Patrimonial capitalism and the end of the liberal university

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Universities no longer function to ameliorate social status and inequality, but are part of a renewed patrimonial capitalism; the private benefits of higher education to its graduate beneficiaries are today used to justify the removal of public funding and the charging of exorbitant fees.

John Holmwood
19 August 2014

The university has been central to the liberal imagination as the repository of reason and culture (argued by Kant and von Humboldt), or as a community of scholars and students engaged in the education of character and intellect (argued by Newman). Of course, these ideals were tied to an upper-class status order from which women, religious minorities and the broad mass of the population were excluded. In England, the physical character of the old collegiate Universities of Oxford and Cambridge was mirrored in the public schools of Eton, Harrow, Westminster and Winchester, with their quadrangles, chapels and dining halls.

This high-minded view of the university was not an accurate description, even in the nineteenth century, when perceived requirements of industrial development contributed to a shift in focus away from the liberal professions towards the needs of business. In this context, new ideas of the university—of civic universities oriented to local needs—began to predominate, especially in the United States with ‘land grant’ universities offering a robust and practical alternative to the ‘ivy clad’ private colleges.

For Max Weber, this reflected a new ‘democratic ethos’, but the impact of that ethos is perhaps not best represented in the era in which he lamented it, but by the much later development of the public university in the post-second world war period. Alongside, the older functions of the university—the reproduction of culture and its contribution to industrial development—a new function of serving mass democratic participation was added. Here the university would be asked to serve social mobility and also to contribute to the effective practice of democratic citizenship.

This can be understood, in part, as an extension of liberal rights—of expression, free choice of occupation, and equality before the law—into the social realm. On the one hand, a divided status order was to be dissolved into a single order of citizenship, in which education was perceived as a social right. On the other hand, social rights—to health, education, etc—were also perceived as necessary to ameliorate market-based class inequalities.

This was the moment of the ‘public university’, perhaps best exemplified by the California Master Plan of Clark Kerr and the reforms associated with the Robbins Report in the UK. It is marked by a commitment to the expansion of participation in higher education as well as by the principle that such expansion should be through direct public funding. This reflected an increased consciousness of the wider public benefits of higher education – what Milton Friedman (in Capitalism and Freedom) referred to as its ‘neighbourhood effects’.

One paradox of publicly-funded education, articulated by Kerr, was that its ‘democratic ethos’ would favour a practical orientation, both in terms of research and teaching, undermining the subjects that were at the core of the older status-oriented idea of the university. This would also have consequences for the emerging idea that the function of university education was not to provide a ‘framework’ for a stable and democratic society, but to facilitate critical engagement with that society and its inequalities of power and condition.

Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century suggests that the period of ‘social liberalism’, of the articulation of social rights of citizenship to ameliorate inequalities of class and status, came to an end in the early 1980s in Western countries when the peculiar conditions that sustained it began to fade. Capitalism’s logic is to widen inequality and, with the re-establishment of inequalities in wealth alongside inequalities in income, according to Piketty inheritance returns as an important principle in the reproduction of inequality.

It is in this context that the idea of the university is once again undergoing transformation in the light of neoliberal public policy and the privatisation of public services. Increasingly, education is perceived as an object of private capital investment, both through outsourcing of functions to for-profit companies and the direct entry of for-profit providers. At the same time, the private benefits of higher education to its graduate beneficiaries are used to justify the removal of public funding and the charging of fees. University managers collude in this process by using those benefits as the justification for the idea that fees should be ever-higher.

As many have observed, the neoliberal de-regulation of labour markets has, at the same time, created a polarisation between good jobs and bad jobs, with the former too few to provide for all graduates, and graduate qualifications for many providing merely a bad job rather than no job. In this context, the pressure is to differentiate fees and courses, and, together with the status associations of supposed ‘elite’ institutions, to create education as a positional good.

Universities no longer function to ameliorate social status and inequality, but are part of the new status order of a renewed patrimonial capitalism. What is significant, however, is that there is no university figure—no Kerr or Robbins—to step forward to articulate the idea of the university for the twenty-first century. A narrow utilitarianism prevails and Vice Chancellors are now brand managers, not stewards of culture and knowledge. Their universities are knowledge corporations, competing in a global market for higher education with their salary packages no different to those of other ‘top executives’ and growing apace.

The ‘neighbourhood effects’ of higher education are reserved for wealthy neighbourhoods and a grim regime of fitness training for a ‘global race’ is reserved for the rest. The liberal idea of the university is gone. In the words of the UK government, that idea has lost its usefulness: 

“It is for institutions themselves to decide their own structures. Some have found ingenious ways to combine profit-making and non profit-making arms… A positive strategic commitment to remain at a certain size is one thing. A reluctant ossification and decline, caused by an inability to see how to change a structure that is thought to have outlived its usefulness, would be quite another.‘’ (International Education: Global Growth and Prosperity, July 2013).

But something more than the idea of the University is at stake. What is also at stake is the meaning of democracy and its possibility in circumstances of patrimonial capitalism and ever-widening inequalities.


This article is part of the Liberalism and education strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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