Defend academic freedom from corporate conformism

Commodification is wrecking higher education, argues Yassamine Mather

In October 2010 Lord Browne published his independent review into higher education funding and student finance in England - the latest in a long list of such proposals since 1979. It recommended changes to the system of university funding, including removing the cap on the level of fees that universities can charge.

The report by this former chairman of BP was based on a confidential survey of parents and pupils costing £68,000. The survey, falsely labelled ‘research’, focused on how much participants should pay for university education. The subsequent spending review proposed a drastic cut in the United Kingdom’s higher education budget from £7.1 billion to £4.2 billion by 2014. Although funding for arts and humanities is hardest hit, everyone is sceptical about government promises of support for science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, especially as recent graduates of these subjects are amongst the long-term unemployed.

Of course, market forces had already been making a serious impact on higher education, following concerted efforts initially by the Conservatives in the 1980s and then by the subsequent New Labour government to impose ‘corporatism’. It was during the last Labour government that students were labelled ‘consumers’, being prepared for participation in the ‘labour market’ . Students and staff in higher education who resisted this consumerism and commodification were labelled by Labour ministers elitists, who were not in touch with the ‘real world’. However, in the words of two Marxist researchers, the problem is “the underfunded university system diverging from a collegial, academic-led strategic focus to that of a corporate-style emphasis on efficiency and commodification of teaching” and research, plus “structural issues, such as the university reward system.”[1]

This commodification converted institutions of higher education into service-providers, with universities becoming ‘training centres’ and the number of disciplines reduced to those favoured by ‘the market’. That necessitated an attack on academic freedom and democratic structures within departments and faculties. It also reinforced managerial rather than education-centred decision-making processes on campus.

Academic heads of departments elected or at least supported by their colleagues have been replaced by line managers. In engineering and science this often means former academics who had looked to advance their careers in the private sector, but, having returned to academia either as a result of the economic crisis or because of their own failure, now have the necessary ‘entrepreneurial skills’, according to university authorities. These ‘failed industrialists’ often bring with themselves an ethos of conformity and mediocrity resented by the very staff a university department seeks to nurture: for example, academically gifted research professors.

The first thing to say about many of this new breed of academic managers is that, had they been good teachers or researchers dedicated to their subject, they would very likely have never left the universities for the private sector. Even more pointedly, had they been successful ‘entrepreneurs’, they would not have returned to academic life, having already shown their preference for the market, as opposed to intellectual pursuits. These ‘managers’, masters of colourful Powerpoint presentations and meaningless Excel spread sheets depicting market trends, epitomise everything that is wrong with the new higher education system: ‘They know the price of everything and the value of nothing.’

In fact our failed industrialists lack the narrow-minded scientific judgement of real industrialists, bankers, financiers, etc. For example, as far as information technology is concerned, at a time when most of the City is embracing the more efficient, more secure systems, our outdated university managers are turning universities into testing grounds for mediocre, inefficient, virus-ridden, expensive applications.

The new universities, former polytechnics that ingratiated themselves with New Labour, were the front runners in this drive to commodification. However, the Russell group of so-called ‘elite institutions’ has been quick to follow in their footsteps, with the exception of Oxford, Cambridge and sections of London University.

Commodification has also had a direct impact on the funding of and therefore access to higher education. In most universities staff are now responsible for funding not only their own posts, but also overheads in connection to their office, research environment, postgraduates and post-doctoral researchers ... Even as late as the 1980s research grants from the Higher Education Funding Council were dedicated entirely to the costs of the research itself. It was the responsibility of higher education institutions to provide adequate laboratories, and technical and administrative support for researchers. However, as successive governments looked at ways of reducing public funding, universities started charging for the use of research facilities.

The Research Excellence framework, replacing the Research Assessment Exercise, had all the hallmarks of Lord Mandelson’s business approach to higher education - its subtitle was The future of universities in a knowledge economy. According to this document, research is termed an “output”, judged through competitive mechanisms such as “impact”: “Significant additional recognition will be given where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life. Impacts will be assessed through a case-study approach that will be tested in a pilot exercise.” Then there is “environment”: “The REF will take account of the quality of the research environment in supporting a continuing flow of excellent research and its effective dissemination and application.”[2]

Higher Education Funding Councils in England or Scotland never give any examples of how arts and humanities departments might increase the ‘impact’ of their members’ research. But the terminology makes it clear: the researcher has to find a client before embarking on any work. The private sector is now the paymaster and the aim is clear: to establish tighter political control over the universities.

