Monday, 9 November 2009

Academic Capitalism and Knowledge as Capital

More off-cuttings from the 'buke' I'm writing....


“The University is a business and anyone who thinks otherwise is sadly mistaken. We are a business with education at our core –the intellectual capacity of the University is first and foremost – but the University needs to generate income streams in order to shape its own destiny rather than have it determined for it.”
Bob Burgess, Vice-Chancellor, University of Leicester (University of Leicester, 2007; emphasis added).


Let us take one (amongst many) example of the normalisation and ubiquity of the regime of ‘economic truth’, to use Foucault’s term, under neoliberalism. Education, especially, but not limited to higher education, is now increasingly and primarily viewed and organised through an economic lens – a degree is needed to get a job, generic employability skills are embedded in modules taught, state funding for research privileges those forms of knowledge which can potentially contribute to economic productivity and competitiveness, academic staff are increasing appraised and judged against a variety of economic and quasi-economic criteria. Education is not viewed, promoted or seen by its recipients i.e. students (now of course re-named not customers or users) or by teaching staff (trainers) as something a ‘good in itself’, nor are objectives of creating critical citizens, engaged in their communities and wider society (Barry, 2007b).[1] In Alistair MacIntyre’s terms the internal goods and standards of the ‘practice’ of education is being undermined or corrupted by the externally imposed goals of the ‘institution’ of the modern university geared towards economic objectives and organisational self-understanding (MacIntyre, 1***). Notions of ‘mission-led’ science, technology or engineering, that is, the creation of knowledge and technologies to ‘make the world a better place’, improve human well-being wilt in the face of imperatives and incentives for ‘commericalisable research’, intellectual property rights, patents, spin-out companies, ‘use relevant’ research; Knowledge-Transfer Partnerships and now in the UK, the Research Excellent Framework (REF) and its focus on measuring and rewarding the ‘impact’ of research.

As the same time, as encapsulated by the quote from the Vice Chancellor of the University of Leicester above, universities are today not simply places for the production and consumption of ‘market-relevant knowledge and skills’ but are themselves businesses, and therefore in competition with other ‘knowledge providers’ in a global marketplace. As Paul Ramsden, Chief Executive of Higher Education, recently put it:

The narrative of this contribution has concentrated on the challenge of how to maintain and improve our performance in global terms. To secure world class status by 2020, we will need to sustain the UK’s pre-eminent position as a provider of high quality teaching and student experiences against a background of a larger and more diverse student population and increasing international competition.

(Ramsden, 2008: 10; emphasis added).


All this is seen by critics as ‘academic capitalism’ and characterised by “the increase of external research funding at universities and a market-orientation of research” (Keskinen and Silius 2005: 18). This academic capitalism and the commercial corruption of the practice of universities (in teaching and research) has become particularly acute in the current economic recession as business leaders and corporations as well as the state demand that ‘research and development’ is corralled and marshalled in the service of pulling the economy out of recession and to ensure the ‘international competitiveness’ of the domestic or regional economy.[2]

Guala, in a review of Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics, notes that:

The government must constantly intervene, but on society, rather than on the economy itself. Notice the diametrical opposition with social democracy: government intervention is not required so as to fix the imperfection of markets, but to make a market economy possible – by creating and sustaining competition, for example, by having in place an appropriate legal system that supports the functioning of markets. But also by encouraging entrepreneurship in all areas of life, including those areas that were traditionally alien to the economic way of thinking and acting. In a world were individual choice, risk management, investment in personal development and so forth have become ubiquitous buzzwords, these ideas do not seem bizarre at all. (Guala, 2006: 6; emphases added)


