University Rankings and Jacques Ellul’s concept of “technique”

Currently I find myself doing work on world university rankings (Times Higher, ARWU, QS, etc.) and with all the reading of policy and academic papers, fatigue is starting to set in. It seems that rankings are a Good Thing, or rankings are a Bad Thing, or rankings are a Thing, which can be potentially Good or Bad. There is an awful lot of noise, but not a lot of information. Luckily, a restorative to this policennui (can that be a word?) arrived yesterday in the post, in the form of Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society.

As per usual, a translation of a foreign book somewhat clunkily misleads a potential reader, because the original title of this work is La Technique: L’enjeu du siècle I won’t get into the implications of the subtitle (is this ‘stake’ a wager after Pascal where we are gambling on our humanity, etc. etc.), but rather the main idea of “technique”. Ellul writes first and foremost about technique, as something that precedes technology and “the Machine”. Indeed, technology must necessarily follow the existence of technique, because even science comes after technique. Our inability to recognise this thus far, he writes, is a cause for much of our confusion. Making these distinctions, as Ellul does, allows us to see certain things which otherwise escape our notice:

The machine, so characteristic of the nineteenth century, made an abrupt entrance into a society which, from the political, institutional, and human points of view, was not made to receive it; and man has had to put up with it as best he can.

We are still creatures of the nineteenth century, in the form of industrial scale of production, global capital, international communications, urban society, and so on. I would add another to those Ellul suggests, however, in the form of the university and higher education. Education itself, public education, is a product of the nineteenth century. It was developed (piecemeal, and unevenly) in order to meet the needs of industrialism. Industrialism here is another big noun we use which encompasses innumerable assumptions, expectations, as well as other big nouns. And it can also be subsumed within Ellul’s technique.

Higher education and the university, however, took some time to catch up with this sense of ‘public education’, and even longer to confront the implications of industrialism. Universities were elite institutions: elite in terms of access, and there to serve the sons (no/few daughters) of the elite. A transition slowly took place, however, and the elite form of education gave way to mass education. Today a further transformation is taking place, as mass education has given way to universal education. (This outline comes from Martin Trow’s 1973 Problems in the Transition from Elite to Mass Higher Education. Below tables are from Ellen Hazelkorn‘s “Everybody wants to be like Harvard – Or Do They: Cherishing All Missions Equally” , available as pdf here.)elite, mass, universal This chronological sketch presents an overview of what higher education is, in its bare outline. It puts idealisations such as “the life of the mind”, or “pure research”, or “moral improvement”, or anything else, at arm’s length. These ideas have a place, but a place in context. This life of the mind was only possible in the specific situation of a world where 0-15% of individuals attended university. Cardinal Newman, for example, was not proposing that everybody would attend his ideal college. This form of higher education was predicated on a majority of the population not attending university. That the idealised view of education developed in such elite institutions is no accident.

As a greater proportion of the population began to attend universities, a greater number of such institutions needed to be built. HEI growth in OECD We see this in the table below, which shows the results of this need for growth. A caveat needs to be mentioned however, because this table is for OECD nations only. It represents what is often called the “developed world”. It doesn’t include the BRICS, or the Next Eleven, or any other locations where the greatest growth in higher education will be necessary. Indeed, if the supply for higher education internationally is to keep pace with supply, considerably greater growth than the above will be necessary. Hazelkorn quotes John Daniel in 1996 as saying that “one sizeable new university has to open every week” to keep pace with the projected growth. This means that we have yet another transition in higher education, from universal higher education, to global(ized) higher education.

It is in this context of geopolitics, economic development and growth, demographics, and a complex knowledge ecology that university rankings exist. The older, national rankings (such as U.S. News & World) were a result of or took place at the same time as the transition from mass education to universal education. They met a need to monitor and benchmark higher education according to set principles and expectations. World university rankings are relatively recent, but they mark the transition of university systems into this internationalized context of higher education. The crucial difference, however, is the different status of the participants. We have very wealthy, stable, “developed” countries alongside developing countries going through very real growing pains. Everybody is on the same page, it would appear. Rankings are this ‘same page’, and they are an example of Ellul’s technique par excellence.

Technique integrates everything. It avoids shock and sensational events. Man is not adapted to a world of steel; technique adapts him to it. It changes the arrangement of this blind world so that man can be a part of it without colliding with its rough edges, without the anguish of being delivered up to the inhuman. Technique thus provides a model; it specifies attitudes that are valid once and for all. The anxiety aroused in man by the turbulence of the machine is soothed by the consoling hum of a unified society.

So wrote Ellul in 1954, and almost 60 years later we see that university rankings are yet more evidence of this. Rankings function in this way, concealing the wrenching changes being worked in higher education.

