Home / Dave Brockington / The Commercialization of Academia: A Case Study

The Commercialization of Academia: A Case Study


I’ve been sitting on this post for over 20 months; writing it, editing it, deleting it, writing it again. It was initially inspired by a book review written by Stanley Fish in the New York Times, which generated some online discussion, then the University of Virginia firing and subsequent unfiring of Teresa Sullivan last summer. Finally, we there is the effect that Coursera specifically and MOOCs in general will have on our understanding of the role of higher education. Higher education in the United States is facing a series of challenges, from the erosion of legislative support for state universities and colleges, the emergence of Coursera and its ilk, to a whole scale reassessment of the role of higher ed. In America, the concern is that the sector is being pushed towards a mission dedicated solely to the production of vocationally-equipped graduates with skill sets easily measured, all administered in a commercial framework driven by ever changing business models glossily packaged in the buzzwords fashionable to the day .

We’re already there in Britain.

In immediate response to the firing of Sullivan at Virginia, Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote an excellent piece at Slate. The following two passages are pertinent to this post:

The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

The book that Fish reviewed, by Naomi Schaefer Riley, posits two arguments. First, Fish notes “the increasing tendency, on the part of students, legislators, administrators and some faculty members, to view higher education in vocational terms and to link questions of curriculum and funding to the realization of career goals.” Second, an argument that Fish suggests as a not-so-subtle critique of tenure predicated on the belief that “academic freedom” is an archaic practice that doesn’t meet the demanding needs of an increasingly globalized society.  Or something like that.

These two issues, the commercialisation of academia and the erosion of academic freedom, are tightly interwoven. The erosion of academic freedom (and, concomitantly, tenure) has side effects, magnified when combined with a concentration on teaching specific skill sets in a vocational manner rather than more general cognitive / critical skills. In other words, teaching a set of facts and practices with “fairly definitive answers” as opposed to teaching students how to think and engage critically with the material, whatever that material might be and whatever direction critical engagement takes the student.  Side effects include the loss of autonomy for the professor, in both research and teaching, the loss of individuality for the student, and the treatment of the latter as little more than a revenue stream, the former mere content providers.  Indeed, the mission of the entire enterprise (erm, university) becomes devoted to enhancing revenue streams, in which the production and dissemination of knowledge is useful only insofar that this can be exploited towards the end goal of profit.

I can offer some insight as to where this is headed based on my experience at an English university for the past ten academic years.  The elimination of tenure in the early 1980s was one of Margaret Thatcher’s many innovations allowing the commercialization of British universities to be a generation ahead of American institutions.  When our current Vice Chancellor (the British term for what is usually called a university President in the US) was appointed, she re-branded the institution “The Enterprise University” (italics in the original) and added the self-styled “Chief Executive Officer” moniker to her title.  The message was clear: we’ve now completely evolved from an institution of higher learning to a full fledged commercial enterprise.

Of course, the observed outcomes from this case study may result from different institutional arrangements and practices native to the UK, and possibly due to the culture and a decade of idiosyncratic management unique to my institution.  However, I believe that they’re also to some degree a function of the lack of tenure, lack of academic freedom, and the explicitly enthusiastic commercialisation of higher education in the British system.

First, some institutional differences.  In the UK, prospective undergraduate students do not apply to universities, they apply to programs.  Once accepted, there is considerably less breadth of education, and more concentration on the discipline covered by the program to which one applies.  At my institution, students accepted on to a program take the classes which that program instructs them to take.  We do have major-minor combinations, but those can not be designed by the student, but are pre-approved by the university through a cumbersome process known as “validation”; and these are limited by a number of variables, not least “timetabling”. The program I run, Politics (which at the time of writing is a minor only program), has four partners as majors: International Relations, History, Economics, and Law. Meaning, if you want to take political science at my institution, you must major in one of the aforementioned four disciplines. Electives, while they exist, are highly limited (and choices pre-ordained).  Finally, students progress through the program as a cohort by year; they don’t have the ability to take a mix of first- second- or third- year classes, but have to complete the entire “stage” before being promoted to the next “stage”.

