openDemocracyUK

Capitalism and the University

The University is one of the defining institutions of society, and today it is under threat. In a new debate section, 'Capitalism and the University', OurKingdom will analyse the marketisation of British higher education
Des Freedman and Michael Bailey
27 June 2011

This piece launches OurKingdom's 'Capitalism and the University' debate page. The first article in the new series is 'First as Farce: higher education, the profit motive and the New College of the Humanities'.

The University as a centre of inquiry, research, teaching and publishing is one of the defining institutions of society. It helps to produce the knowledge on which elites depend as well as the capacity to challenge elite power. The University has long had a contested relationship to power and authority, providing both a legitimation of the status quo and independence from it, capable of both instrumental thought and critical debate. While sometimes profoundly conservative, the autonomy and independence of the University within the existing power structures is an essential part of the development of an effective challenge to them.

Today, the public university is under threat. The deficit has provided the government with an excuse to radically restructure the funding, governance and mission of higher education. Tuition fees have been trebled, teaching grants slashed, ‘business-friendly’ courses praised and the private sector encouraged as a supplier of higher education. These developments are likely to diminish the sector’s already limited independence and its capacity to research and teach outside the framework of capitalism and corporate power. The consequences of the decision in 2008 to move universities into the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, of the 2010 Browne Report into university funding, and of 2011 white paper on higher education will be to turn the University into an extension of capitalism.

These developments have been fiercely contested and the ‘reform’ project, as a whole, is far from stable. OurKingdom has responded by launching the 'Capitalism and the University' debate, dedicated to analysing whether and how higher education is being subordinated to market logic, to assess the campaigns that have emerged in relation to recent developments, to explore alternatives to the market, and to consider the changing experience of university education from the perspective of both staff and students. We hope that it will contribute to what we see as a growing commitment not simply to defend the status quo but to re-imagine a role for the public university as a cornerstone for building an educated democracy and a just society.

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