Audit Cultures and the Indian University as Credit-Capital
By Rina Ramdev
In December of 2015, on the eve of the many crises to rage across Universities in India, a significant development, that would impact the future of higher education in this country, was consolidating itself at the OP Jindal Global University. A three-day Summit, “Why Emerging Economies Need World Class Universities”, was organized by the The Times Higher Education, where the T.H.E. cohort responsible for enshrining globally a system of competitive ranking among universities, announced its successful local India entrenchment by expansively including “BRICS and Emerging Economies” in its contexts. Alert to, and in consonance with this new lexical infiltration that attempts to make rankings, ratings and excellence, watchwords central to institutional discourse, the Indian government in its 2016 budgetary allocation declared a provision to financially promote 20 universities, both public and private, to the stature of ‘world class’ teaching and research institutions. Further, the MHRD in recognition of the disadvantageously aligned performance of Indian universities within international ranking configurations set up its own India-centric methodology, the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF). Appended to this is an initiative that had always been in place but has only in recent years acquired a promulgative sanctioning, the NAAC. Funded by the UGC as an autonomous accreditation agency, the National Assessment and Accreditation Council or NAAC, was established in 1994, but only since October 2010 has its five yearly assessment been made mandatory for all institutions of higher learning. As against the ‘recognized’ certifying that had previously sufficed as a one-step requirement, this demand of a continuous audit now responds to the protocol of raised accountability linked to funding. But before I attempt an understanding of this new turn, a brief history of the changes seen in the area of higher education will allow me to trace my argument back to this point.
Reforms And The New Economies Of Knowledge Production
Rationalized and apace with the larger neoliberal shifts globally and transitions into its ‘knowledge based economy’, are changes in the name of ‘reforms’ being forced upon universities in India. This is ushering in a transformation that insidiously rides on the backs of the state’s withdrawal from social spending on services of public good, leaving them open to the encroaching logic of the market. In the case of the University of Delhi, salvos like the semester model, the erstwhile FYUP and the CBCS have been attempts at ethicalizing the university as an enterprise, accountable to the student, now vocabularized as ‘consumer’. Within this is the move to a technocratized ideal that instrumentalizes learning and pedagogy as end products, while privileging skill over knowledge and performance over critical inquiry. Even as the structure and content of the FYUP were intended to ally with industry through curricula serviced for a vocationalized training, a similar downscaling was already in place with the semester structure and its emphasis on examination and evaluation over actual learning time. If for students, semesterization fuels a redoubled competitive system of testing, its pressures on teaching encourage a modularized approach that benefits best from lesson plans and power points. With the newly introduced CBCS (now waiting to be implemented country-wide), there is a clear move at eliding difference and variation and installing instead, a standardized measure of one-size-fits-all. These structural innovations and reforms, imposed top down, are shifts within the neoliberal imaginary attempting to change the very zeitgeist of the public university, a shift evidenced in the Lyotardian cautionary: “The question (overt or implied) now asked by the professionalist student, the State, or institutions of higher education is no longer ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What use is it?’ In the context of mercantilization of knowledge, more often than not this question is equivalent to: ‘Is it saleable?’ And in the contest of power-growth: ‘Is it efficient?”[i]
The assessing metrics of the Academic Performance Index (API) for faculty are also framed to quantify growth and output as qualifiable measures for promotion. In its enumerative economy, both teaching and the classroom space cede teacherly investment to the ‘profitable’ pursuit of publications and conference participation that serve up points for appraisal. An extreme form of professionalism is asserted through demands on efficiency and productivity, one that rewards and recognizes output and not the liminalities and imaginative devisings that teaching transits through. The API also encourages a competitive academic lay and work ethic in its awarding of a higher set of points to single authored publications over joint collaborative efforts. The logic of academic capitalism disregards traditional values of collegiality in the drive to make faculty entrepreneurial and individualistic. Even as individual responsibility is invoked, research and teaching are audited by normativized mechanisms of assessment that iron cage individuals in a Weberian economy of efficiency, rational calculation and control. Here the paradigmatic concerns of neoliberalism make professionalism and standardization de rigeur to its functioning. A system of bureaucratized norms and procedures that define this new managerialism, is as Beatrice Hibou points out, not really at odds with neoliberalism, “an art of governing based on the market cannot be embodied in laissez-faire, but rather in a ‘framework policy’ paving the way for an ‘active’ governmentality necessary to ensuring that society as a whole conforms to the principles of enterprise, competition, and the market.”[ii] This has approximated in greatest part a heteronomous referentiality, within which everyday practices selectively alternate between state control and self-governing laissez-faire, creating Janus faced techno-bureaucratic institutions.
