25 January 2020

Academia in crisis, management in denial

Early in 2012, the Rector Magnificus of the University of Amsterdam surprised friend and foe alike when in her annual Dies Natalis speech she stated that universities should train students to become ‘competent rebels’. In the same speech, she also criticized the Dutch ‘Top Sector Policy’ through which funds for academic research were transferred from the Ministry of Education and Culture to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, prioritizing the main sectors of the Dutch economy such as the chemical industry, logistics, water management, and the ‘creative industries’. In short, the Rector voiced support for the “old” ideal of the university as a haven of social critique, intellectual freedom and scientific autonomy, and a central countervailing power against market and state.

The Rectors’ speech however sharply contradicted Dutch policy on higher education since the 1990’s, which without exception, has instrumentalized the university for the sake of strengthening the competitiveness of the Dutch economy. Combined with structural budget cuts on higher education, this policy has severely undermined all necessary preconditions to perform the critical functions of research and education.

To be sure, these policies have not led to the privatization of academia in the strict sense of the term. In the Dutch version of the neoliberalization, it was the technique of ‘market-imitation’ that was applied to higher education: the application of business models taken from the private sector, management jargon to assess the quality of education and research, and most importantly the introduction of financial incentives. In short, making universities operate like businesses under the supervision of the state. This policy has manifested itself in five developments.

The first two were directed towards a transformation of labour relations in Dutch universities. First, employee and student participation in university management has been severely curtailed. The relatively democratic structures that had governed academia until the early nineties were transformed into managerial structures, governed by professional managers who are now mainly accountable to the Ministry of Education. The second development was a continuous increase in the proportion of precarious contracts among the academic staff and the outsourcing of many support staff functions. These developments undermine the idea of an academic community and simultaneously silence the voices of students and employees alike.

Next, in order to monitor and measure the returns on investment in education and research, the performance of universities and of individual scholars is increasingly measured in terms of quantifiable output, namely degrees and publications. Thus, in terms of education, universities (and individual faculties and departments) are rewarded for the annual amount of degrees (or credits) “produced”. The official justification for this financing model was that it would stimulate universities to improve the quality of education. In practice, it proved to be an incentive to abolish smaller scale programmes and teaching forms and to inflate grades to ensure higher rates of graduation. In terms of research, scholars are increasingly assessed on the basis of the number of publications produced, while prioritizing so-called professional publications (those written for a select audience of academic peers). Academics have undoubtedly become ‘more productive’, but this also led to an increasingly self-referential academia, the recycling of research results, and tremendous pressure on researchers to win highly competitive external grants and increase publications – leading to higher levels of stress and, ultimately, burnout. It has also led to the rise of a culture of career-minded scholars with a tendency to ‘buy-out’ time from teaching obligations.

And last but not least, universities have been gradually incorporated into the financialized economy, largely as a result of huge loans for investments in new building projects. This not only means that universities are now taking on substantial financial risks, especially in the longer term but also that large investment banks now have an important stake –as creditors– in the policies and practices of universities – a dangerous precedent.

It is not just that these policies stand in stark contrast to the ideal of the autonomous university. The proclaimed advantages of these policies – a highly professionalized, accountable and efficient university – are nowhere in sight. Over the last five years, there have been many media reports of abuses in higher education, including fraudulent practices relating to certification, excessive remuneration for university boards of directors, unscrupulous recycling of publications, and examples of outright plagiarism.

The response of the Dutch authorities to these reports is as expected. They are seen as individual ‘excesses’ that have to be countered by the introduction of ethical codes, integrity committees, and even an academic version of the Bankers’ Oath (in the case of managers in higher professional education (HBO)). This is a classic ‘end-of-pipe’ solution. Although a number of critical platforms and action groups of academic employees have recently been promoting a structural understanding of these incidents, identifying them as symptoms of rather than excesses in the system, the dominant policy discourse remains highly resilient.

The university is in crisis, but its management is in denial.

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