The actors, institutions, habits, subjects of neo-liberalism need to be actively created, sustained and re-created as necessary – the role of government is to create active consumers, active entrepreneurs, to instil entrepreneurialism as both normal and desirable (even enforceable) and to accommodate society to the needs and requirements of the ‘the market’ rather than vice versa. In this way, the move to embed entrepreneurial skills within university undergraduate programmes in the UK is but a real world example of the operation of this ‘regime of economic truth’ or the ‘neoliberal planetary vulgate’ (Bordieu and Wacquant, 2001). One of the policy priorities of the British government since the early 1990s has been to render the country more economically competitive by transferring knowledge into wealth creation. A regulated quasi-market in higher education was created by the 1988 Education Act, by which the government forced universities to respond to market pressures and to become more entrepreneurial in terms of income generation from non-state sources. This led to radical changes in institutional organisation, management and behaviour, including most significantly the growing influence of business interests on university priorities, with businesspeople influencing the curriculum. Throughout the 1990s, successive British Governments emphasised the role of universities in the ‘knowledge society’ and the need to be more entrepreneurial within the globalised knowledge economy. For instance, in 1993 the Conservative Government launched a ‘technology foresight programme’, intended to encourage networking between researchers and the ‘end users’ of research (principally businesses, especially those technology related), to identify priorities for research development and to exploit them according to economic and social demand. The 2003 White Paper The Future of Higher Education argued that radical reform was necessary to widen student access to universities and to make universities more responsive to the demands of the global economy. These set the framework within which universities operate as adjuncts to the demands of the national and global market, to ensure the production of university graduates and universities themselves with the skills, experience, competency and character to secure and enhance the international competitiveness of the UK economy.

One example of this embedding of an entrepreneurial ‘economic truth’ is the following press statement which accompanied the awarding to the University of Nottingham of the ‘Entrepreneurial University of the year’ in 2008:

Ian Robertson, Chief Executive of the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, which sponsored the category, said: "Choosing a single successful university was difficult. But entrepreneurialism was a clear and visible part of Nottingham's culture. A very difficult decision was eased by the breadth and depth of that entrepreneurial culture at the University, from senior management through to staff and the student societies. (University of Nottingham, 2008)



The current prioritisation of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is yet another instance of this ‘economisation’ of the university – a further transformation of institutions of higher learning into servicing the current needs of the national economy in the context of a global market. Other bodies of knowledge, subjects and disciplines – philosophy, classics, foreign languages that are not related to ‘emerging markets’ (such as India, China, Russia), cultural studies, are deemed ‘superfluous’ to the requirements of the ‘lean and focused’, market-orientated, modern university keen to be seen to be producing ‘impact’ and ‘policy-based’ research. As Claire Fox has put it, “Forget being a ‘curiosity-driven’ scholar; become a thoroughly modern ‘impact’ researcher, contributing to the economic and social wellbeing of the nation” (Fox, 2009), though the reality is that although ‘social wellbeing’ is publicly stated as a goal of publicly funded research and teaching, the reality it is a poor second to the ‘real deal’ of contributing to ‘economic competitiveness’. Research and teaching aimed at social wellbeing is not excluded, but certainly not supported to the extent that knowledge leading to commercial exploitation is. Government’s rhetorical support for it also functions as useful window dressing and a convenient fig leaf to hide behind whenever this crude economisation of the university is broached.

The newly established Excellence Framework (REF) is simply a continuation of the ‘closed’ system of disciplined assessment, ranking and categorisation of individual university departments and universities as a whole which goes back to the 1988 Education act. This ‘panoptic performativity’ (Perryman, 2006) of the ‘excellence’ ‘qualispeak’ and ‘audit’ and attendant ‘micro-managerial’ academic organisational culture has largely rendered academics into the ‘docile and compliant bodies’ necessary for this form of governmentality to operate successfully. As Readings (1996) put its there is an ideology of “excellence” which functions to judge, rank and control knowledge production within universities, and produce particular types of bodies and subjects in both academics (‘on message and orientated towards producing high impact, quality publications’ etc) and students (‘the oven ready’ graduate).[3]

