Grappling with Academic Capitalism in Canadian Universities

"The Exchange University" - book cover

With the academic culture changing and managerialism threatening collegiality, can academics defect from “corporatization’’ by defining their knowledge as a public good? A review of: The Exchange University: Corporatization of Academic Culture Adrienne S. Chan and Donald Fisher, eds. (UBC Press, 2008)

Nothing is more controversial within university politics than the rising tide of commercial priorities, interests, and contracts affecting the academic enterprise. The forces of academic capitalism can be credibly seen as threats to the autonomy of the academic work and the publicly-minded purposes that many see as the raison d’etreof higher education. A number of ills can be attributed to academic capitalism, including decreased support for the liberal arts in favour of professional and applied programs; an unbalanced emphasis of commercially driven research over “disinterested” teaching and reflection; increased managerialism within institutions in which strategic planning has replaced cooperation and curiosity; the rise of a flexible, contractual academic workforce; and the commodification of knowledge and education.

All these issues and more are catalogued and discussed in a new book that provides a primarily Canadian portrait of the problems of academic capitalism. Edited by Adrienne S. Chan and Donald Fischer, The Exchange University: Corporatization of Academic Culture develops several very informative case studies of academic capitalism as it affects the research culture of universities, graduate and professional education, the marginalization and tiering of fields and sectors of work within universities, and the search for alternatives.

The contributors to this volume are keenly aware that governments, more than corporations, have been responsible for encouraging the logic of the market to operate through the university. This role has become more visible and contested in the transition from the elite to mass university. In his account of the history of postsecondary policy making in Ontario, Paul Axelrod reminds us that the narrow elitism of the early post-war university system ensured a certain baseline of freedom from government intervention for Ontario’s core of well-established and publicly funded institutions. More recently, governments have focused explicitly on the economic function of universities as drivers of workforce renewal and industrial competitiveness.

As a result, the resources needed to fuel the “mass” university systems of today represent a larger share of the public purse than the resources consumed by the relatively smaller, elite system —the  ivory tower model. In this respect, the advent of “neo-liberalism” does not simply mean a withdrawal of the state. In fact, governments are now adopting a more managerial stance toward postsecondary institutions and have introduced a  range of new “conditional” funding initiatives since the early 1990s, largely in order to make universities more responsive to markets and the needs of the economy. Increasingly, it is hard to imagine that public support for universities can be completely divorced from concerns about economic growth and “value for money”. The price tag for postsecondary education is sufficiently high that governments have very little incentive to pour more money in without guarantees of accountability, which, in political terms, means linkages to economic objectives and strategies. Hence, “neo-liberalism” does not simply mean that universities are less “public”, but rather, as Slaughter and Rhoades argue, that universities have become a site where the lines between public and private values have become contested and blurred.

It is interesting that most of the contributors to The Exchange University avoid simplistic narratives about the corporate takeover of the university. The larger story is about the influence of the logic of commercialization and corporate models on the behavior of essentially public institutions. In fact, the lead chapter by Slaughter and Rhoades documents the many ways in which universities are coming under increased external and internal pressure to behave like private sector entities, to strike up partnerships with industry or intensify their accountability to standards of efficient performance and program cost recovery. One of the most visible forms of academic capitalism is the increased institutional role of non-academic offices and managers dealing with technology transfer, strategic planning, student recruitment, and the sale of educational commodities.

One can argue that direct commercial partnerships in research pose the greatest threat to academic culture. But, as Chan and Fisher remind us, these affiliations are part of a much larger pattern whereby universities increasingly engage and collaborate with the outside world, including a diversity of social actors. Moreover, many social and economic activities beyond the boundaries of the university have themselves become far more knowledge and research intensive. For this reason, one needs to be careful about assuming that external partnerships by their very nature threaten the integrity of academic values. For example, Brigitte Gemme and Yves Gingras found that graduate students working in applied science fields in collaboration with external partners (including industry) appeared to retain their allegiance and adherence to traditional scientific norms. They also introduce some evidence that graduate students working with outside agencies or firms may have, paradoxically, greater opportunities for innovation and autonomy (in defining research projects) than those working more exclusively with traditional academic supervisors.

Theresa Shanahan’s discussion of legal scholarship at the University of British Columbia adds even more nuance to the account of the neo-liberal university. Shanahan suggests that the prestige and resources that flow to law schools as a result of their connection to a powerful and wealthy profession has protected legal scholarship and its academic practices from some of the more familiar encroachments of commercializing pressures. On the other hand, the curriculum is more and more shaped by the consumer choices of students who, in the face of rising tuition, are more sensitive than ever to the marketability of their degrees, which makes social service areas of law less attractive. Outside of law, academic sectors associated with public welfare and social work have become relatively marginalized. This is observed by Jo-Anne Dillabough and Sandra Acker, who have studied the impact of neo-liberal reforms on teacher education. They examined the increased emphasis on research productivity and competition for research funding in fields where, previously, professional service and connection to social practice and specific social functions had encouraged a less competitive approach to academic work. They make a strong case for a connection between the gendered academic division of labour and the declining impact of social service and public objectives in neo-liberal universities.

The same themes of marginalization, tiering, and exclusion are manifest in the development of a sub-professionalized class of academic workers, especially “contingent faculty”. Linda Muzzin links this phenomenon to an increasingly racialized division of labour within today’s universities. Her analysis also helps demonstrate that contingent academic workers provide easier leverage for the introduction of corporate models of management. The increasingly conspicuous proliferation of flexible academic workers provides a more fertile ground for managerialism by creating a class of academic workers with less autonomy, thereby opening the opportunities for managing academic policy and the curriculum using cost-efficiency considerations.

