1. Everyone seems to agree that the universities are in bad shape, certainly worse than at their peak in the 1960s and 70s, at least in the United States and Europe, if not everywhere. These notes seek to place their decline in historical context.
2. We talk of universities as if they were medieval institutions, which in origin they were. But what we understand by them now was a distinctively twentieth-century phenomenon: the harnessing of a guild system to mass production of workers in public bureaucracy.
3. This was in one sense the legacy of Hegel who proposed in The Philosophy of Right (1821) that the inequality of capitalism, its extremes of wealth and poverty, could be moderated by bureaucrats trained in universities to serve the interests of all.
4. The academic disciplines we are familiar with were formed in the late nineteenth century, to some extent on the model of chemistry which reduced complex material processes to the action of molecules, to the great benefit of the chemicals industry.
5. But higher education at this time was largely concerned with religion – a middle class youth would most likely go to a theological seminary or receive religious instruction at university. The social sciences arose to prominence as part of an attempt to replace religion in the conduct of public affairs.
6. Thorstein Veblen, the sociologist who founded institutional economics, wrote The Higher Learning in America: A memorandum on the conduct of universities by business men (1918). It is a reminder that the “corporatization” of the universities today has antecedents.
7. He asked “How can a capitalist society afford institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth?” His answer was that you tell academics they belong to the highest social class and pay them the wages of artisans (then in greater supply than now). They then sacrifice all their intellectual and moral principles in order to make up the difference.
8. Textbooks for the modern disciplines began to be written in the 1920s. But between the wars the universities ticked over at a fairly normal level. Economists were no more publicly prominent than anthropologists; and the main job of all was to teach.
9. The Second World War is the matrix of what has happened since: fighting a war on all fronts led the US to pioneer new social disciplines like Operations Research and new information technologies, both of which were then applied to reorganizing world society.
10. The universities, in the US and Europe, but not yet in Britain, underwent rapid expansion in the post-war period when higher education came to be seen as a public good in a social democracy. For the first and only time students from all classes came to see academic and professional training as a guarantee of a job for life.
11. At the same time, the demand for research – to secure food supplies after the war and to develop armaments in the Cold War, as well manufactures of transport vehicles, pharmaceuticals, plastics and the rest – led to universities becoming the research arm of much expanded public and private sectors.
12. As a result, research came to be defined as the most prestigious output of the universities, at first for the hard sciences, but then for the humanities and social sciences who had less of public value to offer, but embraced the new priorities anyhow.
13. The universities were now big business. Academic prestige came to be seen as lying in tangible products like research funding and publications. The intangible virtues of a community of scholars, like teaching and informal sharing of ideas, were downgraded.
14. A new class of administrators, many of them former academics, began the process of demoting professors from a tenured free profession to a precarious proletariat. The academics showed themselves to be politically inept in this process. (I have summarised the British case here).
15. The academy has become polarized between a class of established seniors with the freedom to write and travel and one of underpaid adjunct teachers. The ancient universities in Britain and elsewhere have always employed this model. It requires the permanent oversupply of graduates whose only aim in life is to hang on at school and are exploited as a result.
16. Those of us who have been around since the heyday of the universities can testify to the decline of academic community in recent decades. This is not to glorify academic relations of former times which were always based on some rather pernicious social practices. (I have touched on this in Erin Taylor’s thread at the OAC).
17. Even so, it is clear that the universities now confront major structural problems to which they often respond by entrenching their established failings at an even deeper level. Chief of these problems of course is the digital revolution in communications which has already transformed the production and uses of knowledge.
18. There have never been so many graduate researchers chasing so few jobs. Universities are too rigid, top heavy and expensive to act as the research engine of contemporary societies and are being replaced by smaller, more flexible and hungry organizations. Research publications have become largely meaningless except for purposes of academic promotion.
19. Undergraduate education has only a weak relationship to the contemporary labor market and its costs are spiralling out of sight. Student debt currently accounts for almost a fifth of the revenues of US banks. The idea of student life as an adolescent rite of passage is losing its allure. The internet has generated a shift to lifetime self-learning that makes the pattern of twentieth-century higher education look increasingly irrelevant.
20. At the same time, there is a fundamental shift taking place in the world economy. Each of the BRICS is building a welfare state to cater for the needs of new urban classes spawned by capitalist growth, while the Western economies stagnate or worse. Brazil contemplates reform of its own highly unequal university system, for example. The world is increasingly not America and Europe (see Part 1 here).
21. Meanwhile the Portuguese are already emigrating to Angola and Brazil. To the victims of the current crisis of the western universities, I can only say move – into the global market for information services or to universities elsewhere – or at least try to keep one foot in the traditional system while it lasts and the other in a fast-moving world.
Co-director, Human Economy Program, University of Pretoria.