Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Academic capitalism

Jon Awbrey left a comment on my post, The role of marketing in educational development, pointing to an excellent paper by Susan Awbrey titled Making the Invisible Hand Visible. The Case for Dialogue About Academic Capitalism.

Susan's paper has introduced a term that I have not heard around Australian universities yet - academic capitalism. Interesting how a name can suddenly bring to light a whole raft of issues you've been thinking about for a few years. While Susan writes mainly from a US perspective, she refers to research carried out in Australia, UK, Canada and the US.
Academic capitalism is defined as “institutional and professorial market or market-like efforts to secure external moneys” (Slaughter and Leslie, 1997, p. 8). In the 1980s and 1990s academic capitalism flourished as government support for education declined, corporate interest in new products and processes coincided with the university’s search for increased funding, and as the government sought to enhance national competitiveness by linking postsecondary education to business innovation... Public higher education institutions became dependent on sources beyond the government and that process is already changing the roles, rewards, and structures within academic institutions.
I can't help quoting this paper at some length, as I know many of my colleagues will put off reading a PDF, but they might take a few minutes to read some notes here. I've copied Susan's spot-on observations of some of the consequences of academic capitalism.
At the university level
Academic capitalism is sweeping higher education. Although some institutions have been partially insulated by unique missions or large endowments, it is a growing phenomenon. At the institutional level rewards now flow to academic units that build external funding. There is an expansion of sales and service functions from branding and promoting logoemblazoned products to marketing web-based services. Campuses now resemble malls with recognizable private food and book vendors. Admissions functions have become enrollment management as the pressure increases to compete for new students. More and more administrative responsibilities are pushed out to the academic units. There is a decline in collegial governance with more important decisions being made at the central level to respond quickly to external constituents. There is growing tension between academics and central administration.

At the department level
There is an increase of hyper-competition between academic units for scarce resources. (This competition has exaggerated already present disciplinary biases.) Fields “close to the market,” such as business and engineering, continue to gain power while those less close, such as the liberal arts, are losing influence. The salary differentials between faculty members in fields that can access external dollars and those fields that cannot continue to grow. Fields further from the market are also experiencing increased teaching loads. There is an increase in the numbers of part-time faculty. Less and less importance is being placed on the quality of undergraduate and graduate instruction as reward systems shift and the maintenance of external partnerships absorbs increasing amounts of faculty time.

With faculty
Faculty members are under pressure to pursue external funding. There is a shift away from community-minded attitudes toward attitudes of personal gain. Faculty members have less time to devote to instruction. Faculty, especially untenured junior faculty, are experiencing high levels of stress due to an increasing number of faculty roles. Maintaining external relationships demands larger and larger amounts of faculty time, and less time is available for other roles. Faculty members are becoming resistant to committee and university service as demands on their time increase. There is a decline in collegiality and campus community. There is less allegiance to the institution as faculty increasingly view themselves more and more as independent entrepreneurs.

On research
Overall there is less government funding available for research. There is less basic, or curiosity-driven research, and more specialized and applied research. External constituents are setting more and more of the university’s research agenda. Faculty members engaged in research have less allegiance to the university as centers and institutes become increasingly funded by external, non-governmental sources.

With students
Students are experiencing steady tuition increases. More and more students are seeking means/end education for career advancement. There is a growing resistance to broad educational experience as per course costs increase. Students are developing a shopping mall, consumer viewpoint of knowledge as a commodity. There is greater competition among students for spots in prestigious institutions. Broad access to higher education is being threatened as tuition spirals upward.

I've been a change agent in education for quite some time now.. one thing that has troubled me for almost all that time is that the rhetoric and the actions of education don't fit together. Susan picks this up also:
Research has shown that the theories, or mental models, people use in practice are, for the most part, tacit. Few people are consciously aware of them. It is these unquestioned theories-in-use that often guide our actions and strategies not our espoused theories. (Argyris and Schon, 1974, Argyris, 1980, Argyris, 1987, and cited in Smith, 2001) Thus, quite often the world-view and values we espouse are not the world-view and values implied by our behavior. This is not just a difference between what we say and what we do (between theory and action) but between two different theories of action—-one we profess and one we actually use.
Bingo!. I have a lead to a body of knowledge that investigates this phenomenon. Many thanks! Susan goes on to use a great example to illustrate this point. Airport security measures! Nice one :) where their actions are clearly having consequences on many of the other values that inform their practice, but clearly know one has an eye on the relationships between values, practice and consequences. Susan gives a simple method for ensuring this happens:
Once you implement [change] strategies you may ask: “What did we expect to happen?” “What were the results?” and “How might we alter our strategy next time?” These questions are all asked from within the mental model you hold of the situation. If we also ask questions such as: “Why did we select this strategy?” “What made us think it will work?” “What have been the unintended consequences on each of our guiding values?” we are asking questions about our mental model and challenging our theory-in-use.

The trouble with this I think, and especially in the academic sector where truth is largely relative, and people's depth of understanding is non sequential and a-synchronous, such a review of consequences might lead to a paralysis. I've certainly come to such a point in many areas of my work, particularly when looking more deeply at the values of 'learning', the practice of 'education', and the consequences that practice has on 'learning'! aka Illich. Our practices are so deeply embedded, and the critique is so fundamentally challenging, that many people become simply paralysed and end up either ignoring the critique and 'getting on with it anyway', or dropping out of the structure all together. As a result, it is very difficult to find people in the sector who are willing and able to discuss the critique.

