The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: third-level education

University and/as Business: Critic as Ishmaelite

I have had occasion to reflect lately on the relations between university and business. These are certainly growing stronger and will continue to do so. In the EU context, this is made manifest in, for example, Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. It is this programme that decides where the EU money goes in terms of third-level research. The three pillars of this programme are:

Excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal problems.

This central need to provide “industrial leadership” means that universities, in order to receive EU funding, must demonstrate how their work is “aligned with the needs of the business sector”. Such alignment is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, classically, it was key to the university mission that it avoided a narrow focus on professional development. Rather, it was expected to adhere to a capacious notion of human development:

[The University] neither confines its views to particular professions on the one hand, nor creates heroes or inspires genius on the other. Works indeed of genius fall under no art; heroic minds come under no rule; a University is not a birthplace of poets or of immortal authors, of founders of schools, leaders of colonies, or conquerors of nations. It does not promise a generation of Aristotles or Newtons, of Napoleons or Washingtons, of Raphaels or Shakespeares, though such miracles of nature it has before now contained within its precincts. Nor is it content on the other hand with forming the critic or the experimentalist, the economist or the engineer, though such too it includes within its scope. (John Henry Newman, in 1852)

The University, then, always aimed at something extra, something more. Newman resisted somewhat defining what that something more was, on the premise that it was undefinable, but he did state it in general terms:

[A] University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.

But the rhetoric of humanism has given way to the rhetoric of professionalism, and Universities are now answerable to the marketplace.

Bridging the gap between university and business is a task that has proceeded apace recently. Silicon Valley, for example, is considered a product of the synthesis of university and business creating speedy technological and economic change. Yet failure of communication between the two fields seems to be still the norm. What is called for in the Science Business Innovation Board’s Making Industry-University Partnerships Work: Lessons for successful collaborations (2012) is greater strategic attention to business partnership from universities. This document recommends particularly long-term strategic partnerships between the two sectors. The Newmanian idea of the university is explicitly challenged

Today’s universities largely embrace a model of higher education developed over 100 years ago. A new vision should include producing the highly skilled workforce for a globally competitive economy. The university in the 21st century should be viewed not just as a generator of ideas but as a source of knowledge and competence that can benefit society.

Here the university’s missions to align with business and to benefit society are eventually seen as one and the same. Thus the very important question of whether and to what extent our western model of capitalistic business is per se a social good is wholly elided. Here we find, clearly enough, the limitations of the university-business partnership model. Not that one necessarily calls for a wholesale rejection of this model, but it is far from sufficient in itself to fulfil the university’s social mission. Even while elements within the university co-operate with business, others must fulfil the critical mission of the university, and continue to question the dominant economic and social practices. A critical distance from such practices is a necessity, and must be maintained a sector whose job it is precisely to take an outside view of society. But perhaps within the university is not the place to undertake this. Perhaps it is, instead, up to the individual to articulate such a criticism, unprofessional as it may be. Thus he incurs the displeasure of the business world and “wanders like a wild Ishmaelite, in a world of which he is as the spiritual light” (Carlyle, The Hero as Man of Letters). At times he or she may even wander as a wild Ishmaelite through the third-level sector, as a liminal figure therein, not aligned to the interests of business (alas), but simply tolerated, capable of interpolating the odd shaft to the heart of the university-business relation, with what ultimate result who can tell.


The University as the Birth-place of the Leader

DCU’s commitment to the vision of the citizen as entrepreneur was elucidated in my last post. Trinity College Dublin is a different sort of university. Whereas DCU is young, TCD is by far Ireland’s oldest, a survivor from the days of English colonialism and the Ivory Tower – for much of its existence, most Irish were excluded from TCD by virtue of their Catholicism. I am happy to confirm that that is no longer the case.

But TCD remains the aura of old-world respectability and in the mission statement featured at the beginning of their strategic plan the ghost of “liberal education” lingers:

We provide a liberal environment where independence of thought is highly valued and where all are encouraged to achieve their full potential.

The mission is then divided into three strands. The key ideological content words here are: diverse, academic excellence, transformative, interdisciplinary, local innovation, global challenges, pluralistic, just, sustainable. Some of these key words retain the almost archaic flavour of the liberal university (“just”, most notably). None allies TCD with economic ideals in any clear way. Several gesture towards the most topical contemporary political debates: diverse and pluralistic, in particular.

The notion of diversity is certainly a pregnant one for the contemporary university. It has its cultural element, but also its economic element, particularly in terms of what TCD calls “geographical diversity”. The financial rewards of foreign students are considerable.

A1.2 Internationalization

Geographical diversity in our student community is critical in developing an educational milieu which fosters cross-cultural understanding and prepares all students for a life of global citizenship. It allows for a coming-together of different educational, cultural and personal perspectives. It is also a key factor in introducing students to a global dialogue on their areas of academic study, and in building a global Trinity community by creating lifelong, personal, academic, and professional relationships across the world. We will ensure that an integrated internationalized student community re-emerges as a strong feature of the Trinity experience.

