University College Cork

University College Cork, (c) Kman999

This post is a response to a question from Rille Raaper, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, in response to my recent seminar – find the original comment here.

What a great question you ask Rille, and one that certainly deserves much more attention than it currently gets – my interpretation of your question is: why did the academic community effectively cede control over the last 2-3 decades to the combined forces of marketisation and consumerism?

There are a range of factors at play – a lot of them external to the academy, but in a recent paper Troubled by the past: History, identity, and the university, I point the finger at the academy as a player in its own right when it comes to the onslaught of market forces – via a combination of professional introversion, the stranglehold of disciplinarity and an over-emphasis on academic freedom at the expense of a focus on responsibility. This point, it should be added, has been known to cause mild controversy … but essentially my argument is: we took our eye off the ball and left the door WIDE open for others to account for our actions, rather than taking on the job ourselves.

… BUT I wrote a riposte to my own argument (still to be finished/published) that was an attempt to balance this understanding somewhat:

 “There is another sense in which universities and academics should be really troubled by the past, which relates to the powerful force that swept marketisation across higher education in the 1980s. This force was nothing other than a ‘fundamental change in the ideology of higher education’ (Peters 1992, 126), a change pursued with zeal by the Conservatives in the UK, who shamelessly used industrial and technological changes as a justification to ‘bring the university into line’.

It is difficult to perceive this transformation in the character of universities other than as a direct attack on the institution (Kogan and Kogan 1983). Far from being inevitable, the transformation was a form of counter-revolution against one of the last bastions of liberalism and source of enlightenment, a political offensive that sought to recast the university as irrelevant, outdated and anti-vocation. Integral to this undertaking was the development in the 1980s of a ‘hostile, negative view of the educational past’ that ‘held the “educational establishment” responsible for the problems that needed solving’ (McCulloch 1997, 74). This political strategy set the stage for an evangelical pursuit of efficiency, performance and marketisation, and Peters was correct to note in 1992 that this form of historical branding ‘will set the parameters within which higher education is to be conceived for a considerable time to come’ (Peters 1992, 126). The ‘benign’ tension between the state and university (Bailey 1975 in Berdahl 1990, 180) was swept aside by the real politic of ideological score settling, leaving in its wake a tangible antagonism.”

I should really finish this paper (!) as it does counter-balance what I’ve said previously. I do think, however, that acting as if the academy had no role to play in getting to where we are now, is a naive stance to take. A more interesting issue for me is attempting to understand how internal and external forces combined, in particular when and how they combined.

But I’m certainly open to other ideas on this topic – feel free to comment, Mark

[Unlinked references below]:

Kogan, M., and D. Kogan. 1983. The attack on higher education. London: Kogan Press.

Peters, M. 1992. Performance and accountability in ‘post-industrial society’: The crisis of British universities. Studies in Higher Education 17, no. 2: 123-139.

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