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The University As Production And Consumption (1971)

Although universities are probably the fastest growing sector of the economy in terms of consumption of GNP and although politicians presumably see education in terms of the creation of human capital, one might wish to object that the difference between a university and a technical college is that there is something more than this to a university. This 'something' would probably be identified as research, but since the university presents itself as a predominantly undergraduate institution ,I will restrict myself to this aspect. Broadly what I will try to do is give an account of undergraduate education in terms of what is produced and who is consumed.

It is worth considering the possibility that although the government pours money into the universities the economy may not be getting much out of them. In particular the government may be misleading itself (and the electors) in speaking of 'human capital', i.e. capital embodied as skills in a labourer, produced by universities. Universities are not the only possible source of human capital; even Victorian technical schools produce 'human capital' in the sense that they turn out young workers with certain skills.

It is clear, I think, that there are 'relative' and (relatively) 'absolute' senses of 'human capital'. Any industrial system will need technical school products together with some scientists and engineers, but the demand for administrative workers is socially and historically determined and so is the demand for special qualifications in administrative workers. (On the face of it they need only be literate and, perhaps, numerate). While it might be true that a certain number of functionaries is necessary for the functioning of an industrial system it is by no means the case that the actual number employed is determined by economic or technical considerations. Studies have shown that the ratio of administrative to productive workers in modern industry can vary from country to country and sector to sector more or less independently of technology; this means that the demand for administrative workers is in fact determined by social structure rather than by productive rationality in a narrow sense. Thus the 'value' of administrative 'human capital' cannot be derived realistically from the current state of technology and the 'value' of the university product cannot be derived by computing the discounted future salaries of graduates, since in each case the: procedure confuses the value to the community in terms of possible production with the market value determined by a certain socio-political organisation of production and so. takes the socially determined income structure - which historically reflects the interests of ruling groups - to be a reflection of economic necessities for the society as a whole. To make what I am getting at clearer. it is worthwhile considering two simple models of the university before proceeding to the analysis of the modern university.

The university will be part of the economy even if it is a private body and does not produce any 'output'. Aristotle's Lyceum was a body devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, i.e. a scholarly university; it did not claim to supply trained personnel to outside society although it did claim that the educated man was a better citizen.

Economically, however, it consumed, through the personal consumption of the nonproductive teachers and students, a part of a social surplus slaves and free workers. Insofar as people engage in full time teaching or study they require social support or must have previously accumulated sufficient capital - which in all societies governed by scarcity must be done at the expense of others. Thus a scholarly university consumes part of the social surplus but does not contribute anything to the economy. it may advance practical knowledge (science) and thus benefit future society but its main purpose is the creation, elaboration and dissemination of culture. Because 'culture' cannot be quantified and is not 'useful' it is infinitely more likely that such a university will be a private one in an aristocratic society than a state one in a capitalist or bureaucratic society. However it is also obvious that culture is a gain to society, although perhaps an unjustifiable one if most of the society is excluded from its enjoyment while paying for its production.

The university in the feudal period, while carrying on the scholarly tradition, was also professional: it trained people to fill certain roles in society.Trained professionals are pre-eminently a form of 'human capital', but it should be noted that the professionals produced were lawyers and priests and one could not say that society as a whole needed them. Their roles arose through a certain class division of society which needed a layer to mediate between peasants and nobles. Typically they were recruited from the commons, for nobles didn't need to do anything for a living, and so education for such a position was a means of upward social mobility. Thus one could say that university training was an entrance ticket to the middle ranks of society and thus became with their growth the specific mode of reproduction of the middle ranks. The social function of the university was to maintain the division of society by providing an avenue of upward mobility and by providing a means of reproduction of the middle ranks. (Since these were defined functionally rather than by property ownership, there had to be a means by which their children could be confirmed into the same functions; in the post-bourgeois society the same holds for the 'new middle class', i.e. the white collar and professional 'salaretariat'). The economic function of the university was to provide the personnel to maintain the existing social economy. Thus, while the university made no contribution to net output but consumed part of the social product, it was by no means undesirable to the ruling class (unlike the scholarly university which would have been) for the maintenance of the existing income distribution by other means would have cost money.

