Chapter 1 of

Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education


by Brian Martin

Go to Tied Knowledge contents page

Higher education in Australia has been shaken up since 1987. Just about every academic institution has gone through the trauma of amalgamation or possible amalgamation. Then there is the graduate tax, euphemistically called the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, a major shift away from education free to students. Also important is increasing federal government monitoring and control: the requirement that institutions provide research profiles, the transfer of recurrent funds to the Australian Research Council, regular formal assessment of scholarly performance, and the push to make higher education responsive to the 'national interest', mainly meaning service to industry and government to promote economic growth. Last but not least is the introduction of private universities.

Many academics see these changes as a disastrous attack on key scholarly values. Others areattracted by the prospects for increased funding and the demise of privilege reserved for elite universities.

But, in the wider scheme of things, are the changes really all that great? How much do they really change the day-to-day operation of institutions? Does the graduate tax drastically affect the sort of students in higher education and the jobs they enter? Before all the hue and cry about serving national needs, wasn't much of academic work of service to industry and government already, in a less obvious manner?

The aim of Tied Knowledge is to provide a simple yet comprehensive framework for dealing with these sorts of questions. It steps back from the rush of events and personalities to look at power structures that permeate and shape academia. From this perspective, the changes in Australia since 1987 are not nearly so dramatic as they seem on the surface.

To put my approach in perspective, let me outline some of the standard ways in which academia has been analysed. The bulk of writing relating to higher education has to do with working in the system as it is, such as how-to manuals. This includes textbooks and studies of teaching, administration, counselling and so forth. This is practical material for working in academia, but not for understanding the driving forces behind it.

Also uncritical are standard liberal treatments, which present or assume high ideals of education, scholarship and intellectual freedom as the basis for higher education. While I support the ideals, these treatments essentially serve to obscure underlying power dynamics and typically operate to justify a particular defence of or attack on academia.

The number of writings that provide a fundamental critique of higher education is much smaller. There are quite a few incisive exposés, such as Pierre van den Berghe's Academic Gamesmanship: How to Make a Ph.D. Pay. Such works are titillating, but provide little insight into what really makes higher education tick.

More substantial are the works that deal with the exercise of power by major groups in and out of academia. The most well known critiques of this sort focus on domination of higher education by capitalists, such as Thorstein Veblen's classic The Higher Learning in America and David Smith's Who Rules the Universities? Marxism, the critique of capitalism, provides a useful critical perspective, but has severe limitations. The categories of ownership of the means of production and class struggle just do not get one very far in understanding the dynamics of knowledge.

There is one other branch of analysis of higher education that is worth investigating. It can be called sophisticated academic analysis. This includes the occasional penetrating analyses of the dynamics of higher education that enter the specialist literature in sociology, politics and so forth. The trouble with most of this work is that it is too esoteric and detailed for providing a practical understanding of the day-to-day operation of academia. Furthermore, it is oriented to intellectual dissection of past and present systems, and not how to intervene in a practical sense. Finally, if one can get past the scholarly apparatus and the hard-to-decipher theory, it turns out that the frameworks used are often simple and limiting.

My aim is to present a practical system for understanding higher education, which can provide the tools for thinking through answers to questions such as these:

For obtaining academic appointments and promotions, it is much more important to be a productive researcher than a good teacher. Why?

Many members of the counterculture think that academics have 'sold out to the system'. By contrast, many conservatives see academia as a nest of left-wingers. Why?

Most elite academics are men. Why?

Academics who write popular articles and give radio and television broadcasts are often looked down upon by their colleagues. Why?

There has been an increase in state control over higher education in most Western countries in the past several decades. Why?

Academics claim that their knowledge is value-free. Why?

I aim to present a critical picture, namely a picture which exposes the dynamics of power and avoids convenient justifications for present academia and present society. I also aim to avoid the heavy theory and endless detail and qualification which are characteristic of so much academic writing.

My basic approach is to conceptualise the operation of higher education as involving a wide variety of power struggles between different groups and individuals. As a framework for these struggles, I use the standard idea of a social structure, such as the state or profession. These structures are essentially ways of talking about regular patterns for the exercise of power: they are not fixed or known in advance. They provide a convenient checklist for evaluating the exercise of power.

Within the context of each social structure, there are resources that can be used in power struggles, such as the economic resources available to capitalists. Since a range of social structures are relevant, I try to avoid theories that try to explain all problems in terms of one or two factors, such as capitalism and patriarchy.

Finally, my focus in all this is on knowledge, specifically on how knowledge is used in power struggles. Tied knowledge is knowledge that is selectively useful for particular purposes or groups. One of the basic strategies of academics is to tie knowledge which they create or use both to themselves and to other powerful groups. This idea is a continuing theme.

Chapters 2 through 10 deal with systems of power that impinge on and penetrate into higher education. Chapter 2 deals with the academic community itself and the ways in which it responds to outside pressures by favouring types of knowledge which tie powerful outside groups to academics and vice versa. The following several chapters deal with the complex power dynamics inside academia: internal hierarchy, disciplines, patriarchy and domination of students. The formal hierarchy of vice-chancellors, deans, heads of departments and so forth both enables a small group of academics to control most decisions and also allows the whole system to respond to the more powerful hierarchical groups outside academia. At the level of faculties and departments, power in academia is splintered along the lines of disciplines. Disciplinary specialists use their control over bodies of knowledge to build little empires.

