Thursday, 16 June 2011

Input/Output at the University of Excellence

Yesterday I went to the BA Show at the School of Design at the University of Leeds. This poster by Daniel Bird - a final year student about to go into the world and get a job along with his peers - caught my eye for a number of reasons, not least because of the frightening amount of debt students are expected to incur.

However, what I particularly liked about it is that it is a brilliant example of the performative aspect in which the university now operates (input/output), but from the other side. I am referring to the work of Bill Readings in The University in Ruins and also Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Nevertheless, I think Mark Fisher says it very succinctly in Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? He makes direct reference to university bureaucracy, including providing an extensive list of documents a module leader has to complete for each module they oversee. (2009: 41) Fisher says that the constant checking, monitoring and production of figures does not provide "a direct comparison of workers' performance or output, but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output" (2009: 42).

We no longer have a system focused on knowledge (learning and teaching), instead we have a system that concentrates on measuring performance and output, and disseminating that data: “The true goal of the system, the reason it programs itself like a computer, is the optimization of the global relationship between input and output – in other words, performativity.” (Lyotard 2004: 11) It is essential for the functioning of the bureaucratic university that this system is open, even if its process of self-defining (for example, in using terms like 'excellence') is internal and closed. The university needs to reduplicate itself internally, and also express that reduplication externally, in the form of representable data. What this means for the university is a spectacle-like appearance in the form of signs that appear as this representable data, the output of the excellence process.

Daniel's brilliant poster lists the quantifiable data in the form of the 'cost' to himself of his degree. The university of excellence, in theory, should be happy with this particular representation of data. However, I doubt that we will see anything like this appearing on the University of Leeds website as a way to attract future students.

Student Debt from Online Schools

Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books).
Lyotard, Jean-Franois. 2004. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

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