The corporatisation of universities?

This won’t be a very organised post, more a list of some things that have been bothering me about happenings in UK higher education over the last few years. A lot of what I write here might seem totally over the top, but still, I can’t suppress certain forebodings…

It seems like my university (Southampton) has acquired an increasingly corporate feel in the last few years. I suppose it’s to be expected, with UK universities apparently moving towards an American style model, where students leave university upwards of twenty grand in debt (and then, a bad joke it seems, enter a job market the bottom has fallen out of and a property market they are completely priced out of! This website has one of the more realistic takes on careers advice that I’ve come across and is also worth reading for some of the personal stories available as user comments, describing many of the frustrations young people today feel.)

So here is my “list”, of some recent trends toward the corporatisation of universities:

Branding: One symptom of creeping corporatisation at Southampton Uni this year is the branding of seemingly everything with the word “Your” (“Your” student union for example – shouldn’t the qualifier “your” be superfluous for a genuinely democratic union? Is doubt introduced – whose else might it be? Does its use suggest the substitution of image for reality – I suppose that the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” is “Their” democracy as well?!)

Centralization: It used to be that the people working in finance or IT worked in the same building as you, and one could simply pop along the corridor or down the stairs to find them. Now with everything increasingly centralized, presumably in order to be more “efficient” (at what one wonders – what is a university for?), a request disappears into a bureaucratic ether, from which a reply might materialize, after a week or so. University departments can now feel less like little communities of learning, more like a giant impersonal machine, churning out the pliant economic drones fittest for “those markets where they await masters, who will do them the kindness of buying them” in Simon Linguet’s words of 1767. Here is the full quotation, in which Linguet motivates his contention that capitalist wage-labour is “even worse than slavery”:

“it is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm labourers to till the soil, whose fruits they will not eat, and our masons to construct buildings in which they will not live. It is want that drags them to those markets where they await masters, who will do them the kindness of buying them. It is want that compels them to go down on their knees to the rich man in order to get from him permission to enrich him. What effective gain has the suppression of slavery brought him? ‘He is free,’ you say. That is his misfortune. These men, it is said, have no master. They have one, and the most terrible, the most imperious of masters: that is, need. It is this that that reduces them to the most cruel dependence.”

And one can find a similar analysis in Leo Tolstoy’s 1900 essay The Slavery Of Our Times. Today’s graduate may not feel like a slave exactly, possessing some measure of western comforts, but perhaps should also bear in mind the words of Social Credit advocate C.H.Douglas:

“The abolition of poverty in the midst of plenty, important though that is, is not the core of the problem. It is conceivable that people might be provided for as well-fed slaves. … It has to be realised that not for thousands of years have the people of these islands been so completely enslaved as they are at the present, and that the primary characteristic of the slave is not bad treatment. It is that he is without say in his own policy.”

Website: The university website is pretty explicit about their corporate “bias” (if I may call it that) relative to similar institutions. For example you can learn about their “entrepreneurial approach to research” and that “Southampton is one of the leading entrepreneurial universities in the UK.” I wonder, are “entrepreneurial universities” really what we require, when “business as usual” is looking like an increasingly intellectually and morally bankrupt strategy for society? When creative re-organisation of that society along non-corporate lines may be necessary for the survival of human civilization?

Cutbacks: the careers department now states here that:

“With effect from the 1st September 2011, Career Destinations will no longer be routinely offering 1:1 appointments to students (*exceptions outlined below) This is because we strongly believe in the power of learning through colleagues in a group environment, in order to share experiences and knowledge.”

I had such a “group environment” experience as part of my first year research “training” and found it so generic as to be next to useless. I wonder how students feel about this – were any consulted? The “exceptions” mentioned above are not exactly broad, by the way – disabled students and “dropouts” – and even they are only “entitled to a 1:1 half hour appointment with a Career Practitioner (up to a maximum of 2 appointments per academic year)” The statement I linked doesn’t give any impression of honesty or transparency – why else write something like it, in a managerial “newspeak” where a cut to a service is spun as some positive new opportunity to improve services (is freedom now slavery as well?!), moreover one that the careers staff “strongly believe in”, rather than being reluctantly resigned to. The students photographed  on the careers website seem happy enough about this though, so I guess you should be too:

Is it just me, or does the above image evoke the feeling of an eerie “career cult”, that of being happy about everything? If you’re a student, and you aren’t happy about everything, there’s probably something the matter with you…

Student debt: Consider also the impact of debt on the choices students are able to make – will a newly minted graduate take the underpaid job that will actually help make society better, or the cushy corporate job that will reward them for keeping it the same? (probably making things a lot worse for future generations, who are finally forced to face the fallout from an unchecked global corporatocracy) Well, perhaps in the past a student without debt would choose the former. With huge debts many will feel forced to choose the latter. Debt is another lever (as if yet another were needed!) whereby close-to-all-powerful corporations can control the choices of our young people and limit their struggle for freedom and a decent future existence.

Economic Impact: Finally, as a post-graduate researcher, it also bothers me that in academic grant applications you are now required to assess the potential “economic impact” of your research. The phrase “economic impact” also rears its head several times on the University website, should you care to read it. I don’t think the purpose of a university should be that of supplying gifts to corporations such that they can turn a maximum profit. Actually, being somewhat “radical” (but taking a position that might have been called “conservative” during say the enlightenment era), I don’t think corporations should even exist! But that’s another story for another time…

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~ by freedomthistime on September 30, 2011.

2 Responses to “The corporatisation of universities?”

  1. Generally agreed with this post; particularly the centralisation and cutback aspects. I can understand why centralisation may be preferred for certain reasons, such as efficiency, as you stated, but, in practice, those reasons don’t seem to be justified, and it does seem to be more of a “resigned to” case, sadly.

    Whilst I appreciate the opportunities I have at our university, as well as being at a university itself, there are certain criticisms I have regarding things I’ve observed during my time spent here thus far, some of which you have pointed out above. A lot of this stems from a “maximize profits” ideology, in my opinion, and that really bothers me; this whole idea that something is not successful if it does not reap a disproportionate ‘reward’. I miss that seemingly naive perception I had of society as being one where everybody acts to better both themselves *and* their fellows, rather than a race to the top (whatever they perceive it to be). That said, I don’t actually think it’s naive to want that type of a society, and think it’s certainly something that could be realised.

    I’m not sure where I went with this comment, so apologies for the possible tangents visited with it, but thank you for your posts =] I do appreciate them, and find them to be insightful.

    • Thanks Ridwan 🙂 . I didn’t find any “tangents” in that comment, everything you said was right on point. I don’t really have much to add. About everything in existence now being expected to turn a profit, absolutely. It drives me nuts the way our schools, hospitals and universities are all now required to be “competitive”. It seems like our governments wont be happy until absolutely everything in the world is turned into a market. Hell, soon you’ll probably be “competing” with the members of your family for food at the dinner table and on “free market” principles your little sister may not get to eat! It’s Social Darwinist bullshit IMO. A quote I think you’ll like:

      “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” – Wendell Berry

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