Lifestyle Education

By BRUCE WALSHPublished: November 25, 2012



The business of higher education


British author and professor Gary Rolfe doesn’t have to look far to find the encroaching corporate values he so vocally detests in education. His own university’s mission statement is a prime example: “Swansea [University] will deliver an outstanding student experience, with teaching of the highest quality that produces graduates equipped for distinguished personal and professional achievement.”
“The shocking thing about many of these mission statements for U.K. universities is the conspicuous lack of the word ‘education’ or the word ‘learning,’” explains Rolfe. “[These words] have been replaced with ‘student experience.’”

Rolfe’s latest book, “University in Dissent: Scholarship in the Corporate University  is a philosophical tongue-lashing of the U.K.’s recent shift to a fee-for-degree system.

“[In the U.S.] the focus appears still to be on education and, in some cases, a liberal education. This has all but disappeared in the U.K., apart from the very top schools,” he says. “Part of the reason for the difference might be that American students have paid up-front for their education [for a long time], and the system has grown up around that idea. Whereas fees were only introduced in the U.K. relatively recently. U.K. students are still adjusting to the idea of education as a purchase and, as a result, attitudes flipped very rapidly from education for its own sake to the idea of education as an investment.”

To combat this new ethos, Rolfe encourages faculty to develop what he calls a “paraversity” — a community of professors committed to the traditional aims of liberal education, no matter what the prevailing trends. 

But that doesn’t mean Rolfe is hopeful that these values will return wholesale.

“If we look at the history of the modern university over the past 200 years since its origins in Berlin, we can see a gradual but exponential shift from the university as being in the service of society and answerable to the state, to the current situation of self-funding, profit-making businesses,” says Rolfe. “There is, I fear, no turning back.”

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Interview with Bruce Walsh for Metro USA



B.W. I understand your background is in nursing. What led you to write about this topic? Are there ways that this growing corporatization has specifically affected your field -- or you personally?

G.R. Good question. I was a junior lecturer in the 1990s when nurse training moved into the university sector in the UK, and many of us held out a hope that nursing would develop new and interesting approaches to education as a result of our exposure to the wider academy. Unfortunately, this was just at the moment when the university sector was moving away from the ideals of liberal education towards a more corporate stance where outcomes in the form of getting a degree became more important than the process of becoming educated. The same thing was happening in respect of research, where research projects were no longer valued by their utility – that is, the extent to which they benefitted patients – but only for the size of the grant.


As you see it, how have universities taken further steps toward a corporate model since "University in Ruins" was published?

Well, I think you only have to look at the latest mission statement of my own university to see the extent of the corporatization of the university. Of course, it could be argued that the very fact that universities now all have mission statements is a sign that they have signed up to the corporate agenda, but the shocking thing about many of these mission statements for UK universities, including my own, is the conspicuous lack of the word ‘education’ – and also the word ‘learning’ – which has been replaced with ‘student experience’. The student is now regarded as a customer, and many students consider that they are buying a degree rather than an education. Just to confuse matters, students are also seen as the product of the university – my university mission statement talks of ‘producing graduates’. Students are therefore, at the same time, the product of the university system and also its customers! What’s more, the job of the academic has been relegated to an administrator – our role is to administer the students safely through the system with the minimum of fuss and bother.


I didn't realize that mission statements are a part of a corporate agenda. Did these develop out of a corporate culture?

Yes, I believe so. The Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) recently awarded a grant of £250,000 for a research study to encourage universities to explore their ‘institutional distinctiveness’. The project report recommended that universities conduct ‘brand audits’ and develop new ‘mottoes’ and ‘mission statements’ in order to (and I quote) ‘stand out in an age of greater competition’. They pointed to Ikea (a chain of furniture stores) and Brains (a brewery) as good examples of branding that universities might follow. Sixty years ago,. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott suggested that (and now I’m paraphrasing from memory) that universities would need to advertise what they do to their students only if they were talking to people who were so ignorant that they had to be spoken to in baby language.


Do you see parallels with the U.S. system? How is the situation better or worse here?

I have no first-hand account of the US system – however, from looking at websites of US universities, the focus appears still to be on education and, in some cases, a liberal education. This has all but disappeared in the UK, apart from in the very top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. I think that part of the reason for the difference might be that students in American Universities have for many years (always?) paid up-front for their higher education, and the system has grown up around that idea, whereas fees were only introduced in the UK relatively recently. I think UK students are still adjusting to the idea of university education as a purchase, and as a result, attitudes flipped very rapidly from the idea of education for its own sake to the idea of education as an investment – hence the recent focus on buying a degree which can then be ‘cashed in’ for a highly=paid job.


How, specifically, can faculty and students begin to subvert this corporatization?


