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The furnace of instrumental reason

Smith, R.



P. Smeyers

M. Depaepe


In this chapter I argue that the primary function of the current obsession with research funding is, like many extensions of neoliberalism into education, largely symbolic: it is symbolic of the hegemony of instrumental thinking and its ambition to expunge all other forms of reason from the academy (which I focus on here) and other areas of public life. Several brief case-studies illustrate and support my argument. UK academics are increasingly expected to secure external research funding, though often the amounts they must raise are small. Against such insignificant sums the opportunity costs are clear, as academics are distracted from other kinds of research (and teaching). The comparison with Mao Zedong’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ is irresistible: in 1958 every commune in China was required to set up small backyard furnaces to produce steel from scrap metal. Farmers, doctors, teachers and others had to neglect their regular work in order to join in. A second example: many academic research projects that secure substantial external funding actually cost the host university more than the funding brings in. Universities persist in supporting underfunded research because even inadequate external funding has value as ‘status capital’. As a symbol of instrumental reason the fixation on funding requires academics to speak the language of the new breed of pro-vice-chancellors and other senior officers who now make their career in management and administration rather than undertaking such tasks for a limited period before returning to their academic work. They speak a new language with the fluency and enthusiasm of converts. Its prominent words – transparency, accountability and performance management, show that the urge to control and discipline the academy is never far away.


Smith, R. (2018). The furnace of instrumental reason. In P. Smeyers, & M. Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research : ethics, social justice, and funding dynamics (209-222). Springer Verlag.

Online Publication Date Mar 23, 2018
Publication Date Mar 23, 2018
Deposit Date Jan 12, 2018
Publisher Springer Verlag
Pages 209-222
Series Title Educational research
Book Title Educational research : ethics, social justice, and funding dynamics.
ISBN 9783319739205