From a recent report in The Guardian on the British government’s plans for the further deconstruction of England’s university system:

The government is also keen to encourage more corporate sponsorship of university places. The accountancy firm KPMG has unveiled a plan to pay fees for students at universities including Durham, in a training programme leading to an honours degree in accounting.

These students also fall outside government restrictions on numbers, chiefly because they are on bespoke courses reserved for one firm’s employees. They do not need financial support as KPMG covers their fees and pays them a salary.

The current version of the scheme is, in effect, an outsourcing of corporate training, but the range of education on offer could become more diverse in future.

Major universities (Durham, Exeter, and Birmingham – all highly respected places) offering degree programs designed for and available only to the employees of specific companies. This is about as far removed as academic institutions could be from their historical place in post-Enlightenment culture and from their intellectual and social purpose. The proposal totally negates the central principles of academic freedom. And it places economic activity, the raking in of as much cash as possible at whatever cost, at the heart of these universities’ missions.

Of course, this most recent development, as depressing as it is, can’t surprise anyone. It’s only the logical next step following the corporatization of universities over the past decades. Once we started thinking of the academy as a place that ought to be subject to the same fetishized “metrics” as businesses, redefined fundraising as a – perhaps the – core concern of academic administrators, and learned that research should be “monetized” rather than serve a larger social good, it was only a question of time before universities would start not just acting like corporations but thinking of themselves as natural allies, even mere appendices, of actual corporations. If we conceive of the academy as an institution whose primary purpose is the training of new members of the workforce, it makes perfect sense to collaborate closely with employers to make that training as purposeful, goal-directed, and efficient as possible.

Of course, such thinking has nothing to do with what universities have been understood to be for hundreds of years. But if the generation of profits is defined as the new goal of academic institutions – if they have to justify their existence on fiscal grounds before anything else – the idea of the university has lost its meaning anyway. The academy cannot be a place that pays its own bills in actual cash. It deals in intellectual and cultural capital, and its contributions are to the cultural economy of the world. Some of those contributions can yield financial returns fairly quickly, but most do not. That only makes them worthless in a culture that defines value in purely monetary terms, and no human has ever lived in such a culture. But Lord Browne and his friends in the British government seem determined to transform the UK into a laboratory for testing what happens if we try. I can’t say I’m looking forward to watching the experiment unfold.

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