Books: A Point of View: Impact |
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Impact : on a bad new idea for universities

(S06E07, broadcast 4th and 6th December 2009)

"When doing nothing is an option"
— Nick Cage and Dubai

In my share of these broadcasts I’ve placed a lot of emphasis on democracy, and on how it can never be a perfect system, but by the mere fact that no tyrant or oligarchy can ever count on remaining in power unchallenged, democracy can hope to avoid some of the abuses that even less perfect systems are guaranteed to generate.

As somebody once said — I think it was Winston Churchill, but it could have been my uncle Harold — democracy is the worst political system you can imagine, except for all the others. If it was my uncle Harold, it was generous of him to say this, because during the Great Depression he spent a lot of time out of work. Some of the competing political systems sounded quite persuasive in that period, but Uncle Harold didn’t like the sound of a lot of people all shouting at once. He himself was a man of few words. When I was very small the longest speech I ever heard from him was, ‘Go away.’ After he came back from the war he sat down on the back veranda and spent thirty years reading the papers. He only ever got up to go and vote, and if voting hadn’t been compulsory in Australia he wouldn’t even have done that.

He was the living refutation of the fond idea that democracy should be participatory. The first duty of a government, in his view, was to leave people alone. More than half a century later I feel the same way myself. My last sparks of fiery radicalism have long been quenched. Privately I define democracy as that political system which leaves me free not to care about it. About that, I care passionately.

The first trouble with my view of democracy is that it tends to sound complacent. When the dizzy level of greed which is free to operate in the democratic countries leads to something as ridiculous as a so-called bonus culture in which bankers are rewarded for gambling with your money, and then the banks are bailed out with more of your money so that they can re-establish the very same bonus culture while they gamble with your money all over again, it does sound complacent to say: yes, it looks bad, but it would be even worse if there were no democratically elected government to intervene. The government did intervene, and look what happened.

But think what might have happened if it hadn’t intervened at all. Last week, Dubai went bust, largely because it was one vast playground for the dimwit rich that had no other asset except the virtual slave labour of the workers who built it. Will there be any government agency in Dubai to get those workers home to the countries they left in the doomed hope that Dubai would make them less poor? Probably not. A democracy would feel obliged to at least make noises about doing something to ease the suffering, and almost certainly it would never have allowed a situation in the first place by which slaves in all but name would have toiled all day with fifteen minutes for lunch. There would have been questions in parliament, and the lunch break would have been extended to thirty minutes.

At almost the same moment in history as Dubai was going broke, the American film star Nicholas Cage went broke too. He went broke because he had bought too many castles, too many yachts, too many cars, too many everything. He was a one-man Dubai, but that was the point: he was just one man. In a liberal democracy he was free to go mad with his cheque book but he couldn’t turn himself into a whole city and hire builders to slave all day trying to earn their passports back. Even in the supposedly unchecked Darwinian struggle of American capitalism, there are mechanisms in place, as the modern saying goes, to ensure that the collapse of Nicholas Cage injures only those people who were left holding his IOUs. There won’t be a shanty town of indentured labourers who worked for nearly nothing and now have nothing at all. Nobody will be left desperate by the career of Nicholas Cage except those who have been unfortunate enough to see his movies, in all of which he pops his eyes with his wet mouth half open, looking exactly like a man who wants to buy Windsor Castle and employ the tenants as ground staff.

A Western liberal democracy has institutions that limit damage. But just by saying that, I edge into a second stage of complacency that I have to watch out for, and we all have to watch out for. They have to be the right institutions. Many of them grow automatically, by the operation of the free market, but some of the most vital of them have to be imposed. In fact that’s what a democratic government does: it intervenes in the free market for the benefit of all. The intervention, however, sometimes defeats its object. As the apocryphal Hollywood producer once said, ‘There’ll be a meeting Monday to delete the improvements.’ There is a new, or revised, institution on the way which already has many good people in our universities worried about how it might turn out.

The present system of allocating university funds to support research has been known, for the last twenty years, as the RAE, standing for Research Assessment Exercises: more than one exercise because there have been several systems, all of which have been troublesome enough, because they have all laid great stress on the number of publications per member of staff, which led to the possibility that staff members might be thought of as not performing if they weren’t publishing.

If that system had been operating in the time of the Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing, for example, he might have been thought of as a drag on the funding of his department because he had produced only one paper. His work eventually led to the code-breaking triumph at Bletchley Park and the development of the computer, but not even he knew that at the time, and if he had had to spend much time explaining to the assessment board what he was on about he might never have got his work done.

The cumbersome system is now to be streamlined but there is a question of whether the improvements might not lead to paralysis, especially in the humanities. The new system will be called the REF, standing for Research Excellence Framework. Excellence is always a bad word in such a context because it presupposes the result at which it aims, but there are stronger reasons than that for being suspicious. Under the new system, a quarter of the rating scores which will affect the funding will be awarded for ‘impact’, meaning a verifiable effect of the research in the outside world. Traditionally the humanities have defined themselves as those learned activities which are pursued for their own sake, but pursing them for impact is plainly something else.

