A University is not a Factory

Michael Foley discusses the growing commercialisation of universities


There has been a great deal of debate over the future of Irish universities over the past few weeks. The publication of the Cassels report, along with the plummeting of almost all Irish universities down the QS rankings, has pushed the issue of third education in Ireland into the limelight.  In this time of panic, there is one thing we definitely must not do. We must not, under any circumstance, insist that universities contribute to the “real needs” of society.

Yes, I understand that this sounds bizarre, but if we push for universities to become utilitarian institutions, offering “real-world” solutions to society, what we’ll really be doing is surrendering them to the clutches of big business and the government.

In the words of philosopher Slavoj Zizek, they will become ”regressive factories” churning out skilled experts. To contribute ideas to society, universities should be removed from the “real needs” of the government.

With separation comes perspective. Elevating universities to a level above that of a factory ensures they have a critical, comprehensive outlook to innovate and create – instead of simply drilling skills into students.

Utilitarian influence

Stewart Lee, the comedian, says that the seeds of this “factory” view of education were sewn in the mid eighties. He highlights a news report where the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, paid a visit to Cambridge and chatted with a passing student. Upon learning that she was studying for a degree in Ancient Norse literature, Thatcher snapped back “what a luxury”. According to Lee, Thatcher’s response was very telling for what was to happen to universities in years to come.

But why is this happening? I think it’s useful to have a look at the Marxist theory of the base and superstructure of society. The base is composed of the economic relations (how business owners relate to their employees), economic mode of production and property system used; it informs the superstructure. The superstructure is comprised of the institutions of society (including universities), social norms, legal system and dominant culture; it also reinforces the base.

We can argue that the base, which in modern times is dominated by large corporations (like Facebook and Apple), influences the institutions – like universities – where people learn skills required by the corporations. So a harmful ideology is created which reinforces this relationship, and supports Thatcher’s anti-intellectual rhetoric.

The party line for this argument is if you’re not studying a particular course to get a job, what are you getting instead? But really the question we should be asking is would we be happy to see philosophy or history of art or theology banished to the fringes? If the next generation buy into this too much, they will laugh at any course that doesn’t help you get a job at KPMG.  You’d have to literally hate human civilisation to be in favour of this kind of society, but by by sneering at humanities courses we are contributing to this outlook, this ideology.

Damaging our education system

And the influence of this ideology is plainly prevalent in society. Universities are affected by the value, we, as students, attach to various academic disciplines. And, as we can see in the CAO choices of prospective college students, there is a creeping snobbery developing towards arts courses because of this “real-world” rhetoric. This year, the points for arts in UCD hit a new low, while the points for STEM courses climbed even higher. In other words, 18 year olds across the country are basing their choice of course off a cynical, shallow idea that certain subjects are more valuable than others.

This cynicism has affected all levels of education.  A glaring example is the introduction of the 25 bonus points for students who sit the higher level Maths exam in their Leaving cert. Everybody is aware of how unfair it is to grant students with a talent for maths an advantage over other students, particularly when these students are competing for places in courses where calculators will never be seen.

It also adds to this view that STEM and business courses are a mature, sensible choice for students, with a lucrative career advertised as the most compelling feature. So students who would otherwise have no interest in these fields, or students who have a greater aptitude for arts subjects are choosing courses not suited for them because of the rhetoric spun in the media.

That is not to say that STEM students aren’t passionate about their subjects or that you can’t be creative or innovative within those subjects, And neither should we elevate humanities courses over others either. In an ideal world, with ideal universities, an elitist ranking of subjects would be laughed at as arbitrary and small-minded.

But the prominent tech companies who inhabit the towering glass structures in the docklands need more graduates who are fluent in mathematics. And the government who are at the beck and call of these companies – as we have seen with the recent Apple controversy – when deciding how to fund education will prioritise the needs of the firms who are employing Irish citizens. This is a perfect example of this base informing the superstructure that the “real needs” of society are more important.

How this is affecting Trinity

We don’t have to look far to see evidence of this rhetoric. Why did Trinity decide to convert the hamilton restaurant into an “innovation and entrepreneurship hub”  and stick a blackstone entrepreneurship launchpad in the Berkeley library? While the idea of college launching initiatives to help students become entrepreneurs isn’t itself something we should be wary of, the context of the situation is damning.

For example, Trinity is currently in the process of building a large, landmark business school, while, as a TA revealed to Trinity News in January, the number PHD students is declining because the faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities are running out of funding. Many TAs have part time jobs and some can only spend 10 to 15 minutes per essay or script because of the worsening conditions. This discrepancy is notable and begs the question, are Irish universities beginning to view arts courses as a bit of a luxury, like Baroness Thatcher did in the 80s? Is the ideology produced by the base infrastructure of society finally seeping in?

Knowledge is an end in itself

Of course, third level institutions produce much valuable knowledge and research that is used in the “real world”. Advances in economics, science, medicine and psychology to name but a few, which come from these institutions should be celebrated. But we must not make the mistake to assume that an efficient university is one which exists to serve the market, designed so we can placate a bunch of philistinic business leaders.

And we can’t allow the needs of these companies to limit our pursuit of knowledge because knowledge is important, inherently. A lot of this issue really boils down to where you stand, or maybe more importantly, where Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook, stand on the question of  “Education for Education’s sake”.

Well, for what it’s worth, Aristotle claimed that acquiring and consequently contemplating knowledge was the highest form of human activity. Enriching our society and culture with a wide spectrum of knowledge promotes a more diverse, and frankly more interesting society. Subjects which encourage personal interaction, reflection and critical thinking are deeply valuable. They reveal aspects of our humanity; their value can’t really be quantified in financial terms.

Instead of promoting courses based off their perceived employability, we should be reinforcing the idea that your time in university is a formative and liberating experience. Work is assigned to aid learning and encourage discovery, not to improve the profit margin of some fortune 500 company. It is a place where the acquisition of knowledge is an end in itself. If we continue to tread away from this path we will come to regret what will happen to our universities.

So what model of university should we have? Zizek lambasts those who criticise universities as isolated, insular ivory towers, willfully burying their head in the sand, ignoring the realities of the “real world”. He suggests that this is exactly how they should be. They shouldn’t sway in the wind, following whatever trend the jobs market points them towards. They should be well funded, given greater autonomy and allowed to really prioritise the celebration and the proliferation of knowledge, unfettered by the pragmatic ideology informed by the base infrastructure.

We must allow students to pursue their interests and not demean the value of arts and humanity degrees by pandering to the needs of corporations. The government should resist the short term gratification of appeasing big business or we run the risk of our universities devolving into the factories Zizek spoke of.

Illustration: Maha Sultan