Corporatization is a Capitalist Assault on Universities

The corporatization of universities is inextricably linked with neoliberalism. László Molnárfi discusses.

In March 2020, students from UCD attempted to occupy the University Club, an exclusive members only club for paying staff and alumni which cost the College €12.4 million, to protest the three-year 12% on-campus rent hike. The University Club is often used by senior management for “small- and large-scale university and corporate member events”, “fine dining” and “conferencing”. It stands as an ivory tower symbolising the neglect of student needs by those in-charge; the University opting to build facilities to impress politicians and corporate donors rather than investing in mental health or other much-needed student services, while students foot the bill. 

The students protesting recognised the issue as part of the ever-worsening corporatisation of higher-level education. They carried a large banner proclaiming that UCD was “NOT A BUSINESS” and hoisted it on campus. Financial starvation of universities by the Irish government has led to colleges acting like businesses to make up for the loss of state investment. Similarly, yearly rent on Trinity College Dublin’s (TCD) properties has grown by €5000 in the past twenty years from €3000 in 1999 to over €8000 per person in 2020. 

However, this process must be viewed not just as a specific ill which can be remedied by government policy, but part of a wider framework of neoliberal economics and its dominance over society. Whereas universities have often been viewed as institutions which embody academic values like independent research and democracy, the 1970s marked the onset of McDonaldisation for higher-level institutions. The withering away of blue skies research in favour of the production of skilled labour and scientific innovation, spurred by increasingly bureaucratic styles of management reveals the co-optation of Universities into the national and global financial market. 

The logical consequence of applying business logic to public institutions is corporatisation, as the academic community is thrown into the brutal hands of free market competition which they must grasp onto to survive. This Geworfenheit codifies the ceaseless self-expansion of money as the governing principle behind college decisions, rather than traditional values.  The more capital encroaches on an institution, the more its independent values dissolve into the hegemonic image of the dominant mode of production. 

The bulldozer that is capital can be seen in Trinity’s highly successful Commercial Revenue Unit (CRU), which generated €50 million worth of profit in 2019, but also invested in Aramark, a company involved in the inhumane system of direct provision. Similarly, Trinity’s investments into Arms and Weaponry manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin, through its endowment fund amount to two and a half million euros as of 2020, with no regards to the University’s values of ethical awareness and engaging with issues of global significance in a way that improves society for the better.

It can also be seen in the leaked ‘Trinity Futures Discussions Paper’ from November 2020, a radical plan of disaster capitalism which would see the University transformed into an online college by selling off on-campus buildings and ending physical lectures for large-size classes.

For students, the most-felt manifestation of this are rent hikes, the student contribution fee, and international fees, all of which have gradually but greatly increased over the past decades. To afford rent, some students take up part-time jobs or student loans. However, working-class representation in College is still meagre with only 5% of those enrolled coming from a disadvantaged background. This exclusion tends toward socioeconomic homogeneity which favours the for-profit model of the institution.

These rent hikes and the exploitation of students as cash cows are presented as necessities rather than conscious decisions. Investing into academia, making up for loss of revenue during Covid-19, expansion of campus facilities or several other justifications can be given, but behind it all looms the drive for maximizing revenue. UCD’s and TCD’s rental income for 2019 was €28.6 million and €12.9 million respectively, following rent hikes year-on-year. In February 2020, Trinity’s management recommended yet another 4% rent hike, which was taken off the table only following threats of direct action by students.

It is worthwhile to detail examples of when our money was not spent wisely, such as UCD’s €12.4 million University Club. With lacking on-site medical services, a grossly underfunded library, and some truly derelict feeling classrooms in Newman, it becomes clear that the over €3000 that students pay per year is not used to cater to their needs.

However, analysis must go further than single-issue scandals and must strike at the root of the material reality under which our Universities operate. To understand how corporate invasion has eroded academic values and academics’ freedom to pursue research at their own will, but has benefited those who play the game, and don’t challenge the status quo, one should look at the grant funding process.

Since the national government does not adequately fund Universities, competition between faculty for private and public grants is tense. As shown by the Trinity Provost elections of 2021, the ability to attract funding into a University is seen to be of paramount importance and is oftentimes a requirement. The grants which are given are of an entrepreneurial nature, rarely challenging the social and economic order of the world.

Research by trade unions such as SIPTU and IFUT has shown that Ireland lags in blue skies research. In 2015, more than 1,000 scientists signed an open letter denouncing the government’s focus on the commercialisation of research. 

Those who pursue this type of commercial research can then advance in their careers. With the blessing of the establishment, it is also easier to advance into managerial positions. Therefore, a non-transparent, not democratic but bureaucratic style of management creates a web of interconnected entities whose interest is in keeping the status quo. Upsetting the apple cart is frowned upon. A speculative example is the role of College Human Resources (HR) and the Interview Committee (IC) in the selection of the Provost. This resulted in the disqualification of Dr. Sarahly Alyn-Stacey in the 2021 Provost elections, who was seen as the most “radical” of all candidates. Her disqualification was both criticized by IFUT for being “undemocratic” and was widely regarded as marking a separation from the institution’s long-standing tradition of democratic governance, not to mention that one of the reasons given for the decision was that her Center for Medieval Studies did not attract “significant funds”, revealing the indirect decision-making power of corporate interests. 

Thinking of these as separate issues is not seeing the forest from the trees. For example, Trinity sends many surveys on what are called ‘micro-issues’, such as course feedback, catering or commuting. Despite these surveys, nothing fundamental changes. This is a by-product of managerialism, a way to give the illusion that all issues within College can be remedied by bureaucratic-managerial means, thus divorcing one from wider socioeconomic context - the ruling mode of production - and suggesting that there is no link between the quality of education and capitalism’s encroachment on academia. 

In the process, we are reduced to mere objects of history, on a cookie-cutter awaiting credentialization, with which we are compelled to join the workforce and toil for the market. 

It is thus vitally important that we resist authoritarian governance, under-funding of higher-level education leading to corporatization, and State meddling in academic affairs. We must not let this go on; we must re-appropriate history from the chokehold of neoliberalism; we must learn from past movements, like Take Back Trinity in 2018, which won temporary victories but was eroded by the same machinery it fought against and take them further in the struggle for our universities.