What's Wrong with the University?

Theory And Analysis

29th October 2019

The university is a hierarchical institution that protects the elites by awarding them cultural capital and whitewashing their reputation. It upholds existing inequalities and indoctrinates students into the reigning ideology. Universities serve the vested interests of the state, corporations and wealthy donors. They control and distribute knowledge in ways that empower the rich to get richer.

Hierarchy is baked into the structure and mission of the university. The elites go to university in order to distinguish themselves from ordinary folks.

The university provides formal education that helps run the system and extend its life. It inculcates entitlement and defines the proper manners of the ruling classes. University education establishes and maintains the pecking order that elevates a few individuals and relegates the rest to the derogatory category of laypeople or the uninitiated.

A Cambridge or Harvard degree is viewed with veneration that defies logic. Universities depend on magical thinking to promote their brand and image. They feed off myths and delusions that subvert humanity. Magical thinking, however, goes against the core principles of scientific endeavour and critical judgment.

The university teaches students that knowledge is valued within legitimate frameworks and should serve the dominant agenda. Higher education gives nuance and subtlety to the injustice that permeates society. It shapes the image of the establishment and helps it preserve and grow its assets.

In a free society, knowledge is open and democratic. In contrast, the university builds hierarchical relationships and a closed circle of experts. Even if education can set us free and unleash the creative potential of humanity, universities are no bastions of freedom or creativity. There is a sense of adventure and free exploration in science that university education fails to deliver.

The university is not a haven of freedom that some academics imagine it to be. They may carve out safe spaces inside the institution, but that kind of illusory liberty can also be obtained outside academia. This is based on the power that professors have won over the larger community. The academic pyramid is another instance of the oppressive mode of existence that anarchists abhor. Far from an exception, subjugation is one of the pillars of university education. By definition, the competition for privilege cannot be fair.

Universities conform to the provisions of copyright law and restricted access to knowledge as a tradeable commodity. Academic research is published in peer-reviewed journals that hide articles behind paywalls. Only affluent organisations and individuals can access scientific knowledge, as multinational publishing corporations have seized the means of its dissemination. Academic publishing is now primarily a business.

It is no coincidence that university is run as a company. This seemingly ancient institution has managed to survive for so long because it assumes the structure and power dynamics that currently dominate humanity. In the medieval times, it was subservient to the church. Today universities are corporations managed by sleazy capitalists.

The university is part of the neoliberal order and the gig economy, as more and more academics have short-term contracts and work for slave wages, while the entitled few enjoy permanent positions. The inequality between senior professors and precarious staff has sharpened class consciousness: junior researchers, doctoral candidates, and part-time lecturers organise to stand up for their rights.

Academics are valued for their ability to win grant money. This mercantile approach to education prioritises capital and dehumanises scholarly efforts as their goal is not to improve the world but rather to create value for the university.

Since universities subscribe to the capitalist mode of value production, the monetary worth of an academic degree is the key criterion of academic achievement. Even by this metric, universities have failed students. University education has become a debt trap.

While the elites reap the lion's share of the benefits, most participants in the higher education process get ripped off.

Cultural capital associated with university education is reinforced by financial strength. At a certain level, it is one and the same as university weds knowledge to power and money.

Universities are not only chasing state funding, but also wooing private benefactors. In return, the wealthy expect nothing less than the validation of their authority. Greedy capitalists donate to universities to clean their reputation and evade taxes. The university enables the rich to create an illusion of respectability and defend their wealth. This is a reciprocal bond, where one supports the other.

Universities use capital to acquire resources and hire people, reproducing and aggravating the injustices that fester in the globalised world. Elite universities in the global north attract qualified students and professors from the global south. Colonialism plays out in research collaboration, academic services, and knowledge dissemination. Elite universities foster colonial relations that have existed since the dawn of capitalism. Scientific innovations, produced by elite universities at the expense of the global south, serve the rich and powerful of this world. This exchange exploits the poor and perpetuates global inequality.

Higher education institutions in the global south cannot be on par with western elite universities because they do not have the funding or resources to offer commensurate remuneration or research conditions. The reason behind this discrepancy is capitalism: elite institutions extract and exploit human and material resources for the indulgence of the privileged few. Academic excellence and meritocracy are a sham.

The global elites enjoy abundance as the rest face austerity. Education is not exempt from this logic. The main cause of inequality in university rankings is the power of capital.

Humans produce more free knowledge and engage in creative activities far beyond university education. Academic recognition of a handful of scholars among seven billion people is a mockery of the idea of open knowledge. Very few can make it to the top of academe, but everyone is already part of humanity and their individual and collective efforts have a much greater impact on knowledge and education than those of a small band of scholars within the exclusive ambit of academia.

Online technology has made the sharing of insights and the learning of new things more accessible and egalitarian. It has engaged millions of people, demonstrating that you do not have to go to university to learn or exchange ideas. Skills, knowledge, and creativity are not the preserve of formal education. There are now new opportunities being opened for disseminating knowledge and developing original views. One caveat here is that the online tools that have challenged the exclusive role of academics are unaccountable to the public as they belong to profit-driven corporations. Social networks and new media have loosened the chokehold of pretentious experts, but they might serve as oppressive implements in the hands of their owners.

Knowledge should be free. The limits imposed by the university will eventually give way to open and horizontal learning relationships, which will help us dismantle the current order and build a harmonious society.

A fair and democratic university is a contradiction in terms. The university is a model of subversion that forces students and professors to play by the rules and pledge blind allegiance to the powers that be. Since the game is rigged, many people refuse to believe the promise of higher education.

Society will benefit from doing away with the shackles and blinders of academia. In the Anarchist struggle for freedom and equality, the university is not an ally, but one of the numerous reasons to overthrow the system. ■

Pavlo Shopin is a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in the English Department at the University of Freiburg. He comes from Luhansk, Ukraine.


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