A New Vision of the Public University

Michael Burawoy, University of California, Berkeley

[This is an older version. A completely revised and much extended version of this essay is posted here.]

The university is in crisis everywhere.[1] In the broadest terms, the university’s position as simultaneously inside and outside society, simultaneously participant in and observer of society, – always precarious – is being eroded. With the exception of a few antiquated hold outs the idea of the ivory tower has gone. We no longer can hold on to a position of splendid isolation. We may think of the era gone by as the Golden Age of the University, but in reality it was a Fool’s Paradise that simply couldn’t last. Today, the academy has no option but to engage with the wider society, the question is how.

We face enormous pressures of instrumentalization, turning the university into a means for someone’s else’s end. These pressures come in two forms – commodification and regulation. I teach at the University of California, which, with its seven plus campuses, is (or was) surely one of the shining examples of public education in the world. This last year it was hit with a 25% cut in public funding. This is a sizeable chunk of money. The university has never faced such a financial crisis and it has taken correspondingly drastic steps – laying off unknown numbers of non-academic staff, putting pressure on already outsourced low paid service workers, furloughing academics that include world renown figures. Most significantly it involved a 30% increase in student fees, so that they now rise to over $10,000 a year, but still this is only a quarter of the price of the best private universities. These are drastic measures indeed, and a violation of California’s Master Plan for higher education, a vision of free higher education for all who desired it, orchestrated through a system that integrated two year community colleges, the state system of higher education and then, at the pinnacle, the University of California. All this is now turning to ruins.

But it has not been an overnight process. The state has been withdrawing funds from higher education for over three decades so that before last year’s cuts it supplied roughly 30% of the university’s budget. So a 25% reduction is more like a 7% cut in the University’s budget, still sizeable. The cuts began in the 1980s with the new era of marketization. Reflecting that broader shift was a change in how society viewed intellectual property rights, a change marked by the Bayh-Dole legislation on patents of 1980. Before then, patenting was seen as an infringement of the market. Knowledge was a public good that should be available to all and, no one should have monopoly access to its revenues. That changed and today a patenting mania lies at the bottom of expanding industry-university collaboration, including some $500 million from British Petroleum (!) for research into non-fossil fuels at Berkeley (in partnership with the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign). As leading public universities cashed in on their research so the government saw less need to pour funds into higher education, which only further intensified the commercialization of knowledge, with all sorts of implications for those disciplines that could not convert their knowledge into tangible assets. They were told they had to find alumni or corporate donors to support their enterprise! The university came to look more and more like a corporation, and its managerial ranks expanded rapidly. At my university, within the last two decades, the ratio of faculty to senior administrators has fallen from 3 to 1, to 1 to 1! And the salary structure has been distorted accordingly. The President of the University is supposed to earn a corporate executive salary – he actually earns in excess of $800,000, which is twice the President of the country! All managerial and administrative salaries are stretched accordingly, and salaries within the university become ever more unequal, varying with the marketability of the associated knowledge and the credentials they produce. At every level inequalities have run amok – between universities and within universities, between schools and within schools, between disciplines and within disciplines, between departments and within departments. At a global level we are also getting differentiation at the behest of international ranking schemes – Times Higher Education (once working with QS, now working with Thomson Reuters) or Shanghai – indicating the “world class” universities where investments are likely to yield the greatest returns. Markets have invaded every dimension of university life, but its “autonomy” remains – it can choose the way to tackle its budget deficits – through restructuring its faculties, employing temporary instructors, outsourcing service work, raising student fees, move to distance learning.

This was the commercial model, now let me turn to the second model – the regulatory model. The source of this model, we might say, was the Thatcher Revolution in England. Here the strategy is not to commercialize the production of knowledge (or at least not immediately), that is, not to bring the still public university directly into the market, but instead to make it more efficient, more productive, and more accountable. The Thatcher Regime introduced the notorious Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) – an elaborate scheme of evaluation based on faculty research output as measured by publications. An elaborate incentive scheme was introduced, with the collaboration of the universities, to simulate market competition but, in reality, it generated something more like Soviet planning. Just as the Soviet planners had to decide how to measure the output of their factories, how to develop measures of plan fulfillment, so now universities have to develop elaborate indices of output, KPIs (key performance indicators), reducing research to publications, and publications to refereed journals, and refereed journals to impact factors. Just as Soviet planning produced absurd distortions, heating that could never be switched off, shoes that were supposed to fit everyone but fit no-one, tractors that were too heavy because targets were in tons, and glass was too thick because targets were in volume, so now the monitoring of higher education is replete with parallel distortions that obstruct both production (research) and dissemination (teaching) of knowledge.

British higher education has developed an elaborate auditing culture that has led academics to devote themselves to gaming the system, distorting their output – such as publishing essentially the same article in different venues, the devaluation of books, importing into departments academic rock stars, even on a short term basis – all to boost RAE ratings. The University of Manchester, for example, imports Joseph Stiglitz for three weeks every year! Perhaps, the most debilitating consequence has been the shortening of time horizons of research, so that it becomes ever more trivial and superficial. Basic research gives way to contract research. This Soviet model has been exported to Europe with the Bologna Process that homogenizes and dilutes higher education across countries, all in the name of the transferability of knowledge and the mobility of students, making the university a tool of the knowledge economy.