This concurrence of state control and market driven codes and conduct is already in the present moment, blurring the boundaries between public and private. And in a deferential nod to its demands, universities are changing their structure as also their modes of functioning. Apropos this, universities are prone to maintaining a large contractualized adjunct workforce, one that eases their financial liability viz. employee benefits that state funded institutions are bound by. This institutionalized precarity signposts the neoliberal logic of commercialized education, which allows for cheap labour and its adjunctification within a business driven model. As an established practice in American universities, Chomsky’s trenchant critique of the conditions of this “pracariat” recognizes that, “The idea is to transfer instruction to precarious workers, which improves discipline and control but also enables the transfer of funds to other purposes apart from education.”[iii] In India too there have been attempts at controlling state expenditure on education, reflected once again in the 2016 budgetary allocation that hovers around 3.5% of the GDP, as against the recommended 6%. Nudged by this continuing neglect, institutions are forced into the practice of raising funds for events and conferences through sponsorship from corporates, while an array of specialized ‘self-financing courses’ outside of curricula are on offer by colleges for a fee. Within this, both teaching and research are wrested from their fundamental preoccupations, their raison d’etre that propels them into new critical knowledge. Instead they find themselves forced into a ‘commonsense’ of social demand, one that alternates between the market and state agendas.
The draft of the New Education Policy (NEP) 2016, now in the public domain, makes no attempt to challenge the onslaught of neoliberal values or counter the new model of the university as a service provider for skillified labour. The proposed changes in the NEP are, in fact, drawn out to shape and ready learning in congruence with the vicissitudes of the new ‘knowledge based economy’ and its soft power. An inculcative goal of cohesion and status quoism, as against critical thinking, praxis, and intervention is aimed at, in a bid to create a docilized citizenry of student-consumers. Unsurprisingly, the document is suspicious of campus political movements and student politics that many universities in India are seen to be the breeding ground for. In most part, these are policy changes percolating from recommendations like those of the 2001 Birla-Ambani report and the 2006 National Knowledge Commission, which had sought to usher in industry-linked research, private and global investment in higher education, and the setting up of frameworks for rating and ranking institutions. The draft of the NEP reinforces the same, with an added thrust on processes of evaluation for institutions that now links performance to funding.
Anxieties of Excellence
Indian newsmagazines, like Outlook and India Today, have in the past released rankings hierarchizing colleges and universities through their own indigenously worked out algorithms. Yet even as these rankings never impacted funding, their metrics went a long way in creating pools of elitism and neglect. Within a ranking play off, higher education devolves into a competitive, hierarchically stratified system that institutionalizes competition in ways so profound as to create an entire class of non-achievers who ‘fail’ by virtue of being ranked low. In highlighting and showcasing the high-ranked is also a covert formula that generates excess demand for the few, while negativizing into oblivion the subjacent others. Far more crucially, from within the politics of this ranking, a system of differential funding and favouring would in the future ease itself into the welfare model, subverting its very foundational ethic. What rankings also bolster is a disciplinary practice that reviews performance through processes of benchmarking and standardization. As far as measuring output goes, the favouring of the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – foundational to the industrial-corporate world, thrive, riding established biases. On the other hand, language departments (barring English) would be thwarted by the limited number of peer reviewed journals that exist in the discipline, as also the number of readers for its publications within the language. In ranging output and performance, what is dismissed and passed over is a history of social and intellectual dispossessions that has gone on to regulate the character of higher education and its strategic alliances with local social capital, its responsiveness to ‘reform’ agendas and its felt aggregations of community interests.
This regime of audit, ratings, and bureaucratic control selects and separates institutions as estimable through its pitch of ‘best practices’. As a superlative evaluating mechanism, ‘best practices’ assume a convergence of institutional interests in the self-sufficient norm of ‘quality’, thereby ordering custom and habit within a logic of meritocratic privilege. And yet, there is minimal engagement with the incursive vocabularies of this new regime, evident for instance in the vapid, tedious outlining of the idea of ‘Excellence’ in the NAAC’s guidelines.