Well, my book was written mostly for faculty, but many of the ideas apply equally to students. The dilemma is as follows: the university is in ruins – that is to say, it has become corporatised to the extent that there is no turning back. That would seem to leave the academic with two choices. Either we embrace the business organisation that the university has become, along with the corporate goals of the market-place, or else we reject and rebel. In my opinion, the first option is unacceptable and the second is untenable – if we reject what the university has become, there really is very little that we can offer in its place. My solution is therefore to undermine or subvert (the same thing really) the corporate mission. We do this either by minimally meeting the goals of the university mission in terms of quantifiable outcomes (research grants, numbers of students gaining high grades, etc etc) whilst trying as far as possible to do so through educationally sound means – that is to say, we attempt to reintroduce the notion of values into a university system that is concerned only with monetary value. Or, if we are really brave, we reject the university mission in favour of our own goals – eg we abandon the idea of coaching students through exams and reintroduce the importance of thinking rather than rote learning, or we turn our backs on the pursuit of large grants for research projects that have little relevance to the real world in favour of work that we believe will make a difference (this is particularly relevant to my own discipline, where the research that we do and the way that we educate our students can quite literally be the difference between life and death). But if we decide to take that path, we have to do what we do in place of the university mission really well. I refer to this in my book as to ‘be good’ – that is, we must chose to be good in the moral sense, but in order to do this, we must also be good in the performative sense – we must do it very very well! All of this subversive activity must somehow be done in parallel to our day job – which is part of the reason that I talk in my book about the Paraversity as a virtual subversive community of scholars running alongside and in parallel to the corporate university. I’ve just realised that I didn’t say anything about students in answer to this question. I think those students who are only interested in buying a degree certificate can be helped to do that – if that’s what they REALLY want – but in order to properly subvert the system we need the students on our side – they must also subvert it by attempting to get an education for themselves despite the system. That is to say, they should be helped to see that process is far more valuable than outcome and that education happens not only in classes, but in every aspect of their experience of being at university


Why do you think Routledge was interested in this book? Was this a piece you submitted? How did the book get picked up?


Good question. It’s normal practice to write a proposal and obtain a contract before you start writing the book. In this case, I started writing about three years ago with little thought to a publisher. When I had completed about half the book I began to panic and sent a proposal and a sample chapter to every academic publisher I could think of. In the mean time, I carried on writing. The rejection slips started to come in, and I got to the point where I thought that it had been rejected by everyone. Then out of the blue, I received an email from Philip Mudd at Routledge saying that they were commissioning for a new series of research books in higher education. Just in the nick of time, really, because I was just beginning to think about self-publishing. To some extent, the publishing industry is caught up in the same issue as the university – that is, the need to make a profit (of course, its always been an issue, but the global recession has meant that fewer people are buying fewer books). As a result, many publishers are now only commissioning student textbooks that are guaranteed to sell four or five thousand copies minimum. So all credit to Routledge for taking a chance on a book that will probably make them (and me) very little money.


How do Barthes and Derrida fit into this book and this issue as a whole?


Ahhh – Barthes and Derrida! I’ve had a long-term interest in these two authors, particularly for their approach to writing and the creating of knowledge. In a very small and over-simplified nutshell, they both argue that meaning is brought to texts not by the author but by the reader. That is to say, we each interpret texts (and Derrida uses this term very loosely to refer to the written word, painting, music, dance, etc etc) differently – every reading of a text is a new writing of it. So, the process of education is not simply the transmission of knowledge and facts from teacher to student (what Carl Rogers called the ‘mug and jug’ model of teaching, where the teacher fills up the empty vessel of the student with knowledge) – rather, education is a creative process of shared meaning-making where the teacher encourages the student to interpret texts rather than attempt to divine the original meaning placed there by the author. Barthes referred back in the 1960s to the ‘death of the Author’ as a defining moment in academic critique.


What aspects of higher education are still untouched by corporate ideology? Where is there hope?


I think our last best hope is in our students. From the events of May 1968 onwards, students have traditionally been at the forefront of change in the university. As things stand, most of them don’t want to speak out and rock the boat. I have spoken to many, many students who are dissatisfied with what they are getting for their money, but it is extremely difficult to get them to speak out about it. Perhaps the best we can do is to carry on working together –a partnership between students and academics who want something more from universities than the sale of degrees – in parallel to the corporate degree machine. We have to trust each other – be good, be collegiate and be radical (that is, to get back to the roots- radix – of the modern enlightenment university)


Have we seen this corporatization of universities rise and fall in the past? Is this a repeat of history, or a completely new event?


I’d like to think that this was a passing phase, but I really don’t think it is. The higher education system (at least in the UK) is so entrenched in the capitalist ethos that in order to extract itself it would have to start from scratch. And I don’t think that this is a cyclical process. If we look at the history of the modern university over the past 200 years since its origins in Berlin, we can see a gradual but exponential shift from the university as being in the service of society and answerable to the state, to the current situation of a self-funding, profit-making business. There is, I fear, no turning back.