Money makes the McUniversity

Sioux McKenna

Academics are worth more than profits and can't be lumped into corporate 'staff development' groups.

When the market becomes the key driver for universities academics are pushed to view knowledge as a commodity. (Lee Jae Won, Reuters)

The development of academic staff is a flourishing concern in South African universities and academic development centres offer workshops, short courses and even full qualifications in the art and craft of being an academic. But it is worth considering the beliefs about the university and the academic that underpin such initiatives.

In some institutions, staff development is worryingly conceived of as the generic training of academics to perform their roles better. I argue instead that staff development should primarily be about providing a theorised space for interrogating what it is to be an academic in this time and place.

Despite accusations of being an ivory tower, the university remains integrally part of the social world and is both affected by and affects the ways in which society constructs itself. But the relationship between the university and society, or the university and the state, is not static and has, through massive changes in the economic order, been subjugated in an era of globalisation.

In a post-Washington Consensus world, the role of the university is increasingly conceptualised in terms of its relationship to the economy. The university is primarily understood in media reportage and policy documents as being a servant for economic growth, and the principal purpose is to produce work-ready graduates and patent-ready research.

This conception of the university as a sophisticated training ground for complex work environments is difficult to fault, given the dire need for economic growth and the numerous practical problems we face. But in a country where the state is the major funder of higher education and therefore potentially wields great power over the activities of the sector, conceiving of our work only in terms of developing human capital has the worrying potential of constraining other possible roles universities might play.

Servant of the marketplace
As the market becomes the key driver, there is the potential for the university's role to shift fundamentally to that of servant to the marketplace. Much research argues that this has led to an entirely new conceptualisation of the university — the "McUniversity" where academic values are subsumed by money-making initiatives.

This admittedly cynical view should not be thought to hark back to an imagined golden age where knowledge production served the people and the university fostered equitable social growth. Such an era has never existed. The university has almost always been an elite institution serving society's privileged few and based on the norms and practices of the wealthy. The extent to which the university has ever consciously acted as a public good is doubtful and, in South Africa, the reverse is true — many universities have actively sustained social injustices.

So the decrying of the recent conceptualisation of the university as being a cog in the economic machine is not nostalgia for an imaginary past. Rather it is a concern about the future. Globalisation has brought with it a blurring of national boundaries and universities increasingly have to respond to international trends. The corporatisation of democracy has meant that the university, as an important social structure, has found itself being described in ways that have more to do with wealth creation than with either social justice or disciplinary progress.

Universities around the world have been subject to waves of reform in the past 20 years. These have arisen in part through the imposition of state structures and in part as universities elect to take on neoliberal discourses and begin to implement managerialist practices from the world of business. The use of performance management systems and quality assurance structures invariably values the practices of the business world over those of the academy. Reward systems in universities increasingly push academics to think about knowledge as yet another commodity.

What are the effects of this shifting construction of the university on academic staff and what are the implications for staff development?

Rather than being a disruptive space where academics can negotiate their identities, question the aims of the university and begin to develop a shared sense of the academic project, staff development is often complicit in the neoliberal project and reinforces the subjugation of the discipline and the academic to market forces.

No hope
Where staff development comprises a set of managerial processes foisted on academics by a group of "outsiders" who are not themselves academics and who are oblivious of institutional and disciplinary context, it cannot hope to be a driver of institutional transformation.

If staff developers work in ways that are concerned with compliance rather than development, they can be useful lackeys, checking up on academics. Using devolution, management can "steer at a distance" through the work of staff developers.

Alternatively, staff development practitioners can conceptualise themselves as deeply committed activists who provide the spaces for academics to theorise their contexts, make sense of their norms and develop their ability to provide students with access to the ways of making knowledge that the discipline demands. In this conception of staff development, identifying the aims of the university and committing oneself to the academic project becomes a nuanced endeavour with which we as a community are collectively involved.

Appreciating different disciplines
Many staff development initiatives work from the assumption that good academic practice looks the same across disciplines and institutional types.  This greatly undermines the deep sense academics have of their own disciplines. Academic staff development initiatives that work towards some fictitious generic of teaching excellence and disregard issues of institutional and disciplinary context are unlikely to succeed.

For example, institutions with mostly vocational qualifications require academics with particular workplace expertise, and staff development initiatives need to include ample opportunities for keeping such expertise up to date and for considering how such expertise is contextualised into university-based learning. Such academics need to network in meaningful ways with industry to ensure that curriculums reflect shifts in the workplace.

The development of academic practices for programmes where the link between the workplace and higher education is explicit and fundamental is different to the development of practices necessary for academics working primarily in formative disciplines. Too many staff development interventions deal with issues such as assessment or pedagogy in ways that assume a generic set of practices across generic institutions.

But staff development doesn't have to be like this. Staff development can provide an important disruptive space in which academics can interrogate their identities and negotiate their roles in the academic project. Staff development can encourage academics to reflect on their practice and to theorise their approaches in a shifting terrain.

In order to do this, those involved in offering staff development need to have strong academic identities themselves and they need to be sensitive to the varied ways in which disciplines and institutions present different contexts with quite different sets of constraints and enablements. Those involved in staff development also need to be ready to support academics against national and international forces that work against the university being a public good.

Professor Sioux McKenna is the higher education studies doctoral co-ordinator in the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning at Rhodes University. This is an edited extract from her chapter in the book Reimagining Academic Staff Development: Spaces for Disruption, edited by Lynn Quinn and published by Sun Press ( in December last year

Originally published in: Getting Ahead

Topics In This Section


blog comments powered by Disqus