By Fenella Brandenburg
In The University in Ruins (1996) Bill Readings says that it is ‘excellence’ in its manifest bureaucratic forms which is the driving force behind harnessing the university’s function of the past and in postmodernity placing it under the forces of the market (1999: 38): “Like the stock exchange, the University is a point of capital’s self-knowledge, of capital’s ability not just to manage risk or diversity but to extract a surplus value from the management” (1999: 40). The Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) are perfect manifestations of Reading’s critique in action.
Readings dedicates a whole chapter to the notion of ‘excellence’, which he considers to be the watchword of the contemporary corporatised university. Its effectiveness within the institutional apparatus cannot be underestimated and in order to deconstruct the university discourse it is important to understand the way excellence operates. For Readings, ‘excellence’ is a hollow term that has no absolute definition (1999: 24). He states: “An excellent boat is not excellent by the same criteria as an excellent plane” (1999: 24). A 2013 article in Times Higher Education mentioned “teaching jargon” and states: “despite repeated claims of ‘teaching excellence’ on institutions websites, there was little elaboration of what this meant in practice” (Matthews 2013: 8).
Readings also makes reference to how the consumer-orientation of the university ties in with technology, a large focus of Jean-François Lyotard’s critique. Readings says: “All that the system requires is for activity to take place, and the empty notion of excellence refers to nothing other than the optimal input/output ratio in matters of information” (1999: 39). Capitalism uses technology in order to circulate information and enable a pooling of resources into a “generalized market” (Readings 1999: 32). In the university it is the term ‘excellence’ that helps promote the propagation of this data and mobilise its message. Readings says ‘excellence’ becomes translatable and usable by anyone who wishes to describe it within any phenomenon, in whatever way they choose, by any criteria (1999: 24).
One of the functions of excellence is how it helps promote the processes of circulation essential to capital’s operation in regard to power. Previously, the nation-state sat in the centre of civic life and produced streams of power emanating outwards (the institution being one of the representatives of the nation-state). Readings says that today, however:
Capital no longer flows outward from the centre, rather it circulates around the circumference, behind the backs of those who keep their eyes firmly fixed on the center. Around the circumference, the global transfer of capital takes place in the hands of multi- or transnational corporations. (1999: 111)
What this means for the university is that in its corporate incarnation it is essential that it becomes part of this process and adopts the modes of operating that capitalism endorses.
Upon repeated use the language of the university of excellence becomes normalised, but it has ideological origins which are needed for it to function within the capitalist system, both within and outside the university. The language that excellence adopts, while serving the purposes of the corporatised university, also has the function of creating a type of abstraction, which removes the output of the system – the data that is promulgated – from not only the material practices that are required to deliver it, but also from the staff who work in the university and produce this data (or are party to producing the data). Thus, the term is often used without compunction, without question and without an understanding of the material effects of the process that underpins it.
Matthews, David, ‘Global faculty made up of bachelor’s boys and girls’, Times HE, 19/26 December 2013, p. 8.
Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).