From a Foucauldian, MacIntyre or Marxist perspective, the ideology of ‘excellence’ (a powerful discourse, partly from being so generic, in terms of focusing on ‘fitness for purpose’, as well as, at least initially, being such obviously a ‘good thing’ – who can question ‘excellence’?) is an extremely powerful mechanism for further integrating the University with the productive, economic logic of globalised capitalism through the disciplinary activities of the ‘competition state’. This discourse ‘works’ not because nobody knows what ‘excellence’ is but because everybody thinks they know what is (Lim, 2007: 6), and therefore the ‘pursuit of excellence’ becomes like the US Declaration of the ‘pursuit of happiness’. As Readings notes:

Generally, we hear a lot of talk from University administrators about excellence because it has become the unifying principle of the contemporary university. (. . .) As an integrating principle, excellence has the singular advantage of being entirely meaningless, or to put it more precisely, non-referential. (Readings, 1996, p. 22)


How does a university compete in a market where everyone is claiming and being judged by ‘excellence’ benchmarks? If every university is excellence, what does that mean? Apart from the tried and tested mechanism of ‘excellence inflation’ (which nicely complements ‘grade inflation’ at the student level) – whereby one simply tries to hyperbolise and exaggerate one’s ‘excellence’ as better from other universities’ ‘excellence’ (Darbyshire, 2008: 37) – one can join an ‘elite’ grouping of universities (say the Russell Group in the UK which markets itself as the ‘Top 20 research active universities in the UK’) or seek to be placed in the top 10, 50 or 100 of some market and politically meaningful league table with one’s competitors.

As Readings puts it, excellence “draws only one boundary: the boundary that protects the unrestricted power of the bureaucracy” (Readings, 1996: 27; emphasis added). Any department that fails to conform is simply closed down, as can be witnessed in the erosion of subjects such as classics, philosophy, womens’ studies, cultural studies i.e. any subject deemed not achieve the required standard when those standards of excellent are increasingly composed of economic objectives.

Here we see the disciplinary fulfilment of the discourse and practices (institutionalisation and bureaucratisation of ‘quality controlling’) of ‘quality and excellence’ within the academy. In Loughlin’s words: “The purpose of the ‘quality revolution’ in management theory was explicitly Orwellian. Its goal: to produce a language to facilitate the control of working populations by making meaningful opposition to the policy decisions of senior management within organisations strictly impossible” (Loughlin, 2004: 717). For those academics caught in the disciplinary web of such bureaucratised systems, or at least those who have some sense of disquiet about such processes, there is a sense the whole ‘research excellence’ and other academic quality control exercises are grudgingly put up with (if not actively resisted) as a form of ‘tax’ to be paid for being a ‘scholar’ in the modern higher education world of ‘total and totalising quality control and controlling’.

As Derbyshire has forcefully put it:

The worlds of health care and education have been colonised by ‘The Audit Society’ and managerialism. Under the benign guise of ‘improving quality’ and ‘ensuring value for money’ a darker, more Orwellian purpose operates. Academics had to be transformed into a workforce of ‘docile bodies’, willing to scrutinise and survey themselves and their ‘performance’ as outcome deliverers and disciples of the new ‘Qualispeak’. (Darbyshire, 2008: 35)


What is crucially important to understand here is the partial and one-sided ‘entrepreneurialism’ that is being prompted by state and university management. Social entrepreneurship, encouraging novel and creative forms of ‘active citizenship’ is resolutely not on the agenda. Here is important to review the rhetorical commitment on behalf of the state to an expansive conception of entrepreneurship

Reforming curriculum and assessment…will ensure graduates who are educated to the standard which the future economy and well-being of our nation demands. That standard must enable them to embrace complexity, climate change, different forms of citizenship, and different ways of understanding individuality and cooperation. A student experience that is fit for the future will develop their qualities of flexibility and confidence and their sense of obligation to the wider community. (Ramsden, 2008: 11)

This sounds good, but the vast bulk of effort has not gone into encouraging forms of active citizenship in relation to climate change or social responsibility, but rather into conventional economic growth activities. Ramsden goes on to state that