It means the quality of something being extremely good. In an academic context it means the pursuit of the best strategies to reach higher knowledge and, in a pedagogic context, the best ways of imparting it to learners. This is a universal criterion because in any sphere of life anyone would want the best and none would settle for the second best, if they could so manage … this criterion helps to apply rigour in academic activity, in order to ensure the bestness.[iv]
This baggy, ill-defined categorization gestures at a de facto impoverishment of the university’s content and mission, its ‘dereferentialization’ as Bill Readings had presciently foretold in The University in Ruins.
The appeal to excellence marks the fact that there is no longer any idea of the University, or rather that the idea has lost all content. As a non-referential unit of value entirely internal to the system, excellence marks nothing more than the moment of technology’s self-reflection. 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.[v]
Drawing out a genealogy of “The University of Excellence”, Readings points out the emptying of content in the ritualized recall of ‘excellence’, leaving it to function as an empty signifier. Moreover, the idea of excellence, never neutral, feeds into the demands of technological capitalism by processing information and rationalizing activities through schedules and timings, unremittingly aligned to increase output. Excellence is the self-image of power as a conscious totality, creating a bubble of value torn from any obligation to relativity or difference. The rupture from referentiality leaves it open to the society of the spectacle and the ideological distensions of capital. Because the very idea of ‘excellence’ consists in its internal manipulability, it begs being forced into a sham economy of metrics. In this it exerts a triumphal domination as it hierarchizes work and workers through a graded performance index. The rhetoric of excellence, also reductive in its reach, flattens difference and pushes for competition, on occasion between incommensurables. Departments, colleges and universities are pitted against each other, compelled to prove an excellence that remains ungraspable, but one that makes them rivals forever. Even as competitive logic divests the very idea of excellence jettisoning it into empty signification, it can in radical ways also unsettle research and pedagogical ethics of both individuals and institutions. This was played out in farcical ways during a NAAC team’s interaction with an English Literature department. The team’s one point agenda and intent was to know how many members of the department were publishing regularly with the Economic and Political Weekly, in comparison with colleagues from other departments. The fact that the English faculty had several published books to its credit or that the EPW specializes primarily as a social science journal, were reasonings the visiting team summarily dismissed. Within the NAAC’s competitive ethic, it views colleagues as rivals and academic work as a contest, commeasuring in its sweep all protean unequables, “Excellence draws only one boundary: the boundary that protects the unrestricted power of the bureaucracy. And if a particular department’s kind of excellence fails to conform, then that department can be eliminated without apparent risk to the system.”[vi] Further, the NAAC’s schema of ratings is projected through the assumption that quantifiable data, as against numerous unaccountable variables, is all that is necessary for assessing quality and distinction. In point of fact, local ethnographies of NAAC inspections at institutions would go a long way in exposing the coercive regimes that orchestrate these seemingly mundane and mechanical audit practices.
