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Collier, R --- "'We're All Socio-legal Now? Legal Education, Scholarship and the 'Global Knowledge Economy' Reflections on the UK Experience" [2005] LegEdDig 23; (2005) 13(4) Legal Education Digest 9

‘We’re All Socio-legal Now?’ Legal Education, Scholarship and the ‘Global Knowledge Economy’ — Reflections on the UK Experience

R Collier

[2005] LegEdDig 23; (2005) 13(4) Legal Education Digest 9

26 Sydney L Rev 4, 2004, pp 503–536

There are, at present, clear signs of a growing debate taking place within the legal academic community in the UK about the possible implications for legal research and teaching of a number of developments taking place in the field of higher education; changes in what has been termed the ‘political economy’ in which academic research is produced. This article seeks to explore the contours of this debate, to identify the key themes and concerns which have emerged within the recent literature on the ‘restructured’ university and the knowledge economy, and in particular, to consider the extent to which these developments have impacted on and changed the field of legal education and scholarship in the UK.

Globalisation itself is, of course, a deeply contested notion, historically and conceptually. It has been generally understood within this recent work on university restructuring, however, to be a phenomenon associated centrally with the idea of a ‘borderless’ world economy; with the flow and instantaneous sharing of information and the ‘compression of time and space’ seen to have arisen at the interface of technological advance and political, economic and cultural change.

The term corporatisation has been used in this literature to capture the central idea that what has occurred has been a heightened interconnection between the objectives, goals and practices of the business and academic worlds. Developing an understanding of the dynamics of corporatisation on universities cannot, however, be seen simply in terms of an ‘add-on’ to the university; corporate links are, rather, more accurately understood as an add-into the university, producing qualitative and far-reaching changes in the institution and the practices of academics themselves.

In the UK the processes of privatisation have been evident not simply in the growing move towards a ‘user-pays’ system of higher education. In the case of law schools, securing further income streams, whether from Continuing Professional Development or ‘third-strand’ ‘outreach’ income-generating activity, is no longer considered marginal to what many university legal academics ‘do’. It is, rather, a central part of the work of public universities.

In repositioning academics as individuals for whom knowledge is no longer primarily valuable in and of itself — it is, rather, a commodity, a resource to help create wealth and competitive advantage — the idea of useful knowledge has moved centre stage within the debate about university reform and restructuring in the UK. If the processes of privatisation and the idea of the new ‘knowledge worker’ appear symbiotically linked, however, this still leaves open the question of how, at an organisational level, such changes have been instituted within specific institutional contexts. It is in this context that the idea of new managerialism has itself attracted a growing degree of attention within the literature on university restructuring.

UK universities have, over the past two decades, been subject to a diverse and extensive range of accountability and quality assurance mechanisms and assessments in relation to both teaching and research. It is in this context that the idea of ‘performativity’ has come to link the processes of privatisation and the imperatives of the new knowledge economy, as detailed above, to the question of how particular changes have been instituted in the behaviour of individual academics.

The performativity of academics has come, notwithstanding any wider critique which may have emerged of this kind of model of assessment, to pervade numerous aspects of university life at the beginning of the 21st century. Individual academics in the UK exist increasingly in competition — in the name of efficiency and effectiveness — not just with scholars in other schools and faculties, but also with colleagues in their own institutions, over the securing of esteem indicators and, importantly, of the space and time in which it might be possible to produce research in the first place. At the same time, and related to the above, there has occurred a reframing of what it means to be a ‘successful’ academic, an issue which has redrawn understandings of the trajectory of the university career.

A core and recurring theme within the literature outlined above has been the argument that the corporatisation of universities has brought with it a redirection of academic activities — a move away from the pursuit of ‘disinterested knowledge’ and towards the capitalisation and exploitation of learning and ‘knowledge practices’. What resulted from this process, it has been argued, is a growing pressure on, and a marginalisation of, the space and place of those who might seek to engage in a critical social science scholarship within universities.

In essence, it has been argued within legal studies in the UK at the present moment that the majority, if not all, university law schools can now be characterised as embracing a broadly ‘liberal’, pluralistic approach to legal education and scholarship. It is important, firstly, not to overstate the argument about what has changed in universities. There are considerable historical continuities in seeing links between universities and commercial interests. The core university/economy nexus is itself far from new. The conflict between alternative images of universities as businesses and repositories of disinterested scholarship has a long history and was a matter of debate even at the purported high-point of social liberalism in the 1960s. In short, the changes which have taken place may have actually opened out a university system hitherto based on patronage, elitism and unaccountability to what are — for all their limitations— far more egalitarian processes and cultures in relation to such areas as recruitment and promotion.

There is, it has been argued, little evidence to support the view that the research agendas and curriculum of UK law schools have become more technocratic and corporatised — at least not in the way that some of the advocates of the restructuring thesis have suggested. ‘Servicing the economy’ is thus, on this argument, at best a marginal consideration in terms of what motivates most legal academics. In addition, and for all the continued dominance of the ‘core’ and private law subjects, the contemporary law school curricula in the UK is one in which, generally, contextual, socio-legal, ‘critical’, ‘essentially academic’ subjects abound and continue to prove popular with students, notwithstanding the financial imperatives which undoubtedly inform their choice of degree subjects and future careers.

Across the higher education sector in the UK the declining salaries, status and autonomy of academics have, over the past two decades, been the subjects of numerous studies and research reports. And what has emerged is a picture of an academy beset by problems of low morale and long working hours; pervasive work-related stress and, at times, ill-health; of an embedded institutional bifurcation between research and teaching; and a widespread erosion of democratic control within the context of an increasingly low-trust environment resulting from centralised and directive management practices.

Drawing on the growing international literature concerned with the application of business practices and managerialism to the field of higher education, it is suggested that there are growing signs that university legal education and scholarship in the UK is, increasingly, being transformed into an industry preoccupied with economic rationalism, efficiency and the generation of income. The new model university is itself a quasi-capitalist, technocratic, instrumental institution increasingly concerned, primarily, with the production of ‘useful knowledge’. The embrace of the term ‘liberal legal education’ may continue to have a rhetorical power across many universities. It is important to remember, however, that for many legal academics in the UK the purpose of the law school has long been, and continues to be, primarily, the training of legal professionals.

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