Talking Points

The Challenge for the Critical Academic

Light Bulb People We have launched the Centre for Critical Social Research as a vehicle for connecting our work into the struggles for equality and recognition outside of the ivory tower of academia. The nature of academic work means that we spend too much of our time in the bubble of the University, writing for and speaking to the same audiences.

We are very proud that we produce work of the highest scholarly standard within the Centre, but also aim to reach out to a broader range of communities locally, nationally and internationally. It is for this reason that we are launching Talking Points as a way to spark conversation and debate based on the work of those in and connected to the Centre.

Neo-liberal model

Higher education is changing, moving towards a neo-liberal model, where students are customers and the staff’s primary duty is to provide a quality service. Charging students £9,000 to attend has an impact on the student-teacher relationship, where the student’s expectations are raised as to our roles and responsibilities to them. The consumer model of higher education shifts the motivation of Universities from knowledge production to income generation in a way that places pressures on those of us engaged in critical social research. Less time is given to research because we have to live up to the pressures of the market.

When research time is available, it is increasingly defined in terms of gaining external income, which is becoming more elitist and difficult to access. Critically engaged research, with a political edge, faces a hard time getting funded, restricting the possibilities of having significant time to dedicate to projects.

Despite the barriers that the neo-liberal University creates, there are still opportunities for creative and engaged research. Birmingham City University has committed to the Centre and supported cutting edge developments such as black studies, political activism, and international studies.

Privileged position

As academics we occupy a privileged position in a (relatively) well paid profession, where we still largely have autonomy over the work we do. As I was explaining to a student recently, whichever job you have on the plantation, neo-liberal market forces are going to shape your role. There are very few, however, that offer the possibility to determine the work that you do. What other job could I spend so much time speaking and writing about Malcolm X and black radicalism?

It is up to us as academics to make sure that our work is relevant and connects with wider communities. It is all too easy to get trapped in the bubble of teaching, admin, conferences and writing for academic journals. There is a wider world out there that we need to engage in, a world that largely goes about its business with no reference to the work that we do. If we have a role to play in broader struggles, then we need to engage in them and not disconnect in the Ivory (or even Ebony) Tower.

No matter how restrictive the conditions in higher education become, it will remain a job steeped in privilege. The starting salary for a full-time lecturer is significantly above the average income, with a pay scale that stretches into the top 10 per cent of earners in the country. We have the right to demand fair wages increases and working conditions, but we should also put these in context. Our struggles need to be connected to those who are in more precarious situations than ourselves.

Black studies

One of the reasons that we have developed Black Studies as part of the Centre, is that when the movement was launched in the USA it was organically connected to politics and activism off campus. Grassroots organisations such as the Black Panther Party were involved in the campaigns for Black Studies because they saw the saw the opportunity to use University resources for the benefit of wider struggles.

Sociologist Robert Staples argued that we needed to retool our research to be the ‘science of liberation’, to use our work to help transform the conditions in deprived communities. This can only be done in collaborations with wider publics, and that is only possible if we leave the comfort of the University bubble and engage.

The challenge for the Centre for Critical Social Research is the same as that facing all of the academy. We must build the necessary connections to wider publics and directly engage in struggles for equality. As Marx said a long time ago, "Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it". 

Dr Kehinde Andrews
Head of the Centre for Critical Social Research