‘Impact’ as surplus value

Hegel teaching

Universities are increasingly treated like businesses, and most people seem to think that this is a good thing. According to the general prejudice, public-sector organizations like universities tend towards considerable economic wastage, while private-sector businesses are economically efficient, making the most out of the money they invest. Since the money that pays for universities comes from taxes levied on the citizens of the country in which they exist, it seems reasonable to require universities to demonstrate that the money is being well spent. One of the latest means that the government and funding councils like the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have settled on is to measure the ‘impact’ of research, i.e. the ‘impact’ of the books and articles that scholars write. (Their definition of what this ‘impact’ might be is quite surprising; I shall explain it later.)

Much has been written about the dangers of the ‘impact’ agenda, which seems essentially to require universities to defend their very existence in terms of the economic (as opposed to civilizing) benefit they bring to society, and a Council for the Defence of British Universities has been founded partly to resist this pressure. But in this blogpost I want to make a different and simpler point. The forced comparison to business distorts the investigation, irrespective of the merits of the idea of ‘impact’, because it focuses attention not on what might be considered the proper activity of universities, their teaching and research, but on an alchemical byproduct of their normal activity, a ‘surplus value’ that can potentially be sold into private hands in a direct transfer of public money into the private sector. As strange as it may seem, I want to suggest that acquiescing in or supporting the drive to assess ‘impact’ is therefore at the same time to acquiesce in or to support the privatization of universities.

The production of surplus value

Business operates according to a simple model under capitalism. Suppose that it costs the owner of a trouser factory £5 to pay a worker and £5 for the raw materials, associated factory costs (electricity, upkeep of the machinery, etc.), distribution costs, and so on, so that his total outlay is £10. He asks the worker to make him a pair of trousers that he can sell for £12. The value of the pair of trousers is £10, which is the cost the businessman paid for the materials (etc.) and the labour. That additional £2 is ‘surplus value’ that has been created by the worker in manufacturing the pair of trousers for the businessman, and it is taken away for profit. There is, therefore, a kind of alchemy in capitalism: the businessman pays £10 and gets £12 back.

In essence, the current idea of ‘impact’ in universities works in the same way. It costs a certain amount to fund the teaching and research that goes on in universities (call that the £5 labour cost of the trouser-making example I’ve just given: it includes the wages of the administrative and support staff as well as academics) and a certain amount to maintain the buildings and libraries and invest in the raw materials (books, journal subscriptions, accommodation blocks, etc.) that are essential to the running of a university, the second £5 in my earlier example. Universities then ‘produce’ teaching and research, and students come away having had a certain intensity of intellectual training that is reflected partly in their degree certificate. But none of those things, as we shall see, count as ‘impact’, which does not focus on the things ‘produced’ within the ‘factory’ of the university (the teaching and research), but instead is focused on a surplus. The model is somewhat similar to healthcare, a comparison I shall return to. In a healthcare system like the NHS the costs of wages, buildings, means of treatment, and machinery, and so on, are incurred in the ‘production’ of healthcare, i.e. the treatment of illness in the patients who present to the NHS. It may seem that the most sensible measure of whether the money was well spent would be to assess the teaching and research that emerges from the universities (or the health treatments that emerge from the NHS). But ‘impact’, as I say, looks for something else.

Definitions of impact

For the purposes of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the latest manifestation of the government’s periodic research-monitoring scheme, ‘impact’ is defined in the following terms. (‘Impact’ is also assessed as part of research grant applications to bodies such as the AHRC, and is often slightly nuanced in its definitions in each particular context, but the broad outlines of all conceptions of ‘impact’ match this.)

Impact is defined as an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia (as set out below).

[…]

  • Impacts on research or the advancement of academic knowledge within the higher education sector (whether in the UK or internationally) are excluded. […]
  • Impacts on students, teaching or other activities within the submitting HEI are excluded
  • Other impacts within the higher education sector, including on teaching or students, are included where they extend significantly beyond the submitting H[igher] E[ducation] I[nstitution]

In a certain sense the language sounds reasonable, the demands fair: surely universities should have an effect on society or culture. But as can be seen from the emphases I have added, ‘impact’ specifically does not measure the teaching and research that is being paid for actually within universities: that means that ‘impact’ does not include the changes a scholar makes on the lives of the students they teach or the colleagues they interact with, through their research, around the world. ‘Impact’ measures instead the surplus value generated in the process of producing teaching and research, some uses of which I will elaborate below.

