By now it is a commonplace to note that the great wave of ideological fashion in public policy—call it “commercialization”, “privatization”, “marketization”, “liberalization” or whatever you like—has also swept across the higher education and research sectors, with far-reaching consequences. Indeed, it looks as if we shall be stuck with it for a good while yet. Still, we (the academics) must try to understand it, in order better to determine where our duty now lies. The fashion of which we are speaking standardly presents itself in general terms as an application of so-called “rational” methods to social problems. In fact it is more like a religion.Footnote 1 Michael Power writes that since the mid-1980s a new theology of “quality, efficiency and enterprise” has emerged in higher education (Power 1999, p.98). This theology now rules the roost in the rest of the public sector too. It has its high (and local parish) priests, its rituals, its learned as well as vulgar jargon, and an ever-growing army of ecclesiastical administrators, called New Public Managers. Its dogmas force social reality into a straitjacket, severely distorting it, sometimes beyond recognition. But behind the religious structures lie political and economic power.Footnote 2
The principal categories of this dogmatic system are well known. Let us name some more of them: aside of course from “liberalization”, also “economic man”, “individual preference”, “the free market” and “competition”, as well “accountability”, “transparency”, “good governance” and much besides. The dogma is not a subtle one. But peu importe: its categories are enjoined by compelling interests. What are the consequences of its imposition? Brian Barry writes: “(...) in a society where the assumption of the sovereignty of the market and of consumer preference is widespread, we may expect to find that universities, most of which depend on public funding, teach views and employ persons of a kind acceptable to those who pay the taxes.” (Barry 1965, p.80) The new and improved version of this model is that the state, instead of itself “representing” such preferences, hands the universities over, lock, stock and barrel, to the so-called free market and to the laws of consumer demand.
It is, roughly, this improved model which the university reforms now in course are intended to implement. The details are of course terribly complex. There are counter-proposals and compromise suggestions. The transformation process is far from complete. But its logic is rather simple. The reformers have, it is true, run up against various obstacles in the implementation of their plans. For many, perhaps most academics—or at least, academics of the generation which grew up in the old university—are themselves not adepts of the reform religion, certainly not in regard to their own institution and to their own function. They resist. This resistance is countered by the introduction of “scientific” control systems like New Public Management, which aim, via the systematic use of stick and carrot, at bringing the academics “into line”. Meanwhile, the younger generations of university employees—they are ceasing, according to some commentators, to be unambiguously identifiable as “academics”—will be socialized in the new system. They will know nothing else.
Our universities are indeed being transformed. Some analysts prefer to say that they are being killed off. In Britain, Mary Evans of the University of Kent has published an essay with the title Killing Thinking: The Death of the Universities (Evans 2004). The Oxford professor of Sanskrit, Richard Gombrich, has written of the “murder of a profession”, the academic profession (Gombrich 2000). In France, Pierre Jourde of the University of Grenoble has argued that “the French university system is dead” (Jourde 2003). In Canada, Bill Readings published an analysis of The University in Ruins (Readings 1996). Christian Galan has argued that the Japanese universities died in 2004 (Galan 2006). Similar conclusions have been drawn in respect of the Spanish, Italian, German and Polish universities among others.Footnote 3
What is going on? How should we understand these claims? And what does it all mean for the theme of the public task of the university? The hypothesis presented in the present article is that the dramatic transformation of the universities is, globally speaking, one expression among diverse others of the general social and political trend referred to above, which affects the whole of the public sector. So it is also a symptom of something much deeper. Let us turn our attention for a few moments to this general trend. We are obliged by limited space to restrict ourselves to a schematic presentation. There are many qualifications and nuances to be added. But it may already be noted that a key notion for present purposes is that of postdemocracy.
A few years ago, the Russian philosopher Alexander Zinoviev remarked that “with the collapse of Soviet communism, humanity entered the era of postcommunism”. We should add, he wrote, “that humanity has also entered the postdemocratic era” (Zinoviev 1999). What could justify such a bold claim? Colin Crouch, in his study of Postdemocracy (Crouch 2004) as well as in other publications claims that the “democratic moment” has passed. The meaning of postdemocracy, he notes, is a society in which the institutions that we always associated with democracy remain in place, but where the heart of the whole thing has somehow been removed, because the forces within society that make democracy work are undermined. Postdemocracy is then the “shift of power out of the whole [political] system towards private concentrations of global wealth” (Crouch 2005).
