What’s Distinctive About Britain’s New Corporate Universities?

Marketplace of ideas — or just marketplace?

British universities are changing at rapid pace. The consequences of these changes are cause of concern for many academics, who worry about their working conditions and the future of academic freedom. In a meeting, a colleague recently made an offhand remark that neatly summarizes these anxieties. In her view, she explained, British universities have returned to a conservatism that had not been seen since the 1950s.

Nehring Corporate bugThis assessment is interesting in so far as it points to the powerful impact which right-wing education policies have had on universities over the past thirty years. In their emphasis on primarily vocational, depoliticized and commercialized education, there seems to be a considerable degree of continuity between the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s, New Labour, and contemporary Conservative policies (1, 2, 3). In the USA, similar developments have long been discussed as a ‘conservative backlash’ and tied explicitly to broader social and political developments (1, 2, 3). British academia’s conservative backlash is more rarely named and critiqued as such, and British academics seem more circumspect than their American counterparts in spelling out the political origins and consequences of the transformation engulfing their workplaces.

The idea that conservative backlash may be taking place at British universities is useful in so far as it highlights the political dimensions of current developments and challenges technocratic, overtly apolitical visions of higher education. Nonetheless, the notion of a conservative backlash does not capture the full scope of the changes currently underway. Many of these are unprecedented and have given rise to a new kind of university that bears little resemblance to its counterparts of decades past.

I find the term ‘corporate university’ particularly useful for describing these new features of academic life. On the one hand, the term is used to refer to in-house vocational training centers of large corporations (1, 2). On the other hand, it draws attention to the ways in which traditional universities, in terms of their organizational structures, ethos and everyday labor practices, conform more and more to the model of the corporate world. The following to me seem to be some of the key dimensions of British academia’s corporate turn:

  1. The reframing of higher education as a capitalist ‘marketplace’: The notion that higher education is a marketplace would hardly have been taken seriously in past generations. Yet, in a very short time span, it has come to be a matter of common sense (albeit still questioned here and there) that universities, academics and students must behave according to the logic of market-based competition. Leading business scholars have built their careers around the promotion of ‘entrepreneurial universities’ (1, 2, 3), and harried academics are now offered careers consulting to survive and thrive amidst fierce competition (1, 2). Competition now seems to rival cooperation as a principle of academic labor.
  1. The adoption of corporate power structures: When I was a student, in an increasingly distant past, older academics spoke of academic self-governance, participatory decision-making, and the freedom to make autonomous choices about their scholarship. There was a university administration, but there were no ‘managers’. In less than two decades, universities have dramatically reduced the scope of academic self-governance, have moved towards hierarchical, top-down, tendentially authoritarian modes of decision making, and have concentrated power in the hands of a new class of self-identified managers, many of whom hail from corporate backgrounds.
  1. Elitism and the hierarchical reorganization of scholarship: Elitism, of course, has been endemic in academia for a long, long time, both in Britain and elsewhere. Yet, for some time in the latter half of the past century, at least some British universities also experienced powerful egalitarian trends, in response to second-wave feminisms and the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporary academia is becoming self-consciously elitist. The gulf is widening between scholars at big, research-focused universities and those at smaller and teaching intensive places, in terms of possibilities to publish, access to research funding, and so forth. The gap is growing, likewise, between those who still enjoy full-time, permanent employment and those who have to get by in precarious jobs. The former are now required to constantly justify their status in audits of their research and teaching performance and their ability to win research grants. Meanwhile, the growing number of casual academics may struggle to gain any sort of voice at the institutions at which they work.
  1. The rise of a new language of academic labor: As universities re-imagine themselves as business enterprises, they have fashioned a new language to describe themselves. The world of business has been the origin of many of the words, phrases and standardized rhetorical patterns that academics and their managers now use to speak about their work. Heads of department have become ‘line managers’, teaching is described in terms of the uniform idiom of ‘teaching and learning’, and some universities seek to protect their brand by standardizing speech in ‘tone of voice’ policies (1, 2). As a consequence of this regulation of speech, politically conscious dissent is becoming more and more difficult, even for established academics (1, 2).

In the following posts, I would like to examine these trends in more detail than I have so far and consider what the alternatives to the seemingly inevitable corporatization of academic life in Britain might be. Some months ago, a senior, well-known academic at a London university published a piece in The Guardian that criticized some of the trends I have just described. I wrote to him to ask which possibilities he saw to challenge these trends and effect change. He replied that he was unsure and that his uncertainty reflected a wider pattern among influential critics of higher education. Since then, I have been wondering how positive change might come about after all. To date, though, I am still unsure.

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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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