The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Academic capitalism – or worse?

[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).

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Five stages of marketisation in English higher education policymaking

by Colin McCaig

The use of the term ‘neoliberal’ to describe the marketisation of HE systems implies a ‘grand design’ that takes a public service like HE and creates a market; however it seemed to me that this differed from a ‘free capitalist market’, nor did my understanding of the historical development of HE in England seem to reflect such a simple linearity of design. Therefore I decided a couple of years ago to really nail down what neoliberal marketisation means in the context of the English HE system. The result was The marketisation of English higher education: a policy analysis of a risk-based system, my 2018 book summarised in a paper to the SRHE Research Conference in December 2018. Employing a political discourse analysis (PDA) approach to a close reading of 16 HE policy documents over the last thirty years I identified five distinct stages of marketisation policy, reflected in arguments used to justify reform:

Stage 1: efficiency, accountability and human capital (1986-1992)

This stage was exemplified by reforms highlighted in: the Jarratt (1985) Report on university management and the Croham Report (1986) on the future of the University Grants Committee; the 1987 White Paper; the 1988 Education Reform Act; and the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. Arguments deployed included the need for ‘New Public Management’ thinking: ideas that promoted entrepreneurialism among university and polytechnic leaders. University and polytechnic boards, and the new Universities Funding Council, would henceforth include business representatives; individual academics were also encouraged to be more entrepreneurial, selling their expertise as consultants. At the same time the binary system would be unified and expanded in the hope that institutional competition would ensue, the better to meet the changing basis of demand for human capital in the knowledge economy of the future.

Stage 2: diversity as a good (1992-2000)

Policy documents during the 1990s largely celebrated and encouraged diversity and the prospects for widening participation. The new landscape of different types of institutions and modes of HE were seen as essential for expansion and lifelong learning needs. While the discourse shifted radically in some ways from stage 1, human capital needs were still to the fore – as important as social justice arguments when it came to arguing for a widening of participation. The Dearing Report (1997) encapsulated most of the debates around the future size and shape of the sector and how to fund expansion, recommending the introduction of partial fees. Commissioned by the Conservatives, it reported to an incoming Labour government wedded to social justice objectives and lifelong learning.

Stage 3: diversity becomes differentiation (2003-2010)

The major policy statements covered in this stage – the 2003 White Paper, 2004 HE Act, and the 2009 White Paper – introduced radically new arguments for a new purpose. No longer would system diversity be celebrated for its own sake, HEIs were now exhorted to differentiate their offer in the marketplace to attract applicant-consumers. Responding to institutional pressures for more funding, government introduced a variable tuition fee, on the assumption that only the most highly-demanded universities would justify the higher fee of £3,000 per annum. The policy arguments used in this stage were unusually reactive; the Russell Group and 1994 Group of universities had long lobbied for ‘top-up fees’, partly on the basis of actual costs but also because they believed they needed to be differentiated in the market from ‘other’ universities and types of HEIs. Greater centralisation paved the way for the regulatory framing for the market we see in 2019.

Stage 4: competitive differentiation (2010-15)

This stage can be seen mainly as the continuation of the implications of the previous stage – the arguments deployed in the Browne Review of HE funding and student finance (2010) and the 2011 White Paper Students at the heart of the systemdominated policy discourse. The need to have an efficient, responsive differential system reflecting a competitive fee distribution, to (roughly) match the UCAS points distribution between highly-demanded and less demanded institutions, became more critical in the era of £9,000 a year tuition fees. This decision can be seen as the key driver of virtually all policy since 2010.

Stage 5: risk and exit: the completion of the market?

The 2015 Green Paper and 2016 White Paper introduced proposals and legislative measures finally to actuate the variable tuition-fee market as envisaged as long ago as 2003. The Higher Education and Research Act introduced a single regulator for all and any HE providers – the omnipotent Office for Students (OfS) which manages, via quality oversight and funding incentives, the system of risk-based monitoring that is designed to encourage ‘exit’ for failing providers, to be replaced, if necessary, by new alternative providers encouraged in turn by lower Degree Awarding Powers and University Title barriers to market entry.

Marketisation 1986-2019: a tortured path or linear progression?

At the time of writing no providers have been allowed to fail/exit and many in the sector are in denial that government would ever allow it to happen: but that is the iron logic of the market thus constructed. Successive OfS and government statements (from OfS Chair Michael Barber, and successive Universities Ministers Sam Gyimah and Chris Skidmore) have been at pains to reassure us that they will not prop up a failing institution, defined as one that that fails to attract enough applicant-consumers willing to pay a given tuition fee. New providers, coming to market with a cheaper offer, will finally create downward pressure on (stubbornly un-differentiated) fees: ‘failing’ providers either lower their fees or risk losing students to the competition. Needless to say, none of this harms the established research-intensive ‘elite’ providers that had been lobbying for differential fees since the late 1990s.

Was all this part of a grand neoliberal design, a blueprint for marketisation? Or a collection of reactive decisions designed to ameliorate the effects of the unintended consequences of previous reforms, or indeed externalities such as the 2008 crash? Diversity and (largely unplanned) expansion certainly begat defensive differentiation among the existing (pre-1992) universities, which immediately called for the right to charge ‘top-up’ fees in the name of differentiation. Government, meanwhile, trying to widen participation for human capital as well as social justice purposes, also needing to satisfy the pre-1992s, hit upon choice for the applicant consumer in the run up to the 2003 White Paper as the mechanism that would allow applicants to see where the most highly valued HE was to be found. The Times Higher Education duly obliged with the first wave of its ‘price-list’ domestic league tables from 2005. While commercial league tables never featured in any policy statement, officially endorsed indicators of ‘quality’ such as the National Student Survey, the Destination of Leavers from HE survey and a UNISTATs website containing consumer information were all conceived at this dawning of the competitive market, all in the name of differentiating the system so that applicants could differentiate the pre-1992 ‘wheat’ from the post-1992 ‘chaff’.

The ‘end-stage’ of the market (HERA 2017) attempts to open up the system to cheap incomers that maybe, just maybe, will provide the much needed downward pressure on average tuition costs. Poorer students are exhorted to think hard about increasing their own (and public) future debt by choosing the wrong kind of HE providers: the 2016 White Paper celebrates the good access record of many ‘new providers’ and the virtues of alternatives such as apprenticeships. After twenty years of promoting the ‘graduate premium’ (first noted in the Dearing Report 1997), the White Paper points out how differentiated that benefit can be, and promises us more sophisticated evidence from tax returns (LEO data) to dissuade those with the least chance of enhancing their life though HE.

Colin McCaig is Professor of Higher Education Policy at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University He has published extensively on widening participation and system differentiation and is a political scientist by background. His book The marketisation of English Higher Education: a policy analysis of a risk-based system, was published by Emerald Publishing (ISBN: 9781787438576) in 2018

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Fear and Loathing in the Business School

By Jacqueline Aldridge

We all enjoy grumbling about the business schools in our institutions.  How their multi-million pound buildings swallow resources. How students are lured from other disciplines with shallow promises of employability. How the serious financial clout of business schools allows them to trample less worldly academic departments.

But what about the intellectual place of the academics and academic disciplines housed within their shiny and expensive walls? My doctoral research examines business schools as university departments that are staffed by conventionally-trained career academics, and considers them in this light. I suggest that there are at least three good reasons why we might pity the poor business school and the academics who work within them.

Business is a dirty word

The University does not have a happy relationship with ‘business’ and this antipathy has long roots.  Continue reading