A quick examination of any university board of governors or regents, certainly in North America and most of Europe, will reveal a body stacked high with corporate executives and a minority of seats reserved for faculty and students. These board members donate money, and get their wealthy and influential friends to do likewise. But of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch/education. It is extremely rare for these benefactors to just hand over a suitcase full of cash: they of course want to fund high-profile brandable projects like new athletics centres, or biotech complexes they can plaster their names on whilst faculty salaries or library acquisitions coincidentally go down.
This examination of the new breed of university leadership vividly dramatizes the way public institutions, or institutions allegedly working in the public interest, are oriented towards capitalist forms of discipline and measure. But, interestingly, the university cannot declare itself simply a for-profit institution, at least not yet. It maintains its claim to be driven by higher values: the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, the cultivation of future citizens and the valuation of learning for its own stake. This is not merely a cynical marketing ploy; it represents the rhetorical residue of struggles over value and values deep in the fabric of the university itself – indeed, it is precisely these often hyperbolic and pompous claims that give the university its value and allow the university to retain its status as a ‘public’ institution (which is useful for a whole host of reasons, not the least of them being taxation status).
Consider the plight of academic workers. Obviously, no one is going to pity someone with the privilege to get a Ph.D., but it’s worth taking a second look at what is actually happening. Scores of hopefuls ‘invested’ their own time and money to purchase an education in the hope that it would lead to fulfilling employment. While paying for their own training, they also worked as junior professors or assistants for exploitative wages, be told that this work was part of their ‘education’ and ‘professional development’. The university system need hire only one of these students/workers, leaving the rest to deal with their own debts.
It is an excellent system for ‘externalizing’ the costs of building a highly specialized workforce, and for keeping wages and worker demands minimal. If I complain too loudly, there are dozens of other hopefuls (more each year) who would be glad to take my place. While the university may appear at first blush like a conservative, slow and old-fashioned institution, the forms of labour discipline it is innovating are cutting edge.
And the university is a key part of this: it benefits from churning out far more (over)qualified young hopefuls than there are positions to be filled in almost every economic field, from engineering to teaching, from computer programming to translation, from social work to accountancy.
Not only has the university become central to overproducing knowledge workers, it has become key to ensuring that the workers who do emerge are saddled with massive levels of debt. This debt, in turn, renders these would-be workers desperate for employment and, hence, less willing to take the risk of demanding better wages, security, benefits and working conditions, let alone having the time and inclination to focus on broader questions of social inequality and oppression through activism. Indeed, we might even say that the primary function of the university is no longer to educate. After all, the vast majority of graduates are overeducated for the sorts of work they eventually find, and even the most specialized and highly refined forms of knowledge work typically depend on competencies learned on the job, not in school.
What does debt teach? It teaches that you are a lonely, competitive individual who has to work and compete in order to outperform your peers in the vain hope of achieving or maintaining the forms of wealth and security associated with a middle-class lifestyle. It teaches that education is a solitary and competitive struggle to ingest and regurgitate skills and ideas, and that theory, reflection’ and teamwork are simply a means to an end. It teaches that it is useless and hopeless to imagine the world otherwise or to ask deep, radical (i.e. at the root) questions about our society because at best they have no clear multiple-choice answer and at worst they may force you to stare into an abyss of depression and futility from which you cannot escape.
Compounding these factors is the illusion that the university is the ultimate meritocracy, the emblem of the Enlightenment where talent is justly rewarded, both in terms of the student grading/sorting schema which elevates certain learners above others and in terms of the hiring of faculty and the production of knowledge itself. Such a belief undermines the solidarity that might be woven between students and between faculty and habituates the occupants of the university into a properly financialized neoliberalism, where the ‘investment’ of intelligence and effort in the present will be rewarded with future returns.
If the university is the fabled meritocracy, then the relative absence of people of colour, women, trans folks, indigenous and non-Western scholars in the academy, or the absence of their work from the core curriculum of many disciplines, is taken to be evidence of their inherent lack of quality, rather than the codes and forms of oppression that circulate throughout society and throughout the university itself. And if the university is a meritocracy, then adjuncts, part-timers and other precarious academic workers have only themselves to blame for their lack of ‘success’.
Indeed, the plight of academic workers reveals the amount of unpaid, unrecognized labour of survival undertaken not only by casualized teaching staff, but by all of us. As neoliberal austerity deepens, the tolls of increased work in more tightly wound environments requires each of us to cultivate an invisible skill-set for maintaining sanity and persevering. Like other forms of reproductive labour, this labour is devalued and unremunerated, yet the necessary bedrock on which more formal labours are built. And these labours are all the more costly for those deemed not to fit within the given institution. In the case of academe, the university is supported by the invisible emotional and spiritual labours of women, people of colour, trans folks and all those others who are imagined as intruders into the ivory tower and who face subtle and not-so-subtle oppression therein.
This is a section of Chapter 4, “Within and beyond the Edu-factory” from Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power by Max Haiven.