The Image-Driven University

Looking in mirror
Mirror, Mirror on the wall …

Over the last few decades, British universities have reinvented themselves as businesses. Tellingly, the Minister of State for Universities and Science belongs to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Like every other sector of public life in Britain, from fine art to bridges across the Thames, universities are being re-rendered as private spaces and subsumed to commercial interests. Through this commercial turn, marketing has come to be central to academic life. Universities interact with students as customers and use the language of marketing to draw customers into expensive degree programs. Marketing and communications departments now play a central role in recruitment and admissions in many universities, defining their public face. Interactions with external organizations increasingly take place with the pursuit of income in mind, through sponsorships, research grants, and so forth, and the language of marketing again is central to the ways in which universities engage with these organizations. Scholars likewise need to be market their image in the best way possible, to build professional networks, attract funding, maintain positive workplace relationships, and so forth.

Nehring Corporate bugTo be sure, concerns about scholarly reputation have been central to academic life for a very long time. Elite universities such as Oxford or Cambridge define themselves as much through prestige accrued over centuries as through contemporary achievements. Academics have not just recently become a very image-conscious professional group.

Nonetheless, British academia’s turn to marketing has brought with it a new pressure to conform. There are many symptoms of this new conformism in academic life. Drawing on templates from the corporate world (1, 2), universities may now seek to regulate academics’ work through ‘tone of voice’ policies (1, 2) that mandate particular forms of expression in the pursuit of a positive brand image. Thus, for instance, using the marketing slogan “what if” as a point of departure, the University of Warwick’s tone of voice policy seeks to regulate speech down to the construction of sentences and the choice of words:

“Here is one way to incorporate what if in your writing:

  1. a) Start by using what if to set up a compelling and relevant question: ‘What if we banned chairs at our meetings?’
  2. b) Use then to offer outcomes and answers: ‘Then everyone would have to stand. Then nobody would get too comfy. Then we’d get down to business straight away and be done more quickly…’
  3. c) You can then throw it back at the reader with another challenge: ‘What then?’

More examples: i) Inspiring a prospective student: What if you could study at Warwick from anywhere in the world? Then you could experience […etc.] By signing up to one of our open online courses, you could be a part of Warwick’s growing global community.”

Warwick’s tone of voice policy is just one example of many efforts to regulate speech that have recently emerged in British academia. It is therefore unsurprising that academics now find themselves in trouble with their employers over unwelcome political statements (1, 2). The Guardian’s “Academics Anonymous” blog is another revealing symptom of this new pressure to conform. The Guardian promotes the blog as a space “where academics can tell it like it is.” If academics must resort to an anonymous blog to tell it like it is, this suggests that academic freedom of speech has come to be severely curtailed.

In the last three decades, there has been much debate in the U.S. about a conservative backlash against academics and the consequences of this backlash for academic freedom. Similar debates have largely been absent in Britain, and there seems to be considerable reluctance to open up to critical scrutiny the contemporary politics of academic labor. How has the logic of marketing come to be so dominant in academic life that it seems to threaten academic freedom?

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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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4 years ago

Well, I go to university in America so I don’t know of the differences. Anyway, the way I see it is, the idea of going to college is instilled in all high schoolers. And the vast majority of them are only following what’s expected of them, they don’t know what college they want to go to. Half my school went to Penn State just because a lot of their friends went so it sounded like a good party school. That means there’s a huge market for universities to tap into, the high school students that don’t know where they want… Read more »

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