Market killed the university star

What are universities for? Like many first-order questions, this one is all too readily answered by the everyday routines of university life. Here, the confident answer of many — perhaps most — is that the university's purpose is to grow the economy by training a skilled and efficient workforce.

In this particular telling, however, much is hidden, even from the trained eye. This is because, these days, far too few questions are asked about what kind of thinking — let alone (what many call) "knowledge" — is closed off by placing the university at the service of what economic historian Emma Rothschild calls a "society of universal commerce". Within the daily life of the university, this understanding is further complicated because the market template — which underpins the economic-centered society — is used to make academic choices.

So government bureaucrats and university managers make decisions, such as how many music students society can afford, on the basis of the purported impartiality of the market without asking the prior question: Can there be a genuine market in such matters?

No matter how many indices economists and bureaucrats dream up, the answer is that there cannot be — not now, not ever. However it is packaged, the self-styled free market is rigged by the grubby world of interests (read: politics), but this is hidden by, among other things, the habits of accepted speech.

Only by thinking about these issues can one answer the question: What are universities for?

This certainly is the view of Cambridge don Stefan Collini, whose recently published book of the same title has won him both acclaim and criticism in the United Kingdom. It will do the same, I confidently predict, wherever it is read, which is the reason why this book should be read by all university people — and urgently, too.

But there is also a more immediate reason why South African academics should read it.

The "restructuring" of higher education in this country has all too easily followed the "reform" of the sector in the UK. Indeed, the language of this reform — language that reveals "a kind of mercantilism of the intellect", in Collini's words — has seeped into every conversation on South African higher education.

Cut from the same cloth
This should be no surprise, of course. Not only are our universities cut from the same traditional cloth as Britain's, but since apartheid's ending there has been a thickening network of old connections and the building of new ones. This explains, incidentally, why more than a few local vice-chancellors have taken on successful second careers by heading up British universities. Moreover, a residue of British "expertise" in higher education and its crusade of reforms is scattered across the local institutions — many of them are refugees from the cult of "transformation" that followed apartheid's ending. So there is a clear resonance between Collini's brilliant analysis of the situation in the UK and what faces South Africa's ever-turbulent university sector.

But be warned that this book — for all Collini's appealing prose — is not an easy or comforting read. Nor, indeed, was it meant to be. Like all university people should be at what has happened to the institutions that carry us and our craft, Collini is angry — angry, yes, but wonderfully measured in his anger.

For the managerially inclined reader, be warned: Collini offers little comfort. His intention is not to provide an answer to the average dean's myriad management puzzles: How can I increase the through-put rate? How can I cut salary costs? How can I up the research output? How can I change the racial composition of the faculty?

For Collini, these kinds of questions are the very problem of the modern university and answering them only entrenches a sense of intellectual bankruptcy that has allowed the modern university to drift perilously close to emulating the business corporation. "HiEdBizUK", as he dubs it in a dedicated chapter, has many forms of surveillance, notwithstanding the claim of its human resource experts that "good performance" should always be rewarded. A close reading of policy documents reveals that human resources departments are more interested in protecting the university budget than in preserving forms of deep scholarship.

On all this, Collini is clear: "'Modern' ... [as used here] … means using the market model." And he draws on an old term — "guff", a word with Nordic roots that means gobbledygook — to describe the market-centered discourse that shapes everyday talk about the purpose of the university.

This suggests that Collini, a professor of intellectual history and English literature, is not sympathetic to (what far too many lovingly call) "applied knowledge". Instead, his purpose and his technique are critique. This, he believes, is not only in and of itself an authoritative form of knowledge, but it serves a practical purpose by allowing a consideration of more "adequate principles" of behaviour and organisation.

Missing the contradictions
This kind of thinking will unsettle South African debates on higher education in which, sadly, most (if not all) conversations believe that the only thing that matters in higher education is policy-speak, which quickly returns to the diktat of the market. The result is that an abundance of deep-seated contradictions in the South African higher education policy framework — to deliberately choose the way in which invariably the conversation is teed up — is simply passed over.

Consider three examples. One, South African higher education is under a regime of institutional audits whereas the basic education system, in which the country's very political crisis is at its deepest, no longer runs school inspections.

Two, the local rating system is the most complex (and probably costly) in the world because it aims to assess individual "excellence", yet the entire university system remains committed — certainly rhetorically — to quality and collegiality. Three, there is a deep concern that most publications are produced by an ageing cohort of whites males, whereas young and well-trained PhDs from previously excluded communities, many of whom are women, are employed as higher-education bureaucrats. Might they not be better employed in the universities to create the much-promised "new knowledge"?

But although critique can, and does, point to many practical problems, its purpose is to persuade by allowing, in Collini's words, "more adequate principles to infiltrate public debate" and engage society.

So, following this thread, critique can set a research agenda for real higher education "reform", both in South Africa and elsewhere — a reform that is not dominated by a single, arbitrary notion such as the market. For this to succeed will require an open and honest discussion around three points and only this can generate an answer to the holding question: What are universities for?

Waves of creation
As Collini does with the UK, this should begin with a critical examination of the waves of university creation. This story is invariably more complex than the linear one on immediate offer. Only this will enable South Africans to escape the set responses to thinking about the past and the purpose of our institutions and help us to understand that "modern" phrases such as "the university must assist in the development of the nation" are not new. This term was used in Afrikaner nationalist circles in the 1920s and in the phase of Bantustan universities in the 1980s — and look at what they produced!

To succeed, secondly, an examination of South African universities must critically engage with the language of university reform that, for all its pervasiveness, is not preoccupied with the emancipatory project to which the country once devoted its all, but with stabilising an end point in which private interests will always trump public ones. This has opened the university to corporate interests that close off, not open, the free exchange of ideas.

And, finally, the time is ripe to ask some critical questions about the superstructure that has been created around our universities — that alphabet soup of CHEs, HESAs, HEQCs and NRFs. Here, interest should not only be in that old managerial saw, namely are they efficient, but also, far more importantly, in how they can change their current vocabulary away from empty words such as "excellence", "innovation" and "impact" that have become code words for the market.

These three critical openings will shadow both the intent and direction of Collini's book.

If we are truthful, our answers, like his, will be that all academic work must begin with the assumption that there can only be "interim reports". This is because we live in an underexplored world;  all knowledge is tentative, which is why the market that commands so much space in the lives of universities and society can only — and always — only be a provisional answer to the question.

But recognising this is not enough, because the idea of the market has taken on an ideological patina — like apartheid once did. Breaking this will not be easy, as Collini recognises. But his plea that "universities need advocates" is surely a call to arms for all university people.

Our defence can no longer be that our work supports the economy, because this argument only plays into the discourse that has brought universities to this sorry point. Like  Collini we need instead to ask some first-order questions in very public places.

Peter Vale is professor of ­humanities at the University of Johannesburg

What Are Universities for? by Stefan Collini, Penguin, 2012



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