The unreasonable nature of this demand can be seen clearly if we translate the process into healthcare terms. In the ordinary sense of the word, we might measure the impact of a heart surgeon’s work by the number of people whose lives she saves by carrying out heart surgery. But this is work for which the surgeon is paid, and for which the facilities are maintained: this is the value of the surgeon’s work (the £10 of the original calculation), but what ‘impact’ is looking for is the surplus-value of that work, an unforeseen, additional £2. The definition of a surgeon’s ‘impact’ would be, to translate the REF’s terms, ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, the environment or quality of life, beyond the healthcare profession’. So, the surgeon might have to demonstrate that her work inspired a television company to film her operations (and so made a profit, as a television production company), or led to a major exhibition at a museum of the history of medicine (which, again, made a profit through ticket sales), and so on.

There are only two obvious reasons why anyone in the higher education system could possibly support the assessment of ‘impact’. The first is that they haven’t thought it through to see how ludicrous its definition is (in fact, many people have criticized it, in print and in public speeches, in precisely these terms). The second reason is that they support the economic model that it exemplifies and helps to drive.

The ideological logic of impact

The assessment of ‘impact’ should, I think, be understood for what it is: the imposition of a capitalist productive logic on the working lives of universities, as a necessary background to their privatization. For one last time a glance at the NHS can help to clarify this development. What started, decades ago, as the private-sector outsourcing of cleaning, cooking, and other non-medical services has become, under the latest legislation, the compulsory putting out to tender (i.e. giving to private hands) of core medical services (read this). Similarly, the non-academic services of universities are in a long process of transition into public/private ‘partnership’, more advanced in some universities than in others; and the front-line academic service provision – the teaching of students – is taking baby steps into the private sector, as the BSc in Business and Enterprise taught by the gigantic education business Pearson and validated as a degree by Royal Holloway, University of London, exemplifies.

There is no ostensible link between the assessment of ‘impact’ and the development of private degree programmes, except at this one crucial theoretical level: the ‘impact’ agenda requires universities to generate surplus value, which is then measured. If surplus value falls below a certain acceptable level, the universities are penalized. And this surplus value is an alchemical byproduct of the academic ‘production’ of universities, a possibility either for spin-off industries – such as private research labs that stand to make a profit from the development of drugs or technology – or indeed for private education companies to use the brand identity of a university to sell a degree. In the case of the Pearson degree, RHUL does no teaching but the surplus value of RHUL’s own teaching and research activity creates a bonus, the aura of a piece of paper, a degree certificate, which can be sold for private profit. Expertise paid for in the public sector is then leeched off by the private sector, which does not invest in the perpetuation of the expertise but merely benefits from its surplus value.[1]

I have made several comparisons to the NHS in this post, but there is one significant difference between universities and the healthcare profession, which should worry academics, who should do something about it, and the general public, who should demand that we do. In the health service, professional bodies are fighting the government, while in universities the voices of individuals, which are often eloquent (Stefan Collini is one of the most vocal: see this LRB piece and his book), are ignored by their vice chancellors and the directors of research funding councils, both of whom are almost (not entirely, but almost) entirely complicit with the government’s agenda.

It seems like a reasonable, moderate, realistic response to current political pressures (‘We simply have to explain how we are providing value-for-money: it is economically and politically naive, in a time of general austerity, to refuse to justify our existence economically.’). In reality it is nothing of the sort. The ‘impact’ agenda is not merely a crass annoyance. We academics are not being asked to justify the economic value of the work we do. We are asked to demonstrate the surplus value of the work we do. And we would be fooling ourselves to think that our universities – the universities, I mean, that are owned by the citizens of this country – will have any control over that surplus value once it is produced. Not just because it is unreasonable and wrong-headed but because it proceeds according to a logic of economic exploitation and the transfer of public funds into private hands, we should oppose the ‘impact’ agenda by main force.


  1. The economic model of scholarly presses is, incidentally, the same: they do not pay for the writing, reviewing, or editing of the books and journals they publish. Universities pay for that first through the salaries of their scholars. And they pay a second time, through the cost of the books and journal subscriptions. The publishers sit in a blessed middle ground, feeding off the surplus value, without having to invest anything in the production of their goods. It is unsurprising that the current favoured model for making scholarship ‘open access’, i.e. freely available to all on the internet, is to provide a means of maintaining the publishers’ profit, by charging scholars for the honour of having their work published at all. Once again, the economic system is left unquestioned.
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