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Universities fight back against corporate body snatchers

The onward march of commercial considerations into every area of public life and services has led to an unlikely resistance movement in the shape of the Council for the Defence of British Universities.

Enough is enough, says the CDBU which has an impressive list of supporters. Its 66 founding members include top academics like Colin Blakemore, Richard Dawkins and Ronald Dworkin, literary figures like Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, Claire Tomalin and the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf. The CDBU declares:

In the protracted recession of a knowledge economy, where knowledge is money and growth is elusive, powerful forces are bending the university to serve short-term, primarily pragmatic, and narrowly commercial ends. And no equal and opposite forces are organised to resist them.

While the attempt to turn universities into money-spinning ventures is not new, it was given fresh impetus by the Browne report into higher education published in October 2010. Browne was former head of oil corporation BP.  

Commissioned by the previous government, the report led directly to the imposition of student tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year. By now, responsibility for higher education had appropriately passed to a ministry dedicated to “business innovation and skills”, under Vince Cable.

The aim was threefold: to cut public spending on higher education (especially in the arts); make universities compete with each other for students; force universities to seek higher levels of private sector financial support. In other words, universities were to become “business centres” rather than places of learning and research.

The CDBU believes that “misguided policies” are undermining British universities in the way described. But for all the learning embodied in the organisation, this really does miss the point. A business invasion of the corridors of learning has been under way for almost two decades.

In his book, the Corporate Takeover of Britain, writer and campaigner George Monbiot says that there is scarcely a university that has not been compromised by its funding arrangements. He explains:

Business now inhabits the cloisters of even the biggest and richest institutions. Cambridge University, for example, possesses a Shell chair in chemical engineering, BP professorships in organic chemistry and petroleum science, an ICI chair in applied thermodynamics, a Glaxo chair of molecular parasitology, a Unilever chair of molecular science, a Price Waterhouse chair of financial accounting and a Marks & Spencer chair of farm animal health and food science. Rolls-Royce, AT&T, Microsoft and the biotechnology company Zeneca have all set up laboratories in the university.

In June 1999, BP gave the university £25m to fund work across five departments. In November 1999, Cambridge set up an £84m joint venture, funded largely by the British government, partly by industry, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its purpose is to “change the face of business and wealth creation in the UK” by stimulating “research spin-offs” and “training the business leaders of the future”.  

Stefan Collini, professor of English Literature and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge, has documented the corporate invasion of universities over a long period. He rightly regards it as an attempt to bring universities “into line”, to make them serve the economy above all other considerations.

Collini also indicts Labour for an approach that is indistinguishable from that of the ConDems. In fact, large chunks of the 2011 White Paper on higher education repeat the phrases used in a White Paper produced by Peter Mandelson in 2009 under the previous government.

Setting up the CDBU indicates that resistance is growing to commercialisation of learning. But its members are mistaken if they believe that the invasion of the corporate body snatchers is merely a policy issue. For over 30 years, the British state has driven down this road in areas of health, public services and transport, to name a few.

We have moved from a welfare state to a market state in the process. This is no longer a democracy but a corporatocracy. To rescue education from its clutches, we need a democratic transformation, an Agreement of the People that removes profit from the equation in favour of social interests and needs.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
9 November 2012

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Your Say

James Derounian says:

I agree with much of this, except for the end: transformation "in favour of social interests and needs."

Whatever the deficiencies of sustainable development it does seek a balance between economic, social and environmental mutual advantage.

Jean Spence says:

I took early retirement from a university post in 2010 because it was increasingly clear that education was not at the top of the agenda for universities, and that my commitment to community and adult education in terms which did not centre the corporate interests of the university, were seen as simply a joke.

Meanwhile, the application of 'metrics' to the judgement of quality of research and publications can seriously distort the possibility of writing for an appropriate audience, especially if that audience happens to be not university-based.

I also have huge concerns about surveillance in the universities and the ways in which students are co-opted into the monitoring and evaluation systems. Their critical faculties are distorted by the cost of their education. Fees are not only about student debt, but impact upon the quality of what is taught, and how it is judged overall.

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