Finn Smyth

Finn Smyth

The Decline of the Commodified University

Reading Time: 6 minutes

There’s much talk of the crisis of higher education. Finn Smyth argues that student demotivation, education inequalities and industrial conflict have a common root – the capture of the academy by capital.

Higher education in many countries today is embroiled in crisis – much has been written on the UCU’s continuing strikes for better pay, pensions and working conditions. In the US and UK an attainment gap along racial and class lines remains a serious problem despite widespread increases in student enrolment. One report last year found that the UK education system preserves inequalities instead of offsetting them. For decades many scholars have made similar conclusions about the US, reaffirming the findings of Bowles and Gintis’ seminal 1976 study Schooling in Capitalist America, which held that universities reproduce inequality.

Following on from the explosion of student radicalism in the 1950s and 60s, which accompanied the post-war expansion of higher education, a neoliberal turn took hold of universities. Gradually, reformers grounded in an ideology of market competition and managerialism started to restructure higher education, introducing an audit culture, hierarchical governance and economical profit-making and funding strategies, all learned from the realm of free-market capitalism. ‘Academic capitalism’ embodies a pessimistic view of higher education’s fundamental purpose – universities equip students with specialist knowledge needed for competitiveness in an ever-growing, technologically sophisticated economy. The liberating potential of a system free from the dictates of capital, educating the next generation of democratically minded, politically engaged citizens, is denied.

Universities today, in the words of educator and architect Pier Vittorio Aureli, have become ‘edu-factories’ – gargantuan, multi-billion dollar institutions, their intricate bureaucracies too nebulous to question, their management too opaque to hold to account, and their missions bent towards maintaining and growing the rolling production line of students-as-customers who graduate with the stamp of a degree.

Despite the alleged objective of this ‘New Public Management’ ideology – that now infects higher education globally – to make things more ‘efficient’, ‘streamlined’, and profitable, much evidence indicates that university policies over the years have continuously increased costs, foisting them onto students, with many major institutions now spending almost twice as much on administration as on teaching. A metrics-driven audit system conditioning teaching, research and curriculums, moreover, is creating a deepening mental health crisis among academics, while at the same time undermining a scholarship culture once more conducive to creating radical or boundary-pushing research.

Students, too, have been transformed by the neoliberal university. As the system dictates what matters is passing tests, getting grades, and being employable, students today care less about their education. One study found that where students in the 1960s studied for an average of 40 hours a week, reading more broadly, pursuing knowledge beyond course minimums, today only half of students rack-up hours like this. The more it is examined, the more it becomes clear that academic capitalism is counterproductive, that the disinterest in imagining a university system oriented in the public good over private interest has dealt serious damage to the integrity of democratic society.

Universities have never made the promotion of civic literacy their chief aim, though many critics have imagined what a radical university system could look like and imply for society. Indeed, many of these critiques have been made by those working and researching within existing university structures, where academic capitalism’s anti-democratic paradigms have so far prevented the realisation of alternatives.    

Most of the problems of today’s universities are bound with questions of democracy. A core tenet of the neoliberal university has been the funnelling of power ever upwards into the highest echelons of management, which projects ‘accountability’ onto an overworked academy while remaining largely immune to criticism itself. Certainly, if universities are to serve the public good by reducing inequality, creating critical and inquiring students, and, if they are ever to unlock their potential to act, as one scholar said, as “a locus for criticism within the dense relations of capitalism”, then considerations of how democracy can be better utilised are paramount.

Corporate Capture and Undemocratic Governance

One academic notes the irony that scholars cannot apply to their institutions the same methods of criticism and analysis they use in their own disciplines. Despite the nuanced theories of bureaucracy and power produced by those with tenure, the very structure of universities remains unexamined by this work. With the great expansion of bureaucracy in higher education that has seen the creation of endless new managerial, administrative, technical and support positions, the active authority of academics themselves have been radically curtailed. Last year a UCU report noted the declining participation of staff in university governing bodies. Most universities in the UK today are directed by courts and ‘academic senates’ which are often influenced by business over academia, unions and students. Vice chancellors themselves are generally only held accountable by these bodies and no representative groups beneath them. Considering that managerial corruption appears on the rise at many institutions, with the now notorious US college admissions scandal, and the resignation and investigation of vice chancellors at several institutions in the UK and Australia over the years, alternative systems of decision-making and leadership accountability should be demanded.

