Much of the critique of the commercialisation of higher education focuses on the poisonous effect it has on academic life.
In the opening pages of their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, sociologists at New York University and the University of Virginia, respectively, set the scene with this narrative, which they say has undermined the “belief in a community of scholars and not a confederacy of self-seekers; the idea of openness and not ownership; the professor as a pursuer of truth, and not an entrepreneur”.
The authors, who won wide acclaim for their earlier book, Academically Adrift, do not disagree with this analysis, but argue that it focuses too much on the day-to-day experience of lecturers and professors, and not enough on the people for whom, as the market would have it, they now work: the students.
Administrators have shifted institutional emphasis from students’ academic and moral development to their personal growth and well-being
The consumerist approach, which few publicly endorse but many believe has been tacitly accepted by university leaders, is supposed to work for the student: they pay your wages, the argument goes, so you will make damn sure that you provide value for money – or face the consequences.
But Arum and Roksa argue that it has been a disaster for students, who, like frogs in a saucepan, have been sold a warm bath when in fact their intellectual curiosity and crucial elements of the teacher-student contract are being cooked.
“Educators have increasingly ceded their authority to students, and administrators have shifted institutional emphasis from students’ academic and moral development to their personal growth and well-being,” they write.
We hear more from Arum and Roksa in an in-depth interview this week, and their theme also ties in with our cover feature, in which Tom Palaima, professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, extols the virtues of listening – really listening – in higher education.
Being present is not enough. Yet in an echo of the theme of Aspiring Adults Adrift, Palaima warns that “all the incentives in our systems of higher education…are structured now to promote an intensive self-absorption and self-mindedness”.
Who, then, benefits from the remodelling of higher education as we know it?
The staff? Few say so: author and professor of literature Marina Warner, writing in the London Review of Books last week, drew comparisons between the ethos emerging in many universities and Chinese communist corporatism “where enforcers rush to carry out the latest orders in an ecstasy of obedience to ideological principles which they do not seem to have examined, let alone discussed with the people they order to follow them”. The government? It’s hard to see how, when the switch to a high-fee system in the UK may cost more than the system it replaced. It must be the students, then?
The irony is that in the commercial world, the most-admired companies – the innovators and those that tend also to be the most successful – are almost always led by values, putting ideas and integrity ahead of short-termism and the most rapacious elements of commercial ideology.
Universities have all these things in spades, but many of their most passionate supporters are sounding the alarm. It would be foolish not to listen.