Let’s Detoxify Ourselves-Knowledge for the Future (On Politics of European Education)

Dear friends,

I’d like to share with you the English translation of our position paper Disintossichiamoci–Sapere per il Futuro, published a week ago on the largest academic discussion website in Italy, that quikly exceeded 1000 subscriptions from all areas of the country and from all disciplines. Also some foreign colleagues gave us their valuable support. It is very encouraging and allows us to aim high.

The biennial summit of European education ministers, the 2020 EHEA Ministerial Conference, will be held in Rome in June, a meeting organized within the framework of the Bologna Process. During those days – 23-25 June 2020 – we want to organize a counter-summit in Rome: a meeting that brings together different European opposition movements of professors and researchers, to ask – together with the students as well – a profound rethinking of knowledge policies at the international level. We are convinced that the supranational framework is decisive, as shown by the many affinities between the particular situations in which everyone of us is involved. We want to work together, apart from the individual differences, with the aim of building a strong and clear alternative to the idea of knowledge the current policies are enforcing in Europe and beyond.

Help us to get in touch with others. It would be very important to identify representatives from the various organizations, with whom work operationally in network for setting up our June counter-summit.

Thank you for your help and hope to hear from you soon,

Valeria Pinto  (sapereperilfuturo@gmail.com)

Let’s Detoxify Ourselves-Knowledge for the Future

“Economics are the methods. The object is to change the soul”. Margaret Thatcher’s formula sums up well the process that characterized the policies of knowledge, education and research (but not only that) in the last decades.

The economic method, shortage as a normal condition, at or below the survival limit, is visible to everyone. Also clearly visible, together with the financial one, is the bureaucratic strangulation. Less visible is the target. The change of our soul is so deep that we do not even notice anymore the destruction that has taken place around us and through us: the paradox of the end – inside the “knowledge society” – of a world dedicated to the things of knowledge. Our very hearing has become accustomed to a programmatic linguistic devastation, where an impoverished technical-managerial and bureaucratic jargon reiterates expressions having a precise operational value, which however seems to be difficult to grasp: quality improvement, excellence, competence, transparency, research products, teaching provision… And autonomy, or – to evoke Thomas Piketty’s words – the imposture that initiated the process of destruction of the European university model. A destruction that has taken as a rhetorical pretext some faults – real and not – of the old university, but of course without remedying them, because that was not its goal.

Thirty years after the introduction of “autonomy”, twenty after the Bologna process, ten after the “Gelmini Act” (in Italy), the critical literature about this destruction is boundless. It is a fact, although making it explicit seems a taboo, that research and teaching are no longer free. Research, subjected to senseless pressure that pushes us to “produce” more every year, is, every time more than just before (in Italy VQR, ASN etc.), in the grip of a real bubble of titles, which transforms an already fatal “publish or perish” into a “rubbish or perish”. At the same time, pressure is exerted to “deliver” an education entirely modeled on the demands of the productive world. The modernization that programmatically tore the university away from every “ivory tower” – making it a “responsive”, “service university” – meant nothing but a way, the “third way”, towards the world of private interests. Emptied of their value, education and research are evaluated, that is to say “valued”, through the market and quasi-market of evaluation, which, in its best institutional capacity, serves only to “favor (…) the effect of social control and the development of positive market logic “(CRUI 2001).

Due to the imposition of this market logic, the freedom of research and teaching – albeit protected by art. 33 of the Italian Constitution – is now reduced to freedom of enterprise, submitted to a regime of production of useful knowledge (useful above all to increase private profit), which controls the ways, times and places of this production. An authoritarian management expropriates researchers and scholars of their own faculty of judgment. Criteria deprived from internal justification, as numbers and measures that, as everyone knows, have no scientific basis and do not guarantee in any respect the value and quality of knowledge, are smuggled as objective ones. Pre-defining percentages of excellence and unacceptability, dividing with medians or prescribing thresholds, sorting in rankings, dividing magazines into ratings, all of this, together with the most vexatious control practices in the form of certifications, accreditations, reports, reviews, etc., only has one function: forcing competition of individuals, groups or institutions within the only reality to which today the right to establish values is given, that is the market, in this case the global market of education and research, which is an entirely recent invention.

As a matter of fact, where traditionally the markets did not exist (education and research, but also health, safety and so on) the imperative was to create them or simulate their existence. The logic of the competitive market has established itself as a real ethical command, opposing which has meant, for the few who have tried it, having to defend themselves from accusations of inefficiency, irresponsibility, waste of public money, defense of corporative and caste privileges. Far from the triumph of laissez faire: a police “evaluative state” has worked to ensure that this logic is internalized in normal study and research practices, operating a real de-professionalisation, which has transformed scholars engaged in their research into compliant entrepreneurial researchers, obedient to the diktats of the corporate university. To gratify them they are offered an economic and existential precariousness that goes under the name of excellence: the functional framework to a “competitive Darwinism” that is explicitly theorized and, also thanks to the moral coverage offered by the ideology of merit, forcedly made normal.

Many now believe that this knowledge management model is toxic and unsustainable in the long term. The performance measurement and reward evaluation devices convert scientific research (asking in order to know) into the search for competitive advantages (asking in order to obtain), thus jeopardizing the meaning and role of knowledge for society. More and more today we write and do research to reach a productivity threshold rather than to add knowledge to humanity: “never before in the history of humanity have so many written so much despite having so little to say to so few” ( Alvesson et al., 2017). In this way, research is fatally condemned to irrelevance, dispelling the social appreciation it has enjoyed so far and generating a deep crisis of trust. The time has come for radical change if we want to avoid the implosion of the knowledge system as a whole. The bureaucratization of research and the managerialization of higher education risk becoming the Chernobyl of our model of social organization.

What is needed today is to reaffirm the principles that protect the right of all of society to have free knowledge, teaching, research – to protect, that is, the very substance of which a democracy is made – and for this reason to protect those who dedicate themselves to knowledge. A standpoint is needed to bring together what resists as a critical force, as the ability to discriminate, distinguish what cannot be held together: sharing and excellence, freedom of research and new evaluation, good higher education and rapid supply of low- cost workforce, free access to knowledge and market monopolies.

In this direction some stages are outlined. The first one is an assessment of the actual existence and consistency of our field. A project cannot move forward unless a minimum mass of people willing to commit to it is reached. If there is an adequate preliminary adhesion – let’s say 100 people in symbolic terms – we will organize a meeting to discuss alternative policies about evaluation, times and forms of knowledge production, recruitment and organization. Looking ahead, we will carry out an initiative in June, at the same time as the next ministerial conference of the Bologna process, which will be held in Rome this year, with the aim of demanding – in conjunction with other European movements of researchers and scholars – a radical rethinking of knowledge policies.

Valeria Pinto – Davide Borrelli – Maria Chiara Pievatolo – Federico Bertoni + 1000

If you want to add your name to the declaration, write to sapereperilfuturo@gmail.com, indicating your name and institution.