Economics and politics - comment and analysis
2. January 2018 I Will Denayer I Europe, General, General Politics

Universities and research in the age of neoliberalism

Universities and research in the age of polytheist neo-liberalism

(Note: this article was written for our sister site Makroskop two weeks ago, before Toby Young’s appointment. I will comment on Young’s appointment in a new contribution – WD).

The fate of higher education

God’s salary refers to the uncanny and perverse phenomenon that, today, some set their own wages. Their remuneration is completely divorced from their productivity or the work they decide to do. While their exorbitant salaries come out of the public purse, there is no democratic oversight or accountability. It is yet another consequence of neo-liberalism, privatisation and post-democracy. A rising tide will lift all boats, promised Reagan, all we need to do is to make sure that more of the social product goes to the rich, who will then invest. Meanwhile, the eight richest people on Earth own as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity (the figure is from Jeffrey Sachs (see here)). The conservative counter-revolution has been a big success for the rich, leaving the rest of humanity behind. In the US, for example, between 1954 and 1947, 5% of income gains went to the top 1%; between 1975 and 1979, this was 25%; by 2009 it had risen to 95%.

This evolution also changed universities beyond recognition, at least in Europe. In the US it is far from new. If the EU Commission requires an analysis of what is going, they can learn all they need to know at no cost from Veblen’s The Higher Learning in America (1918!), which often reads as if it has been written yesterday. Let cite some examples. The pay of vice-chancellor of Bath University went up this year by £ 17.500 (true, she resigned in the meantime). As Chakrobortty writes, she got more in just one pay rise than some of her staff earn in a year (see here). Her annual salary and benefits total over £468.000, not including an interest-free car loan of £31.000 and a further £20.000 in expenses. Bangor’s vice-chancellor gets £245.000 a year. He lives in a grand country house that cost the university almost £750.000. Teachers, on the other hand, have seen a 1% rise in their basic pay the last year. Most academics are on some form of casual contract, being paid by the hour (see here). It is, Chakrobortty notes, not uncommon in English and Welsh universities for students to pay £9.000 a year to be taught by an academic who isn’t making that much (see here). He tells about a lecturer who until recently worked five jobs a week, including one as a bin man (see here). In the US, some assistant professors are especially well-placed to teach about homelessness. Some sleep in their cars. Some turn to sex work. One has to survive, even when one teaches, with a PhD, at a university (see here).

Who determines these salaries? Nearly all British universities are charities. They are committed to serving the public good! The majority of the trustees that govern universities come from finance and business. In Bath, the CVs burst with names including Rothschild Asset Management and auditing giant PwC (see here). It does not really matter how these salaries are set. No one cares about a vice-chancellor getting half a million a year. The universities, most of which are in debt, are up for grabs. Privatisation is the name of the game. The institution can remain public on paper. None of these people will ever raise questions about zero hour contracts, lecturers that are also bin men or homeless assistant professors. It is a plutocratic, corporate system that has managed to emancipate itself from nearly all democratic oversight.

In the US, a study found that between 1975 and 2008, the number of faculty had grown about 10%, while the number of administrators had grown by 221% (see here). In the UK, two thirds of universities now have more administrators than faculty staff. As Spicer, a professor of organisational theory writes, it has gone so far that a higher education policy expert predicted the birth of the ‘all-administrative university’ (see here). The massive expansion of administration has fuelled an explosion of empty activities: costly rebranding exercises, image-building, compliance of endless audits (done by friends), ranking initiatives, engaging with strategic initiatives, “visionary leadership,” useless conferences – next year, for example, there is one on ‘the needs of vulnerable consumers’ (and identifying technological and political solutions).

Global outreach programs target non-EU students who pay high tuition fees and create the excuse for more bullshit jobs for the in-crowd (such as welcome, assimilation and anti-discrimination officers). PhD programs have often become infantilised. Research programs are written out in advance (according to funding and what is considered “relevant” according to the political powers that be) instead of making people read and think for themselves for a couple of years so that they can come up with something of their own. Is it surprising that an American study found that 46% of students showed no improvement in their cognitive skills during their time at university (see here)? In some areas, like business administration, the student’s capacity to think got worse for the first few years (see here).