The Soviet model is especially applicable, therefore, to those states that want to hold onto public higher education, but seek to rationalize it by monitoring the pursuit of short term goals. What is happening today, I fear, may be more sinister. As fiscal austerity grips Britain, and indeed much of Europe, the auditing system is now deployed against those disciplines, such as philosophy or sociology, which are the least profitable. State subsidies per student are not only cut, but they are made to vary by discipline. Those with the lowest price – “Band D” – are most at risk. As we saw in the Soviet Union, planning turned to shock therapy, which proved to be all shock and no therapy. We should be aware of what has happened in Russia. Its universities became commercial operations – selling student places, diplomas, real estate on the one side and buying academic labor at ever low prices under ever-worse conditions on the other. Education and research were after-thoughts, side-benefits. Artemy Magun rightly sees this as not just a Russian problem but a national expression of a global crisis in higher education, while Alexander Bikbov makes the point even stronger by provocatively asking whether the Russian University is the future university of the world.

More generally, and less alarmist, we can say that the two models – commercial and regulatory – combine in different ways in different countries, but together or individually they conspire to instrumentalize higher education, subjecting our disciplines to formal rationality and exaggerating the importance of policy research. All this comes at the expense of critical thinking that makes academic knowledge accountable to academics, and at the expense of public engagement that make higher education responsive to the wider society.

Is there an alternative model? I was recently in South Africa attending a Summit on Higher Education organized by the Ministry of Higher Education. It was called a stakeholder conference, which already implies that the university is of as well as in society. The summit brought together some 400 delegates from all over the country, but not just the usual suspects – Vice-Chancellors, managers, government bodies, academics – but also students, a wide range of civil society organizations and non-academic staff represented by their unions. The summit opened with stakeholders sharing their views, and then broke up into parallel commissions on the academic experience, on the student experience, on differentiation and on governance – reporting back on their deliberations the following day. It was often the students, the NGOS and the unions who were the most articulate in discussing the problems facing South Africa’s universities – and enormous problems they are: unequal student access and alarming rates of attrition, lack of preparedness of students on the one side and faculty on the other, the drain of faculty from the university into other areas of employment, the differentiation of the whole system of higher education that had inherited the structures of apartheid. The challenge of South African education is to simultaneously overcome inequalities from the past without creating new ones, while also meeting the immediate pressures of social transformation in a globalizing world.

What I witnessed those two days was something rather rare but inspiring – a reflexive model of higher education. It was a dialogue that was both internal to higher education between for example managers who pointed their fingers at out-of-touch academics and academics who pointed their fingers at corporatization, but also a dialogue between government, civil society and the institutions of higher education. What emerged was neither government regulation nor commercialization but a model of deliberative democracy, in which the stakeholders are participants in a political process. Following Fung and Wright, we can call this a model of empowered participatory governance, but we can only do so if there is more than talk and more than token participation; if there is, in other words, a genuine empowerment.[2]

While it takes courage for the state to engage in such open dialogue as it can so easily escalate unrealistic expectations, it is nonetheless quite rational because it allows the articulation of interests – articulation in the sense of voicing, but also in the sense of mutually adjusting – rather than every group pursuing its own concerns, responding to the exigencies of the day, oblivious to the perspectives of others. As the borders between the inside and outside of the university become shallow, as the boundaries become porous the academy can either retreat into its shell, sabotaging outside interests while protecting its turf within the university, or it can take a more outward looking approach that seeks to tackle challenges together and in public. We are arriving, therefore, at a new vision of the public university, one that is publicly accountable, that engages with publics rather than simply with itself. This does not preclude relations with business or the development of incentive structure but subjects them to open discussion, a discussion that includes all the stakeholders, a discussion that recognizes the tradeoffs at stake!

When, subsequently, I spoke about this vision in South African academic venues, I was often greeted with cynical voices. We’ve tried this all before. In the 1990s we had our summits and nothing came of them. Nothing? They got bogged down in futile debates over principles of representation. Futile or frustrating? I was told that this summit was just an exercise in legitimating state policies and the government will simply pursue whatever suits it. It was just another staged ritual of the state unresponsive to the interests of society. But rituals have their own logic, they can be turned on their head. Academics would say this lofty discussion has nothing to do with them, nothing to do with teaching. Really? This cynicism, this defeatism overlooks the uniqueness of South Africa, its long history of negotiated politics and dialogue, and thus misses an opportunity – a new public debate concerned less with transition and more with transformation.

But, in any case, what alternative is there? To refuse this opportunity for dialogue, retreating behind the screens of academic freedom and autonomy, is to invite invading regulation and commercialization, accelerating privatization – in the political, moral as well economic sense – of the public university. The alternative is to seize this opportunity, exploit the space for deliberation while it exists, call upon the state to honor its commitments, open up debate both within and outside the academy, a debate about the meaning of the public university, especially in the South, and its place in transformation.

The irony is that the university protests that have spread across the Global North during the last year – United States, England, France, Germany, Austria, and beyond – are all groping toward a model of deliberative democracy in public education, a model that South Africa almost takes for granted, a model that it inherits from its past struggles. Whatever else, South Africa is fighting for a future not for a past. We need to do the same – the ivory tower has gone and so has the Master Plan, and the future is up for grabs. South Africa’s approach is not perfect, it is certainly not consensual, and ultimately it will have to deliver reform if not transformation, but it is an important beginning from which we can all learn.


[This is an older version. A completely revised and much extended version of this essay is posted here. This older version was based on concluding reflections addressed to the South African Stakeholder Summit on Higher Education Transformation held at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, April 22-23, 2010.]

1.  If you are in doubt about this take a look at the “Universities in Crisis” blogsite of the International Sociological Association at http://www.isa-sociology.org/universities-in-crisis/ with over 50 reports from some 35 countries.
2.  Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright, Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance. (London and New York, Verso, 2003).

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