In our first Open Post, sociology professor Aksel Tjora warns against the “MacDonaldification” of higher education and research in Norway. He argues that we need to act now with a strong countercurrent collective effort, across academics and students.

By Aksel Tjora on May 28, 2015

In mid April this year I raised my voice in a worry about the role of disciplinary knowledge at NTNU and following up with
10 specific challenges to vice-chancellor Gunnar Bovim. This led to a public debate between Bovim and myself, which was well-visited both by academics and students in Trondheim. While this public debate, with inputs from the audience, raised a vast array of issues, at both practical and more political level, it is important for me to maintain a concern for what I regard as core issues: These are questions about the values and priorities of the university, the role of independent disciplinary knowledge within the university, and the relation between university, state, and society. These are issues that I have raised on basis of a worrying development that I observe from my position as sociology professor at NTNU, but which is related to a broader development in the whole sector in Norway (with an on-going national re-structuring reform) and related to changes that have come further at universities for instance in Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK. We observe stronger managerial control of research and teaching, bureaucratisation of research and research funding, and non-nuanced use of measuring systems (‘tellekanter’ and ‘studiepoeng’). With this development, our higher education system loses its basis on unbiased knowledge and analysis, which was at the core of the Humboldtian model of higher education.

My concern is not with the actual merger between NTNU and the university colleges HiST, HiG, and HiÅ, but with how the decision process indicates a reduced role of knowledge, competent advice, collegial participation, and empirical evidence at the top level of NTNU. Without going into the details of how the board works internally, we can conclude that the independent collegial-disciplinary governing of NTNU is gone. Also, with employed (and not elected) vice-chancellor, deans, and department heads, the loyalty is shifting, from horizontal-collegial to upwards-administrative.

At the same time, we do still experience disciplinary autonomy for instance through the maintenance of ‘free research time’ (often 47%) for professors at all levels. At one hand, we have taken this privilege for granted. On the other, we have (more or less) accepted that the independence of this time comes under bureaucratic pressure because of, among other things, pushes towards research within thematic programs (“satsningsområder”) at NTNU and designing and submitting research grant applications. I am not suggesting that we should totally avoid participating in thematic programs or submit grant proposals, but that such tasks must be balanced towards knowledge development within core disciplines (a responsibility that only universities can afford), and that academic work must be something different from a ‘veni vidi vici game’. While I strongly support the unions’ important fight to maintain the amount of ‘free research time’, my concern is rather with the content and independence of this time (how free is ‘free’?). In general, my concern is constantly with content!

My fight is not personal. Since I started as an associate professor at NTNU in 1998, I have sort of grown as an academic in parallel with the development of publish-or-perish attitudes and project emphasis. And I have constantly enjoyed the company of my elder baby-boomer generation colleagues, who grew up in an academy that was far more ‘relaxed’ when it came to counting production (article-wise), and who (in varying degree) has maintained ‘content production’ as opposed to ‘countable production’. Although I have blamed the same generation for playing too much inside their disciplinary comfort zone, there is much to learn from a disciplinary obstinacy. The stubborn ‘purely-academic’ critique is probably the only counter force against a total McDonaldisation of higher education and research, that is nourished by funding bodies and continually more ignorant national policies.

Norway is not at all worst off in the bureaucratization of the universities. With a well-fed public sector, our universities have not been squeezed as much as we see in many other European countries. But it is now time to pause for critical thought rather than to race for changes motivated by shallow structural and technical strategies. We are still able to establish a substantial critique of the commodification of higher education and research, both based on reflections of values and analyses of evidence. But we should not wait too long.

The goal of my work as a professor of sociology is to teach and supervise my students to help them becoming good sociologists, knowledgeable, reflected, critical and at best, creative. Good academics need to ask questions that they are not requested to ask (by the government, research council, EU, or other commissioning bodies), and something like a reflective critical creativity is needed to do so. I also maintain a strong emphasis on establishing a disciplinary enthusiasm, which includes considerations on how sociology needs to relate to the local, national and global society. On a local level, I am demonstrating sociological entrepreneurship with the initiative Sosiologisk poliklinikk, an independent ‘punk-sociological’ enterprise that aims to apply extrovert sociology in various contexts. But it becomes continuously more evident that the independent basis for doing such things comes at greater costs in relation to maintaining the expected mainstream research and teaching ‘production’.

At the end of the day, however, our independent academic gaze of this ‘production’ provides us with an ability to see our activity in context. While NTNU’s slogan ‘knowledge for a better society’ is easy to support, it becomes less easy for many of us if this ‘better society’ is reduced to industrial competitiveness and supporting the policy of any current government. Rather, the university needs to be the place for reflective critical creativity with basis in independent disciplines, at best with a touch of punk (DIY) attitude. We will only be able to maintain this with a very strong countercurrent collective effort, across academics and students, and we need to act now!

Photo: Bendik Knapstad