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Competitive Accountability in Academic Life

The Struggle for Social Impact and Public Legitimacy

Richard Watermeyer

This book considers how a culture of ‘competitive accountability’ in UK higher education produces multiple tensions, contradictions and paradoxes that are destabilizing and deleterious to the work and identities of academics as research scientists. It suggests the potential of a new discourse of scientific accountability, that frees scientists and their public communities from the absurdities and profligacy of ‘performativity’ and ‘managerial governmentality’ encountered in the REF and an impact agenda – the noose of competitive accountability – and a more honest and meaningful public contract.
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Richard Watermeyer


A pressure for academics to conform to institutional demands is unmistakably high. Academics are a group whose description as a precariat is well reasoned, whose personal and professional welfare seems perpetually at high risk, and whose folding into the diktat of institutions is a matter of necessary pragmatism. Yet the academic community is not completely without its own authority or clout. Even if the walls of institutions seem to be closing in, even if tenets of academic praxis, critical freedom and autonomy appear to be under siege, even if the leadership of academic communities is increasingly unrepresentative of academics themselves, even if universities are becoming increasingly unrecognizable as breeding grounds of free and expansive ideas and of abstract and lateral, big and bold thinking, even if they are instead supermarkets of high-value commodity transactions, even if higher education is ultimately only a prestige economy, the restitution of the academic as a critical and moral authority is not without foundation. Yet the potential for renewal exists only where academics resist the individualistic impulse of their neoliberal indoctrination and regain an understanding of and empathy with the importance of their collective endeavour. In other words, and as the UK industrial action against academics’ pension reform – discussed in Chapter 7 – has so powerfully illustrated, the rebuilding of academics’ self-concept starts by assuming a level of responsibility far more profound, meaningful and genuine than any attempt at professing impact – or, in crude terms, how great they are. This is a...

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