I suggest that if one excepts Medicine and certain technical professions which, as man people have pointed out, could as well or better be taught away from the universities, then the socio-economic analysis of the university would proceed as follows:

  1. The university exists only where a social surplus exists which can be appropriated privately or by a government.
  2. Insofar as it is scholarly it can benefit society as a whole by the disinterested pursuit of science and by the creation, maintenance and elaboration of a culture which, potentially at least, exists for the whole society.
  3. Insofar as its degrees are accepted and sought after as entrees to middle class society it serves as a major prop to the existing social order. This shows that the government's investment is not so much in 'human capital', i.e. skilled labour, as in 'correct' attitudes, i.e. achievement orientation, enthusiastic acceptance of status gradations, etc. What is created by the investment is the personnel for manning the infrastructure of hierarchical. society. It is essential for maintaining hierarchical society that the infrastructure considers itself 'above' the base; the proletarianisation of the infrastructure created by the advance of technological society puts this project in question (and thus creates the need for a new theory of the intellectually trained).

The conclusion is that investment in 'human capital' in the universities cannot be considered as social investment because only a part, principally composed of the part for engineering, medicine and technology, is socially productive; the rest is investment in maintaining the established division of society.

This completes the discussion of the socio-economic aspect of the university; there remains the potentially more interesting question as to its internal workings.

If one asks what the university does, one could answer that it takes in semi-literate, immature matriculants and turns out semi-literate, immature graduates. What the graduate has gained is a certificate; what he or she has lost is his or her time or, more forcefully, part of his or her life. It is this transaction that demands examination.

If one considers what the undergraduate does, the conclusion is that he or she buys time. That is to say that the student purchases a 'slab' of time equipped with special properties. This slab of time is fixed; its properties are determinate and laid down in advance. The time is not free time because even if it does not define activities proceeding continuously throughout it, the fact that the activities are fixed in the time casts a shadow backwards. Freedom is purchased at the expense of future academic time. If one asks where this time comes from the answer is that it comes from the student's life. The student insofar as he or she keeps the bargain or better still, joins in the game, gives up part of his or her life, i.e. unlimited possibility of free creation, and receives in return a piece of academic time - a subspecies of general labour time. Thus the student gives potentiality and receives an alien actuality just as the labourer gives up life to receive survival. The price paid for entering the transaction is in each case the price of maintaining hierarchical society.

The university, typically conceived as a super high school where no one tells you what to do, is desired precisely in the proportion that its representation is separate from the desirer, that is, in the proportion that the student is ignorant of the actual social relations that constitute the university. The phoney categories associated with the university by the popular press - the 'student life', student demonstrations, student pranks, student sex, etc. - are intended both to titillate the popular mind and to mystify the consumers of the banal reality. (Many students still learn what is happening at their university by reading the newspapers just as many demonstrators do not believe in the reality of their actions until they see them on T.V. or read about them in the papers). That university education is desirable is a postulate of our culture; studies have shown that the reasons for applying for and attending university have little to do with either its academic or 'professional' aspects (except in the limited sense of 'getting-on': surprisingly, other methods of getting-on are not perceived as desirable). University (pseudo-) education is a value just like (pseudo-) democracy.

The structure of academic time is not determined by the student. The academic year is almost completely externally determined and the game of academic progress has very few moves. Despite phoney consultative and concensus techniques the determination of academic time is done from outside the student ranks; the student's life is externally determined.

So much is obvious; it is less obvious who does determine the structure of academic time. The larger aspects sucb as the three term annual exam structure are determined by our old friend the Academic Board, in the past its decisions being made according, to tradition and in the future to be made according to cost-effectiveness studies and its balance of prejudice.