This has an obvious benefit to the university as a business. It’s far easier to assess the impact of discrete programs in economic terms and their overall contribution (or lack thereof) to the bottom line. In an institution run explicitly on a business rationality without any sort of employment protection for the academic staff, this leads to employment insecurity — programs can be eliminated with no consultation, based purely on economic rationale.

This can be a strength of the system, but the economic rationale is often flimsy. Moreover, institutional instability is the norm. Since my hiring, my department has been part of four different names / structures, and is due to be part of a fifth come July. The university itself was “rebranded” three years ago with the assistance of two outside consultants. My undergraduate degree program, over which I have served as the “programme manager” since 2006, can serve as a warning. When I was hired, we offered the full range of undergraduate degree options: a “single honours”, a major and a minor. Two years later, it was reduced to a minor-only. Two years after that, I led the effort to completely re-design the curriculum, which resulted in the validation of a new major (no single honours) in 2007, which admitted its first students for the 2009-10 cohort.

Before that cohort of students could so much as finish their first year, I received an email on a Saturday morning while still chair of Politics & International Relations, that the politics major was being pulled and we could no longer recruit students for the upcoming 2010/11 year. The timing was awkward; beyond it being a Saturday morning, we had just recruited a full cohort to commence study that September, most of whom had informed their other choices that they were committed to my department.  While we never received an explanation for the closure of the degree (it is retained as a minor only option, and we still have an excellent IR degree), the best I could work out is that it had to do with marginal variance in revenue streams from the central government.  Simply put, the university receives (received) more money per head in teaching grants for some students than others; the social sciences are funded at the lowest amount (for understandable reasons; some disciplines require infrastructural outlays for instruction that others do not). With the central government capping the total enrolment of the university, there’s a logic to enrolling students that bring in 120% of the funding the baseline student represents.

In other words, if my assessment is correct (again, the decision making process was opaque) this decision wasn’t about eliminating a loss-making unit, but rather simply about enhancing pre-existing revenue streams.  Which, if you’re a business, makes rational sense.  And this is how a university-as-business operates. But should a university be primarily concerned with its revenue streams and “profit centres” (yes, we have those), or its core mission as an institution dedicated to the production and dissemination of knowledge?

I’m not suggesting that universities ought to be run at a loss at the level of a specific institution.  However, they do serve a public good, and should be treated as such, including some degree of state support, rather than concentrating primarily as a business. Furthermore, it is in the interests of the primary stakeholders of a university — the staff and students — to have institutional stability, yet treating the university as a business leads to considerable instability, both in terms of the institution itself and the people who populate the institution.

This has been the one constant in my experience.  Each of the ten academic years I’ve been at my current institution has been subjected to some fundamental reorganization, to the point where my colleagues have a joke about it: it’s a Mao-esque permanent revolution. In this time, my department has been based in two faculties under four (soon to be five) deans, housed in three (soon to be four) “schools”, with four different heads of school, and my department has had five chairs. The university writ large has seen a massive building program, the consolidation of branch campuses on the main campus, the reduction in faculties from eight, to five, and then a year later four. Physically, my department has moved offices twice in two years, and for some three times. We’re facing yet another physical move in the summer of 2014, as our extant offices are redeveloped into on-campus housing for students. My own major has been reduced to a minor twice; once in 2005, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious but corresponded with the sacking of two colleagues. Following the byzantine process of validation, which I’ve now achieved a certain proficiency at, it relaunched three years later, only to have it suddenly pulled on that Saturday morning, three years ago.

Again, there is a logic to this.  When new administrators come in, they have a strong incentive to make their own mark on the institution as they seek to enhance their career prospects.  When the end goal is instruction and research, making one’s own mark is best served by institutional stability as the metrics she or he will be judged by benefit from stability. The problem is, these are difficult to measure, and even when measured, are glacial to change. Anybody who has researched the relationship between research outputs and movement in departmental reputation (as I have) can attest to the long time lag before a heightened (or reduced) publication profile nudges ranking tables. However, a profit and loss statement is a metric that benefits from clarity, and also one where new policy can have an immediate, gratifying effect. When the end goal is enhancing revenue streams with the corresponding metric of success being the balance sheet, institutional reorganization can serve in achieving this goal (or at least appearing to). Strange results occur, however; one institutional redesign recently resulted in the dispersal of the social sciences across three faculties, and my department ended up being housed in the School of Management.  We’re not there because of a natural intellectual and pedagogical fit with disciplines such as shipping and logistics or human resources, but for reasons less clear and minimally articulated. My cynical guess is that we represented an enhanced revenue stream to somebody.

