'Profits' Aren't The Problem In 'Corporate Universities'


Christopher Pyne’s continued attempts to sell his higher education reforms are not going well for him. Much criticism has (rightly) focussed on the ballooning of student debt, but I would like to focus on a separate issue.

A few months ago, when student protests broke out across the country, protesters were chanting ‘No cuts! No fees! No corporate universities!’ But what, exactly, is a corporate university? What is wrong with it?

The first and obvious answer, which one hears quite often, is wrong: that a corporate university is one that functions on an increasingly business-style model – specifically, one that seeks to maximise profits by reducing the costs of producing its product (ie. education). Thus we sometimes see people referring to universities as ‘McDonald’s that sell degrees’.

However, defenders of the current system can always point out that, by this logic, a university cannot be a corporation, since it does not make a profit.

But there is another way of understanding the phrase ‘corporate university’, one that points us to a deeper issue in the higher education sector that is less often remarked upon. This is the way our universities are increasingly mirroring the corporate world through corporate governance structures (which are usually sold as ‘accountable’ governance structures). I mean by this that governance is undertaken by a specialised class, rather than by academics themselves.

Through their history, universities – which were originally self-governed by academics – have witnessed an increasing division of labour, and the separation of the labour of governance in particular.

What we are seeing, more and more, is the ballooning of the administrative and managerial class; decision-making is increasingly becoming the domain of managers and committees that have fewer and fewer academic ‘representatives’ on them.

As one example, witness that the UTAS University Council website lists 15 members, and only one of these is elected by academics. There is also one student member, and one representative for professional staff.

When the University Council was restructured at the end of 2012, its membership shrunk by four: of the lost positions, two were academic representatives, one was a student representative, and one was a representative from general staff.

This change was not motivated by a crazed power grab on the part of university management: it was justified in terms of efficiency, flexibility and so on (the previous council, it was claimed, was too big to be able to meet effectively) – and, from the perspective of these criteria, the change was probably entirely justified.

Similar changes at other universities are no doubt motivated in the same way, in response to managerial concerns. But this is precisely the issue: the concerns of management inevitably trump academic self-governance. Or as management would likely put it: academics have been ‘freed’ from the concern of having to govern themselves.

This trend is, no doubt, in part a result of the increased size of universities. It is also the result of the influence of innovations in corporate governance that have occurred in the business sector, and our civilisation’s fascination with private enterprise as our highest cultural achievement, to be imitated in all other spheres (since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery).

Whatever its causes, it is a change that is wreaking havoc with the way universities function.

Marx once observed that the division of labour is the root of all ideology. When labour is divided, the interests of the various labour groups begin to diverge; ideology is the confusion of the ideas and interests of one group with the universal interest.

In the university, as the labour of governance is separated from the labour of teaching and research (and we also see on the horizon the separation of the labour of teaching from that of research), the interests of these two groups diverge (I once heard a university administrator refer to teaching and research as the ‘academic front-end’ – the implication that administration is therefore the ‘academic rear-end’ was, I take it, unintended).

It is in the interests of teachers and researchers, insofar as they are teachers and researchers, to have the time and space to freely pursue these activities in the ways that seem most appropriate to them, as needs arise.

It is in the interests of the managerial class to constrain teaching and research activity in such a way that quantifiable outcomes are maximised and thus easily compared to the metrics against which the ‘success’ of the university (ie. the success of the managers in managing it) is measured.

The researcher who has to constantly produce work with which they are dissatisfied in order to meet ‘Research Performance Expectations’ (a real and recent thing) is one embodiment of this conflict; the lecturer who has no time to build pedagogical relationships with their students because they are systematically discouraged from doing anything that is not reflected in their performance requirements is another.

The protest against corporate universities should therefore not be about them making a profit. They do not make a profit, nor can they (the rise of private institutions notwithstanding). Rather, a corporate university is one in which academic self-governance is disappearing, to be replaced by governance by management and bureaucracy, where the conditions for good teaching and research (time and freedom) are increasingly jettisoned in favour of ‘efficiency’ increases and better performance on metrics. Academic concerns are ever displaced by the imperatives of management.

Increased fees and decreased funding will exacerbate this trend, insofar as the scramble to find new revenue sources and more ‘efficient’ organisational structures will lead the managerial class to balloon even further.

As Ben Eltham has noted, the University of Phoenix spends twice as much on marketing as it does on teaching.

As universities are forced to cram ever more students into their classrooms and churn out ever more research, the iron grip of managerial control will be felt up and down the university as academics are required to spend their time ever more efficiently, writing papers and hurrying from one over-crowded classroom to the next.

This is why we should protest against ‘corporate universities’.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.