Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Market capitalism and higher education

Nothing typifies the descent of Western Society into the abyss of market capitalism so much as the way higher education has been debased.

No longer institutions of learning and research, they are only to be valued on their ability to churn out "employment ready" students and to do research in partnership with the corporate sector that can subsequently be commercialised.

A wonderful report in the London Review of Books on a UK White Paper (Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System) provides a delicious catalogue of the process of this change.

The contribution has one of the best descriptions of the process by which market capitalism colonised public policy, writing;

Since perhaps the 1970s, certainly the 1980s, official discourse has become increasingly colonised by an economistic idiom, which is derived not strictly from economic theory proper, but rather from the language of management schools, business consultants and financial journalism. British society has been subject to a deliberate campaign, initiated in free-market think tanks in the 1960s and 1970s and pushed strongly by business leaders and right-wing commentators ever since, to elevate the status of business and commerce and to make ‘contributing to economic growth’ the overriding goal of a whole swathe of social, cultural and intellectual activities which had previously been understood and valued in other terms. Such a campaign would not have been successful, of course, had it not been working with the grain of other changes in British society and the wider world. Very broadly speaking, the extension of democratic and egalitarian social attitudes has been accompanied by the growth of a kind of consumerist relativism. The claim that one activity is inherently of greater value or importance than another comes to be pilloried as ‘elitism’. Arguments are downgraded to ‘opinions’: all opinions are equally valuable (or valueless), so the only agreed criterion is what people say they think they want, and the only value with any indefeasible standing is ‘value for money’. Government documents issued in the last 20 years or so are immediately identifiable by the presence of such buzz phrases as ‘it is essential to sustain economic growth and maintain Britain’s global competitiveness,’ ‘consumers must have a choice of services,’ ‘competition will drive up quality’ and so on.

Much later in the report it plucks an example of what our own Don Watson has dubbed "management speak";

Beyond the warped ingenuity of these Heath Robinson schemes to force ‘free’ competition to happen in closely controlled circumstances, such interest as the White Paper possesses may lie chiefly in its providing a handy compendium of current officialese, a sottisier of econobabble. One of the most revealing features of its prose is the way the tense that might be called the mission-statement present is used to disguise implausible non sequiturs as universally acknowledged general truths. Here is one mantra, repeated in similar terms at several points: ‘Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.’ Part of the brilliance of the semantic reversals at the heart of such Newspeak lies in the simple transposition of negative to positive. After all, ‘putting financial power into the hands of learners’ means ‘making them pay for something they used to get as of right’. So forcing you to pay for something enhances your power. And then the empty, relationship-counselling cadence of the assertion that this ‘makes student choice meaningful’. Translation: ‘If you choose something because you care about it and hope it will extend your human capacities it will have no significance for you, but if you are paying for it then you will scratch people’s eyes out to get what you’re entitled to.’ No paying, no meaning. After all, why else would anyone do anything?

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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