The Society for Research into Higher Education

Academic capitalism – or worse?

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[1] By Phil Pilkington

There has been much discussion on academic capitalism, the neo-liberalism of universities, the new entrepreneurial management which is transformative rather than transactional. Much has been done to reinforce this change and self-perception by government (in the UK) from the creation of the HE market, the panoply of measuring instruments (however flawed) and the imperative of third stream income to compensate for the loss of state funding.

However, ‘academic capitalism’ is a misnomer: it does not and cannot exist except in the ‘for profit’ sector. Exogenous forces require universities to generate income, sometimes leading to operational surpluses, making universities appear to act as if they are for profit. This is seen in two ways, neither of which are endogenous: the need for growth to remain operationally viable, and the imposition of regulatory controls of quality, responsiveness to ministerial opinions etc, as a consequence of the irony of a Hayekian model of the public sector[2]. But this is appearance and not reality. The marketisation of HE is an outcome of applying Hayekian principles to the public sector; it is not in itself capitalism. Academics are employees who may have ‘professional ethics’ and hard-earned specialisms which are bought in the labour market. Nevertheless, universities are not generating surplus value, a necessary condition for capitalism, as they have no shareholders with which to extract value from the means of production as capital which can become independent of the labour that produces the profit/surplus. The substantial critique of capitalism was that surplus value could be lost or expropriated from the locale of production and converted into more capital. No matter how much university management and governance may copy, or are required by government to enact, business practices in the neoliberal era (measuring performance, contracting out, international competition, and general entrepreneurialism), the challenge to produce operating surpluses is no different for the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other large charities which ‘gift back’ the surplus to the charity from trading activities. Students’ Unions as social enterprises have been doing this for decades with their wet sales supporting their charitable purposes.  Perhaps a discursive view of universities as social enterprises tout court may be helpful for their governance and for deciding how operational surpluses should be applied, perhaps ring-fencing cost centres of undergraduate teaching and research.

Nor is the call for a more skilled and ‘employment ready’ workforce a lowering of universities by promoting an HE sector relevant to and supporting the economy. This purpose was one of the planks of the Robbins Report[3]. This instrumentalist view of education is not new; and this knowledge-servicing role applies to the students as well as the institutional purpose. The polytechnics, and their actual geography, were intended to support the industries of the time, particularly aerospace, steel, chemicals, shipbuilding, mining and the motor industry. What is new is the dissidents’ complaint about the new capitalism of universities, which perhaps obscures some deeper and more disturbing concerns about the situation of universities in the knowledge economy.

The complaints are familiar: a dystopian decline of Western civilisation; the creation of the academic precariat; jeopardising the academic mission; moral decay; avarice; Faustian bargains; dumbing down with student-consumer as sovereign; and so on. But the symptoms of capitalism in HE are shared with other sectors; the precariat as an outcome of the loss of employees’ rights or employers’ opportunities in a flexible labour market; new management systems, and so on. Globalisation is not an essential condition of capitalism but is a late capitalism feature. Global reach has long been a feature of imperial higher education, as in the founding of the LSE, sans academic capitalism. Big science has been international and collaborative for more than a century.

The trappings of capitalism – changes to employment practices, the Taylorism of activity measurement, the creation of a market and the management response, including branding strategies for competitive survival – do not make higher education a capitalist system. The extremes of private enterprise branding go further than universities striving to gain market share and a sense of corporate identity. For example, Sir Philip Green’s channelling money out of BHS ‘in effect monetised the firm’s history as a reliable counterpart for workers and lenders’ (Woodruff, 2018). There are close comparisons in the HE sector in monetising heritage/status: the 100-year financing bonds of Oxbridge suggest a strong leverage through historical branding, compared to say the ability of the University of West London to borrow. Marketisation or branding reinforces the stratified inequalities of the HE system and entrenches the market (Brown, 2018). Nevertheless, this is still not extracting surplus value. Similarly, the contracting out of cleaning services in a local hospital does not make the hospital capitalist. It is the surplus value extracted by the contractor that is capitalist in that, again, the net profit creates capital. Building roads, providing a police force, maintaining state schools etc, are essential for the existence of capitalism (and much else): they are not intrinsically capitalist but act as support services for capital.

Sheldon Rothblatt’s (1997) heart-warming celebration of universities as the second oldest western tradition, that has offered so much in our journey of progress and civilisation, begs the debatable current status of universities as capitalist or indeed even as enduring institutions. (I am reminded of Hobbes’ (1655) paradox of the ship of Theseus which each year came into harbour for a refit:  when is it no longer the same ship? Rothblatt sees similar changes in society and universities but doesn’t argue for a causal relationship.) Universities mutate or emerge over time within the material conditions of power and the economy – from Papal Bull and Royal Charter through Parliamentary legislation, ministerial statutory instruments and finally independent (sic) agency.  Will their function and form now will mirror the current neoliberal conditions of globalisation, public sector regulation and deregulation of the private sector? Not quite. The new cycle of knowledge economies is unlike previous regimes for the supporting universities. It is a different economy for universities and for all of us in some deeper ways.

Universities were, and in some respects still are, the providers of new technologies which advance production and manufacturing processes, new materials and industries as well as long term global opportunities and risk assessments via scientific understanding. Universities have fulfilled that role since the late nineteenth century. What is different is specifically the nature of the new economy which is a new form of market, as capital must search for new markets. This is a new model of business enterprise distinct from manufacturing and traditional service industries – the mining or rather possession (as intellectual property) and exploitation of data as privately-owned property. The case for knowledge as a public good is strong (Marginson, 2013) but the change in what counts as knowledge comes with a stricter control of social conditions. The possession of knowledge begets a new ontology and epistemology. It is the thread that runs through capitalism: the transfer of the public good to the private, from the enclosures onwards, so that old ontological claims appear as delusional, fictions and myths.  Universities and their students are both agents within the knowledge economy and the raw materials.

