Universities are being redefined as instrumental tools for ‘the economy’ and the lack of opposition to this process from the current crop of VC’s suggests they are either committed to that vision themselves or are simply the unquestioning and craven servants of their political masters. Either way, all other values have been subjugated to business values. Students are conceived as future workers – rather than democratic citizens or even individuals with their own interests, hopes and dreams – unless that is these hopes & dreams are ‘entrepreneurial’ and involve joining or starting a privately owned profit-making enterprise.
But this pro-business agenda is not impartial or merely instrumental, it is the deliberate and conscious adoption and promotion of a particular and highly contested, political and economic ideology. It is universities actively inculcating students with a particular set of values and thus spreading those values to more and more citizens. It is universities acting as vehicles of ideological propaganda.
“The University Of West London is a leading modern university specialising in the education and development of connected creative, business and service professionals.”
University Of West London tag-line THE 14th June 2012
To many this tag-line will perhaps appear neat and uncontroversial and is clearly no different in tone and content from hundreds of such lines on university websites across the world. Yet I would argue that it is based on so many hidden and contested assumptions that it should in fact be an extremely controversial statement.
Imagine if it read:
“The University Of West London is a leading Marxist university specialising in the education and development of connected creative, anarchists, radicals and revolutionaries.”
There would no doubt be uproar, with calls for public money to be withheld from the university on the grounds that such a partisan approach was unacceptable in an institution where investigation, impartiality, objectivity, evidence and freedom of conscience were supposed to be of paramount importance.
Beyond the ‘professions’ of Medicine and Law, the idea that universities should train people vocationally for employment is a very recent one. When I attended Hull University Drama Dep. in the late 70’s the department was not allowed to put practical skills teaching into the curriculum because it was deemed too vocational; now they are required to do so in order to meet the employability agenda.
Before 1979 the idea was that a university education in the Humanities was a socially transformative experience that produced critically reflective graduates and informed democratic citizens who were able to think for them selves. [The specific subject studied (History, English, Classics, American studies…whatever), were perceived as being largely irrelevant to achieving these ends].
Since 1979 we have relentlessly moved towards a conception of universities as training institutions for skilled but compliant workers and the providers of qualifications that allow employers to make informed recruitment decisions.
This has been disguised by the Orwellian use of phrases like, ‘ a student focused pedagogy (as if there could be any other!)’ and ‘enhancing the student experience’. But the reality is universities have been re-conceived not as providers of a service to students or even to society but as servants of corporate capitalism. Businesses are invited to determine course design and content so that graduates most usefully suit the needs of business. Indeed, this is what the UWL tag-line we started with explicitly acknowledges; it says openly to the world, “we are in the business of training middle-managers for private business and government bureaucracies”. There is no attempt to describe the experiential benefit to the student, the value to the student is entirely unrelated to their ‘student experience’, the benefit is simply that UWL graduates are more likely to get white-collar jobs. The idea of helping students to think for themselves or to become active informed democratic citizens is entirely absent from this vision of a university.
This philosophical approach, not only to education but also to all aspects of the modern world, is a direct consequence of Neoliberal economics which proposes that free markets are the only fair and efficient way of distributing limited resources and that all governments is necessarily oppressive.
Since 1979 this world-view has come to dominate all aspects of modern life so it is surely no surprise that universities too have succumbed to the persuasive power of Neoliberal ideologists, but I am making a much larger claim here, I am claiming that universities have been amongst the most vociferous proponents of Neoliberalism and that their unthinking support for this highly contested world view has led them to undermine the fundamentals of their own praxis and any claims to intellectual independence they may have once aspired to.
Famously, Neoliberalism was of course first devised in a university. Its chief theoretical architect was economist Milton Friedman of the Chicago School Of Economics at Chicago University. From the beginning Friedman was keen to make sure his theories had ‘impact’ outside the walls of academia. (see THE SHOCK DOCTRINE, by Naomi Klein). And in the 50’s and 60’s Friedman was actively and intimately involved with helping unelected military dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, implement Neoliberal free-market policies in Chile after the CIA had helped assassinate elected civilian socialist leader Salvador Allende.
Friedman’s ‘free’ markets were so unpopular in Chile that Pinochet had to use totalitarian fascist methods, including torture and murder, to dismantle the putative Chilean welfare state, an action which was the prerequisite for the imposition of Friedman’s market ‘freedoms’. (So much for free markets leading inevitably to democracy!)
The reason why the Neoliberal conception of capitalism was opposed by so many back in 1960’s Chile and is opposed by so many today, is because it is not simply a scientific or mechanistic economic theory, it is an entire world-view, an ideology, that rests on a set of highly contested moral and psychological assumptions. These assumptions include (but are not limited to):
- Being a citizen is synonymous with being a consumer.
- Capitalist private enterprise is the only fair way of distributing limited resources.
- Private enterprise is the source of all ‘wealth’.
- Private enterprise is the most ‘efficient’ way to distribute goods and services.
- A free market economic system is the only way to guarantee a politically ‘free’ society.
- Greed is good; compassion is a weakness.
- The world should be organised for the benefit of the self-interested individual.
- The collective is always oppressive.
- Government is always inefficient and oppressive.
- Private profit is the only mechanism of generating collective prosperity.
- It is businesses not workers who generate profit.
- Moral concerns should not be part of business decisions.
And since Friedman’s first Latin American forays into propagandising his ideology across the world, it is undoubtedly true that assumptions like these have come to underpin almost all government and private industry policy decisions in the Anglophone world.
Neoliberalism has undoubtedly been incredibly successful despite the fact that it actually only benefits a tiny elite of super-rich and for most people inevitably results in falling living standards and growing powerlessness. And I am arguing that along with the media, it is universities that are largely responsible for this success – and not just the economic departments and business schools either, although they have been hugely influential, but also the whole ethos that university VC’s have acquiesced to in the last 20 years in return for their ballooning remuneration packages.
Universities have not just been passive victims along with everyone else in this process of Neoliberalisation, they have been active promoters of Neoliberalism. As the ubiquitous MBA has become a minimum qualification for managers across the private and public sector, so Friedman’s ideology has been spread by the university departments that deliver them, with even university Vice Chancellors themselves undergoing the MBA conversion and thus adopting the language and Neoliberal ideological assumptions that underpin so much of the current culture in HE – i.e. employability, efficiency, research impact and student led market forces.
And these new Neoliberal converts have not hesitated in trying to embed their ideology into the every aspect of our universities including curriculum design and course content. [A colleague was recently asked how he intended to embed the employability agenda into a history module on George Orwell.] The idea that universities should be separate from and critically reflecting upon politics, ideology and hegemony has been abandoned and subverted and highly contentious ideological ideas are now represented even in the marketing of universities across the world, as if as if they were uncontroversial and self-evidently true.
Universities in the Anglophone world today are almost universally and explicitly propagandists for a highly contested Neoliberal ideology. Perhaps they have become so because VC’s have benefited financially from the results of Neoliberalism, or maybe because the VC’s were trying to protect their institutions by going along with the wishes of government, or perhaps both. But in any event by so intimately embracing this post-Thatcher hegemony they have undermined the idea of a university as a public good that should have political and economic independence and left the institutions they were supposed to be managing, vulnerable to the triple-whammy of state interference, reliance on corporate sponsors and market-forces.
“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism–ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt