Eve Bertelsen: "Degrees 'R' Us" - The marketisation of the university

Eve Bertelsen: "Degrees 'R' Us" - The marketisation of the university

"Transformation", as currently used in university discourse (as in South Africa generally) is something of a conundrum. It is an overworked and malleable term, a classic 'portmanteau', with contradictory meanings packed up into one word. What is at issue is less a matter of dictionary definitions than a contest between social interests to fix the meaning of change. Unpacking the word reveals a clash of interests that resonates well beyond the confines of university, for its two rival usages derive from different histories, operate from opposed premises, and issue in contradictory practices.

The first understanding derives from the South African political struggle. It is premissed on democratic justice, and issues in policies of redistribution and redress designed to correct historical inequities of race, class and gender. This requires radical change in the in makeup of the student body and staff of universities and the reform of curriculum along progressive lines. Here transformation signifies democratic change in equity, access and participation.

The second version comes from the corporate world. Its premises are the neo-liberal tenets of business - that there is no alternative to market forces and that the pursuit of private profit is the only route to the general good - and it issues in policies which will drive the sort of change the market requires: cutting-edge competition, 'natural' stratification and the promotion of unfettered production/consumption. Here transformation becomes synonymous with "restructuring": containing expenditure and increasing productivity. In order to satisfy the needs of an export-driven economy universities must be transformed into lean-and-mean producers of informational content and profitable skills.

The proponents of this market version of change quite rightly regard the democratising project as a threat, and since 1990 have energetically set about dismantling it. For the general tendency of the market, as political scientist Chantal Mouffe notes, is to re-articulate liberalism without democracy, or at least to disarm democracy as a radical and participatory force.

Right now our universities are reeling under these competing pressures, and it is no secret which social interest has gained the upper hand. The brute reality facing universities is that transformation has been hijacked by business. In the face of intensifying competition, the so-called 'knowledge-based' industries have become a prime target for capital internationally, implicating universities as never before in the culture of the market. It is the market's idea of change that fixes the terms of debate and determines choices, practices and outcomes.

As higher learning is recast as a service industry for capitalist enterprise, the impact on academics is considerable. Knowledge becomes 'information', a commodity to be manufactured, packaged, bought and sold, and intellectual work a matter of goods being cost-effectively manufactured on a production line. Criticism and resistance become extremely difficult. Intellectuals are expected to think and perform according to the problematic in play, or find themselves dead in the water. What is needed from progressive thinkers is not just the odd 'alternative' policy proposal, but a radical re-figuring of the field: a fundamental struggle over the privileged discourse of the market, the totality of its terms, and the taken-for-granted logic it entails.

The commodification of higher education to serve the market is revolutionising our entire practice, from institutional image through to management, jobs and curriculum.

Obliged to sell their image and position themselves in a competitive market, universities adopt 'branding' strategies developed in business schools to sell the image of companies, with a jargon of 'mission' (divine calling) and 'excellence' (quality control and profit) indistinguishable from the mission statement of one's Wimpy or local bank. While such idiom retains a sense of grand endeavour (to make over and change), it surrenders the idea of change to the market, with its compelling creed of efficiency, profit and transformative power. In the university's new mission, what gets taught or researched matters less than that it is excellently taught or researched, that is, that it satisfies market demand.

Academics pride themselves on their careful use of language and ideas. Yet in falling for slogans trumped up by bankers and purveyors of hamburgers, they seem to admit that they are incapable of finding an approach to change rooted in their own value system and culture.

But if academics have fallen for the jargon of business, this pales against the extent to which the culture of business has colonised university administration. University culture, while not without its problems, has tended to be intensely collegial and value-driven, with decisions made by self-governing academics. This is changing. In the new corporatist model, management has a 'vision', and uses this to 'lead', with academics cast as 'stakeholders' (courtesy of Rhine model capitalism) or 'human resources' (by virtue of their place in the production line).

University CEO's appointed on the basis of their 'struggle' credentials soon discover that their function is to ease the transition from struggle culture to the culture of the market, and the strategy employed to secure this new intellectual economy is simple but effective. At first, struggle idiom is used to legitimise the project and disarm criticism. Then market principles are shrewdly articulated with progressive ideas until they slowly but surely supplant them. 'Transformation' becomes a trojan horse concept, carrying in its belly the whole lexicon of corporate-speak and commoditisation: intellectual capital, strategic planning, mission and goal orientation, customers, benchmarking, best practice, enterprise bargaining, contract employment, and performance rewards. This is our new lingua franca, the 'vice-chancellor speak' that drives change and fixes the boundaries of debate.