Analoguing the Crises
Even as academia has never been free of competition or stayed otherwise ethically pristine, what has come in the present moment is a decree that institutionalizes a new culture of competition in the pursuit of ‘excellence’. This finds denouement in the coercive technologies of monitoring auxiliaries like the NIRF, THE, and the NAAC. Behind the innocuous vocabulary of quality, efficiency, best practices, the NAAC reviewing carries both rewards and threats for high and poor ratings. The annexing of future funding to ratings also contributes to instances of data tinkering and embellished portfolios, and NAAC teams periodically send out warnings to institutions against the outsourcing of ‘Self Study Reports’. Colleges and campuses have also been known to undertake temporary furbishing and bedecking to spruce up walls and grounds that later lapse back into their pre-NAAC state of neglect and indifference, even as students and staff are prepped and primed through scripted performances staged for inspecting teams. That there is a culture on the make here, feeding off pressures and anxieties, spawning rigged enhancements to meet assessment criteria, is evident. But the ways in which auditing’s panoptic inspective gaze creates political technologies of the self, as individuals internalize its disciplinary practices in their everyday conduct, also begs a perspectival understanding. Furthermore, accountability might not, on its own, always presage a pernicious agenda, but within untrammeled market metrics its formalization into a culture of auditing, can very easily mobilize structures of surveillance and control. In its originary, moment the regulatory mechanism of the NAAC functioned as a ‘soft law’, placing institutions in a voluntary relation to its auditing but what is now obvious is the way in which it wields authoritative control over institutional funding. The draft NEP 2016, in fact, quite clearly mandates greater power to NAAC assessment:
An institution will be ranked on a scale of I to VII. VII representing the highest and I the lowest in the category. Those in the top two of the scale should be given full operational autonomy in all academic and administrative matters; those in category VI would be provided incentives, guidance and advice to move to category VII. Those on the bottom of the scale in category I would be put on notice for immediate closure. Those in category II would be given a warning that they are under close watch, and could be considered for closure unless they move up the scale.[vii]
The new differential logic of funding and the threat of its withdrawal mark the expropriation of the university as a public good. The top ranked are ‘rewarded’ with “full operational autonomy in all academic and administrative matters”, while those ranked poorly face the threat of closure. In effect, the imperative played out is the decampment of both the highest and lowest ranking from the public funded model, either in the granting of operational autonomy or by decreeing closure. In the first place, institutions are forced to justify their eligibility for state funding in the present, along with a renewed plea for continued funding in the future; and yet this is accompanied by the knowledge that an excellent rating could result in the withdrawal of that very funding. This is the wily paradox of the neoliberal demand, contracted upon all institutions compelled into the audit rationale, one that comes from the longue durée of the state’s collusion with market forces. While the state moves towards reducing its financial liability in higher education institutions, it still attempts to retain ideological control over their day to day functioning through internal structures of bureaucratic control. In silently operating thus, without actually routing change through a concerted, stated policy avowal, there is a strategic veiling of the move and its cunning futures.
With the audit metanarrative’s radical interpenetration of differential funding and financial metrics, the script of private capital is fast encroaching upon the way public universities are being administered. By way of a granted autonomy, institutions would be free to raise private investment as also student fee, and quite decorously commission their own exit from the welfarist ideology of state funding. Furthermore, in acceding to a competitive strain that allows for rankings, ratings, and awards of excellence, a volatile, speculative economy opens up carrying in its wake the possibility of the Trojan horse of large scale private ingression, seizing and changing the ways in which the public funded model works. Wendy Brown reads this as the new ‘speculative’ turn, wherein universities, like other market driven services, showcase themselves through elaborate and often embellished portfolios to attract investment.
Today, market actors—from individuals to firms, universities to states, restaurants to magazines—are more often concerned with their speculatively determined value, their ratings and rankings that shape future value, than with immediate profit. All are tasked with enhancing present and future value through self-investments that in turn attract investors.[viii]
The market rationality of ‘austerity politics’ and ‘responsibilization’ (vocabularized within neoliberal governance globally) could, in the not too distant future, demand that universities in India also set up investor models to attract future funding and investment. In fact, this reorganizing to suit a financialized economy is already congealing through directives from the NAAC, NIRF, and their setting up of colleges and universities as ‘brands’ through ranked and rated excellence. New guidelines introduced, like student feedback, finds assessing traction both in the API and the NAAC, despite the political reservations expressed by teachers against the inherent social biases within its transcript. When made public, as it is done in western academia, student ratings of faculty help institutions enhance their branding, the way proliferating customer service feedback models do. Even alumni associations, previously aggregated only through a nostalgia-imbued networking, are now taken far more seriously by their alma maters as they are by visiting NAAC teams. In mobilizing profiles of distinguished alumni, the promise of the institution is retrospectively certified to determine prospects for future investment. In all of this, every function of the university is being indexed by a financialized code that turns an existing asset into a mortgage by enhancing its value for future dividends – fitting “themselves in ways that will outperform the competition and align themselves with good assessments about where those markets may be going” as Wendy Brown argues.[ix]
Historically, universities have not been able to remain untethered from broad politico-cultural and economic shifts, despite the swaddling bands of critical enquiry and radical thought. But contemporary policy changes affecting higher education seem enshrined within a profound immutability which could – unless resisted – severely impact research, pedagogy as also labour laws through the consecrative will of private investment. One of the modes of resistance marshaled by the ‘university under siege’ (now, a familiar image in intellectual folklore) has been in the rallying of critical pedagogy as a space of radical possibility, as the possibility of an adventure outside the known. And yet the productivization and disciplining of teaching’s labour, existing as it does within the political economy of promotional parameters and timetabled hours, undercuts the very hope of this freedom and excess. That teaching in its aleatory unpredictability could augur secrets dangerous to the regime, wilfully elides this compromised materiality and celebrations of its will to intemperate promiscuity would always be both premature and presumptuous.