The inefficiencies of the senate as a system to counter overly-centralised authority have been documented for decades. Increased centralisation of decision-making processes is a core tenet of academic capitalism, which views both staff and students as subjects to be managed within the business model of the university. This rift in the power of management versus the academy is reflected by the ongoing UCU disputes in the UK – so many academics protest the direction in which higher education is going, yet they cannot express this within their own institutions. UK university managers have demonstrated a surprising commitment to the principle of collective solidarity amidst ongoing disputes, with few institutions ever breaking from the ranks, until recently, as a growing number of university bosses called for UCEA to return to negotiations.

Accountability or Auditability?

One important aspect of neoliberal rhetoric surrounding the university is the notion of accountability. Never mind focused scrutiny of higher education’s managers, the taxpayer ought to be presented with a sophisticated system which assesses the ‘excellence’ and success of the entire academy. In the UK and US today, every academic is implicated in a sweeping ‘audit culture’ which sees qualitative, metrics-based frameworks used to analyse the quality of teaching, of research, of whole institutions competing with each other on global ‘league tables.’Again, although an audit culture is important for academic capitalism’s obsession with efficiency and quantification, it has consistently achieved the opposite effect. The UK’s research for excellence framework (REF) appears to discourage pathfinding studies, with one report finding it increases output without improving efficiency. Academics have criticised the REF for years, but the government and university bosses persist. The project of quantifying the value of research produced by institutions is dubious, with one German university leaping 86 places in the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings (2019) based largely on the citations of a single scholar.

Students also suffer from the adverse effects of this efficiency obsessed system. Competing for students and funding via league tables, US and UK universities spend tens of millions on estate development, enticing wealthy students away from other institutions with the lure of state-of-the-art sports facilities and luxury accommodation suites. Where several institutions pioneer expensive schemes to stand out among the competition, the rest of the sector follows suit, and once optional investment programmes become mandatory the costs are forced on students. In the US huge amounts of university funds go towards merit-based scholarships with the aim of attracting high-achieving students, thus growing the prestige of institutions on the market. Universities adjust costs in-step with the aid they provide, raising tuition fees overall, and when most merit-based scholarships are awarded to wealthy students, it is the poorest students who foot the increasing bills.

Ultimately, the audit culture of the neoliberal university is less about ‘accountability’ than it is about control. It is well documented that a perverse audit culture enforced with surveys, reviews, quantitative outcomes, objectives and criterias, strengthens the hand of managements over an increasingly strained and precarious workforce. 

Structural Inequality

The most damning verdict of higher education’s decline, however, has been its persistent failure to confront inequality. In the UK there has been an enormous decline in the numbers of working class students studying the arts, and the drop-out rates of poorer students grows steadily. One report found that for twenty years in the UK the biggest determining factor for high educational attainment was family background. Things are even starker in the US, where racial disparities in college admissions have remained high for decades. In the US the lowest income students, who are disproportionately black and hispanic, have been forced to pay higher costs at over 700 schools across the states in recent years. In one report on several leading liberal arts schools in the states, the enrolment of black students was as low as 3%.

Critics have argued for years that the continuous inequality which dogs neoliberalism is not a quirk but structurally inherent. When academic capitalism treats students as customers and sells degrees as products, when scholars are treated as professionals to be managed, when the goal is always to maintain profit margins and to garner prestige, then of course inequality is inevitable. Wealthy students, whose enrolment supports the transactional, luxury style business strategies of universities today, tend to come first. In a higher education sector which considers the service of the economy and of private interests the key vectors of public good, students and scholars have themselves grown more self-interested, less curious, and less democratically and collectively inclined.

Although universities themselves have never been particularly revolutionary, they have always had the potential to be, because education itself can be liberating and revolutionary. The socialist educator Paolo Freire famously said that “all education is political; teaching is never a neutral act.” The pursuit of knowledge never takes place within a vacuum – the systems within which we learn have always sought to teach us in particular ways. Today, universities often do not equip students with knowledge of the world in any radical way. An obsession with specialisation and employability obscures what mattered to Freire most in a good education – the ability to be curious about the world, to question it, to realise its injustices so that, ultimately, we can change it.

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