The vision of learner as passive consumer is inimical to a view of students as partners with their teachers in a search for understanding – one of the defining features of higher education from both academic and student perspectives, and powerfully embodied in academic culture since at least the time of Humboldt. There is no reason to impose a false divide between higher education as a road to a better, more highly-paid career and a vision of it as a life-changing personal experience. (Ramsden, 2008: 16)

But such rhetoric rings hollow when one weighs up the stress on purely economic, productive scientific, technological dimensions of entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity. Investment in technological and scientific knowledge production will always be disproportionally more expensive that most social science and humanities subject areas. Nevertheless a quick glance at the sheer scale of the disparities of funding for STEM subject areas in teaching and research and social science and humanities, really brings home a sense of where the state’s priorities lie and therefore where the priorities of university management lie. To use Foucauldian terminology, modern universities are actively creating particular sorts of subjects, shaping – rather explicitly in the constant reference to the ‘student experience’ in modern University management speak - and rendering these economically necessary subjectivities (skills, knowledge, dispositions, character traits) socially and culturally desirable.

Indeed, discussions of ‘academic freedom’ within government – such as a speech by Bill Rammell is curiously one-sided in which only some things and issues are up for debate. In his speech the then Minster used academic freedom as a counterpoint to Islamic extremism on university campuses (Rammell, 2007). For example, questioning economic growth – while of course not outlawed (at least not yet) – is nonetheless neither encouraged, actively supported or regarded as a ‘good career move’ academically speaking, given it is such a heterodox and ‘dissident’ intellectual pursuit.[4]

The point of this brief excursion into the modern ‘brave new world’ of ‘knowledge production and consumption’ (aka modern universities) is to demonstrate, as if this were needed, the real world, institutional and mundane, workday context within which knowledge is produced, taught and disseminated in the modern university. While of course it is entirely possible that the dominance of neo-classical economics could have taken place in an academic context different from the one described as happening over the past 20 years or so in the UK, it is also the argument of this chapter that the institutionalisation of the forces of ‘academic capitalism’, viz., the quality controlling auditing bureaucracies, the manipulation by the state of the political economy of research funding, the promotion and ‘encouragement’ of ‘impact’ oriented research ‘excellence’, all provided the conducive institutional conditions for the privileging of neo-classical economics and its achievement of ideological and pedagogic hegemony within the academy.
[1] A wonderful example of this which fits perfectly a Foucauldian analysis (or indeed one based on MacIntyre’s critical analysis) is the re-naming of the UK Department of Education as the Department of Business Innovation and Skills. Enough said.
[2] A good example of this is the increasing calls in the Republic of Ireland for more funding for applied scientific and technological research (reference) or more worryingly, the general trend in research funding which allocates fewer resources to fundamental research in favour of supporting and boosting research which has an industrial or economic application.
[3] The discourse of the ‘over ready’ graduate is revealing in that it is not, as one might expect, used as a critical term in deconstructing or analysing higher education, but also used as a positive or merely descriptive term. As an example, see the following from the newly appointed Director of the Business School in the Southampton Solent University: “I have always been keen to develop graduates who were enterprising and employable – and that will be my ethos here at Southampton Solent. I want our courses to produce oven-ready graduates who can hit the ground running, not only in business skills, but also in enterprise” (Southampton Solent University, 2009; emphasis added). For further analysis of the ‘oven ready graduate’ see .
[4] Of course there are some exceptions such as academics like Herman Daly who have developed successful academic careers in questioning orthodox economic thinking and economic growth – or more recently Tim Jackson and his well-received report and book Prosperity without Growth (Jackson, 2009). This issue of green or heterodox positions which challenge what passes for ‘common sense’ and the orthodox mainstream, will be explored further in chapter X.. in relation to reading green politics as a form of ‘dissident’ politics within contemporary capitalist societies and cultures.

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