The manager is replacing the professor as the central figure of the university, and trends show excessive growth in spending on administration relative to instruction. Since 1980 in the US (which we take as a model) student numbers and instructional costs increased by 10%; academics 6%, and administrators by 45%. Few questions are asked about the greatly enhanced authority and salaries that accompany this development.

As the instrumentalist mindset of business takes hold, managerialist solutions are applied top-down to all problems confronting the university. Senior academics are absorbed into management to implement restructuring and monitor the performance of colleagues. Lines between management and academic activity are blurred and constructive conflicts of interest are obscured.

The recasting of academics as 'human resources' begs a look at the way resources are routinely handled in the culture of business. When production costs are too high, the standard solution is 'out-sourcing'. For universities this means part-time, contract and exploited graduate labour. In the US and the UK since 1980 the proportion of tenured academics has fallen steadily from 80% to under a half. In further education in the UK some 'smaller, leaner and fitter' sectors don't employ lecturers at all, but hire them by the hour from a company called Education Lecturing Services. South African universities are already buying in cheap labour to replace 'redundant' tenured staff. If they can secure this for a fraction of the cost of a tenured post, why should 'rational' employers continue to pay? For business "buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest" remains the golden rule.

Transformation of research and curriculum is also increasingly driven by business practice. Once they have conceded that knowledge is a commodity to be traded, universities become subject (and why not?) to the full and ruthless protocols of the market. Time-honoured principles of truth and intellectual rigour are rapidly superseded by cost-effectiveness and utility, and market rules are sytematically applied. First, research is only good if it creates new products, and courses which don't feed job skills are a waste of time. So managers dutifully prioritise 'core business' and eliminate 'peripheral' activities, and funding becomes an investment decision based on short-term production goals. Next, we are in a time of crisis, and for this business prescribes a regime of rationalisation and mergers, with production made more cost-effective and goods repackaged and aggressively marketed. So staff are downsized, departments merged and 'goods' (i.e. courses) repackaged. Third, in the market they service work is rapidly being casualised. So students must be equipped with 'mobile skills' which will enable them to move through a number of jobs in the course of a working career.

This is the regime which is repackaging and marketing the traditional degree as a 'menu' of user-friendly modules on the mix-and-match model of the supermarket. But instead of coming clean and admitting that we are being driven by the bottom line, management feed staff a mish-mash of reasons for policy decisions which dress up cash-flow problems in progressive rhetoric and make it impossible to separate market-driven decisions from political or academic arguments. In the meantime the growing fit between so-called 'curriculum renewal' and market demand becomes nothing short of uncanny.

So what is to be done? A modest proposal follows.

If, as our mission statements assert, the drift to a market-driven globalisation of knowledge is not only irreversible but desirable, and if we accept, as also seems the case, that there is no alternative to adapting to a market-style operation, then why not run enthusiastically with that logic? The truly visionary CEO of the future will surely be the one who can re-imagine the university as a genuine 'knowledge business' modelled on the transnational corporation: 'Degrees 'R Us', run as a subsidiary of a transnational university, or TNU. S/he need only follow the lead of other threatened 'knowledge industries' like the press or the public broadcaster. So subsidies are disappearing. You believe you have a good product, but are strapped for cash. Advertise your outfit while it's still a going concern. Find a foreign equity partner. Time-Warner own a chunk of e-tv, and the SABC is casting about for the same . O'Reilly has bought out half of the South African press. Even a large slice of the fiercely independent Weekly Mail now belongs to the Guardian. We are assured that the independence of all of these concerns (always conditional of course on an acceptable turnover) remains unimpaired.

What are the universities waiting for? The 'transformed' public broadcaster survives by cosying up to the globals and delivering its audiences to advertisers. Having agreed to deliver its students to industry, the university is already half-way there. Foreign universities are going global. So strike a deal. Find a partner who can inject substantial capital. Then start doing business proper. Eliminate loss-making lines, repackage the rest, and embrace the law of supply and demand.

We've seen the vision. We've bought the mission. We talk the talk. So why not walk the walk and follow the logic where it leads? Then longlive 'Degrees 'R Us'. We are rational people after all. Aren't we?

University of Cape Town - Academics' Association