The damage that the plutocrats have caused is incalculable. For decades, researchers and lecturers – and hence students and society as a whole – have been losing out to ever more administrators.  Today, it is PhD students who teach many classes. Many lecturers work for less than a plumber – if they are lucky. There is practically no opportunity to engage into non-mainstream research. The system is ideologically kept afloat by the never ending talk about positivist science and the need for empirical research – science, as a ‘mirror of nature and society,’ discovers ‘facts.’ Remarkably, there is little empirical research on the academic class itself (see, for example, Latour’s brilliant Science in Action). All nonsense, say the administrators, it’s the peer-reviewed articles that count – an inherently objective measure. But this is an inherently stupid argument. Those who are never getting funded tend to produce few peer-reviewed publications. Peer-reviewed publications are increasingly becoming a non-argument, now that, as it turns out, more papers are being cited than actually read (people just reproduce a part of an abstract and put the reference in impressive bibliographies – ‘fast food scholarship’) and hundred readers of a peer-reviewed publication is considered a success (see here and here). The truth is that the most sought after researchers are those most successful at acquiring funding. No one asks questions about the ideological ramifications. It is obvious.

What is it all good for? In the UK, close to 50% of the younger cohort goes through higher education, although only about 20% of jobs require an undergraduate degree (see here). This does not mean that higher education is useless. It is useful for the wrong reason. The myth of the knowledge society hides the reality of cut-throat competition on the labour market, where graduates, loaded with debt, push out people without a degree for work which does not require any higher qualification (see here). In a recent article, Noah Smith argues that the ‘signalling benefit of college’ is a positive economic force (see here). No doubt, but what is substance and what is image? Get your degree from an Ivy university and then your father will talk to his network.

An analysis from the EU

The Lamy Report of the EU Commission provides an evaluation of Horizon 2020 and sets out the vision of the program that will follow (see here and here). Many researchers depend on this program, both directly and indirectly, as funding at the national level has become increasingly conditional on the potential to successfully apply for European funding at a later stage. The EU’s major emphasis is on market innovation and on the creation of new markets. Lamy sees the big problem in “the contrast between Europe’s comparative advantage in producing knowledge and its comparative disadvantage in turning that knowledge into innovation and growth” see here). This is far from the big problem. Mario Pianta makes the fundamental point that Europe’s high standards of scientific research were achieved – largely in public universities and research institutions – because market concerns were kept at a distance (see here). The modest growth rate of Europe’s economies is not due to stagnating R&I, but to the macroeconomic imbalances of the euro zone, austerity, reduction of public spending and stagnating demand. If Pascal Lamy feels the need to complain, he should realise that in the last decade many EU countries have had to reduce their R&I efforts due to fiscal constraints and budget restrictions.

Lamy argues for a 3% rise in the countries’ budgets for R&I. The money will come from the private sector through policies of tax credits, ‘innovative procurement’ and by overcoming regulatory bottlenecks’ produced by Europe’s competition/state aid rules – in one word: further privatisation. How will research in the humanities produce ‘marketable innovations’? Some plutocrat will oracle the solution: things for which there is no market should not exist. What Europe needs instead (of civilization and erudition) is investment in entrepreneurs and to “systematically embed innovation and entrepreneurship in education across Europe, starting from early stage school curricula” (see here). Twelve years olds do not need to bother with literature. They need to learn how to write up a CV (this is a real example).

As Pianta rightly writes, not only does all of this result in a further neo-liberal assault on the universities, the pseudo-analysis  – extremely costly, to be sure – also ignores the post-crisis specificities of EU member countries and regions. R&I “actions” are being funded on the basis of “excellence” but excellence in concentrated in the countries with the most technological strength. “Global societal challenges” should be turned into “a limited number of large-scale research and innovation missions,” reads the report (see here). There is no reference to climate change, but there is a lot on security and defence – both very marketable. Finally, a “stakeholder debate among citizens scientists and innovators” will be launched by the Commission, ensuring “a democratic policy process that will identify Europe’s R&I missions” (see here).  Even the biggest EU sympathiser knows that this is sheer nonsense. Europe’s R&I mission has been identified. The rest is clap trap. Personally, I stick to my non-marketable guns. Education should not be for profit. Call me stupid, it’s them who are the barbarians and all of us are paying for the plutocrats.