Why do neoliberal universities play the numbers game?

Performance measurement has brought on a crisis in academia. At least, that’s what Roger Burrows (Goldsmiths, University of London) claims in a recent article for The Sociological Review. According to Burrows, academics are at great risk of becoming overwhelmed by a ‘deep, affective, somatic crisis’. This crisis is brought on by the ‘cultural flattening of market economic imperatives’ that fires up increasingly convoluted systems of measure. Burrows places this emergence of quantified control in academia within the broader context of neoliberalism. Though this has been argued before, Burrows gives the discussion a theoretical twist. He does so by drawing on Gane’s (2012) analysis of Foucault’s (1978-1979) lectures on the relation between market and state under neoliberalism. According to Foucault, neoliberal states can only guarantee the freedom of markets when they apply the same ‘market logic’ on themselves. In this view, the standard depiction of neoliberalism as passive statecraft is not correct. This type of management is not ‘laissez-faire’, but actively stimulates competition and privatization strategies.

In the UK, Burrows contends, the simulation of neoliberal markets in academia has largely been channelled through the introduction of audit and of performance measures. He argues that these control mechanisms become autonomous entities that are increasingly used outside the original context of evaluations, and get a much more active role in shaping the everyday work of academics. According to Burrows, neoliberal universities provide fertile ground for a “co-construction of statistical metrics and social practices within the academy.” Among other things, this leads to a reification of individual performance measures such as the H-index. Burrows:

“[I]t is not the conceptualization, reliability, validity or any other set of methodological concerns that really matter. The index has become reified; (…) a number that has become a rhetorical device with which the neoliberal academy has come to enact ‘academic value’.” (p. 361)

Interestingly, Burrow’s line of reasoning can in some respects itself be seen as a resultant of a broader neoliberal context. Neoliberal policies applaud personal autonomy and the individual’s responsibility for one’s own well-being and professional success. Burrows directly addresses fellow-academics (‘we need to obtain critical distance’; ‘we need to understand ourselves as academics’; ‘why do we feel the way we do?’) and concludes that we are all implicated in the ‘autonomization of metric assemblages’ in the academy. Arguably, it is exactly this neoliberal political climate that justifies Burrows’ focus on individual academics’ affective states. With it comes a delegation of responsibility to the level of the individual researchers. It is our own choice if we comply with the metricization of academia. It is our own choice if we decide to work long hours, spend our weekends writing grant proposals and articles and grading students’ exams. According to Gill (2010), academics tend to justify working so hard because they possess a passionate drive for self-expression and pleasure in intellectual work. Paradoxically, Gill argues, it is this drive that feeds a whole range of disciplinary mechanisms and that lets academics internalize a neoliberal subjectivity. We play ‘the numbers game’, as Burrows calls it, because of “a deep love for the ‘myth’ of what we thought being an intellectual would be like.” (p. 15)

Though Burrows raises concerns that are shared by many academics, it is unfortunate that he does not substantiate his claims with empirical data. Apart from own experience and anecdotal evidence, how do we know that today’s researchers experience the metricization of academia as a ‘deep, affective somatic crisis’? Does it apply to all researchers, is it the same everywhere, and does it hold for all disciplines? These are empirical questions that Burrows does not answer. That said, there is a great need for the types of analyses Burrows and Gill provide, analyses that assess, situate and historicize academic audit cultures. It is not a coincidence that Burrows’ polemic piece emerges from the field of sociology. The social sciences and humanities are increasingly confronted with what Burrows calls the ‘rethoric of accountability’. It has become a commonplace to argue that they, too, should be held accountable for the taxpayers’ money that is being spent on them. These disciplines, too, should be made auditable by way of standardized, transparent performance measures. I agree with Burrows that this rethoric should be problematized. In large parts of these fields it is not at all clear how performance should be ‘measured’ in the first place, for example because of differences in publication cultures within these fields and as compared to the natural sciences. And it is precisely because the discussion is ongoing that we are allowed a clear view of the performative effects of a very specific and increasingly dominant evaluation culture that is not modelled by and on these disciplines. What are the consequences? And are there more constructive alternatives?

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