Universities used to be called ‘ivory towers’. The phrase suggested that universities were remote and irrelevant to the real world of industry. But it also suggested mysterious riches, a place where strange and precious knowledge might be held.
That strange and precious knowledge has given us atomic weapons, anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS, economic modelling, and most of what we know about children’s learning. Not so remote from the real world after all!
Higher education boom
Even more remarkable, higher education – including universities and colleges that give degrees – has become an important industry in its own right. Globally, more than 200 million students are currently enrolled in higher education. In Australia, higher education has become the second most important export industry, after mining.
An increasing number of countries, not only the richest, are now approaching what the experts call a ‘high participation’ system. This means that more than half the cohort of young people leaving school go on to higher education, immediately or later.
There was a worldwide boom in primary and secondary schooling in the second half of the twentieth century, and there is currently a boom in higher education. The World Bank tells us that we are building a Knowledge Society. The OECD and many governments declare that higher education, bigger and better, is a key to future prosperity in competitive world markets.
There is impressive wealth in parts of this industry. Harvard, a small university funded for generations by the American ruling class, has an endowment of over 40 billion dollars – it is much richer than Donald Trump. Universities with access to serious money have been building glittering new buildings and hiring famous architects to do it.
In prestigious or well-off universities, the CEOs – the Presidents or Rectors – and other senior managers get lush salary packages, including bonuses. The fattest cat, in a lesser known US university, gets over five million dollars a year. In Australia, where we call the CEOs ‘Vice-Chancellors’ from colonial habit, a number of them get more than a million dollars a year, including bonuses. They aren’t billionaires, but they are part of the global 1%, and they wear nice suits to show it.
There is an important difference from the earlier boom in schooling. The expansion of schools from the 1950s on was driven by public investment. In newly independent countries this was seen as a core development strategy. United Nations agencies such as UNESCO and the World Bank gave strong support.
By contrast, much of the expansion of higher education has occurred in a mushrooming private sector. Private universities and colleges now account for a large majority of students in Brazil and Chile, about half the enrolments in the huge Indian higher education system, and a growing proportion in China too.
Many of the new institutions are openly ‘for-profit’. They are simply commercial corporations, licensed by governments to sell educational services. Others are supposedly non-profit, charitable institutions. These too are funded by student fees, and there is clandestine profit-taking in this sector.
Corporatisation of the University
Public universities are being quietly privatised by the back door. Many of them charge stiff fees, ‘outsource’ labour, and hand over key operations (such as computer services and personnel recruitment) to outside companies. A small group of big corporations has taken over most of the publication of university research, worldwide – an oligopoly that is now the target of intense anger.
Governments have wanted higher education to expand, but they have wanted higher education on the cheap. So they have mostly encouraged privatisation and fees. The whole booming higher education industry is very weakly regulated. Corruption scandals erupt from time to time. More, I think, are quietly swept under the carpet.
As higher education has become, increasingly, a profit-driven industry, it has also shown the toxic consequences. Charging young people fees – almost everywhere, fees have risen over time – means that very large numbers of young people go into adulthood with a heavy burden of debt. In the United States alone, accumulated student debt at the end of 2016 stood at 1.31 trillion dollars.
Profit-driven university managements behave like corporate managers everywhere. Since their biggest cost is labour, they have pressed down on the workforce. A rising proportion of undergraduate teaching – in my country, estimated to be around 70% – is done by precarious workers. A growing part of the university workforce don’t have reliable incomes, job security, or resources for research.
To control a large and insecure workforce, managements have created intrusive systems of surveillance and control – ‘performance management’, ‘auditing’, and online reporting requirements. Managements try to centralise control over rooms, finances, appointments and curricula. This pressure has been growing even for academic staff who do have ‘tenure’, i.e. a degree of security.
Higher education, then, is in a strange, contradictory state. It seems globally prosperous. But underneath, there is injustice, exploitation, and a startling failure to think long-term. We need to think harder about what higher education means and what good universities need. We have a huge task ahead to democratise this system.