British sociology is relentlessly marching towards excellence. A leading sociology department prides itself in its “international reputation for excellence”, one of the country’s most distinguished journals highlights its “commitment to excellence”, and prospective students in sociology can join the ESRC’s “Pathways to Excellence” programme, which is grounded in the agency’s “commitment to excellence in training” (as well as a 12 per cent cut to its budget). A Google search on “sociology” and “excellence” yields nearly 8 million results. Excellence is everywhere.
While this may seem encouraging in a time in which the discipline has come under serious threat, the question remains what excellence means. University websites, outlines of ESRC funding schemes, announcements for excellence awards, and so forth make liberal use of the term without ever defining it. It could be that excellence is simply a buzzword for things, institutions, and people that are great, outstanding, or possess some sort of superior quality. However, the term’s sheer ubiquity and the contexts in which it tends to appear would seem to suggest otherwise.
Type “excellence sociology” or “excellence university” into Google, restricting your search results to the UK, and consider some of the university websites that are listed in return. Again, excellence appears on university websites as a vacant concept, never explicitly defined and therefore both elusive and compelling. Its meaning nonetheless can be inferred from other recurring terms with which it tends to be associated. Specifically, this concerns the commitment to achievement in teaching, business and commercial enterprises, and research that universities and academic departments are keen to highlight on their homepages. When rendered as “excellence in teaching”, “excellence in research”, and “excellence in our support of business”, the concept’s meaning begins to suggest itself. In contemporary academic culture in the UK, excellence in all three areas is measured by concrete yardsticks. Attainments in research are measured through scholars’ ability to attract grant funds and to publish articles with high citation frequencies. Achievements in teaching are measured through departments’ ranking in league tables and student satisfaction surveys and rates of successful course completion. A commitment to business and academic entrepreneurialism is typically evidenced by the number and magnitude of grants and consulting contracts attracted from private corporations, public agencies, and so on.
This system of relentless performance measurement radically transfigures the nature of scholarly work and drastically transforms the academic core relationship between teacher and student. In this initial exploration of the meaning of excellence, I would like to focus on the issue of teaching. For much of its recent history, the teaching of sociology was, at least to a large extent, characterised by a dedication to social critique and the enhancement of students’ political awareness through the interpretation of individuals’ life experiences in social structural context. In this sense, sociology became closely associated with the project of a critical pedagogy, devoted to the idea of participatory democracy and the critique of authoritarian tendencies in social life.
Arguably, sociology’s endorsement of key aspects of audit culture and performance measurement has drained the discipline of its ability to maintain these commitments. League tables and student satisfaction surveys tend to focus on the formal aspects of academic organisation, such as class sizes, staff-student ratios, and post-degree employment records. Course pass records are bureaucratic measures designed to protect universities’ reputation by making sure that sufficient numbers of students are awarded good marks and degree certificates. Academic management strategies are geared towards achievement (excellence) in these areas, creating narrow bureaucratic frameworks for teaching adverse to complex, challenging teaching strategies geared towards the development of students’ critical imagination. For example, recently introduced teaching management programmes, such as the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education, tend to focus on the simplification of the language used in classroom, the simplification of teaching materials, and the presentation of class content in easily absorbed, bite-size chunks. Teaching in the ideal-typical ‘excellent university’ is thus diametrically opposed to previously dominant imaginations of academic life, which highlighted the capability of universities to create citizens capable of active engagement in the democratic process.
In this sense, ‘excellence’ might be understood as an ideological centrepiece of the neoliberal transformation of higher education in general and sociology in particular that is currently underway.
Daniel Nehring is Lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Behavioural Sciences at the University of the West Indies.