The study and teaching of the humanities have also historically ascribed itself a messianic status. That there lies in its disciplinary passageways the potential for imaginative activism and subversive critiques has also created aggrandizements that could sever it interminably from more determinate committings. In the romanticization of its transgressive possibilities as against the indurate practices of other disciplines, the grand lament on the state of the humanities, in fact, rides the same moral high-ground premised upon the liberal humanist hubris of unconditional freedom. But this fetish of the ‘immanent critique’ that the humanities presage unto themselves only internalizes as defence the audit-rationale of neoliberalism in the language of an imperial self-consciousness.
Within an Enlightenment understanding, the university’s originary moment is in its separation from the social, a separation that in effect creates an allowance for its charter of autonomy. With every encroachment and encumbrance forced upon it, a dark foretelling of the death of its ideal has found easy, resonant circulation. And yet, despite the nostalgia and lament for a lost ideal, the university’s retreat into an insularized autonomy outside of time, can only be relayed through the liberal sanction of its privileged rights. The epochal moment of the university’s autonomy remains already subsumed within the neoliberal logic of private capital and its promise of exemption and self-rule. Perhaps a new politics of the university is waiting to be founded, one that will be forged from the very idea of public good that defines it, as against the palliatives of ‘social outreach’ programmes that institutions offer the neoliberal project. For this the university will have to exceed its microcosmic context, segue with the social and create solidarities with other public infrastructures. Crucially, this cannot be undertaken by a cordoning of either the disciplinary borders of the humanities or those of its own. Bill Readings, while arguing against the university’s self projection as a model of free speech and rational discussion, “a site where the community is founded in the sharing of a commitment to a rational abstraction”[x] had contemplated the possibility of a “community of dissensus”. This community was to function within the perimeters of the university, bringing in ideas of unaccountability and resistance against the regulative frameworks of excellence. But alongside Readings’ directive, perhaps it is also now time for the dissensual community to step outside its own infinitesimal campus spaces and look beyond the university’s penchant for self-romanticized beleagueredness, time now to make urgent attempts at forging alliances with larger structural crises outside the university.
Critical exigencies at this juncture require a manifesto that looks beyond both a disciplinary structure and the larger infrastructural borders of the university. The SOS sent out, privileging its own distress, is located in a liberal opportunism whereby the university perceives for itself a transcendental position. Perhaps the time has come to go back to the larger metanarrative of crises that has structurally laid siege upon larger public services and not retreat into assertions of liberal privilege.
Photo: Open, Forward, Thinking
[i] JF Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984, p. 51
[ii] Beatrice Hibou, The Bureaucratization of the World in the Neoliberal Era: International and Comparative Perspective, trans Andrew Brown, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, p. 13
[iii] Noam Chomsky, “How America’s great university system is being destroyed”, available at http://www.alternet.org/corporate-accountability-and-workplace/chomsky-how-americas-great-university-system-getting
[v] Bill Readings, The University in Ruins, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999 (1996), p. 39
[vi] Bill Readings, “Theory after Theory: Institutional Questions”, available at http://courses.wcupa.edu/fletcher/special/readings.htm
[vii] National Policy on Education 2016: Report of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy, available at http://www.nuepa.org/New/download/NEP2016/ReportNEP.pdf
[ix] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Zone Books, 2015, p. 109
[x] Bill Readings, op.cit., p. 181
Rina Ramdev teaches literature at the Department of English, Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi. She has co-edited Sentiment, Politics, Censorship: The State of Hurt (Sage, 2016). She has worked on the politics of post-coloniality, the writings of Arundhati Roy and the relationship between literature and social movements. She is also interested and involved in exploring the intersections of academic practice and political resistance within institutional spaces.
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