But my question for these posts on Irish universities is: how is the student figured in these documents? In DCU, we had the student as entrepreneur. In TCD, the individual identity of the student is mostly dealt with in the subsection “Renew the Trinity Education”. Here the student is figured as a global citizen is invoked. Elsewhere, this figure is again mentioned, and Erasmus is cited as a philosophical source for the concept. This is unusual, to have a direct quote from a general source like this in a strategic plan, but the choice of Erasmus is clearly in itself strategic, assuring the reader that notwithstanding the appearance of such contemporary keywords as global citizen, TCD’s roots remain in the European humanist tradition.  Critical thinking and independence of mind are also cited.

Students are referred to as “leaders in intellectual, cultural, social, political and economic life”, and the figure of the leader is ultimately probably the central one in TCD’s document. As well as the aforementioned fields, students of TCD are also destined to be  “ethical leaders in the fields of politics, science, culture, business and industry, healthcare and law”. So while DCU tends to evoke the figure of the entrepreneur, TCD is more interested in the leader. While the entrepreneur is defined by his relationship to the economy, the leader is defined by his relationship with others. But it is not a relationship of equals; instead, the TCD students is expected to establish a relationship of power and superiority with regard to his/her fellow citizens, in all fields.

TCD’s confidence arises, I suppose, from the fact that it is both Ireland’s longest-established university and, according to most metrics, its most important and influential. Why not, then, openly acknowledge that its students are more likely to go on to be persons of importance than graduates of other institutions? TCD students are steeped in an ideology of leadership when they enter its hallowed halls. Or so the strategic plan would seem to indicate. A greater task would be examining if and how this is brought into practice on the campus itself.

University and Entrepreneurship

Again, I want to look at the role and goals of the university and the challenges it faces, concentrating in this post on the university where I work, DCU. Michael Burawoy, writing principally about a US context, identifies three major crises afflicting the university at the present time: a budgetary crisis, a regulatory crisis, and a legitimation crisis (“The Great American University“, Contemporary Sociology, 41:2, 2012, pp. 139-149).

Burawoy identifies the budgetary crisis as the most important. The situation is more complicated, however, than just calling for more money. Burawoy mentions that “University budgets have grown astronomically” (141). This brings its own problems: in return for such huge investment, universities are expected to give back in a quantifiable way, through patents, aiding industry and developing joint ventures. It is a striking paradox that the increase in budgets is what leads to a budgetary crisis, but such is capitalism (or just human greed?): even too much is never enough.

That is the trouble of working in the modern university: though huge sums are involved, administration and bureaucracy expand so that each department, each research centre, still feels constantly economically pressured, some to a greater extent than others. This is not going to change any time soon. University funding is becoming increasingly linked to industry and to the business economy, as in the big EU funding call Horizon 2020, for which the development of “Competitive Industries” is one of the three central roles of the university. The others are “Excellent Science” and “Better Society”, but it is no accident that “Better Society” is the last-named of the three in the call. The listing on the Horizon website should be read as reflecting actual priorities: 1) science; 2) industry; 3) society. The lines between the university and industry/business are thus being blurred. With that will come the constant pressure to increase profit margins, to provide quantitative evidence of impact and economic contribution.

The strategic plan currently in operation in DCU is titled “Transforming Lives and Societies“. The Chancellor’s Introduction thereto refers to an emphasis on “social, cultural and economic progress”. So already we note that DCU is not emphasizing the economic quite to the extent that Horizon does, instead giving first place to the social, and to the broad idea of “transformation”. This is continued in the President’s Introduction, which names the primary responsibilities of the university as being to:

  • our students
  • our society
  • our economy

So society comes before economy, but the university’s responsibility to the economy at large is still significant.

Reading a little deeper into the Strategy Plan, and DCU’s established identity as the “University of Enterprise” becomes clearer. “Enterprise” has been the university’s USP in relation to other Irish university for some time. The university’s first strategic objective relates to the students. The second is: “To be recognized internationally as a leading University of Enterprise”. This has two main strands: one involves making each student and staff member into an entrepreneur; the other involves engaging with enterprise locally, nationally and globally.

In the priority given to this objective, the properly economic displaces the more broadly social. An entrepreneur is identified by his or her economic activities. The most salient definition from OED:

One who undertakes an enterprise; one who owns and manages a business; a person who takes the risk of profit or loss

Being an entrepreneur is related to financial risk.  Learning how to take financial risks is key to the identity of the student.

But I am still an academic who has been schooled very much in Victorian literature. Therefore, the idea that the cultivation of financial speculation is the desideratum of the university, or even that it is a good at all, is immediately problematic. The centrality of the figure of the entrepreneur in DCU’s strategic plan places the economic viewpoint of the university firmly within capitalist orthodoxy. Indeed, the purest form of new capitalism is based around the idea of the “entrepreneur-of-the-self”:

[E]ach worker becomes his or her own capitalist, the “entrepreneur-of-the-self” who decides how much to invest in his or her own future education, health and so on, paying for these investments by getting indebted […]. [E]veryone is a capitalist getting indebted in order to invest. We are here a step further from the formal equality between the capitalist and the worker in the eyes of the law – now they are both capitalist investors (Žižek, Event: Philosophy in Transit, loc 2023 et seq.)

In summation, it remains debatable whether promotion of a purely capitalist vision of the self (i.e. the entrepreneur) is a good way of fulfilling a university’s responsibility to society – or, indeed, to students. But with that note of irresolution I must conclude, and will continue to think around such matters in future posts as I complete a series of posts on the language of the strategic plans of Irish universities.



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