There is no doubt that higher education is in a dire state in this country, with fees increasing, courses being cut and staff being fired at rates not seen for years. Class sizes are expanding and course options are shrinking. Objectively, the quality of higher education is under attack and it’s important to question why institutions which are meant to protect and improve the quality of education are acting in this way. Are universities actually failing at their jobs, or are mainstream understandings of the role they play within society actually wrong? I argue the latter: universities are not neutral education providers, but ideology factories, and they are not failing us now – they are working exactly as they have been set up to.
Universities exist as institutions which uphold the framework of capitalist production, entrench class divides and hold monopolies over the value of particular forms of knowledge. At their very core, universities are not just degree factories, but ideology ones too. They teach the skills required to produce efficient professionals who will go on to uphold and maintain the capitalist project. As universities have been further commodified, the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market has become increasingly responsible for the valuation of particular kinds of knowledge.
In popular discourse amongst the liberal left, universities are seen as bastions of intellect and education, places where critical thinking is developed and systems questioned. In this year’s higher education campaign, a common argument against increasing the fees for arts subjects is that they are one of the only places in which critical thinking can develop. In the conversation around the US election, Republican voting preferences were put down to a lack of education, as if people voted for Trump because they lacked critical thinking skills and not because of the deep institutional problems which maintain racism, poverty and disenfranchisement. While there is truth to the ability of arts degrees to help develop critical thinking among those who study them, and statistical proof that Republican voters are less educated, I would argue that the conversation around higher education needs to be much more nuanced. Higher education is incredibly important, but universities themselves and the ideologies they reproduce are not radical or emancipatory.
Knowledge is not neutral.
The production of knowledge is not neutral. It is reliant on and a reflection of the society in which it is produced. Within a university setting, this is not just seen in traditionally political subjects such as sociology, anthropology and international relations, but also within subjects seen as ‘apolitical’, such as engineering or science. What is taught, and how that knowledge is used is a deeply political and ideological process.
The types of knowledge prioritised within universities are simply a reflection of the ideologies prevalent within capitalist society, and the money of corporations who employ graduates. Corporate sponsorships of the information shared and developed within universities means that big business can effectively control the fields and types of research which are prioritised. Decisions about what to teach and fund, and who to hire has to come from somewhere, and within the corporate university system, economic interests will always win out.
One of the best examples of this within Australia is the recent introduction of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which was able to fund an entirely new degree within the University of Wollongong, University of Queensland and the Australian Catholic University. This is not only an issue because of the racist and colonial nature of the Ramsay Centre, but also because the knowledge which is taught within our supposably public universities can effectively be purchased for top dollar.
Another example slightly closer to home is the “Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation” within the USyd engineering faculty, which is focused on “mining innovation through automation and machine learning”. Projects like these show how important it is to remember that no knowledge is neutral or apolitical, even in subject areas which are intuitively thought of as such.
In this way, the university acts not as a place for intellectual pursuits, or the improvement of society as a whole, but as preparation for a workforce determined by the prevalent ideological projects of capitalism. In no way is education neutral. It serves a purpose, to uphold and reinforce the norms, values and economy of the society it is produced within.
We can’t ‘save our education’ because university has never been ‘good’.
The aggrandising corporatisation of universities is undeniably detrimental to the quality of higher education, but were universities ever that good? We need to be thinking beyond the scope of the traditional university, and aiming for a genuinely emancipatory and equitable alternative, rather than simply fighting course cuts with the rhetoric of ‘save our education’.
Yes education has been commodified, but even if that commodification was removed, the systems in which we produce knowledge are still deeply colonial and capitalist in nature. In almost every way, Western systems of education, or what we have come to value as ‘the best forms of education’ as a society, replicate the violence, competition and oppressive nature of capitalism. They have been developed by and work for colonial, racist and patriarchal systems and are therefore self replicating in their upholding of these systems.
So called ‘quality’ or ‘prestigious’ education stems from the West. It values Western religions, histories and opinions while leaving little room for much else. The concept of academia itself is a deeply colonial concept, and while academia can and has produced important knowledge, in practice it continues to prioritise Western knowledge to the detriment of all other forms. In a country like Australia it is also particularly essential to recognise and value the systems of knowledge which existed on this continent pre-colonisation, and which have been either wiped out or undermined by capitalism, colonialism and imperialism. In fighting for a form of education which serves society, we must first uncover, question and destroy the ways in which colonialism has shaped the way we conceptualise knowledge and learning. Even a free university, governed by staff and students would be colonial if we do not also undergo a process of decolonisation.
Universities, including USyd, invest millions in fossil fuel companies, arms manufacturers and pay their vice chancellors millions while, at the same time, cutting subjects, reducing staff numbers and increasing class sizes. In every way the university acts as a business, because that’s what it is. It has commodified knowledge so successfully that it is no longer questioned that these institutions are both making money off, and have a monopoly over knowledge.
Education cuts are intrinsic to neoliberal universities.
The current attacks on education coming from university management and the government alike are rightly viewed as ridiculous and nonsensical, and as undermining education accessibility. However, for the capitalist project these bodies work to serve, they make complete sense. Allowing the market to decide what type of education will best serve it aligns with the way universities have always worked. Our education system is set up to serve capital, to produce the most workers, and to maintain and progress capitalism. It is important to call these changes out for what they are: a further entrenching of corporatisation and neoliberalism within our education institutions.
Yes, we should absolutely fight against course cuts, staff cuts and fee increases, because these things further entrench the inequalities which are inherent to the system. But we cannot kid ourselves into thinking that in achieving these things we will have met our goal of equitable and fair education. Instead, we need to fight for a radically different form of education, and this cannot come about with education reform, policy changes, or even free university. All these things are good, but they are not radical, they do not deeply question the system of capitalism and they do not meaningfully address the issues embedded into our entire education system.
We need to fight to create a version of education that serves people rather than big business and corporate agendas. We need to work to undermine the dangerous and violent ideological boundaries that education and knowledge production is currently bound by. We need to be confronting capitalist power, fighting against corporate management, undermining the binaries of students and staff, rebelling against all cuts, and working together to build and create types of education which serve us, not business, not capitalism, not imperialism and not colonialism.