The case for corporate universities

It's not the source of university funding that should concern academics, but the strings attached to it by the state.

Dennis Hayes

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The McDonaldisation of UK higher education seemed to come one step nearer in 2002, when a senior source at the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) hinted that in a forthcoming government shake-up, ‘private businesses would be encouraged to award their own degrees in direct competition with traditional universities’ (1).

At the time, this appeared to be nothing more than an accommodation to what was happening in the business world. There are already over 2000 corporate universities in the USA, including one run by McDonald’s and popularly known as the ‘Hamburger University’. In Britain, Anglia Water has a University of Water and Unipart, the car-parts company, has a training centre that they call the ‘u’. Other businesses are likely to follow their lead.

However, it would be absurd to accept that these training, marketing, or in-house product development operations are ‘universities’ in any real sense. The promotion of their growth and development is important only because it tells us something of what the UK government thinks may be the future for state-subsidised universities, and raises some serious questions about the role that ‘corporate’ or ‘private’ funding should play in real universities.

Now that the government has launched its long-awaited white paper on The Future of Higher Education (2), the promised ‘shake-up’ is beginning to look as if it were kite-flying. Despite the furore about top-up fees and the consequences of increased student debt, this bland document merely consolidates trends already in evidence and much discussed. These primarily concern teaching in higher education and, as ‘an important signal about the importance of teaching’, the white paper suggests the title of ‘university’ should be awarded to universities that are not research active. Teaching-only institutions, or those that undertake little research, get the opportunity to work with business and further education colleges in a network of twenty ‘Knowledge Exchange’ centres, with the aim of boosting local economies.

Such bureaucratic structures will have the aim of spreading ‘good practice to other universities and colleges’. Yet ‘good’ practice is not something to be discovered – it is pre-determined, in that it must focus on developing two-year foundation degrees. As much of the teaching on these programmes will be undertaken in actual further education colleges, we are on the brink of seeing something like the American ‘Community College’ system being created.

This is no step forward. Whatever the faults with the education on offer in some new universities, the government’s proposals will ultimately turn all but some 40 universities into further education institutions engaged not in knowledge creation but what is better described as ‘knowledge transfer’.

In the recent discussions about the white paper, the university is assumed to have a major role to play in promoting social justice, and in developing teaching skills to help students digest pre-packaged and unchallenging bits of knowledge. These two assumptions miss the point of what a university is for. A university is not a site for social engineering. Equally importantly, a university is not in any sense a teaching institution (3). Its role is exclusively what Professor Anthony Giddens, director of the London School of Economics, described back in 1999 as the ‘pursuit of knowledge without fear or favour’(4).

The phrase ‘fear or favour’ is crucial. It might seem that the white paper’s proposal to target research money to the 19 members of the Russell Group, a self-selected group of research-led universities, and to some 20 other universities, is the creation of an elite or two-tier system of education. Yet if these universities continue to have their research output determined not by the demands of the community of scholars but the bureaucratic and unwieldy Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), or whatever might replace it, they will not have the academic autonomy they require to be anything better than the teaching-only universities.

A requirement to publish four works for each assessment in obscure, dull and unread journals is hardly academic freedom. Furthermore, it is not only the form of research that is regulated. Bids for research funding are increasingly required to have political ends, whether increasing social justice and inclusion, or developing teaching skills. Such political and politically-correct requirements also operate informally, so that thinking the unthinkable and saying the unsayable becomes impossible.

If the government does not allow universities the power of self-governance, and the absolute academic freedom that goes with it, both the research elite, and the ‘knowledge transferring’ institutions, will be ‘universities’ in name only.

The suggestion that an ‘access regulator’ be appointed to ensure that more working class students attend university caused some consternation among vice-chancellors, who saw it as a threat to academic autonomy. Yet other forms of regulation that will destroy the autonomy of universities receive their support. These include scrutiny of management, the determination of the sort of degree awarded and how it is assessed, and the nature of teaching. In a reversal of historical roles, lecturers will even face monitoring by their students.

As the white paper puts it, these spurious ‘new freedoms’ such as the ability to charge top-up fees, must be balanced by new responsibilities. Under the guise of an attack on ‘bureaucracy’, the white paper argues for ‘better regulation’, when what it means is self-regulation. And indeed, today’s university managers will be all too eager to regulate themselves to ensure the security of their funding. Even the Cabinet Office’s ‘Better Regulation Task Force’ recognised that individual universities were more bureaucratic than government quangos when it came to collecting data and preparing for inspections.

Self-regulating ‘research’ institutions doing the government’s bidding, and a network of further education colleges, appear to be all that is on offer in this new vision of the future for higher education. If there remain any pockets of independence, by which I mean true communities of scholars pursuing knowledge for its own sake, it will be due almost entirely to the ability of institutions to attract private funding, whether directly from companies, individuals or endowments.