Ironically, mere months after the major in politics was pulled, the (then relatively new) Dean of the Business School launched an initiative, which is the establishment of a “School of Government”.  This took over two years to plan, consuming up considerable time of several of my colleagues (during which there was no guarantee that it would fly), yet the proposal, bizarrely, did not automatically include the revival of the politics major.  Rather, the goal appeared to be the launching of a theoretically lucrative public service MA program aimed at current and prospective members of the civil service.  While both intellectually and pedagogically this is an attractive proposition when contrasted with our current situation, the Dean has made it explicitly clear that one of the primary motivators of this initiative is to enhance revenue streams. I was perhaps the only member of my department fully in support of this proposal, as I’m attracted to the notion that being part of a School of Government makes more intellectual sense to colleagues outside of my institution, and more pedagogical sense to prospective students interested in studying politics at my institution.

However, the institutional insecurity created by both a university run on commercial lines, coupled with our specific experience over the past decade, led to understandable concern about the proposal. Not because of intellectual or pedagogical fit, but rather because of the business model of the new school. If it doesn’t break even, all of our positions become untenable. Hence, the major selling pitch of the new school concentrated on enhancing revenue streams through professional programs aimed at serving civil servants, to enhancing international recruitment, to “blended learning” via on line offerings. While late in coming, the politics major was finally given the green light to resume as it became obvious that this would be a cheap way to enhance the income of the new school (and yet again, the timing was awkward). Given the logic of a business model designed to replicate a commercial enterprise, the dean is acting rationally in this proposal. While he sincerely wants a School of Government for its own sake, he is likewise adroitly reacting to the shifting incentives created by the central government in his motivation for the creation of new revenue streams.

In 2010, the United Kingdom dramatically slashed central government support for the teaching side of universities, replacing said funding by allowing English and Welsh institutions to triple tuition effective with the 2012-13 cohort (and the overwhelming majority of universities in England and Wales did select to raise their annual tuition to the maximum of £9000) . Where state universities in the US have seen an erosion of legislative support coupled with the ineluctable steady rise in tuition, here in the UK it was accomplished as a big bang (variance in the institutional arrangements of government illustrated). Astonishingly, there were fewer students applying for places in 2012 than there were in 2011 or 2010, as the new tuition rate applies to the 2012 cohort, but not earlier cohorts. To remain sustainable in a competitive marketplace, universities as commercial concerns must adjust their business models (unless you’re, say, Cambridge or Oxford). This is not simply my analysis, but rather it’s the party line communicated relentlessly up and down the food chain at my institution.

There are other consequences of moving to a full business model of the university, including the recruitment of non-academics to fill key academic managerial positions, additional tiers of highly paid middle management, and a perceptible anti-intellectual bias and a lack of intellectual curiosity amongst the academic administration, which is just a bit ironic at a university.  Finally, there’s the effect on staff morale.  I’m in a fortunate position as my department remains among the most collegial I’ve been associated with in 20 years in this business as a graduate student and faculty member, but even here the stress is beginning to create fissures. Yet in spite of the permanent revolution we have to endure, our department has achieved and maintained a rather high ranking in The Guardian.

This isn’t a self-serving defence of the old order, nor is it me taking advantage of a visible platform to air personal grievances. I love my job, and I’m fortunate to get paid to do my hobby. Rather, I’m suggesting that the move to a fully commercial model has consequences for the theoretical mission of the university. Knowledge isn’t static, although the Riley book that Fish reviewed would seem to suggest otherwise. Universities acting as commercial enterprises which lack academic freedom (and hence tenure) result in incentives that can, and indeed will, institutionally slow the progression of knowledge.

I had no problem contemplating the uncertainties of graduate school 20 years ago, having a perhaps naive faith that I wouldn’t be the one to take a bullet, but that I’d survive the battle to get a job in the end. I did. However, would I now recommend this career move to my undergraduates considering emulating me by training for my career? Increasingly, the answer is no.

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