As Stefan Collini outlines in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement, impact could be achieved when you write a scholarly work about a secondary Scottish poet and someone decides to make a TV programme about him. But you score for impact only if you yourself, or a representative of your department, makes the contact with the television producer. It isn’t enough to wait for the outside world to find you. You have to market your work in what the new guidelines (another bad word) call the wider economy and society (five more bad words).

The philosopher Wittgenstein often turns up in these broadcasts because when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge he was my ideal example of what a thinker should be. When he was teaching at Cambridge he made zero impact in this new sense. Even under the outgoing Research Assessment system he would have been a liability to his department, because he published only one philosophical book in his lifetime. The book was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and it had a huge influence in the long run, but it might not have scored many funding points after he told the assessment board they were a bunch of dummies. He wasn’t just incapable of diplomacy, he disapproved of it.

If he were teaching now under the incoming Research Excellence system he would be a disaster for his department. You couldn’t imagine him making contact with a television producer and saying, ‘Look, I’ve got this terrific idea for a programme about a man obsessed with language and it’s perfect for Daniel Day-Lewis.’ He would have been hopeless. But that was just what I liked about him. It was what I liked about all the dons, even the crazy ones. There was one guy who was given a fellowship in about 1923 and spent the rest of his life walking around town with a bundle of newspapers under his arm. But that was the price a great university was willing to pay for extending to its scholars the freedom to pursue an interest for its own sake.

In the years I spent pretending to study for a Ph.D., I would sit in the Copper Kettle cafe opposite King’s College and read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Occasionally I would look up to make a philosophical investigation of a passing undergraduette. Then I looked down again to puzzle at another brilliantly compressed paragraph. Wittgenstein was having his impact, and it was an impact that couldn’t be measured. A university is, or should be, a place where you can’t yet tell what will be useful to the outside world, because it deals with the inside world, the most inside of all worlds, the mind. For all I know, that was what my uncle Harold was doing. He had done his time in the outside world, fighting for democracy against Japanese soldiers on the Kokoda trail, and now he was gazing within.


At the family house in Cambridge I lead the life of a civilian on an army base. I live surrounded by so many academics that if I spent too much time listening I would be stifled with feelings of inadequacy and unable to write a line. Sometimes, though, it pays to tune in. I was alerted to the Impact boondoggle by a raft-load of dedicated young scholars who had taken one look at the new rules and realized that not only the subjects would be under threat, but that the whole of the humanities would inevitably suffer if these mad plans were carried out. Whichever committee decided that the world of the humanities didn’t need to know about, say, the early trans-Baltic Normans would soon decide that it didn’t need to know about the ancient Greeks either.

I like to think that I would quite soon have been alerted to the topic on my own account, if only by the manic intensity with which its proponents abused the English language. For the academy, anyone talking managerial jargon should count as an invader. Wherever there is an invasion, however, there will be collaborators, and one of the marks of the new barbarism in academic life has always been the number of begowned figures who magically pop up and start cooperating. In Cambridge, at a time when almost every ancient college was sprouting a new building or two, invariably the ugliest new buildings were approved by committees of dons. With their appreciation of the most pretentious and brutalist strains in modern architecture, the dons were merely laying the foundations for their subsequent accommodation to managerial double-talk. And as with any other cast of experts, they were deadlier in committee than when alone. Nigel Balchin, in his fine novel The Small Back Room, wrote a pioneering study of how supervisory committees are bad at attaining a desirable goal. E. V. Jones, in his essential memoir Most Secret War, put the study on what should have been a permanent basis when he demonstrated that a scientific committee could defeat its own ends simply by being too big, or by having even one self-serving member. (According to Jones, any committee containing Sir Robert Watson-Watt, nominal inventor of radar, would have been useless even if radar had been its subject.) It’s a condition of academic freedom that the universities should organize their own affairs, but the freedom can be fatal when exercised in furtherance of a governmental diktat conceived in the name of efficiency, equality, diversity or any other measure except high standards of knowledge.

That being said, several fans of Nicholas Cage told me I had been unfair to him. They were probably right. I had been made angry by how, in Leaving Las Vegas, he kept getting between me and Elisabeth Shue. Male film stars obsess me because they are crucial to my fantasy projects. One of those is a script about Wittgenstein, but in my nightmares the studio wants Brad Pitt for the lead. What a wonderful subject, though. It would be ideal for Daniel Day-Lewis, but Rupert Everett might be even better. You will judge correctly that I am whistling to keep my spirits up. It never occurred to me that the universities, in my time, would become the entry portals for the space invaders. Like most goof-offs I was counting on the continued stability of the institutions I goofed off from.