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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2009

Globalization Is Reshaping Higher Education

By Jennifer S. Simpson

The University, State, and Market: The Political Economy of Globalization in the Americas

Robert A. Rhoads & Carlos Alberto Torres, eds. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006; 400 pp; ISBN: 978-0-80475-168-1, cloth $65 us; ISBN: 978-0-80475-169-8, paper $25.95 us.
Stakeholders in higher education are increasingly attentive to the complex ties of universities, states and markets, particularly in the context of the growing influence of globalization. Likewise, many university faculty and administrators routinely grapple with the ways in which globalization is restructuring basic aspects of higher education, including research, teaching and the relationship of universities to the public good.

Recent articles in the Bulletin have reported on allocations of scholarships related to types of research, such as the awards the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council provides to graduate students researching business-related areas, Nancy Olivieri’s work drawing attention to potential risks of a drug produced by the pharmaceutical company Apotex and the University of Toronto’s response, and cuts in federal and provincial higher education spending — all are issues that bear on the ways universities do or do not contribute to corporate, governmental and public priorities.

In The University, State and Market, the authors combine critical theory and political economic analysis to examine the effects of neoliberal globalization on the central tasks of higher education.

As the foreword to the book states, the neoliberal model of globalization clearly favors privatized and at times anti-democratic pursuits: “knowledge is reduced to its economic functions and contributes to the realization of individual economic utilities.” The authors focus on North and South American countries, and address the ways in which globalization has reoriented the basic purpose of universities from a commitment to public relevance, to knowledge as a commodity and the university as responsive primarily to consumers. They also discuss the consequences of this shift for university autonomy, the uses of knowledge itself, univer-sity and faculty attention to pressing social issues, and the public good.

The editors have divided the book into three sections: theoretical and conceptual foundations, country- and region-specific findings, and concluding analyses. Topics covered include the challenges globalization poses for universities in the Americas, with particular attention to Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and the Caribbean; graduate student unionization; faculty compensation practices in Mexico; universities and social responsibility; globalization, war and higher education; academic capitalism; and an agenda for action.

Critical social theory and a thorough examination of globalization related to higher education are central to the authors’ arguments. As the editors state in the first chapter, a key concern for critical social science and for critical theorists “is the degree to which democratic values are brought to bear on the complex global processes that affect universities throughout the Americas.” Scholars working in this framework are explicitly concerned with the ways in which educational institutions pursue democratic values and “instill such values in students.” This concern provides a sense of cohesiveness throughout the book and asserts a clear ethical direction for the work of universities.

As the editors point out, critical theorists generally believe that all research acts on specific political assumptions and commitments; that research “ought to serve an emancipatory goal,” that “democracy is dependent on the quality of social relations forged among individuals and groups” and that Paulo Freire’s notion of “critical consciousness” might enable groups of people to “understand the world in order to change it.” In all 12 chapters, contributors implicitly and explicitly affirm these theoretical starting points.

This level of clarity, depth and consistency about what higher education ought to pursue sets this book apart from much of the recent literature addressing higher education, which in many cases lacks substantive attention to the ethical rather than instrumental ends of higher education.

In the introduction, the editors offer five views of globalization. These include neoliberalism, which encompasses a focus on privatization, open borders that encourage exchange of capital and “governing systems other than nation states.” A second form (for the editors a “misnomer”) is “anti-globalization,” which favors “increased international integration” as determined by individual and social movements, rather than by corporate power-holders — sometimes known as “globalization from below.”

Another form of globalization focuses on the exchange of people and ideas and how this movement changes cultures. A fourth area of globalization focuses on human rights. Finally, the editors identify a fifth form emerging from 9/11 and the militaristic nature of the response of the United States. This form emphasizes border control and security.

Throughout the book, authors take up these five frames in various ways. Most consistent, however, is the link between globalization, neo-liberalism and privatization in ways that compromise or nearly eliminate attention to the public good as well as situate universities as “aligned with market-driven interests.” (p. 167) Education becomes another form of capital, and universities are expected to organize themselves and carry out their work according to “mercantile” logic.

