Professor Gerry Kearns, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

In The Hidden Injuries of Class (New York: Knopf, 1972), Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb described how poor people internalized the judgment that they had failed, were ‘losers’ in the gutter-speak of Donald Trump. It is important to understand how social context shapes aspirations and self-esteem. A book like Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor (University of Toronto Press, 2016) can serve as a self-help manual helping us recognize how the neoliberal university diminishes us and cultivates a sense of inadequacy that will never be retired. In ‘The Slow University: Work, Time and Well-Being’ (Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research 15:3 (2014), Art. 14), Maggie O’Neill identifies the anxiety that is fostered among academics by the corporate culture within which university staff are judged and found always wanting. In her seminar at MUSSI, Maggie gave us ways to name and resist this new subjugation.

Our own feelings are important data as we try to understand what is done to us. So, how does the audit culture in universities make me feel? In Ireland, the tone of politicians and commentators when they call for evaluation to be extended suggests two things to me–they dislike public provision tout court, and, secondly, they don’t appreciate scholarship.

A Public Ethos

First, then, the universities are targeted alike with the rest of the public sector. Particularly in Ireland, and especially from Fine Gael but also from Fianna Fáil, there is a hostility towards public provision that takes ideology almost to the point of mania. Conor McCabe’s Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy (Dublin: History Press, 2011) gives some of the background to this but for anyone coming to Ireland from abroad, as I did after living in GB and the US, the contempt that the political class shows towards public sector is overwhelming. It is almost as if it would be unfair competition for a state agency to provide anything that private enterprise could venture even if the state agency were able to do so at lesser cost and with greater benefit. So the first form of resistance we need to develop is a pride in the public nature of our work. We should invite commentary and review on this aspect of our universities.

We need point out that Irish universities educate a good share of the populace to a decent standard at a modest fee – the comparison with student debt in US and UK is striking, the standards of instruction indicated by modest attrition rate and decent international placement of graduates etc. We need to point out that university folk are prominent in public debate in Ireland to an extent that is striking in comparison to Britain, certainly to the United States and depressingly so with respect to parts of Eastern Europe. While we may bemoan the sliver of academia that is recycled through TV and radio studios, the healthy reading public in Ireland is fed by academic works that address matters of public interest in a fashion that almost matches the middle-brow culture in France. We need to remark that international business is drawn to Ireland not only by the low rate of corporate taxation but also by the quality of the skills in the workforce and much of this speak to a training and research culture fostered in universities.

And why is the public character of our universities important in this regard? First, because private institutions accept no such obligations to serve a broad swathe of the student class–notwithstanding the endowment funded scholarships for a few of the less wealthy, privately funded universities are businesses that serve the needs of the rich, validating their education with expensive prestige. Only public universities accept a broad responsibility to serve equality of opportunity, and while they should do more in this regard only public institutions can be brought to accept that they should redress those hidden injuries of class that mark the poor and ethnic minorities as ‘losers’ long before leaving cert. It is evident to me that the public obligations of universities need to grow rather than to be allowed wither.

Second, it is evident that who pays the piper calls the tune. Some of the most shrill voices for homophobic and patriarchal regulation in the United States are ‘experts’ funded and promoted by evangelical-Christian universities (all of them private institutions). Likewise, many ‘expert’ lobbyists come from think-tanks funded by the interests they serve. Allowing private companies to own medical research means that drugs are unaffordable. Allowing private interests to commission the bulk of the research in any one area means that they can simply choose not to publish findings they find sits ill with their private benefit. When it comes to producing critical knowledge of general benefit, the public principle is an important one that even needs extending rather than diminishing.

Planning for the employment needs in a changing economy needs two things that private institutions do very poorly. First, it needs a long-term perspective when the horizon for a business might be no more than the annual declaration of profit or at most the period over which a loan might be amortized or an improved business readied for re-sale. Second, the private sector will not take a general view resulting perhaps in over-provision where there is a short-term need, or where the high-salary and high-fee opportunities appear to be, resulting in under-provision of training for lower-wage but vital professions.

I am not saying that all public universities at all times provide the very best in educational access, in independent critical thinking about society, and in preparing a workforce with the flexible skills needed for a changing economy, but I am saying that these are essentially public goods and that private institutions would only serve them inadvertently if at all. I am also saying that the public ethos of universities should include pride in serving these ends.


The audit culture wants to operationalize scholarship into oblivion. Scholarship can only be judged and not weighed. The audit culture resists this claim insisting that two publications are always better than one, other things being equal. Scholarship doubts that they ever are. The audit culture believes that only what can be counted should be allowed to count. Scholarship thinks otherwise, relying upon qualitative judgments. The audit culture suspects that everyone who is not pressured to produce more will be idle. Scholarship trusts academic ambition to spur intellectual creativity. The audit culture can only think within a bourgeois capitalist calculus. It gave us ideas like lesser eligibility, the undeserving poor, and thus the workhouse for the indigent or unemployed.

Scholarship, at least in the fields I know best, is more anarchic. In fact, some of the best writing about how universities should function has come from anarchist thinkers such as Paul Goodman whose The Community of Scholars (New York: Random House, 1962) still inspires. In other words, academics can evaluate the work of colleagues, and can self-organise for conferences, teaching, and publication. Stefan Collini has recently asked that we be ready with answers to the question: What are Universities for? (Penguin, 2012). I would begin with scholarship, making new knowledge, offering critical reflection on existing knowledge and interpretations. I would then go on to say that this is a very good context in which to educate people. I would begin my defence of university teaching with an insistence upon the independence of the university from direct external control, much as John Henry Newman did when he defended a secular university in The Idea of a University (1852). We could talk then about the synergy between independent thought and education. Is it possible to impart the ability to read and think critically if you are unfitted to occupy the intellectual frontier of a discipline? Maybe, but there must surely be a limit to the ability to teach what you cannot fully understand. Only those making new knowledge in a field fully understand its limits; or at least so it has seemed to me.

Does the sort of independence that I have described as essential to scholarship require public institutions? Perhaps not. Can it be achieved in public institutions? I think so, and I think academics should submit to this sort of judgment.

Finally, I believe that if the public ethos were encouraged, then, we might even get more scholarship that volunteers itself to have a public purpose, more teaching that avows a public purpose. The audit culture breeds academic productivity that accepts direction from the corporations that own the journals, the corporations that invite research-partners at public expense but for private gain. The audit culture spawns anxiety, reduces reflection, rewards mindless repetition.

Private vice does not make public virtue.