Vertigo: living in the fast? lane? of the academy with metrics

Susan Robertson, 3 December 2015

What lane do you live in as an academic,  university administrator, or student? The fast lane? Or do you sometimes find that you want to slow down, pull off the road,  and simply to take stock of things?  At this point you may well find yourself confronting a rather threatening sign stating  there are major penalties for parking on the hard shoulder! Danger!

Damm! you say. Hard shoulder indeed! But not one that you can afford to give the proverbial ‘cold shoulder’ to without a penalty.

We’ve been here in Prague now for two full days at a stimulating conference on Power, Acceleration and Metrics in Academic Life, organized by a former GESF member, Filip Vostal (and recent PhD graduate  from the University of Bristol’s Sociology Department) now at the Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences,  and Mark Carrigan,  the Centre of Social Ontology, University of Warwick.

The setting itself for this Conference is fabulous, not only visually but because it is iconic of a time past. It is the beautiful Vila Lanna, Praha 6 , on the Czech Republic, which now belongs to the Czech Academy of Sciences. The main conference venue is an ornately decorated stately home, with accommodation on the premises,  set in a sprawling, walled garden.

Today one of the speakers, Roger Burrows, Goldsmiths College, reminded us that when we think we are hard done by in this ‘fast university’, we ought to look around us and see that relatively speaking we are quite well off still. And indeed he is right. Though the ‘we’, ‘us’ or’who’ he is talking about, even in the academy, clearly needs to be parsed. Many  young scholars seeking a job in the academy, if they can get a toe in, now need a  ‘to die for’ portfolio of papers in high impact journals, and even then they are offered pretty crappy salaries and conditions.

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But Roger’s invocation about relative privilege ought not cause us to blush with guilt and change the topic, or indeed the location. Sure, the setting is fantastic, but the overall subject for the three days is deadly serious, and the conversation not only well worth having, but seriously overdue.

We’re talking about the rise and rise of metrics governing universities, and the fact that  their ubiquity at every turn is having major consequences for not only what we do in the academy, but also how we experience life  there – from staff to academics and administrators.

It is not that metrics have not been discussed to death. They have. But at another level, these three days are an effort to help kick along some deeper thinking on the temporal,  spatial  and social challenges facing the contemporary university arising from a range of policies, projects, devices and outcomes. One challenge is to place  the politics at work and the second is to creatively respond in ways that as Burrows argued, we don’t sound like  ‘whiners’.

Arguing for an account that includes, but goes beyond, the technical (explanation 1 – better data) and the new market politics (explanation 2 – of choice and information), I suggested that when capitalism gets involved via selling newspapers and new services (explanation 3 – as a result of data-driven products) there are vested interests in generating levels of uncertainty and anxiety as this means that institutions will be pushed to buy the products and services that stop them going into semi-engineered free-fall.

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My own intervention also  challenged us to think with new metaphors – in my case the strong sense of Vertigo that is experienced by  some nations and institutions, to enable us to grasp hold of  ways in which new combinations of power, politics and interests work on institutions,  the HE sector and nations.


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Vertigo – the sense that the world is changing around you, or something in your head is moving around and you feel a high level of lack of control and  loss of height – is a powerful experience which one’s head and feet says ‘get me out of here’ and ‘avoid at all costs’.

Similarly, universities face similar kinds of experiences when they attempt to control their position on rankings, when the metrics themselves and their use, generate the kinds of turbulence  and sense of vertigo that also sells newspapers on the one hand, and new data services to shore up this potential loss of reputation and thus height, on the other.

Add to this is the increased power of publishing firms, like Elsevier, and their tendency to buy up platforms,  competitors and products that power the rankings data and services… and you can see this is a powerful  new mix for the contemporary university with lots of potential for vertigo.

Small wonder the twitterfeed was buzzing in November over whether the Web of Science – the major citation index that feeds the big rankings systems,  is tipped to be sold.  Who might be the buyer?  Elsevier?  If this is the case, there are clearly major issues when  tendencies toward a monopoly  over academic  knowledge, from its creation to distribution and servicing, comes into play.  web of science for sale

They’ve been great papers and keynotes presented, and we are not done yet. One more day to go, and another keynote to be given tomorrow by Philip Moriarty from Nottingham University  from the UK  on peer review.

Time to stop for me now, though, yes, you have just reminded me, not on the hard shoulder!

Editor’s Note: Susan L. Robertson is  Professor of Sociology of Education in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research is concerned with the changing nature of education as a result of transformations in the wider global, regional and local economies and societies, and the changing scales on which ideas, power and politics is negotiated. Contact: