Is COVID-19 Enabling Academic Disaster Capitalism?

COVID-19 has hit an academic world in crisis. At the time the pandemic irrupted into campuses last year, universities around the world had been shaken for years by precipitous changes, characterized by highly unequal and often highly negative consequences for both scholars and students. With this dramatic opening statement, I refer specifically to the ways in which academic capitalism has unmade and remade scholarship and everyday forms of academic labor.

As I have been arguing on these pages for more than a decade, the marketization, commercialization and commodification of higher education have fundamentally altered the motivations, experiences and practices by which students study for degrees and academics engage in scholarship. At the same time, they have profoundly transformed the institutional structures by which universities are governed and operate. Academic capitalism has contributed to the integration of the global academic system. However, it has done so by way of the sharply hierarchical logic of global university rankings and with profit extraction as one central motive.

The growth, in number and size, of overseas campuses of wealthy elite university offers a case in point. Academic capitalism relentlessly encourages ‘excellence’ in scholarship. However, it has contributed to the creation of a winner-takes-all academic world, increasingly divided between well-funded, well-paid elite academics in stable employment and a struggling precariat of scholars just trying to get by. Academic capitalism seeks to draw increasing numbers of young people into higher education. However, it does so in terms of an instrumental rationality that foregrounds the acquisition of a degree certificate and the resulting economic benefits to degree-holders over the pleasures of disinterested learning and the role of education in the democratic political process. All this on a global scale, local variations in academic systems notwithstanding. I do not believe that it would be excessive to associate the ongoing and unresolved crisis of liberal democracy with the rise of academic capitalism.

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My objective here is not to engage in a diatribe against the excesses of marketized higher education. The issue at hand is to take stock of the condition that universities find themselves in and consider obstacles to in some sense positive change in the COVID world.

In this context, the problem of academic disaster capitalism is notable. Popularized through Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2007/2014), the term refers to the exploitation of large-scale societal or institutional crises to effect change that will benefit specific actors in economic terms. While Klein focuses on the implementation of neoliberal policy regimes during and immediately following the Cold War era, other, more recent analyses have shared her emphasis on the instrumentalisation of crises for economic gain. For example, Philip Mirowski’s important z (2014) considers neoliberalism’s capacity for self-perpetuation in the wake of the international financial crisis of 2008. Opportunities for disaster capitalism created by COVID-19 equally merit attention.

Early indicators are readily found, in various forms:

  1. Institutional re-structuring and layoffs: A signal feature of academic capitalism lies in the continuous reorganization of universities to focus on the most profitable ‘revenue streams’ (degree programmes and departments). The downsizing of programmes and departments tends to be accompanied by large-scale layoffs of academic staff and the associated precarization of academic labour. COVID-19 seems to provide ample cover for this, even though the genuine financial difficulties occasioned by the pandemic should not be dismissed. A spectacular, ongoing dispute at the United Kingdom’s University of Leicester over restructuring and wide-ranging layoffs illustrates this particularly well. Justified as a response to the pandemic and a drop in demand for certain degrees, the university’s plans have attracted industrial action and an international boycott.
  • The remodeling of teaching: As the public university, in the proper sense of the word, fades away, universities are increasingly reliant on tuition fees, rather than public funding, to sustain themselves. The pandemic may serve as a useful opportunity to trial changes to structures of teaching and learning that increase income and revenue for universities. In this context, the University of Manchester’s recent decision to shift a substantial part of its teaching online long-term deserves attention, as, perhaps, a sign of things to come.

These two examples hint at much broader changes that might lie ahead for universities, as the world learns to live with COVID-19 in the long run. They deserve attention for two reasons.

On the one hand, longstanding critiques of academic capitalism, in a variety of academic systems, may occasionally attract public attention and generate debate. They have not, however, generated systemic change in any way that I can think of.

On the other hand, the inequalities that define academic labour frequently seem to be invisible to academic managers and scholars in leadership positions. So, for instance, in a 2020 piece in Times Higher Education, Dawn Lerman and Falguni Sen are enthusiastic in their assessment of the shift to online teaching that the pandemic has brought about at U.S. universities. They do not consider the often-crushing workload that this shift, ad hoc and haphazard at many higher education institutions, has entailed for academics. Equally, they do not pay attention to the considerable potential for outsourced, precarious teaching work that this shift entails, in an academic system in which a large majority of employment is already off the tenure track.

Therefore, this seems to be a good time to feel pessimistic about academia in the COVID world, and to turn this pessimism into meaningful debate and effective action.

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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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