As far as undergraduate studies are concerned, the right to free education has, of course, been abolished. At a time of high graduate unemployment, access will depend increasingly on the financial capabilities of the parents of the ‘consumer’. Parents are encouraged to compare ‘value’ via national surveys and assess higher education institutions in exactly the same way as they might choose a holiday. This banal exercise is marketed as a sure sign of ‘quality assurance’. Here the not so hidden agenda is that competition between universities will lead to more institutions proposing easy, profit-based courses (with staff competing to give access to questions prior to exams - the best way to gain popularity, according to national student surveys). After all, if ‘consumers’ have to pay £27,000 for a degree, they will not want their child failing the finals just for the sake of higher education quality!

Education v training

Traditionally higher education was considered a public service, benefiting society. However, over the last 30 years, as governments have claimed insufficient funds against the background of neoliberal economic policies, that view has increasingly been challenged. The state, media and university managers now hold the view that higher education is a commodity to be traded like any other.

In an article in Monthly Review adapted from his new book, David Noble explains what is wrong with the business model of higher education by pointing to the difference between ‘training’ and ‘education’. Computerised ‘distance learning’ is not the same as ‘education’, he says:

“Training involves the honing of a person’s mind, so that it can be used for the purposes of someone other than that person ... Education is the exact opposite of training, in that it entails not the disassociation, but the utter integration, of knowledge and the self - in a word, self-knowledge. Here knowledge is defined by and, in turn, helps to define, the self. Education is a process that necessarily entails an interpersonal (not merely interactive) relationship between people - student and teacher (and student and student) that aims at individual and collective self-knowledge.

“A commodity is something created, grown, produced or manufactured for exchange on the market. There are, of course, some things which are bought and sold on the market which were not created for that purpose, such as labour and land: ‘fictitious commodities’. Most educational offerings, although divided into units of credit and exchanged for tuition, are fictitious commodities, in that they are not created by the educator strictly with this purpose in mind. Here we will be using the term ‘commodity’, not in this fictitious, more expansive, sense, but rather in its classical, restricted sense, to mean something expressly created for market exchange.

“The commodification of higher education, then, refers to the deliberate transformation of the educational process into commodity form, for the purpose of commercial transaction.”[3]

This commodification, nowadays a fact of life in higher education, has serious practical consequences for educators. There is a need to ‘speed up production’ (reduce the length of degree courses and postgraduate studies), introduce standardisation (reducing autonomy and originality), allow managerial supervision and cut costs (resulting in job insecurity). However, as David Noble rightly points out, “... there is a paradox at the core of this transformation. Quality education is labour-intensive; it depends upon a low teacher-student ratio and significant interaction between the two parties - the one utterly unambiguous result of a century of educational research. Any effort to offer quality in education must therefore presuppose a substantial and sustained investment in educational labour, whatever the medium of instruction. The requirements of commodity production, however, undermine the labour-intensive foundation of quality education.”

Here the figures do not make sense. It is now clear that all English universities are going to charge between £8,000 and £9,000 a year for home and European Union undergraduate students. Given that staff-student ratio in the non-Oxbridge Russell group universities is around 1:20, each member of academic staff would bring £160,000-£180,000 of income to his/her institution every year. This is without considering that received for research or in grants. Universities claim that staff constitute 70% of their expenditure and we know that the average academic staff salary is around £52,000, including overheads (space, phone, administrative/IT and technical support). The question many academics are asking at a time of severe cutbacks is, what will institutions be doing with the extra £128,000 of income created by academic staff per annum?

The answers are not encouraging. Huge sums are earmarked for ridiculous salaries of incompetent and mediocre senior managers (up to £400,000 in some cases) for a costly, yet ineffective bureaucracy, aimed at improving the image of the institution as a competitor in the higher education market. This takes the form of ‘corporate communication’ offices and costly consultation paid to unscrupulous private contractors, who promise a ‘technical’ solution to everything from timetables to student ‘contentment’ and ‘life cycles’!

Gullible and often ignorant senior managers are happy to pay these private consultants astronomical sums to prove their allegiance to the market, yet they are reluctant to pay a decent wage to academics who often spend over 60 hours a week working on what the institutions are supposed to be all about: teaching and research.

Quality education necessitates the teaching of and research in a broad range of subjects - from science and engineering to philosophy, from medicine to arts and social sciences, from mathematics to history. Yet the new breed of university managers, supported by an army of unelected, non-academic administrators obsessed by balance sheets (often based on fictitious figures), are quick to dismiss subject areas not deemed to be profit-making in the short term. Courses in philosophy, literature, anthropology and so on are amongst the first victims of cuts (unless they can find a link to management or medicine perhaps). Staff joke about launching new courses, such as ‘Shakespeare for managers’ or ‘Aristotelian philosophy for business’. It now seems that history departments even in Russell group universities can only survive if they become involved in war studies. Sociology is doomed unless it seeks funding from ‘global security’ interests. In fact, as many have found on campuses throughout the country, no subject is safe. Biological sciences, in fashion one day, are on the list of faculties needing to cut back drastically the next.

