Why Do Academics Matter So Little in Britain’s Corporate Universities?


Education not for sale
This is what happens when you let those subversive producers loose. (Photo: simenon/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)
At an academic event in London, I recently met with a sociologist I have known for a number of years. Even though she has published widely in her field and gained some recognition for her scholarship, she feels that she may need to move into academic management to attain secure long-term employment. When we met in London, she told me that she had just been interviewed for a departmental-level managerial position at a well-established British university. Unfortunately, the interview was unsuccessful, and she was not offered the position. In a follow-up phone call, the senior manager who had coordinated the recruitment process advised her that she had given the wrong answer to an important question.

Nehring Corporate bugWhen asked how she would communicate disagreeable decisions on the part of senior management to colleagues in her department, she had replied that she would ask for cooperation while still acknowledging the problematic nature of the issue at hand. Instead, she should have signalled her full agreement with the line taken by senior management and enforced it strictly. Academics, the senior manager told her, could be subversive and needed to be monitored. My acquaintance was taken aback by the senior manager’s attitude, but still felt disappointed about the unsuccessful interview. She told me that she would have accepted the position had it been offered to her.

This anecdote illustrates forms of thought and labor practices that seem to have become endemic at British universities. The encounter my acquaintance described stands out for its crassness; the desire for managerial control and the divisions between managers and academics may take subtler forms at other universities. All this, however, is nothing new – the transformation of British universities into profit-driven corporations has long been recognized, analysed and criticized. The following list of high-profile book-length critiques of higher education only amounts to a small fraction of the academic literature on the topic:

Bailey, Michael (ed.) (2011) The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, London: Pluto Press.

Collini, Stefan (2012) What Are Universities For?, London: Penguin Books.

Docherty, Thomas (2011) For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Giroux, Henry (2014) Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Holmwood, John (2011) A Manifesto for the Public University, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

McGettigan, Andrew (2013) The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education, London: Pluto Press.

Molesworth, Mike (ed.) (2011) The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer, Abingdon: Routledge.

Nussbaum, Martha (2012) Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Readings, Bill (1996) The University in Ruins, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

All these books were written by scholars of considerable standing in their fields and issued by reputable publishers. Some of these books received considerable public attention outside academia and were given some space in mainstream media. This leads to the question why their transformative potential has been so limited. The corporate transformation of higher education continues unabated, and academics seem by and large unable to challenge it in meaningful ways. Erudite books and articles on the matter do not seem to make a difference, campaigns in support of the idea of the public university have failed to make headway, blogs such as the present seem to be of little significance, and even high-profile interventions by public intellectuals do not amount to much.

When Middlesex University decided to close its renowned philosophy department for financial reasons in 2010, interventions by Slavoj Žižek, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Alain Badiou and other distinguished intellectuals did nothing to change the university’s mind. In fact, the university did not respond to these interventions at all. On-campus protests by staff and students were met with a fierce response, as the university called in the police and suspended several protesters (1, 2, 3). Why do academics’ views and actions matter so little in Britain’s new corporate universities?

Answers to this question might be found in the anecdote at the beginning of this post. In the starkest form possible, it highlights the mixture of authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism that pervades corporate universities. The organisational reality that academic managers inhabit is not the organisational reality in which scholars live. Academic managers are nowadays often recruited from the business world. They are trained with management manuals and leadership seminars (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and the standardized language of management describes their everyday labor practices.

Within this organizational reality, universities are defined by steep and strict hierarchies of authority and control, in which academics occupy subordinate positions that disqualify them from actively defining organisational goals. Hence, efforts at academic self-government or attempts to debate decisions with management may be regarded as subversive acts. The notion that academics are subversive likewise expresses an anti-intellectualism with deep roots in British public life (1, 2). Notably, a straight line can be drawn from the anti-intellectualism of the senior manager who views academics as subversives to the anti-intellectualism that often comes to the fore in public debates. Mass media may challenge the role of intellectuals and intellectually driven debates in public life, and major policy proposals for higher education, such as the recent Green Paper, describe education in purely economic terms, without any regard for the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual development on their own terms. Scholars and scholarship thus may need to be reined in and made to conform, instead of being encouraged and left to thrive.

If authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism indeed define the clash between managers and academics, there is little hope that books such as those listed above will be read by managers, will define public debates, and will contribute to higher education policy. Corporate universities have come to operate as self-enclosed power structures that are shielded from intellectually driven debate by their authoritarian structures and their anti-intellectual ethos. Books, journal articles and blog posts are unlikely to change this. Perhaps, as Henry Giroux has recently argued, the adoption of a posture of self-conscious exile is still a way forward for those seeking to engage in transformative intellectual scholarship in corporate universities. Or perhaps universities are more and more the wrong site for such pursuits.


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.