Universities have been exploited by business in the new technologies with significant growth in profit margins for business, which has enabled the financialisation of business rather than its technological development. The exhortations for universities to provide the materiel for innovation and development obscures another trend.  This is eloquently and passionately explained by Mariana Mazzucato in The Entrepreneurial State (2013). Businesses reduce research costs by contracting out to universities, whilst reaping the major and rapidly increasing profit share which is then used to buy back stockholdings to increase share value. This process continues as competition continues to drive down business research costs , increasing share value (which is capital), and increasing reliance on universities as subcontractors to allow for this business strategy. The knowledge economy is ‘cutting edge’ but universities become a contracting out service industry not just for ‘pushing the technological boundaries’ per se but to be used for capital gain (which is then ‘lost’ to the production process and to the universities’ research centres as surplus value). As Mazzacuto might say, the universities become not so much capitalist agents of the new economies as the exploited.

The knowledge economy flowed from state intervention in the US and the UK but is invisible in plain view. Large corporate R&D centres (Bell, Dupont, Xerox, et al) have largely disappeared and university research in the public domain is used by the new technological businesses. For example, all the Apple innovations of touch screen, GPS, internet, microelectronics, and voice activation were government funded developments.

There is another aspect of the cognitive economy of data and intellectual property ownership which is intimately connected to universities in the new wave of entrepreneurism. This is the monetisation of data within the sector. Not the creation and control of patents resulting from research, but the monetisation of data not previously considered. This new wave of capital is not limited to education. The harvesting of data in the health sector (and the contingent insurance industry) has been a site of contention and dispute in several countries in the last five years[4].

The sale of tranches of the student loan book (losses to the Treasury estimated by the National Audit Office for one tranche as over £600 million) will be a carefully calculated risk for the buyers. In the US student loans are considered as approaching sub-prime liabilities, now with more than a trillion dollars of debt. In the UK part of the value of purchasing student loans stems from the personal data to be harvested for the next 40 years in the interchange between the debtor and the new loan-holders.  A more spectacular example of information converted to a form of capital is the sale of Turnitin.  This is no elevated concept of innovation and development other, simply the ability of capital to create a new ontology of products to be marketed within the cognitive economy. Turnitin was sold in 2008 to Warburg Pincus, then in 2014 to a Singapore-based wealth fund (for $752 million) and finally to a holding company of Condé Nast in 2018 for $1.75 billion. Turnitin has itself acquired other companies in 2018 such as Vericite and Gradescope. Jesse Stommel of the University of Mary Washington, Virginia, noted: “How much of that $1.75 billion is going to the students who have fed their database for years? I have a pretty good guess; zero billion.”

The charge of academic capitalism is misplaced when there should be a growing concern about how late capital will find new ways and practices to exploit the university sector.

Phil Pilkington is Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, a former CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union, an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE.


Brown R (2018) ‘Neoliberalism, Marketisation and Higher Education’, Professorial Lecture, University of West London

Hobbes T (1655) De Corpore

Marginson S, (2013) ‘The Impossibility of Capitalist Markets in Higher Education’, Journal of Education Policy 28(3)

Mazzucatto, M (2013) The Entrepreneurial State, Anthem Press

Rothblatt S (1997) The Modern University and its Discontents, Cambridge

Woodruff D (2018) ‘Profits Now, Costs Later’, London Review of Books 40(22)

[1] I am extremely grateful to Ian McNay for his advice and support; the faults here remain mine

[2]  Hayek F (1944) The Road to Serfdom. It is difficult not to take an ad hominem approach to Hayek as a friend of dictators, but also as a paradoxical, confused and failed political theorist; his concept of price as information when human thought is irrational is a foundation of the current dispensation. For neo-liberal policy makers (ie the government/OfS) the uniformity of price in the UK HE sector offends against rational market efficiencies driving down prices. The consequent conspiracy hypothesis of cartel price fixing is another neo-liberal trope: the sabotage of government policies by self-interested public sector management and civil servants. Some university leaders have supported the neo-liberal project on the rationality of price levels by suggesting that the artificial limit set by government at the top end should be lifted and the market could be liberated to compete with Ivy League fee levels (prices). There are alternative models of pricing: a holistic model for price for HE could include prior costs (school fees, private tuition, the housing market reflecting catchment areas, etc).

[3]   My thanks to Ian McNay for a reminder that the Robbins Report included ‘the instruction in skills suitable to play a part in the general division of labour…’ and pointing out the skills support by polytechnics for the heavy industries in the north and north east of England. The assumption throughout the 1940s and 50s, from the 1944 Education Act and Claus Moser’s statistical planning of HE for Education Minister David Eccles, was that 80% of the workforce would be engaged in manufacturing and manual work.

[4] In the UK, following the Health and Social Care Act (2012) there was a requirement that all GPs’ case notes be returned to the central to be exploited commercially, this appears to have been abandoned in 2016 after a campaign in part organised by GPs. In Denmark there was a rescinding of a similar arrangement. Data sharing (sic) between Deep Mind (the AI branch of Google) and a London NHS Trust was considered by the Information Commissioner’s Office to be a breach of law. In Italy a deal was made with IBM in 2016 for access to health data (Source: New Scientist, April 2016).

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

One thought on “Academic capitalism – or worse?

  1. That’s a really interesting point about surpluses. From my own understanding Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors paying themselves bonuses of 200K~500K (eg Bath & Bath Spa Uni) represents some form of extraction of surplus from the overall business enterprise. It seems to be the case the Senior Management that support VCs in generating surpluses and achieving such bonus payouts are rewarded with career progression. Hope that comment helps the discussion. Thanks for your blog!

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