Within academia, there are many groups which are in subordinate positions, including ethnic minorities, gays and the disabled. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with two of the most important of these subordinated groups: women and students.

Chapter 8 deals with the role of the state. Contemporary higher educational systems are licensed by and largely financed by the state, and in many countries tightly monitored by state bureaucracies. Chapters 9 and 10 address capitalism and the professions, which influence both teaching and research done in higher education. Academic credentials provide a way to select people for preferred occupations, a way which seems to be fair but actually reflects all sorts of biases. Academic research provides both practical knowledge to corporations and professions and also ideas for legitimating their activities.

How can academics use knowledge to serve their interests in power struggles? Basically this is done by tying the knowledge to particular groups and their purposes. For example, knowledge about a new drug will be important to drug companies, but not directly very useful to anyone else. This knowledge can be said to be tied to the interests of drug companies. But academic knowledge is usually fairly esoteric: understandable only by specialists. Therefore the drug companies are dependent on experts to utilise the academic knowledge. The companies may retain an academic consultant or hire a specialist trained by academics. The point is that the knowledge is tied both to the interests of the companies and to the interests of certain academics. Chapters 2 through 10 show how knowledge is tied to different groups as a result of power struggles within and between systems of power.

Tied knowledge: tied to whom or what? My argument is that most academic knowledge is tied to both the interests of the academics themselves and also the interests associated with social structures including the state, capitalism, the professions and patriarchy. Furthermore, these structures strongly influence the nature of academic hierarchy, the division of knowledge and the organisation into disciplines, and the domination of staff over students.

Knowledge is not tied up all that neatly and tightly: there are lots of leakages in the system. This raises the question: what are the alternatives to present institutions and the knowledge that is tied to them? Chapters 11 to 15 deal with strategies to restructure academia to serve more egalitarian purposes. There are two basic approaches: to change policies and practices within present institutions and to change the nature of the institutions themselves. I look at four basic strategies: changing policies, changing teaching and research, building alternative education, and linking with social movements. Each strategy has strengths and limitations in terms of challenging and replacing the social structures that are intertwined with academia.

What is the alternative to tied knowledge? An obvious answer might be 'untied knowledge': knowledge equally useful for any social purpose or group. But 'equally useful' knowledge is hardly possible, since different groups have different resources for using knowledge. Even "2+2=4" is tied knowledge, since it is more useful to the numerate than the innumerate. The alternative is knowledge tied to the interests of different groups: the poor, women, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and all those who are exploited and controlled by knowledge tied to the powerful.

My perspective on social structures, power struggles and tied knowledge is, like all other views, a partial view, and inevitably tied to particular interests. I believe that it provides some useful insights for intervening in educational systems. I can only hope that these insights are tied to the promotion of democracy in its widest sense.

Personal background

In most scholarly writing the author is a disembodied commentator, not revealing personal background or motivations. Since I don't subscribe to this picture, it is only fair that I tell something about my own background, in particular the shaping of my views on higher education.

My undergraduate days in the late 1960s were spent at Rice University, a small conservative private institution in Houston, Texas. There I experienced a traditional education, was somewhat frustrated by being required to study many things I did not want to study, and was stimulated by a few innovative courses. During the years 1963-1969 I also spent summers studying at various other US universities: Tennessee, Oregon State, Oklahoma (by correspondence), Colorado and Wisconsin. This gave me a feel for different institutions, but made it clear that there are central uniformities, at least from the student's point of view.

On moving to Australia in 1969, I spent six years at the University of Sydney, four of which were devoted to obtaining a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. During this time I became more interested in educational issues. I organised a series of voluntary courses for first year students based on reading a series of research papers, along the lines of Herman Epstein's A Strategy for Education. I also participated in micro teaching (a teacher-training technique using video), organised discussion groups among postgraduate students about educational issues and the process of research, and developed a programme for visiting classes of other postgraduate students to comment on teaching. During this time I came up against the inertia of tradition in the School of Physics in pushing for changes in undergraduate laboratory teaching.

Also during this time I began reading in a wide variety of areas, including politics, environment, philosophy of science and education. After reading Jerome Ravetz's important book Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, I began observing myself while doing research. My concern aboutthe biases involved in science plus my research on pollution of the upper atmosphere from supersonic transport aircraft led to a detailed examination of research papers in that area, a social research which led to an analysis of the political, economic and professional influences on science, eventually published as The Bias of Science.

In 1976 I went to Canberra to work at the Australian National University, initially in the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies and then in the Department of Applied Mathematics. I confronted a variety of fascinating issues relating to educational politics. My participation in the movement against nuclear power raised issues of the relation between scholarly work and public issues. My status as research assistant and activity in the Health and Research Employees Association sensitised me to issues of academic hierarchy. My discussions with others at ANU and elsewhere exposed me to many features of academic life.

