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Life in the entrepreneurial university

June 12, 2009

With the announcement of the new Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) that subsumes universities, expect to see lecturers throwing themselves from  their proverbial ivory towers; well those lecturers that hang onto the belief that education might have a social purpose – something to do with the development of active citizenship and strong democratic societies.

universidademodernaHowever for the past 25-30 years such a notion has been heretical as successive governments have been clear that the purpose of education is to serve the economy (that’s capitalism, in case you’re in any doubt). So when the previous Prime Minster Tony Blair dedicated himself to ‘education, education, education’, this was not a commitment to the potentially social and civic virtues of school and college but rather as he put it:

…education is our best economic policy… This country will succeed or fail on the basis of how it changes itself and gears up this new economy, based on knowledge. Education therefore is the centre of economic policy making for the future.

So with the new department of BIS failing to even to mention universities or education in its title, it seems that education and universities are less ‘central’ to the economy than simply reduced to it. What is perhaps most alarming is that with the UK’s all but disappeared manufacturing base and in the wake of the recent economic calamity (and its consequences for the financial sector), the government may be looking to HE to play some sort of key roll in the recovery through its assumed privileged position with regards the ‘knowledge economy’ (whatever that is).

Nevertheless the debate about universities and education won’t go away. There will be those who will continue to indict what they see as ‘academic capitalism’, the commodification of education and the industrialisation of research. But for the time being its the advocates of the ‘entrepreneurial university’ that seem to be in the ascendency.

Here is a glimpse into entrepreneurial thinking. Prof. Burton R. Clark is Professor Emeritus of Higher Education and Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles. In his influential book, Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Organizational Pathways of Transformation (1998), he cites five characteristics necessary for entrepreneurial success:

  1. strengthened managerial core – universities cannot depend upon the traditionally  (weak) control or steering. They need to become quicker, more flexible and more focused in reacting to the demands of their environment
  2. an enhanced developmental periphery – universities need to have mechanisms that relate to the outside world. They have to reach across their traditional boundaries. And they need to set up special organizational units to do so.
  3. universities need a diversified funding base, specially discretionary funds, a widening of their financial base and to be  less dependent on government
  4. universities need an academic heartland that accepts an entrepreneurial culture. These basic units have to be stimulated
  5. an entrepreneurial culture ‘that embracing changes’; a work ethic and a set of beliefs that are university-wide and that become the very base of the institution’s identity.

Beneath the ‘can-do’ rhetoric it’s difficult to see anything other than a charter for managerialism and conformity. How else should we interpret the strengthening of the ‘managerial core’ and the establishment of university-wide beliefs and identity? The entrepreneurial university rules OK and it won’t countenance diversity of purpose or dissent. Little wonder the mood on campus is depressed.

In Spring 2000 an AUT-sponsored inquiry into psychological health of university staff found that ‘more than half of those who work in British universities are on the brink of depression or anxiety, while a quarter have suffered a stress-related illness in the past twelve months’. A broader survey by the ERSC’s ‘Future of Work’ programme (2000) placed university teaching professionals at number one in their ‘Job Misery Index’. More recently a University and College Union (UCU) survey of 9,700 members working in higher education revealed that 6.7% of members said they were ‘always’ or ‘often’ bullied at work and 16.7% said, ‘sometimes’. Only half (51%) said they were fortunate enough to ‘never’ be bullied at work. Is it a coincidence that the extension of entrepreneurial culture into higher education has coincided with the demoralisation and harassment of university staff?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2009 1:39 pm

    I went to Warwick as an undergrad at some point just after the death of Queen Victoria. A few years before there had been a bit of a kerfuffle about the Vice Chancellor bending over a bit too far to arse lick the local industrialists who helped fund the then relatively new university and didn’t really like all those scruffy student lefties. EP Thompson, then working at Warwick, even wrote a book about – Warwick University Ltd(1970). It’s been years since I read it but I wonder if it would be interesting for you to dig it out and do a compare and contrast number? I have a hunch that, today, it is not that kind of crude external pressure that is driving the managerialism but a kind of self imposed internal psychological colonisation by managerialist thought.

  2. Rab permalink*
    June 17, 2009 9:56 pm

    I’d forgotten about the E P Thompson book on Warwick, Charlie. I’ll have a look for it in the university library. I wonder will it be there. I went looking for Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie’s book Academic Capitalism last week and although it’s in the catalogue it had mysteriously disappeared off the shelves and nobody was able to account for its absence… Hhmmm.

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