI Help Students—and Colleges—Determine the Best Fit?,, accessed December 15th, 2018.

Nussbaum, Martha. 2010. Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Parker, Lee. 2011. University corporatisation: Driving redefinition. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 22(4), 434-450.

Perrotta, Carlo and Ben Williamson. 2018. The social life of Learning Analytics: cluster analysis and the ‘performance’ of algorithmic education. Learning, Media and Technology, 43(1), 3-16.

Petrina, Stephen and E. Wayne Ross. 2014. Critical university studies: workplace, milestones, crossroads, respect, truth. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labour, 23, 62-72.

Radice, Hugo. 2013. How we got here: UK higher education under neoliberalism. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 12(2), 407-418.

Rowlands, Julie. 2015. Turning collegial governance on its head: Symbolic violence, hegemony and the academic board. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(7), 1017-1035.

Slater, Tom. 2011. Impacted geographers: a response to Pain, Kesby and Askins. Area, 44(1), 117-119.

Stern, Nicholas. 2016. Building on Success and Learning from Experience: An Independent Review of the Research Excellence Framework.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2000. New accountabilities: anthropological studies in audit, ethics and the academy. In, Strathern, Marilyn (ed.) Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. London: Routledge, pp. 1-18.

The Analogue University. 2017. Control, resistance and the ‘Data University’: towards a third wave critique. The Antipode Foundation,

The Analogue University. 2019. Calling all journal editors: Bury the metrics pages! Political Geography, 68(1), A3-5.
Tietze, Susanne. 2012. Researching your own organization. In, Symon, Gillian and Cassell, Catherine (eds.), Qualitative Organizational Research: Core Methods and Current Challenges. London: Sage, pp. 53-71.

Tilly, Charles. 1978. From Mobilization to Revolution. London: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Tronto, Joan C. 1993. Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care. London:Routledge.

Williamson, Ben. 2018a. 'The hidden architecture of higher education: building a big data infrastructure for the ‘smarter university’' International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 1-26.

Williamson, Ben. 2018b. The app store for higher education,, accessed December 15th, 2018.

Williamson, Ben. 2018c. Code Acts in Education,, accessed December 15th, 2018.

Wilsdon, James, Liz Allen, Eleanor Bellafiore and Philip Campbell. 2015. The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management. London: HEFCE.

Yin, Robert . 2014. Case Study Research: Design and Methods. 5th edn. London: Sage.




How to Cite

Analogue University, T. (2019). Correlation in the Data University: Understanding and Challenging Targets-based Performance-management in Higher Education. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 18(6), 1184–1206.