What is university for? (and what it should be like)

Published: 22/02/2013

Written by: Jordan Humphreys
Originally listed under: Students

Going to university should be a liberating experience. It should train us to critique rigorously all orthodoxies and dogmas. It should be about unlocking intellectual and practical abilities, giving us the tools to help transform society for the better. 

However, universities, like all other major institutions, are shaped by the needs of the capitalist system – an authoritarian order run in the interests of the rich and powerful, who put profit above everything else. Going to university is an alienating experience because educational institutions take on the authoritarian, profit-driven dynamic of the system as a whole.

Universities help the system function and develop. They do this in a series of ways.

First of all, they help train a layer of white collar workers and professionals who staff the vast government and corporate bureaucracies. The fact that this training is done through universities is of great benefit to corporations – they don’t have to pay for training the workers they need.

Second is ideological training. Universities have always played an important role in propagating the ideology that backs up capitalist exploitation. At first this may not seem to be the case. After all, isn’t there space for debate and discussion at university? In reality there isn’t as much space for criticising the powers that be as might be thought.

For example, in 2007 at DePaul University in the US, Norman Finkelstein, a notable critic of Israel’s genocide of the Palestinians, was denied tenure after a highly publicised row with pro-Israel academic Alan Dershowitz. In 2008, the chancellor of Victoria University in Melbourne used a state government solicitor to sue a senior academic for defamation after that academic spoke out against hundreds of jobs being cut from the university.

These are the more extreme examples, but there is another aspect to the limitation on debate at universities. It might be fine for some academics to publish material criticising neoliberalism. But it is wholly different matter if they actually do anything with these ideas – particularly when that involves getting in the way of the business of running a profitable university. Abstract theorising is allowed to some extent; trying to act on those ideas in order to change the world is generally not.  

For the most part, the ideas that students are introduced to through university are some variety of pro-capitalist ideology. At best, they are generally the politics of left liberalism: ideas that criticise this or that aspect of the system but don’t reject capitalism as a whole. Universities play a key role in convincing people to accept the status quo in one way or another. They also help create the next generation of capitalist ideologists who can go forth to defend the system as the only choice for humanity. 

The endless exams, assessments and class presentations are all about training students to submit to the rigours of work. They also help to atomise the student population and encourage competition and individual achievement as counterweights to ideas of collective struggle and solidarity.  

Universities are also becoming increasingly corporatised. This has had a devastating effect upon students and staff alike, as the institution has become little more than a business – or as Clark Kerr, one of the early proponents of this trend, put it, a “knowledge factory”. Universities are dominated by bean-counting, money-hungry bureaucrats obsessed with how to shovel as many students into classes for the lowest possible cost, while taking as much money from the students as they can.

The result has been an explosion in the ratio of students to staff, overcrowded lecture halls and tutorial rooms and the further atomisation and alienation of everyone involved. In my first year education class, we were told not to bother to turn up for the first few weeks because there wasn’t enough room in the lecture theatre to hold us all. But we were told not to worry, as the pressure of study would soon drive out enough students to make room for the rest of us to fit!

The bodies that run universities are staffed with experts on restructuring, finance and corporate governance. At Macquarie University in Sydney, for example, the majority of the University Council is made up of executives from Woolworths, Rail Corp, the Sydney Business Chamber, Deutsche Bank, Bankers Trust Australia, Macquarie Group and their ilk. As at other corporations, the head of Macquarie University gets paid an absurd salary: over $1 million.

What’s the alternative to the “knowledge factory”? We need education that is democratic. That means education open to everyone, not just those who can afford it. But it also means education under popular control: education based upon a ruthless criticism of all power and privilege. Capitalism is totally hostile to this sort of education. Hope lies in struggles against the system, which throw up radically different ways of learning and so give us a glimpse of what another world may look like even before they are strong enough to overthrow the rich and powerful. 

During the ’60s, the student radical Mario Savio explained what the students intended to do once they had occupied an administration building: “We'll do something which hasn’t occurred at this university in a good long time! We’re going to have real classes up there ... We’re gonna spend our time learning about the things this university is afraid that we know. We’re going to learn about freedom up there, and we’re going to learn by doing.”

Through the experience of struggling against capitalism, people learn how the world really works, and on whose side the police, the media and the courts stand. But a genuine understanding of the world can occur – and a liberated practice of education can be made the dominant form – only with the overthrow of capitalism.

Only when we are rid of the social obstacles to equality will learning also be liberated.