Neoliberal globalization and the resulting emphasis on individual gain, privatization and commodifying as many goods as possible link to three themes prevalent throughout the book — the shift of higher education from public serving to capital serving, the effects of the increasingly prevalent “mercantile logic” and the necessity of and possibilities for resistance to this shift and these effects.

At a very fundamental level, contributors point out, universities are more frequently and in a variety of ways opting for market relevance over public relevance. As noted earlier, critical social theorists believe in the responsibilities of higher education to serve democratic ends, which include, at a minimum, “independent forms of criticism.” Understanding research and education as privatized commodities which should primarily serve economic gain encourages an “individualism (that) is pseudodemocratic because it does not recognize the bonds of community and civic solidarity that have made modern democracy … possible.” (p. xxx)

In this sense, universities have in large part given up one value orientation (public-serving) for another (economic or market serving). This reorientation also significantly alters the focus and content of research and teaching.

Intricately related to this shift in basic values is the relationship of higher education to the economy. As the authors of one chapter state, “privatization shifts public subsidy toward particular private interests.” (p. 104) Universities become less and less a necessary part of the public sphere, and instead become “profitable ground for educational capitalism.” (p. 64) The university produces goods for the market and “is itself produced as a market” (p. 65) — a radically different set of purposes, priorities and loyalties than those that situate the university as a public good.

The effects of this shift on universities, research, education and knowledge constitute a second theme in the book. In a market-based framework, all aspects of higher education become “commodities, consumption items.” (p. 105) Likewise, they are judged and valued for the extent to which they can increase economic profit or contribute to privatized gain. According to the book’s contributors, this logic effects three broad areas.

First, government institutions and policies are increasingly market-oriented. In the U.S. for example, decisions about student financial aid, the regulation of for-profit post-secondary schools and university ownership of patents from federally-funded research have been governed by a concern for individual profit rather than the common good.

A second area in which marketplace logic is felt is in the “interconnections among state entities, higher education institutions, and private sector markets.” (p. 113) As several authors point out, researchers are increasingly targeting their discoveries toward commercial products. Cooperative ventures between university and private industry draw on publicly-funded research and turn it to private advantage and university administrators increasingly serve on corporate boards.

A final area of the influence of market logic can be found in the practice of faculty, academic managers and managerial professionals seeking possibilities for commercial gain related to academic and nonacademic products. Faculty and students are often rewarded for choices that reflect a close fit with economic gain. Hiring practices and undergraduate and graduate degree programs are developed with clear attention to their likelihood of generating revenue with little attention to pedagogical or knowledge-related outcomes. In such a framework the authors of the final chapter ask, “What becomes of public concerns and issues that do not generate streams of revenue for universities?” (p. 337)

In sum, the unabashed links between universities and market-driven ends serve to normalize teaching and research that repeatedly and routinely value individual and economic gain, and actively contribute to shrinking possibilities for considering the public good.

A theme several chapters address is that of resistance to market-oriented logic in universities in the Americas. The primary conceptual framework presented in this book for that resistance rests on two overlapping objectives: a critique of the forms of globalization that most harm universities and an insistence on the necessity of the university as a public good in the context of a democratic society.

Attention in The University, State and Market to the issue of resisting neoliberal globalization is primarily devoted to broad directions and possibilities, rather than to extensive discussion of the details of how such resistance might be achieved. The book’s most important contributions are its substantive insistence on a democratic framework for analyzing higher education, its theoretical cohesion rooted in critical social theory and political economic analysis and its attention to the ways in which these issues play out in a transnational context with a particular focus on the Americas.

While all of these attributes are lacking in much of the academic literature on the broader role of higher education, it is the first two strengths whose absence is particularly consequential. Indeed, in the spate of relatively recent literature on higher education in the U.S. and Canada, most of this work takes a liberal rather than critical perspective.

Further, very few books situate higher education as first and foremost a public good essential to healthy democracies and pair this theoretical framework with a political economic analysis that so thoroughly critiques neoliberal globalization and expands on the ways in which it harms the work of universities. The University, State and Market will be useful to anyone interested in higher education and its relationship to both democracy and neoliberal globalization.

Jennifer Simpson is an associate professor in the faculty of arts at the University of Waterloo.