We need to be mature about commercialisation

The commercialisation of our universities has many facets, and we should not treat it as a unitary phenomenon

Photo Credit: Joe McCallion/ Trinity News

Recent years have seen growing concern over the “commercialisation” of universities. For many, the integrity of universities is threatened by a slavish devotion to corporate interests and a toxic logic of rationalisation which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

They fear that student welfare and the freedom of academic inquiry are being bloodily sacrificed on neoliberalism’s altar.   

Unquestionably, universities are changing the way they manage their finances to increase revenue and decrease costs. Around the world, governments struggle to provide adequate public funding for third-level institutions, while the global student population has more than doubled in the last twenty years.

In their efforts to continue providing a high quality service to students and society, universities are forced to radically change how they operate. For Trinity and many others, that has meant embracing commercialisation.

“Commercialisation” is something of a buzzword amongst both its supporters and detractors, often making it difficult to discern what the term actually means. Broadly speaking, commercialisation can be broken down into three distinct mechanisms.

The first of these is attempting to attract non-governmental sources of revenue. The most obvious way to do this is to impose further costs on students. While this has been the path taken in many instances, an aversion towards the perceived injustice of such measures has prompted universities to become creative.

For Trinity, this summer provided a useful opportunity to generate revenue. The college held a series of concerts, facilitated the filming of a period drama on campus and offered businesses the use of empty rooms.

There are proposals to auction off naming rights to various parts of the campus. This has worked well in other places. For instance, UCD’s O’Brien Centre for Science was financed by a 300 million euro package made up of a combination of state funding, university funds and private philanthropy – most notably from businessman Denis O’Brien, who lent his name to the building.

The presence of these sorts of private interests in a university rarely has substantive impacts on the character of the service the university provides, aside from the clear benefit which accrues from the funding increase in and of itself. These commercialisation strategies deserve our cautious support.

Secondly, universities are increasingly allied with the corporate sector. This alliance can occur through knowledge sharing: collaborating with businesses to draw out real-world impacts from research.

University-corporate alliances can also lead to universities tailoring the character of their educational missions towards the interests of the corporate world. Trinity’s new business school is an example of this.

This aspect of commercialisation is perhaps the most often criticised, usually by people who imagine corporate interests to be generally malevolent and counterproductive to society’s proper functioning.

But collaborating with corporations allows universities to translate their abstract outputs – knowledge and educated people – into concrete benefits for all of society. Even those incapable of attending universities in the first place benefit from this kind of collaboration, through better, cheaper products and workers with more relevant skills.   

The third, and worst, strand of commercialisation is the creation of increasingly precarious employment conditions for staff. In the United States, 76.4 per cent of academic staff are employed on short-term contracts with no possibility of tenure.

More than half of this group live below the poverty line. Junior academics in Ireland complain of low wages, the use of temporary contracts, and the huge amount of their work which goes unpaid: class preparation, consultation with students, and so on. Trinity’s non-academic staff have raised similar concerns over short-term contracts.

While the trend within universities towards more precarious employment is part of a broader one in the economy, it is particularly worrying in academia. Teachers who aren’t paid for preparation and consultation with students must work for free if they are to come close to providing an optimal learning experience for their students.

Academics whose employment can very easily be terminated at any moment are less well able to think and write what they want for fear of the repercussions. The whole concept of tenure was invented to protect the free speech of academics: as more and more academics are at the mercy of their employers, they will be less likely to express controversial opinions.

Rhetoric that condemns commercialisation as an irredeemably toxic and unitary phenomenon is misguided. It ignores the beneficial kinds of commercialisation, and makes its own criticism of the harmful kinds less incisive.

Recognizing that commercialisation can happen in a healthy way allows us to point out that while universities might be constrained by circumstance, that constraint can be navigated and overcome in a way which upholds the integrity of third-level education.
It is too easy to romanticise the university as some sort of paragon of democratic virtue that should be wholly abstracted from economic reality. Introducing a little realism into the discussion might allow us to benefit from commercialisation where we can, and to curb its worst excesses.