Until last year, engineering departments were on vice-chancellors’ hit lists. Of course, their existence hardly makes sense at a time when manufacturing industries (with the exception of arms) have next to no budget for research and development and offer few jobs for graduate engineers. However, the coalition government’s imaginary ‘turn to manufacturing’ and Lord Browne’s report have brought a respite. Yet most academics in this sector doubt this will last long. After all, the turn away from manufacturing and towards finance capital is not accidental: it reflects the economic priorities (some would argue, realities) of late capitalism in the Europe and the United States.

The model proposed for university management relies primarily on the fetishism of the private sector. As Christine Cooper has argued, this fetishism requires adopting a language for “legitimising action based on the perceived meanings of terms such as ‘budget’, ‘deficit’”. She points to the way “myths, stories and other forms of anecdotal evidence are used to justify certain social events or relations. Eg, private sector businesses create wealth that the public services then spend.”[4]

New Labour was as guilty as the Conservatives in propagating these myths. For example, that while public services may have some value, they hold back the private sector. In reality of course, the private sector could not function without state subsidy and provision. According to Christine Cooper, it is said that “The state sector is bureaucratic, cumbersome, fat and wasteful, whereas the private sector is modern, efficient, slim and thrusting. Of course, anyone with any experience of the private sector would know this to be a falsehood.”[5]

Academic resistance

Academic staff are becoming increasingly alert to the fact that academic freedom, faculty autonomy, intellectual excellence and job security are under threat. They have seen how senior university managers, who are no longer involved in teaching and research, are constantly aiming to reorganise and restructure purely to cut costs.

In one Russell group university, departments were deemed to be the main planning units, but within a very short time this responsibility was handed over to the faculties - only for all this to be abolished in favour of the old-fashioned department-faculty arrangement. Within a few years this system was done away with too, and responsibility was given to schools and colleges. At the same time academic staff are recognising that the former university structures - with senate, departmental and faculty meetings - represent the last line of defence against the wholesale commodification of higher education and the commercialisation of academia.

At one Scottish Russell group University, where a particularly incompetent management tried to dilute the authority of the senate (a body composed of senior academics), the collective efforts of academic staff forced a retreat. The university’s move against the senate came a few weeks after opposition to the cuts from an informal grouping of some 200 academics - the Cordelia group wrote to the Scottish government to publicise their concerns about a list of proposed cuts, including the axing of modern languages, including Czech, German, Russian and Polish, together with anthropology, nursing and adult education. In the year of the Scottish elections it was no great surprise that the academics’ protest was supported by Mike Russell, Scottish National Party education secretary, who launched an outspoken attack on the running of this university. He described the cuts as “perverse” and based on “false figures”.[6] All this forced university managers to ‘reconsider’ the timing and method of the proposed cuts.

It should be remembered that in all universities power always resided in the principal and the management group, but until the early 2000s there were real debates and concessions were made by the authorities; departments had regular staff meetings, which acquired real power over the functioning of the curriculum and research; and there were meetings which took crucial decisions on the operation of each faculty. In many universities deans and heads of department were elected. University staff talked of academic freedom and university administrations were put on the defensive. True, there was discrimination against those whose research or teaching was critical of the capitalist system, and such research was starved of funding.

Today, however, in most higher education institutions the situation is far worse. There is just the pretence of democracy at the level of staff meetings. The increasing demands of the REF have reduced academic freedom in relation to choice of subject, viewpoint and control over time. In the name of raising academic standards, university managers have established various forms of subtle and less subtle control. Instead of the goal of education being learning in and for itself, the university sets itself the aim of providing skilled personnel for business and the making of profits.

Now academic staff face the threat of mass redundancy. On many campuses there is talk of 25% of staff being dismissed over the next two-three years. Entire subject areas are threatened. In order to confront this, there is need to establish a left pressure group to ensure that the restrictions on academic freedom are eliminated and that staff are protected against attempts to demoralise them.

The austerity package imposed on the UK by the coalition government is a deliberate, planned policy to destroy the welfare state and throw the capitalist economy back to its fundamental form of mass unemployment, with minimal safeguards for those thrown out of work, with limited state- and employer-provided pensions, and maximum privatisation of institutions and corporations. It cannot be fought through simple strikes or economic measures. The policy is political and it has to be fought politically - something the universities’ union bureaucracy is singularly incapable of doing.


  1. A Milton , B O’Connell International Journal of Critical Accounting 2009, Vol 1, No3, pp204-27.
  2. DF Noble Digital diploma mills: the automation of higher education: www.monthlyreview.org/books/digitaldiplomamills.php
  3. Ibid.
  4. Professor C Cooper, seminar on higher education: www.gla.ac.uk/departments/socialisttheoryandmovement/centre%20seminars
  5. Ibid.
  6. The Herald March 29.