Perhaps though, this is simply a result of not having enough people in the room to discuss the problem and devise actions that move us on somewhat.
‘Unfreezing’ (Lewin, 1951) is an organizational term that has come to mean many things. First, it means that for change to take place members of the organization must see not only a need for change but also an urgent reason to change. Slaughter and Leslie have made the case for urgency by showing us that, out of financial necessity, higher education is already undergoing a quiet revolution that is having some unintended consequences. Second, Lewin’s concept of unfreezing warns us that attempts to change without addressing an organization’s cultures and values will fail in the long run.
It has been a bit of an a-ha moment for me this simple little paper. Its references enlightening fields of research I would not have come across in my present reading lists. Academic capitalism is a very appropriate term for obvious reasons. The seeming oxymoron in the two words coming together is not an invitation to adopt an anti-capitalistic stance necessarily, but it sure does give me pause to reflect on my actions and proposals that are ultimately responding to this large changing force in the sector.
The erosion of public funding that has led to academic capitalism implies a shift not merely in funding sources but also in the deeper values that underlie education’s role in society... The use of a strategy such as academic capitalism needs to be consciously undertaken and widely discussed with broad awareness of and input regarding intended and unintended consequences not only on the financial health of the institution but also on the university’s mission and guiding values.


University of Utopia said...

You won't be surprised that the most thorough critiques of capitalism are in Marx's critical social theory and likewise a compelling, critical theory of academic capitalism can be found in the Autonomous Marxists like Dyer-Witheford and Harvie and DeAngelis. See the links on this page for some good examples. We'll be adding more:


Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks UU, my reading of Marx is beginner at best.. although we all absorb him through all those expressions under his influence. At the moment I'm focusing on Illich.. and I expected him to be rated a Marxist - but discover in his book Gender, and his booklet Imprisoned in the Global Classroom, several statements that seem to be distancing himself from Marxism. I suspect there is an interesting critique of Marxism out there by Illich.. will read and write about the links on the nice clean site of yours. Thanks for the invitation.

Simon Leonard said...

Faculties of Education, focussed more on school than on higher education, have long run critiques of schooling not disimilar to this; schooling is still absed on a 19th Century model intended to reinforce class boundaries and ensure a semi-literate workforce for the capitalist system. Of course when we make such comment we are effectively sidelined by current neo-liberal hegemonic discourse as 'out of touch with reality' - like schooling has anything to do with reality!

Our critiques though, are not all marxists. I teach science education to pre-service primary teachers who almost universally are science phobic. This disconnect, I argue, has nothing to do with with science as a body of knowledge or science as a way of aquiring and ordering knowledge; it is about the dreadful experience of science education they had at high school. Foremost among the reasons why school science education is so bad is that curriculum boards like ACARA are dominated by science professors (and increasing calls to have the science institutes reponsible for science teacher accreditation scare me). The trouble with science professors is they tend to support the system they experienced which I describe as 'learning by ordeal'.

Funny thing is I had some of these very same pre-service students this week complaining that I was trying to remove the ordeal. A week before an assignment was due I provided very detailed feedback on one student's work in the form of a screencast and I made it available to all students. Some students deemed this unfair as I had made it too clear 'PRECISELY' what I expected. Flipping this around, the expectation is that assessment should be unclear and high honours only available to the lucky (blessed?) few who can guess what the lecturer has in mind.

The theory-in-use idea here has a power beyond the leftist critique. It is useful to recognise that our thoeries are often derived from institutional momentum, and often those institutions are outside the university and distributed around the varoius formations of the state and its hangers on.

My theory-of-choice is that my role is to improve science education in schools. At least some of my students though, have a theory-in-practice that pre-service teacher education is about competiton.

NAPLAN testing this week is probably coincidental.

Leigh Blackall said...

The pushback on academic capitalism in the USA

Leigh Blackall said...

Simon, sorry for the delayed response and thanks for leaving the comment.

When I took a DipEd in 2002, I was so upset when I discovered Illich, Postman, Frier, because all of them were in the bin of a lecturer in the course, and none of them were on the reading lists. I nearly failed because I started referencing them in my essays! Even the lecturers at that university has accepted the vocational training role of their course, and forsaken the larger questions. They should rename their course - Certificate in High School Teaching in NSW.. because that's all it really is. I think if the course (and others like it) were taken away from the universities and placed in the TAFEs, we'd be all much better off. Assessment would be standardised, and we'd find a bit more consistency in the profession.

If the TAFEs had the course, I think they'd more quickly realise the wider vocational scope of the course than just secondary teaching. They'd see the policy, governance, research, private tutoring, adult and community education, educational technologist, instructional design, reportage and others, and help the DipEd students realise there is/could be more to a DipEd than subject specific secondary teaching.. but I guess the universities want to retain that scope for inflating educational credentialism even more. Masters and PhD anyone?

Lucky for me, I saw the scope while I was doing my DipEd, and resisted the conformity pressures. I protested the absence of critical literature from the reading lists, and managed to get my assignment submissions accepted. I used my DipEd to get into TAFE work developing online educational resources. Thank god I realised early and didn't get swallowed by a teaching career.

So I think/hope there is still a chance, justifiable in vocational terms, for bringing this thinking back into teacher training. I don't know where else it can start.. probably the networks online - like what we're engaging in. Perhaps that's a better place for it anyway.