Universities As Vehicles For Neoliberal Propaganda


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



About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders. In 2008 he was appointed as the Senior Lecturer in Recorded Media in the School Of Music & Performing Arts at Bath Spa University. He currently presents, Agitpop, a pop & politics radio discussion programme on North Cotswold Community Radio http://www.agitpopradio.org.uk He is currently the Communications Officer for UCU at Bath Spa University and a UCU SW Regional Rep at SWTUC.
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6 Responses to Universities As Vehicles For Neoliberal Propaganda

  1. Perhaps you’re aware that in the US it is generally accepted that universities, especially the “Ivy League” institutions, are bastions of liberal ideology and any student espousing contradictory views (i.e. – conservative views [think Fox News]) can expect to be severely scorned by fellow students and professors. I find this situation to be quite unacceptable, but perhaps such intolerance is just an unfortunate trait of human nature. So here in the US we have (to quote you) “universities acting as vehicles of ideological propaganda.” But in our case it’s largely liberal ideological propaganda and has been so for decades. So much for an academic environment of “open minds and tolerance.”
    I suppose that in the UK the situation is very much like what we have in the US – a university education has, for quite sometime, been increasing in price at an alarming rate. Students are having to burden themselves with humongous debt to cover the cost of tuition. Then, quite often, they graduate and cannot find a job. Yet surprisingly there are thousands of high-paying jobs in the US that go unfilled because employers cannot find the skilled workers they need. Thousands of computer technology jobs have to be staffed by highly trained computer scientists from overseas because American students pursue disciplines for which there is no demand in our job market. The US is now seriously hampered by a less-than-mediocre secondary educational system that fails to equip most of its students with the educational foundation that they need to be able to comprehend and master technically demanding professions. This explains why the vast majority of high-tech PhD’s awarded by US universities go to foreign students. American students, by and large, are not academically prepared to compete with the technically competent foreign students who apply for seats in American universities.
    Global competition and the need to prepare graduates for the job market may explain the new pro-business agenda of UK and US universities.

    • (I) The Harvard Business School along with Chicago have been the principle promulgators of Neoliberal ideology. Universities may still try to protect ‘liberal values’ around race and sexuality but they absolutely do not protect or disseminate alternative economic visions.

      (ii) Yes indeed, “Global competition and the need to prepare graduates for the job market may explain the new pro-business agenda of UK and US universities”. In fact there is no doubt it does. The question is whether Universities should resist these commercialising pressures. You are describing economic forces as if they were forces of nature that human beings cannot control, only react to. This is the centre of Neoliberal ideology, the T.I.N.A proposition, i,e, “There is no alternative”. But this is just nonsense. Human beings have existed as a species for half a million years, Capitalism has only existed for 200 years. There are all sorts of alternatives and Capitalism is no more inevitable than Communism. You cannot see the possibility of alternative because you are viewing the problem having already accepted the T.I.N.A proposition.

  2. When you finish with your idealistic crusades you still have to pay your bills. Will you and the UK be able to make a buck in the World Market?

  3. The world is your oyster. Which is bad news for me because I don’t like oysters.

    • Say what? You’ve lost me their Comrade. I was pointing out that private capitalist industry is only one way of making a buck. And in the case of the banks they got it both ways taking ludicrous profits in the good times and relying on the state in the bad times.

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