It started around 20 years ago: The idea of education as a right was being replaced by a concept of education as a commodity to purchase. Today’s universities are managed like businesses, striving for “excellence", being best, competing for the “best” brains with new logos and slogans like The University of Manchester is pioneering, influential and exciting.
What are the consequences of the focus on competition instead of cooperation, quantity instead of quality, bureaucratic control instead of academic freedom and what can be done about it?
In the new issue of the journal New Proposals, anthropologist Charles R. Menzies writes about the recent developments from his personal experience and explains why the commercialisation also created a space for progressive action.
The search for excellence structures all aspects of the contemporary university environment, he writes:
In its operational mode excellence is little more than a set of quantified indictors—dollar value of grants, number of publications, ranking of publication venue, completion rates of students, and so on. These indicators are tabulated by individual, unit, or university and then ranked accordingly. Deriving from the tautological market principle that those who win are bydefinition excellent, being top ranked makes one excellent. (…) Our work becomes measured by quantity and placement of output: “so long as one publishes with the prestigious academic presses and journals, one’s publications are ‘excellent’” (Wang 2005:535)
Academics in the university of excellence are expected to win grants and publish papers. In this they have a lot of autonomy. For as long as academics in the university of excellence maintain their productivity at the rate being set by their colleagues a limited social space is opened up for progressive activity. He writes that he often says to his students: “Yes we must publish, but we get to choose what we publish”:
For me this has led to a series of articles and films on research methods (2005, 2004, 2003, 2001a) in place of what I may have originally wished to publish. This shift reflects my concern for conducting ethical research and to resist the undue influence of the competitive drive to publish as much as one can. To me, a respectful research engagement means that one takes the time to consult and to work with the people about whom we write. Some researchers, lost in the competitive rush to publish, prioritize their own advancement and desires over the people about whom they write.
He suggests following research topics:
- What are the effects of global capitalism on people’s health and wellbeing?
- How have local/ trans-national elites have gained control over public institutions such as the university of excellence?
- How can we make democratic practice real and what does our knowledge of small-scale societies tell us about the possibility of true participatory democracy?
Interestingly, the recent issue of the journal Social Anthropology deals with the same topic. And the whole issue is available for free.
In their introduction, Susan Wright and Annika Rabo explain the background for the current reforms:
The current wave of reforms anchors both the global north and south in the so-called global knowledge economy where higher education is universally perceived as increasingly crucial for economic development. In today’s political discourse there is less emphasis on higher education as a public right and a means to liberate and cultivate citizens. Higher education occupies centre stage in the discourse on the global knowledge economy because ‘knowledge is treated as a raw material’ (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004:17). Universities are thus sites for both the mining and the refining of this resource.
A second strand in the international policies for university reform derives from the argument that universities are no longer just servicing the economy: now educating international students is itself a lucrative trade. American, British and Australian universities are especially competitive in this global market, and foreign students are Australia’s third most important source of export earnings.
The reforms represent also a “new rationality of governance".
Such reforms involve changing the status of service providers (including universities in many parts of Europe) so that they are no longer part of the state bureaucracy, but are turned into ‘autonomous’ agents, with whom the state can enter into contracts, and through which they are held ‘accountable’ for their performance. In many countries, universities are being treated as a service supplier, just like any other part of the public sector.
What we need is more anthropology of university reform:
As the contributions to this special issue show, an anthropologist’s view of the ‘field’ can combine a critical examination of the keywords, policy discourses and rationalities of governance, with an exploration of how political technologies like accountability mechanisms, performance measurement, and customers satisfaction surveys actually work in practice, with accounts of students’, academics’ and sometimes managers’ diverse ideas of the university and how they act to shape their institution in their daily life.
(A)cademics seem not yet to have reformulated their values and modes of organising into a forward-looking vision for universities. There are plenty of contradictions in the reform agenda that could be exploited to this purpose. For example, why do governments imagine that by creating top-down steered, coherent organisations with a hierarchy of autonomous and strategic leaders they are preparing universities for a knowledge economy? Just to be provocative (and ironic, as we can also see negative sides to this image), why not imagine a future university by drawing on some positive aspects of companies which recognise that their biggest resource is the ideas, imagination and ability of the workers, and where staff take responsibility for their own work, have a weekly ‘free research’ day, and follow their own initiatives through networks of colleagues and short-term project teams in their own institution and internationally? Why not formulate an idea of a university as a kind of flexible, networking ‘knowledge organisation’?
In my opinion, an analysis of the language used in strategic documents would be interesting. Take for example a look at the Consultation document for University of Oslo’s strategy 2010–2020 where we read about universities’ “ role as a growth instigator in the local and global economy” . But a look at the table of contents is enough where we find a list of some of the main goals like “ A quality‐conscious university", “ A ground breaking university” and (being) “The epitome of a good university".
By the way, just a few hours ago, Chris Kelty has written a post at Savage Minds about the new “Stasi like” culture of control at The Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley
When universities respond to market demands and produce skilled professionals for labor market, then they are being enrolled by the existing economic structures. And although there still remains a space to criticize those structures, the critique cannot be radical.
As a social scientist, I see an emphasis on ‘doing research that’s relevant’, but it’s really the funding bodies that decide what counts as ‘relevant’. Often times, funding bodies are controlled by governments or economic actors.
I also see that undergraduates expect that the university degree provides them with ‘real-life skills’. A BA has become like a certificate that opens doors on the job market.
I feel torn, because I think on the one hand, this has contributed to higher enrollment numbers - which translates into more funds available for higher education. But these funds come with ’strings attached’. Sometimes it feels that in the end, critical thinking becomes less valued.
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