Correlation in the Data University
Understanding and Challenging Targets-based Performance-management in Higher Education
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.
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