It is not of course that this phenomenon is in itself new: it is the degree of its dominance that changes everything. What has changed? Alan Scott usefully summarizes the four pillars of postdemocracy as, first, the “disembedding” of political elites, which are increasingly able to bypass control by the mass of the citizens; second, the “trivialization of politics”, expressed in the latter’s subordination to technical, managerial modes of decision-making; third, the imposition of “rituals of verification”, which make use of formalized target-setting instruments like “mission statements”, “organizational goals” and the like, as well as (essentially artificial) procedures of auditing, evaluation and accreditation; and fourth, an ever-growing permeability of the line between the public sphere and the private sphere (Scott 2005). If something like this describes the turn which western society is taking, what are the consequences for the public sphere?
Ross McKibbin puts it this way: the model of market-managerialism has largely destroyed all alternatives, traditional and untraditional, to its supremacy. And its most powerful weapon has been its vocabulary. Our students are now clients, our patients and passengers customers. It is a language, he remarks, “which was first devised in business schools, then broke into government and now infests all institutions.” The language might itself be laughable, but it is now the shared language of those who command—and is imposed on those whom they command. It has, he adds, been destructive of the public sphere, helping to legitimate policies that constitute an attack on this sphere and on the idea of democratic citizenship as well as “turning citizens into supplicants” (McKibbin 2006).
Indeed, the very distinction between private and public has come under sustained pressure in the last decades. This crucial distinction is now under assault in what Paul Hoggett, in an essay on “Why public is not the same as private”, calls the neo-liberal discourse of government (Hoggett 2003). But the name is less important than the reality. Sheila Marsh and Marion Macalpine recall that, on the practical front, we have in the last years seen public services of all kinds, like education and research, but also health care, energy, water and sanitation, coming under private control by various stratagems, including direct privatization, cuts in public spending and structural adjustment policies. The administrative tool by which existing public services are “brought into line” in readiness for these processes is managerialism—a special ideological approach to management “which increases both direct and indirect methods of control in order to enhance productivity, increase profit and/or reduce costs” (Marsh and Macalpine 2002, pp. 2–6). High manageralism, its sophisticated variant, attempts to achieve these ends by means of “ever-extending audit and performance management” of all workers at the metaphorical coal-face—whether coal-miners, policemen, judges, doctors, teachers or university professors and researchers (Marsh and Macalpine 2002, p. 1).
In the case of the universities there is, it is true, an important complication. It may be pointed out that there are private universities of great distinction. But these institutions, though legally private, pursue universal—educational and scientific—goals, goals of eminently public significance. The key reason why they are able freely to pursue such goals typically lies in their abundant financial endowments, which make it unnecessary for them to follow ordinary “private” market or commercial logic. This advantage is however not shared by the overwhelming majority of private or privatized institutions. Indeed, the difficulties now being encountered by what are perhaps Europe’s best universities, Oxford and Cambridge, are rooted in the fact that while some of their colleges are financially fairly well endowed, the universities themselves are not. Thus they too are now beginning to suffer from the well-known “double whammy” of commercialization pressures and hyper-bureaucratization.
However that may be: from the moment that a public institution or utility is “privatized”, the logic of its operation is radically modified—and in a much-criticized direction (Leys 2003). This modification is however legitimated by a reference to the ideology of “public sector reform”. This in essence propagates the notion that the role of government is to make policy and to fund services and programmes—but not to deliver such services (Hoggett 2003). But why should government not do the work of delivery? Because, it is suggested and endlessly repeated, the government as a monopolist is not as “efficient” as the private sector. It is astonishing but true: a quite unproven, indeed perfectly dogmatic notion has been widely accepted, to the effect that devolution of public services to the private sector means efficiency and “bureaucracy-busting”. In reality, there is nothing as bureaucratic, in the noisome sense, as the present-day privatized sector. We shall indeed shortly see, when we consider higher education and research more closely, that their own forced insertion into the world of “market forces” has resulted in levels of bureaucratization previously unthinkable and hugely prodigal of public funds.
Worse yet: in reality it is by no means the case that there is a clear division of functions between policy-making and delivery, with at least the policy-making role safely in public hands. On the contrary, the private sector is now itself heavily, ever more heavily, involved de facto in policy-making—on the basis, of course, not of any criterion of the public good but of its own private ends.