Is Higher Education Losing Its Progressive Potential?


Marina Warner
Marina Warner’s high-profile decision to quit an increasingly ‘for-profit’ University of Essex last year has echoed throughout Britain’s educational establishment.
In my recent posts, I explored last year’s controversy surrounding Marina Warner’s acrimonious departure from the University of Essex (1, 2, 3). This controversy drew attention to the apparent mutation of one of the UK’s most radically progressive academic institutions into a fairly standard corporate university, run by its managers according to the principles of the business enterprise. The University of Essex was perhaps unfortunate to find itself in the spotlight, as its management practices, as much as they have been publicly described, seem hardly unusual in today’s academic world. Critics of the remaking of academic life in the image of the corporate world often point to the dangers that result from treating higher education as an object of commerce, in terms of its financial rather than its political and ethical value. In this context, critics frequently point to the pivotal role which universities have played in the democratic process.

For example, in the UK, the manifesto of the Campaign for the Public University criticizes the economic reductionism of the 2010 Browne report and emphasises the contributions higher education makes to public life:

The Browne Review identifies only two important functions for education, namely its contribution to economic growth and its contribution to the human capital of individuals. What is missing is any understanding of its contribution to the public. Writing in 1927, John Dewey argued that a core issue for democracy was the ‘public and its problems’. Dewey begins from the argument that the individual is necessarily a social being involved in ‘associative life’, and that this is true of what are conventionally regarded as private actions as well as of public actions. Individuals form associations, and they are formed by associations. At the same time, the multiplicity of associations and their interconnected actions have consequences, which can be addressed both by new associations and by new institutions of the public. The University is one such institution that facilitates the development of a public, through its role in education about associated life and in developing the capacity for full participation.

In North America, Henry Giroux has played a key role in drawing attention to the global scope of higher education’s colonization by the interests of the marketplace:

Across the globe, a new historical conjuncture is emerging in which the attacks on higher education as a democratic institution and on dissident public voices in general – whether journalists, whistleblowers or academics – are intensifying with sobering consequences. The attempts to punish prominent academics such as Ward Churchill, Steven Salaita and others are matched by an equally vicious assault on whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond and Edward Snowden, and journalists such as James Risen. (1) Under the aegis of the national surveillance-security-secrecy state, it becomes difficult to separate the war on whistleblowers and journalists from the war on higher education – the institutions responsible for safeguarding and sustaining critical theory and engaged citizenship.

Neoliberal globalization has simultaneously spread the European institutional model of the university throughout the world and subjected it to powerful economic and political interests. The manifesto of the Campaign for the Public University has drawn attention to current efforts to privatize academic spaces, while the work of Henry Giroux emphasizes the threat to academic freedom and public dissent that has resulted from this process of privatization. The politics of academic life seem to be taking a distinctly conservative turn, within which critical, radical, dissenting voices may be viewed with suspicion.

For sociology, a crucial question results from this: To what extent is it still possible to engage students in a meaningful way in the discipline’s foundational debates about the social production of power, inequalities, and exploitation? On the one hand, lecturers today are confronted with university’s demands for approaches to teaching that focus on skills and employability. On the other hand, students are well aware of the saturated, hypercompetitive labor markets they will enter when they graduate, and this preoccupation may come to shape the ways in which they approach their studies.

The dynamics of higher education in South Korea are highly illustrative in this regard. The annual report Education at a Glance (2013, 2014) regularly shows South Korea leading other OECD nations in educational attainment and in terms of expenditures on educational institutions as a percentage of GDP. Yet, public spending on education is comparatively low. For example, in 2011, the share of private expenditure on tertiary education nearly reached 80 per cent and was among OECD member states only surpassed by Chile, a country which in recent years has had to confront fierce public protests against the cost of access to education. Tuition fees in South Korea are exorbitantly high, as my students often point out, and access to higher education is closely associated with families’ financial prowess (1, 2, 3). This is indicative of a prevalent understanding of education as a private and commercial good, subject to the rules of market-based competition, rather than large-scale investments of the state as a public good.

At the same time, students in South Korea have to confront high rates of graduate unemployment (1, 2, 3), and precarious, short-term, part-time or otherwise irregular employment characterizes the working lives of more than one third of the labor force. This creates a highly competitive working environment, in which students feel compelled to work long hours under great pressure to excel above their peers (1, 2, 3).

All this suggests a scenario within which it ought to be very difficult indeed to engage students in the sort of critical debates about the social organization of power and inequalities that I mentioned above. Yet, in my three semesters in Korea, this has hardly ever been the case. In admission interviews colleagues and I conducted a few weeks ago, many students identified their wish for more open, critical about social issues and inequalities as a key factor in their choice of degree program. In my classes, I have for the most part encountered students who are both keenly aware of the pressures they face and ready to explore and debate their social structural origins. Colleagues with whom I discuss the issue for the most part share very similar experiences.

On the one hand, these experiences have led me to believe that even in the highly commercialized, highly competitive ‘pressure cooker’ environment of South Korean higher education, there is still much room in classrooms for the sociological imagination to thrive. On the other hand, my work in South Korea and very similar experiences I have had in the UK suggest that the conservative turn in academia may be much less a response to shifting priorities on the part of students than a result of concerted top-down efforts on the part of policy makers, consultants, the new class of managers, and so forth. In so far as this assumption is true, these top-down efforts at remaking academia require much greater public attention and debate than they have received so far. Commentators such as Henry Giroux and campaigns such as the Campaign for the Public University have been active and vocal in recent years. At the same time however, they have received far less attention than they are due in the mainstream media, in mainstream debates about academic management, and in policy debates. It is time for this to change.


Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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“Is Higher Education Losing Its Progressive Potential?” Hopefully. Hopefully the terrible legacy of the New Left is finally fading. And if you are believe that higher education is a platform for your parochial political biases, then I hope you will be leaving the academy as well. Then we can get back to work.

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