World university rankings are symptomatic of and instrumental in this process. Rankings purport to provide the model of a university, just as Cardinal Newman once did. On the other hand is the alternative position, that rankings are a fait accompli. A show of macho realism is held up as the ideal attitude, jutting the chest out, saying “rankings are here to stay, so man up and get on with it.” Any problems with rankings can be solved by methodological finessing: an altered weighting here, a peer-review element there, with a cherry of altmetrics on top. More interesting work has been done on the coercive aspect of rankings, of these forms of evaluation as an example of neoliberalism. I have nothing to add to this, because while the observations made are often, all too often they result in exercises in taxonomy, slowly segueing into mudslinging. Tracing the outlines of neoliberalism(s) thus is tantamount to terminological trainspotting. “Oh, there’s an example of privatization, and there’s a deregulation…” (Godwin’s Law for the word “neoliberalism” wouldn’t go astray).

We need to return to the essence of education – whatever that is, though presumably it doesn’t involve Newman, unless he has been sanitized of all elitism – and allow universities to remain ‘faithful’ to their ‘missions’. So does Ellul speak to these perspectives? Indeed he does, and in more or less just these terms. He outlines (prefiguring Morozov) how technique and its proponents have two solutions at the ready. The first is the creation of new techniques to mediate between the human and the technical/technological. There’s nothing that more technique, more technology can’t fix. Your ranking is having unforeseen and problematic effects? The solution is more ranking! (I have elsewhere termed this the “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” ideology of technology)

The second solution involves redefining the human (via, I suggest, a claim to an “original”, pre-technique situation). I myself have suggested this type of solution in the past, by suggesting we need an ethics of technology, or as Ellul writes, “a Humanism to which the technical movement is subordinated”. But, he continues, “the panacea of merely theoretical humanism is as vain as any other.” Usually at this point, when one has read that there is form of solution A, and form of solution B, and our learned author says both are wrong, then comes boldly proposed alternative C. Ellul is not one for such Hollywood endings. European cinema-style, we are left with an ambiguous and inconclusive end to the book, rather than an ending.

One interpretation of his impasse may be that Ellul did not have the conceptual, theoretical framework to develop such an alternative solution. In this version of events, the requisite distance to see things as they actually are was not available to Ellul (aside: on the role of ‘actual’ here, see Daniel Dennet’s piece on the ‘surely’ operator, “How to spot a weak argument”). If we do not have an alternative solution ourselves (and I do not), then we too do not have the requisite distance to fix matters, to see clearly. This is indeed the way things are often discussed regarding rankings. We hear that they are new, and they have only been around for about a decade, and so it is too soon to tell whether they are a Good Thing, or – if they are a Bad Thing – how they can be replaced beyond piecemeal technocratic improvement.

I am tempted to go in another direction from Ellul’s aporia here, though, in that maybe there is no such solution. If there isn’t one answer, then what if there isn’t just one question, or just one problem called “world university rankings”. What if these rankings must nest within an entire system which conveys not only information to us about our how our policies are being implemented (such as how countries are drawing upon rankings), but also how these policies are being received (in terms of the ‘consumer choice’ aspect of rankings, on the individual, citizen-level).

This would mean rankings would have to be considered as but one element in a diverse system of indicators and evaluation, working not just towards finding the market ideal of efficiency, but also the constitutional and democratic goals of political legitimacy and freedom. In this outline, universities might be ranked, but so too would the activities taking place within them, at the discipline-level, where peer-review would lend greater rigour and legitimacy to the process. Similarly, the entire system of higher education would be evaluated to ensure that there isn’t a growing gap of educational inequality, whereby research is preferred at the expense of education and training (as is now the case).

In some ways, this is a combination of the two forms of solution which Ellul criticises, but this doesn’t seem to be a failing in and of itself. It may have to invoke Engels in my defense here, however, and note that a difference in quantity (understood here to include scale) implies a difference in quality. University rankings deal with the meso, in terms of institutions, but we continually attempt to extend the implications beyond this, to milk them for more than they are worth. At the macro we require the evaluation of entire systems, such as the Universitas 21 ranking of National Higher Education Systems. Similarly, on the micro level, we need evaluations closer to the activities of individual disciplines or sub-disciplines, in a way that does justice to the vagaries of their praxes. Similarly, there is a difference when our analysis is one based on a static thing to be measured, versus the dynamic view of ongoing activities. We need to look at what teachers and researchers do, beyond what they simply have done (this is what is so problematic about the REF in the UK, it uses the concept of “impact” on the level of the individual researcher when perhaps it applies better to the department or discipline).To do justice to the activities we wish to evaluate, we have to see that we do not measure, like the fisherman holding up a dead or dying fish we have caught, but rather we estimate or guesstimate as it is in flux, and in situ.

Whether this is idealistic, or cynically technocratic, I cannot tell. It would doubtless require more administration and bureaucracy, and perhaps my hope in our ability to undertake the effort may be misplaced. Nevertheless, it is an alternative, and it has given me something to think about even beyond the two types of solutions which Ellul suggests that we are limited to. And that’s a start.

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One thought on “University Rankings and Jacques Ellul’s concept of “technique”

  1. Pingback: The term “neoliberal” and the ecumenism of blame | Wetwiring

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