Once upon a time, universities were places where intellectuals, teachers and students, as a community of learners, used to reflect on everyday realities, learn skills to use them in their professional lives, discover knowledge – all to understand themselves and dissect the complexities of society.

However, universities are no longer bastions of academic freedom to produce knowledge, to understand the past, analyse the present and face the challenges of the future. Universities are behaving more and more like a commodity market today. They have turned into degree-selling supermarkets, where teachers and students are cash cows for the managers.

Neoliberal authoritarian governments consider higher education expenditure as a burden on the state. But at the same time, governments are treating higher education as a profit-making corporate sector. Such contradictions are integral to capitalism as a system.

The funding cuts due to austerity measures are forcing university managers to follow their political masters or donor agendas. The entire idea of independent research, teaching and learning is gradually becoming anathema.

The teaching, non-teaching staff members and students in the universities are treated as numbers in the excel sheets of managers. These managers are alien to the idea of research and teaching. Their managerial bluffs continue to be the rulebook of the university management. Much like quack’s medicine, it does not heal, but often aggravates the crisis.

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Moreover, these manages try to manage staffs and students exactly the way they manage university buildings, computers, chairs, tables and other non-living assets. All are resources to be used for accumulation of profit. These managerial classes, in alliance with ruling and non-ruling classes, have destroyed the idea of universities as centers of knowledge production and dissemination for the progressive future and egalitarian growth of the society.

The managerial classes have transformed university intellectuals into lumpen herds. The culture of intellectual compliance has cultivated both fear and faith in management. The managerial pressure to pursue uniformity and conformity in the name of process-driven quality assurance has ruined the diversities of knowledge production within university spaces.

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Ideas of debates, discourses and the democratic culture of disagreements are destroyed within the process-driven matrix of research rankings, teaching frameworks and learning objectives. Jargons like ‘employability’, ‘business and industry partnerships’, and ‘knowledge transfer skills’ are new marketing tools of managerial gimmicks to attract students to universities where knowledge production is secondary to an essentialised set of skills for jobs.

Such managerial strategies have transformed universities and other centres of higher learning into vocational training centers. The teaching and non-teaching staff members are new slaves within universities. 

Such a transformation did not happen overnight. It does not reflect the success of managers, managerialism, and marketisation of universities. Rather, it shows the utter failures of intellectuals, both as individuals and as a group. The puerile careerism and individualism among intellectuals have allowed managers to divide and supress them, and destroy the collective foundations of knowledge production and dissemination within and outside universities.

As a result, universities are no longer a community of learners but a place of transaction between the sellers (teachers) and buyers (students).

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The interactive culture is replaced by exchange relationships driven by market forces within university campuses. The fancy glass door buildings, smart class rooms, hi-tech libraries and airport-like coffeeshops look good, but make tired students and staff feel like solitary car parks. The reasons are obvious – the transactional relationships are essentialist and exchange relationships are functional with limited expiry date. It does not help to form a critical mass or a meaningful bond among community of learners.

How did intellectuals land themselves in such a situation within universities? What is the future of universities? What is the future students and staff?

The answers to these questions need deeper reflections by university intellectuals. The meaningful transformation of universities in a progressive path depends on honest and critical self-reflection. It is urgent and inevitable. There are two significant issues that need closer look by the university intellectuals for a meaningful self-reflection and critique.

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The first is around the work of intellectuals and their relationship with production within the larger economy. The second involves the relationship between intellectuals, and their role and location within a class-divided society.

The deepening of capitalism during the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries led to the growth of a professional intellectual class, made of tutors, lecturers, readers, professors, fellows, researchers and their hierarchical reincarnations, within universities. This professional class is not a homogeneous group, but the intellectuals within it behaved like herds, as if they are different from the working-class masses.

Intellectuals today have started normalising such a superficial notion by theorising that university intellectuals do not produce anything with immediate use and exchange value. Therefore, university intellectuals are different from the working classes and their class interests are different from each other. Such a myopic understanding was further propagated by the bourgeois media to weaken the working class struggles for emancipation.

In reality, computer science curriculums in the universities are shaped as per the requirements of Silicon Valley. The Wall Street and insurance companies decide the nature of banking, finance and business management studies curriculum in business schools.

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International relations, politics and security studies are shaped by organisations like the NATO and other security formations of state and non-state agencies. The pharmaceutical corporations decide the nature of chemistry and medical science curriculums.

And now, dominant nationalists, and other religious and reactionary forces are trying to rewrite the humanities curricula of languages, history, philosophy, archaeology and anthropology to suit their goals. There are always exceptional universities and alternative programmes of studies, and few university intellectuals try to promote critical social sciences, humanities and natural sciences.

These alternative and critical attempts are branded as non-merit and unprofitable good for market-driven university programmes. It is clear that university intellectuals don’t have control over their programmes. The university intellectuals don’t have control over their own labour because once they produce a programme, create teaching material or publish a research paper, it belongs to the university.

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Such a trend reflects medieval feudalism within modern universities. The university intellectuals are micro and macro, managed by the capitalist forces to achieve their larger economic goals. Still, the university intellectuals continue to betray their own class, both in terms of its foundation and location.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The German Ideology have argued that “the class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production at its disposal”. The material production of goods and services for use and exchange value cannot be separated from mental production of ideas.

There is commonality of class interests and class relations between the manual and mental workers as they produce value together, and capitalism misappropriates it and weakens the working class by dividing it. Universities merely reflect the capitalist social order and economic processes in the larger context.

The marketisation of universities led to the growth of industrialised minds, industrialised degrees and programmes in the service of dominant capitalist forces. The work creates consciousness if workers get time to reflect. Process-driven university teaching and research assignments give very little time to the university workers to reflect and resonate their own consciousness with that of the working classes.

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The university intellectual snobbery would end with working class consciousness. But university intellectuals are attached to dominant capitalist classes partly due to marketisation of universities and lack of class consciousness. The assimilation of university intellectuals within the capitalist system is detrimental to their own interests. It reproduces exploitative capitalist class relations.

It is within this context that university intellectuals must reclaim their role in the society, question the power that controls their labour, and find their class foundation and class location within working class politics of radical transformation of capitalist society. The future of universities, students and staff members in particular and society in general depends on the way intellectuals fight to disentangle themselves from the marketisation of universities.

The independent universities and independence of intellectuals depend on emancipation of the workings classes from capitalist plunder. As long as university intellectuals believe in their false notion that they are not part of the working class, their intellectual freedom will be an illusion within capitalism.

It is the unadulterated responsibility of university intellectuals to think beyond themselves and theirs interests within and outside their campuses. It is high time they reconnect with the revolutionary legacies of working-class intellectuals. Collective and progressive struggles always offer alternatives and ensures emancipation of the masses.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash.