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30th October 2017

Universities are not businesses

Nor are they “bastions of academic integrity”. The way we think about universities is outdated

On Monday and Tuesday the 23rd and 24th of October, the staff and students of Manchester will demonstrate against the staff cuts proposed by the university administration back in May.

The University of Manchester issued an official statement that over 800 members of staff were “at risk” and subject to dismissal, justifying such drastic cutbacks with the projected harms of Brexit and the planned decrease of student intake over the next few years.

The sincerity of the concern, however, is placed into question when the university has also announced that it will be hiring more than 100 junior teaching staff made up of early-career academics — which of course, are cheaper.

Believing that the job cuts were badly timed would be an understatement to say the least. The university recently appointed George Osborne as an honorary professor of economics, making it the politician’s sixth official occupation. It is a move sorely lacking in judgement or taste amidst the threatened livelihoods of the university’s most loyal and senior staff.

A look at last year’s financial statement would also suggest that the University of Manchester is in relatively good economic health, especially after a significant boost to its branding and international exposure with academic superstars like Andre Geim and Brian Cox.

Even walking around the campus, students and staff witness the renovations and upgrades of facilities such as the Student Union to make them more photogenic for prospective applicants. From the increased intake of international students to the rise in student fees, it is difficult to comprehend the rationale behind a thinly-veiled profiteering scheme.

The job cuts are, sadly, not symptomatic of a particularly new problem. Across the Western world, complaints that universities are becoming more business-orientated are increasing. The trend creates a significant nostalgia for a time when universities were smaller, more intimate intellectual communities that acted as the gatekeepers of academic pursuit.

In recent years, universities have changed significantly with characteristics that we would expect more from private service sectors rather than educational institutions. The desire for stable income streams have meant that enormous amounts of effort and capital is placed into the university’s branding, how prestigious its degrees are, and the customer satisfaction of its students.

Money is pumped into student amenities like shiny new dorms and emphasis is placed on international university rankings. Other defining characteristics of university ‘business-models’ are exorbitantly high student fees that, in the US, many struggle to pay back in a single lifetime.

So why have universities gone under such extreme changes? It is safe to say that external pressures from institutional and cultural shifts in our attitudes towards tertiary education is a root cause. In the past few decades, we have witnessed perhaps the greatest democratisation of higher education in history. More people from more diverse backgrounds are able to access what used to be a deeply nepotistic class structure.

Secondly came the growth of a ‘knowledge economy’. With the advent of an information and technology age, a premium was placed on the kind of research universities were outputting — in the University of Manchester, research income generates approximately 28% of the school’s total earnings.

But perhaps the most impactful change to the landscape of tertiary education is that it is no longer really a choice. The competitiveness of a global job market that has fewer spaces with a higher entry requirement means that individuals who wish to have any type of material security as a working adult must pursue a university degree.

This is especially true in states which offer no alternatives such as apprenticeships. All these external pressures have caused the leakage of free market logic into institutions that used to be relatively esoteric and obscure.

I would argue that we are seeing higher education in a crucial state of transition. Universities are having to work hard to create knowledge, improve accessibility, and respond to student needs, and to do so efficiently. They are expected to reach a creative balance between their academic mission and executive capacity; between financial viability and traditional values.

This transition has meant profound growing pains — financial administrations have changed within universities as well as their corporate hierarchies; there is general de-emphasis on the principle value of education.

Symptoms have manifested in often frustrating and disheartening ways: an unnecessary focus on politicking and positioning in university league tables, higher entry requirements, and the unfair treatment of those deemed “redundant”.  All these moves are geared towards making universities, and by extension, their graduates more prestigious and therefore more employable in the long-term.

The shortcomings of this corporate business model make for easy targets, but it is also worth pointing out that the view of universities as “bastions of academic integrity” is incredibly outdated. The contribution of higher education to economic success is now vital, and since degrees have monetary value, they should to some extent be treated as economic goods.

It has been shown that higher student fees, when coupled with government subsidies for working-class students, have increased the number of students able to afford a university education. And the need to satisfy customers has made universities more responsive to student concerns about their curriculum, equity, and quality of teaching — which all contributes to a more dynamic learning environment.

Here is the tension. The cruel and unfair staff cuts are reflective of a model that is not working, but it is impossible and inadvisable to regress back into outdated modes of education.

So we must ask ourselves what the most ideal and fair model actually looks like, and how we best transition to that.

A great number of complexities must be taken into account: affordability, curriculum design, competitiveness between universities for the best and brightest students etc. This author does not have the answers, it is a problem that demands the attention and regulation of peoples and states.

But before we reach that equilibrium, we must stand in solidarity with the victims of a system that is not only amoral but also dysfunctional.

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