These may seem an odd claim to anyone whose idea of state funding is based on the so-called ‘golden age’ of relatively well funded university expansion in the middle of the last century. Something like a ‘community of scholars’ existed at that time. No matter how many individual academics squandered this opportunity, they were free to pursue knowledge wherever it led them. The difference today is not that funding for academic work is inadequate, which it is, but that research funding is tied to specific outcomes. This often takes the form of direct tenders to undertake research to show how government targets can be achieved or to evaluate government projects and programmes. These ‘research’ contracts turn universities into arms of government.

The main sources of state funding for research also use their grants not in pursuit of knowledge, but towards solving social problems. To illustrate this, look at how one of the most prestigious research funding bodies, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), distributes its funds. The ESRC has adopted ‘thematic priorities’ in response to government criticism. These priorities are set to ensure that research is ‘relevant to today’s problems, and that there is increasing “knowledge transfer” between social scientists and the users of their research’.

Furthermore, ‘all the research councils were required to address this problem by working more closely with users of research and introducing the criterion of “relevance” more clearly and strongly into their funding decisions’ (5). Not surprisingly, one of the ‘thematic priorities’ is ‘Social Stability and Exclusion’. It is increasingly impossible to get social science or other funding that does not require, as outcomes, practical measures of the sort that promote social inclusion.

The idea that this research is somehow ‘objective’ and ‘unbiased’ is only true in the sense that researchers are expected to use a rigorous ‘methodology’. It is strange, then, that the myth persists that this funding is better than corporate funding. Companies may try to determine how their funding is used, but this is not necessarily the case and often it is given simply to advance knowledge in a particular area. Many universities are learning the lesson about reducing their dependence on government money, which never comes without strings.

The University of Surrey is perhaps the most controversial and well-known example of an higher education institution seeking to protect itself in this way. It has worked with business and set up its own companies. Although it denies the intention of becoming a private university, it receives only 25 per cent of its income from government. Many other universities thrive on income from research contracts with industry or from corporate donations.

University researchers know that funding from business is not necessarily submission to the dictates of the market, but perhaps the only guarantee of being able to conduct research without fear or favour. As long as such funding is given without conditions it is the best way of ensuring the continuation of academic freedom and the existence of the university in any meaningful sense.

Despite the prejudice in many commentators’ minds, there is no necessary link between private funded research and its conclusions. It is government and its quangos that prescribe research outcomes before they provide funding.

The concern with the possible introduction of the ‘market’ or the privatisation of institutions, rather than with what is on offer in universities, is a distraction produced by old ideological conflicts. What’s left of the political left, the professional bodies and trade unions in the university sector are currently campaigning against the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) which seeks to ‘liberalise’ service provision and open it up to market forces. Inverting reality, they see the state as a bulwark against the threats to academic freedom.

Professor James Tooley, who is the director of the EG West Centre for Market Solutions in Education, and right-wing bodies such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, argue for private universities because they are committed to a market ideology, and not from the premise of the need to defend the university as a community of scholars. Both ‘sides’ in this ideological conflict miss the central point. The issue is not the source of funding but that it is given with no strings attached.

Universities, as communities of scholars, should be able to pursue knowledge without being accountable to anyone but themselves. The ‘public’ are often said by ideologues of the left and right to have the democratic right to require that publicly funded bodies are accountable. If people were ever consulted, it is my view that they would be found not to be so philistine, and more concerned with ensuring that universities remain places where academics and students think for themselves.

The argument put forward here in favour of ‘private’ universities is not one in support of the sort of training and research institutions interested in improving efficiency, marketing and product development that I mentioned in my opening paragraph. They have as much resemblance to the traditional university as the summer school I saw advertised last year as a ‘Children’s University’.

But the government’s triumph, if the white paper is implemented, will be to transform the whole university system in to a network of just such ‘McUniversities’. The only alternative is to support the creation of corporate or private universities, founded on the principle that they pursue knowledge without fear or favour.

Dr Dennis Hayes is the head of post-compulsory education at Canterbury Christ Church University College, and recently edited, with Robin Wynyard, The McDonaldization of Higher Education (buy this from Amazon UK). He writes in a personal capacity.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) ‘Go-ahead for corporate degrees’, THES, 29 November 2002

(2) The Future of Higher Education, DfES, London, HMSO, 2003

(3) ‘The New Sophistry of Teacher Training for Higher Education’, in D Hayes & R Wynyard (eds), The McDonaldization of Higher Education, Bergin and Garvey, 2002 (buy this from Amazon UK)

(4) ‘The Future of Universities’, Address to a Meeting of Convocation, University of London, 11 May 1999

(5) Thematic Priorities, Economic and Social Research Council

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