Thursday, January 17, 2013

Introduction: Speaking of the neoliberal university

I recently watched a piece on PBS's Frontline called "College,Inc." It's all about for-profit universities. And, considering how things are going in many of our colleges here in the US, I couldn't help but wonder if this is a glimpse of things to come for our educational system. For-profit institutions are, after all, the "fastest-growing sector in higher education" (Delbanco 2012).

The Frontline piece is mainly about for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix and Devry and others of that nature (like Grand Canyon University). In theory, the basic mantra of for-profits sounds pretty reasonable, if not outright noble: They claim to serve all of the people who, for some reason or another, cannot get themselves into the traditional university/college system. In practice, however, the for-profit system is laden with all sorts of problems, discrepancies, and false promises. One of the main issues being the foregrounding of marketing and recruiting over education (this is explained pretty well by Frontline). When constant growth and enrollments become the primary goal, obviously education is going to suffer. And when it comes to many of these universities, it has.

Institutions like the University of Phoenix are basically run like a corporation. If we're wondering where the neoliberalization of the universities is taking us, this is a good place to get a good glimpse of the future. On the plus side, this means that they are able to make quicker decisions, focus on innovation, and achieve a sort of nimbleness that we won't usually find in the traditional university systems (with their thick bureaucracies). But the downside of running a university like a corporation is, well, that you're running it like a corporation. This means that making money is the ultimate goal, despite the fact that education is supposed to be the primary mission.

They key part of that sentence is "supposed to be." Education you ask?  What?  Sorry, the for-profit folks can't hear you over the barrage of noise coming from their overworked (and very friendly) telephone recruiters.

Here's a basic rundown of some of the characteristics of for-profit education. First, they are not held back by the brick and mortar mentality of traditional universities. These universities still have buildings and campuses, but not in the way that many four year universities are set up. Many of the University of Phoenix campuses, for example, are conveniently located near major freeways. Second, there is no tenure system. If teachers aren't performing, they aren't going to get another contract. Third, the administration makes a lot of money (this was openly admitted on Frontline). Fourth, tuition at these universities is VERY expensive (about twice what students pay at traditional universities). Fifth, from a business and marketing perspective, these universities are incredibly successful. They are making money, no doubt about that. And finally, as is clearly stated on Frontline, the Federal financial aid system is the "lifeblood" of these universities, and accreditation is key to getting those funds.

The problem? Well, the problem is that all of the marketing and moneymaking does not necessarily translate to a good education, and this has lead to numerous lawsuits, including this one. And more recently, this one.

Many of these for-profit universities make a lot of promises, and, despite all of the glitz, aren't really fulfilling them. Well, not to the students who pay them for education, but I am sure the shareholders aren't complaining. These institutions might be the epitome of the neoliberalization of education, in which all value hinges upon finance and money, rather than education. But the troubling practices are surely not limited to the for-profits of the world: similar philosophies are clearly finding their way into more "traditional" universities, especially since the economic meltdown of 2008-09. Traditional universities are certainly "for-profit" in their own right, depending on who you ask.  

I suppose University of Phoenix and its ilk give us a nice picture of what life will be like if and when we continue to head all the way down the neoliberal path. At least we know where we're a place laden with tremendous debt, empty degrees, and plenty of litigation. Oh, and lots of profit, for some. So there's one option: we can take the university system full bore down the for-profit, privatized trail blazed so willingly by the U of Phoenix folks. We'll be in the hands of administrators like the former director of the University of Phoenix who, when asked about the purpose of education, said: 
I'm happy that there are places in the world where people sit down and think.  We need that.  But that's very expensive.  And not everybody can do that.  So for the vast majority of folks who don't get that privilege, then I think it's a business [cited in Delbanco 2012 and the Frontline episode].
And there you have it.  The choice is ours.  What side will you pick?


For this issue we have contributions from Francine Barone, Erin Taylor, Keith Hart, Tazin Karim, Patrick Bigger & Victor Kappeler, and Greg Downey.  I think Francine sums up the underlying theme of the issue quite well in her essay when she writes: "There are a few competing perspectives, but mostly everyone is on the same page: A lot of things suck in our professional lives and we should really figure out a way to do something about it."  Nailed it.

Please read, pass this around, comment, and find your own way to keep the conversation going.  That's a good first step toward eradicating the "suck" from academia.



Delbanco, Andrew.  2012.  College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be.  Princeton University Press.  Kindle e-book version.


Unknown said...

This is not really ‘business’, but rather a fraudulent use of the idea of the university. It is fraud because it does not and cannot conform to the idea of a university while focusing on so-called “business”
This does both business and universities a disservice since it pretends to be a both a university and a business without being either. The two notions are mutually incompatible. A university is NOT just about providing a service (so-called education); it must include research, thought, thought about research, research about thought (philosophy) and so on. If it does not, it is not a ‘university’; it is a training centre.
What is perhaps most disturbing is that the whole rhetoric convinces many people, including the author of this piece, that something like this can be BOTH a university and business. Fooled!
Why is it not a business? Because business, in theory, provides some good or service for a legitimate, market related fee. While we might argue that they do provide a service, it is not education, but training. Or something else. It is also not a truly market related price, since real universities are supported by government and gifts, as they should be. Finally, it is the ‘admin’ who make the money, while it is not they who provide the service. This is simply fraud.

Ryan Anderson said...

Hi Robert,

You have a good point about the difference between "business" and "fraud." When a product is marketed and sold on basically false premises (ie the promise of education from many of these institutions), that's fraud. There is good to keep in mind when talking about this issue of "for-profit" education. You know, if the U of Phoenix really provided some amazing education for a good price, we might not be having this discussion.

Alex said...

Actually, there are ed tech players that strive to provide low-cost education. See here for the latest -

Basically, proper use of the Internet threatens to destroy universities that fail to deliver value that is required of a collective identity/community inherent in brick-and-mortar campus.

This brings about a different discussion than the one proposed here.

Greg Downey said...

I think a university is INEVITABLY a kind of "business" in that it is a corporate entity (in the loose sense of that term) created to provide certain kinds of services in a capitalist economy. HOWEVER, the question is, What kind of business? Those who think that a university is more Enron than an NGO, capable of generating obvious short-term profits from its 'customers,' and there only to serve 'shareholders' will inevitably be frustrated by some of the operations that many of us see as core to the university.

I just think we've got to be smarter about how we argue with those who want to make universities behave like very specific sorts of "businesses": those that generate short term, constant profits. There are lots of "businesses" that don't do this -- I daresay, most. Most businesses, even in the US, are probably small firms, one goal of which is to keep people employed, along with covering expenses and generating a bit of income.

It's the model of the short-term thinking, shareholder corporation, with a management team that can expect to exit before any of their policies have long-term effects, that is the problem.

Two simple policy changes could shift this:

1) Bonuses for upper management CANNOT be linked to massage-able numbers like operating surplus, which can be bloated out by cutting salaries and investment. Instead, how about whether or not the faculty votes for you to have your bonus when you retire?

2) Only hire management from within, except in rare cases, and set limited terms that will require them to go back to working in departments after they finish terms as administrators, maybe even require it. It would be great if all university admin had to go back and live with the policies that they pushed.

3) Once upon a time, in many universities, intermediate level management was elected, not appointed. That's right: the staff elected their dean. Go back to representational administration.