Most important in learning about academia was study of suppression of dissent. This was stimulated by participation in a campaign to gain tenure for Jeremy Evans in the Human Sciences Program at the ANU, which had been under threat since it was first mooted. After I became aware of a number of other similar cases, I began studying further and writing about the issue of suppression. This led to numerous insights into academia, and led me into personal contact and correspondence with many academics in Australia and around the world. This work led to publication of Intellectual Suppression, which I coedited.

During these years, as well as carrying out research in astrophysics and wind power, I studied and wrote articles on the politics of science, environmental politics, technology, peace and war, and educational issues. All of this helped keep me open to the wider connections between different areas of inquiry and between social institutions analysed from a variety of perspectives.

My involvement in the peace movement led me to write Uprooting War, which includes analysis of the structures of the state, bureaucracy, the military, patriarchy and science and technology as roots of war. This provided many insights into how to go about analysing academia.

After my post at the ANU was terminated, I moved in 1986 to the Department of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong. This was a considerable shift in employment: from an elite to a second-echelon university, from primarily research to a teaching position, from a science faculty to a humanities faculty, and from a quiet backwater to a dynamic department. While the change has given me some further insights into academia, I was surprised at the extent to which the analysis of academia which I had developed earlier applied also to the quite different situation at the University of Wollongong. My correspondence with academics around the world, including educational researchers, also gives me confidence in the usefulness of my analysis.

Before beginning on Tied Knowledge, I carried out a series of interviews with people concerning their views on academia, focussing on individuals who I thought would have pondered the issues carefully due to their own experience. I found a lot of commonality in perceptions of academic life, but little awareness of any systematic critique of academia such as I was developing. For example, the priority given to research over teaching is regularly bemoaned by academic teachers but seldom analysed; I have found it easy to explain in terms of structures.

I was eager to write this book because I knew - having seen many others fit this pattern - that as academics rise in the system, they usually become more reluctant to make forceful criticisms that go to the heart of the system. In 1985, having spent two decades in academic institutions in a variety of roles, but still being untenured and retaining a critical perspective, I thought, I'd better write it down before I changed my mind.

Addendum, September 1997

Over the years 1985-1989 I approached more than two dozen book publishers with the proposal for this book. Although some were interested enough to look at the entire manuscript, and one obtained a generally positive report from a reviewer, none was willing to publish it. With the passing of time I lost enthusiasm to keep trying. The web now provides an opportunity to publish without having to convince a book publisher of its sales potential.

Looking at Tied Knowledge with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been easier to find a publisher if it had been either much more academic or more journalistic. It was not my intention to undertake an analysis oriented to scholars, since my aim was to provide a practical conceptual framework for understanding academia. On the other hand, I did think about dealing more with the seamy side of academia, but decided against this.

My aim was to provide a general analysis, especially relevant to countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. But because of this level of generality, the text doesn't have all that many examples and case studies relevant to any single country.

For all its limitations as a commercial seller, I think the book has value. The framework on which it is based has served me well in the years since I wrote it.

In 1992, a review of my department (Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong) triggered an intense power struggle in which the rhetoric of disciplines played an important part. At one stage I circulated chapter 4 on disciplines. One of my colleagues said it was so relevant that it seemed like I had written it for that specific situation. This encouraged me. The insights that I had gained from personal experience with power struggles in mathematics and in environmental studies, plus reading and talking to people about others, turned out to be quite relevant in a completely different time and circumstance.

With the increasing popularity of poststructuralism, my approach based on social structures may seem old fashioned. Contrary to poststructuralists, though, use of concepts of social structure does not automatically lead to rigid mechanical analyses. By remaining aware of the dynamic and changeable aspects of structures, these concepts can be very helpful. In my view, they are practical tools for understanding society, and more helpful for everyday purposes than other frameworks I've seen.

My circumstances have changed since I wrote Tied Knowledge. Rather than being in a low-level untenured position doing full-time research, now I'm a tenured teacher/researcher and several ranks up the scale. I've gained some additional insights about the opportunities and difficulties of promoting change from within academia. But I'm happy to make this book available on its own terms.

In preparing the book for web publication, I have done some minor subediting and updating, reordered some chapters and added some references. Although there are some references to sources published since 1985, I've made no attempt to fully update the text.

If you have comments or suggestions, I would be pleased to hear them. Also, I would be happy to append your comments to particular chapters or the book as a whole.


Herman T. Epstein, A strategy for education (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).

Brian Martin, The bias of science (Canberra: Society for Social Responsibility in Science, 1979).

Brian Martin, Uprooting war (London: Freedom Press, 1984).

Brian Martin, C. M. Ann Baker, Clyde Manwell and Cedric Pugh (eds.), Intellectual suppression: Australian case histories, analysis and responses (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1986).

David N. Smith, Who rules the universities? An essay in class analysis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).

Pierre van den Burghe, Academic gamesmanship: how to make a Ph.D. pay (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1970).

Thorstein Veblen, The higher learning in America: a memorandum on the conduct of universities by business men (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1918).