In some ways, postsecondary institutions are inherently stratifying. But the neo-liberal university seems to amplify stratification within itself, as demonstrated by the rise of the two-tier academic workforce and widening prestige differentiation among academic fields. Unfortunately, there is little treatment in this volume about stratification between universities. Perhaps this is owing to the Canadian perspective of this volume and the fact that competition in Canada’s largely public university systems is muted by the persistence of certain policies, such as the regulation of undergraduate tuition. Universities certainly compete in Canada, but the degree of competition is far less pervasive than in the United States, where fee differentiation raises the stakes for both students and institutions. This is because unregulated tuition in the U.S. allows universities to capture the benefits of prestige differences as they compete to attract the best students. For their part, students also compete for both admission to the most selective institution as well as highly prized tuition discounts based on merit.

Of course, the Canadian system is hardy immune from competitive pressures that create tiering and stratification among institutions. Competition for external and strategic research funding has this result and, if we were to see widespread deregulation of tuition at the undergraduate level, this would promote even greater differentiation. In fact, just last summer,  the presidents of the so-called “G-5” universities in Canada openly expressed their frustration with the egalitarian pattern of higher education in this country, proposing that governments officially designate different mandates and funding arrangements for top-tier research institutions as compared to undergraduate- teaching institutions.

What all these examples show is that national and global market forces will continue to shape the academic culture of Canadian universities despite the continued “public” status of our universities and the persistence of some government policies that nominally protect universities from market forces. Resisting these trends will depend on recovering an alternative culture that can reassert itself through academic self-governance. Janice Newson and Claire Polster portray the decline of collegial culture that results from the pressure of commercialization and the introduction of performance indicators. They believe autonomy is at the centre of the academic enterprise, and they make a passionate plea for academic professionals to organize to defend that autonomy.

But envisioning paths to resistance is not easy. The most common recipe for change in this volume is the call for academics to rediscover their mission to serve the public good. As Slaughter and Rhoades remind us, if public universities are largely funded through public money, one can make the case that they ought to serve the public good. They can do this, for example, by refusing to allow the creation of intellectual property, technology transfer, or commercial innovations to dominate their research. Alternatively, universities should ensure that earnings from commercializing activities are made available to cross-subsidize academic work in less marketable areas. They could also work to connect their knowledge to social goals that are under-recognized by markets, allowing valuable fields like community health to compete with more commercially viable fields like biomedical science.

Indeed, a number of contributors insist that the promotion of the public interest has an intrinsic place in university-based research. This is more than a romantic notion; in fact, it provides a useful reminder that the knowledge-creation process itself thrives when academics devote their findings and contributions to a “commons,” in the words of Jennifer Sumner in this volume. Ideas flourish when all potential users, critics, and contributors to those ideas can freely interact and respond to one another without proprietary barriers, recognizing only the weight and quality of evidence, argument, and critical revision. The problem with an over-fixation on creating intellectual property, then, is that it removes knowledge from circulation. By contrast, the “communism” of the academic sphere – to use Robert Merton’s famous turn of phrase – can ensure that the value of academic exchange and discovery is optimized.

In practical terms, however, universities remain quite willing to neglect the “public goods” character of the knowledge they produce. They will continue to experience competitive pressure to win contracts with potential external supporters, and they will also be expected to be able to explain and account for the value of what they do in terms that involve quantifiable measures and projections of expected (public and private) returns. Finally, as Chan and Fisher demonstrate in their study of “research intensification” at the University of Ottawa, more and more researchers, especially younger ones, are internalizing the values of the “performance” culture.

Another obstacle for change is that academics have a notoriously hard time convincing non-academics why market forces should not be allowed to influence research, curriculum, and academic appointments. For one thing, academics themselves are not always shy about promoting the marketability of their research or degrees when it might give them an edge in competing for resources with other departments or faculties. This is why it will not be easy to ensure that the university retains its distinctive character as a space in which ideas can remain “public” and non-proprietary. On the other hand, an important factor working against the corporatization of academic culture is the poor track record so many universities have when undertaking commercialization initiatives.

In the end, many of the contributors to this book try to show how a renewed respect for the boundaries between the commercial sphere and academic missions is beneficial not only for the ivory tower, but also for society itself. There is much social benefit in maintaining a healthy sphere of curiosity-driven inquiry set apart from contexts of application. This leads to a claim often advanced by defenders of the liberal arts; namely that the distinctive activities of the academy can be saved by portraying those activities as somehow indirectly socially useful or as a source of social and civic “spillovers”. But utilitarian arguments, however indirect, are often disingenuous and perhaps unsustainable. That’s because many academics, especially outside the professional and applied disciplines, know that what is “important” about their work can only be defined internally to it and will, therefore, never be understood outside of a relatively small group of specialists.

Despite the perhaps overoptimistic belief that academics can defect from “corporatization’’ by defining their knowledge as a public good, The Exchange University is a very worthy read. The case studies of changing academic cultures and the decline of collegiality in the face of managerialism will doubtless provoke and illuminate discussion among those who aspire to enlightened academic governance.

Richard Wellen, associate professor and chair of the Department of Social Science at York University, teaches primarily in the business and society program. He has written on a number of topics related to higher education, including student finance, student consumerism, intellectual integrity, and changing models of scholarly communication.