Questions about courses and unit structures are settled in a complex fashion between Departments, Schools and the Board. 'Hurdles' (assessment techniques) are mainly the prerogative of the Department but are subject to interference by the Board. Thus the individual academic does not control academic time, i.e. he does not control his labour, although, in general, academics are still free to choose their style of work. Although he may have a voice in departmental decisions these are usually subject to higher authority and even at the departmental level decisions do not reflect individual desires. Apart from satisfying certain economic constraints decisions must be consistent with another decisions taken in the university and consequently creation of dangerous precedents must be avoided; if a new course is being introduced, or a radical alteration of a course being proposed, then it must be justified in existing terms, e. g. be 'academic', be 'central' be 'teachable', etc., and must 'fit-in' with existing courses. The determining background of decisions is thus the total institution; the university is not a democratic, self-governing 'community of scholars'. It is a bureaucratic institution weighed down by its past and shackled by budgets. Academic time is not a local creation of particular academics, it is globally unified across units and departments, through sequences and years, university by university.

Academic progress is not yet purely existence in academic time. The existence of a limited-number of distinct moves at the beginning of each year requires the consideration of academic space. Academic progress is a trajectory in academic space-time; academic time is the form of academic life, academic space is its content. Academic space is the deployment of specialisms. over the face of that reality currently deemed worthy of study and to the academic this set of specialisms appears both as discrete and as exhausting reality. The general reason for this is that the reality studied is created by, or structured by, previous specialisms and the evolution of the specialisms (disciplines) reflects the results of operations upon this reality. More importantly, particularly for the discreteness of the specialisms, is the fact that nearly all theoretic study of the reality is carried out by universitytrained specialists at universities and universities are, as was previously pointed out, hierarchically and. bureaucratically organised bodies within which the separateness of disciplines is a necessary result of their rational organisation. Thus the limited number of moves in the academic progress game arises from the institutionalisation of content as well as form. Thus insofar as mind conforms to reality and (partial) reality is the creation of the university it might be said that the chief product of the university is limited and standardised minds.

Student criticisms of academic matters rarely rise above 'critiques' of particular courses or objections to particular marking and examination practices. There may be virtue, from a student's point of view, in distributing the exam load and there may be virtue in continuous assessment: However, I do not believe that there is, and while these sorts of moves may force students to work harder and so pass (students are fairly masochistic) it seems that they intensify the oppressive nature of academic time. Of course if these sorts of moves do lead to the destruction or watering down, of academic time, then they are to be commended although students seem uneasy when the destructuring of academic time is mooted.

More mis-directed yet are demands for relevant, hip or interdisciplinary courses; there is no special virtue in these. To submit to an interdisciplinary course's discipline is just like submitting to any other course. If students had a hand in its introduction they might enjoy it more (it may even be what they wanted), but what of next year's students if it is continued? Only a few courses can be changed each year. The peculiar idea that university is a grim experience because of the things taught arises because students accept the structure in which things are taught; admittedly most courses at university are boring but then again most courses are 'deduced' from institutional constraints. Their extent and direction are fixed by these constraints which also imply their internal structure. To slightly change the set of specialisms does not affect the academic-progress game; academic space-time still exists.

The conclusion is that the nature of the university as a bureaucratic, traditional and hierarchical institution implies that there shall be academic space. This together with the university's function of certification for middleclass society, ensures that there shall be academic time. Conversely the unitised nature of academic time requires discrete academic space to support it.

The influence of academic space-time means that academic progress is a game in which pursuit of the main goal, certification, entails sacrifice of developmental and scholarly goals such, as the desire to acquire a general culture or the desire to make anintensive study of a certain area. This game is generally played against the student's own ignorance, but in above--average students who do not fit exactly into the paths mapped out it becomes a game against the academic bureaucracy. The fact that this game is generally lost ensures that the peripheral scholarly aspects of the university, those that servo society in unquantifiable ways, never threaten to override its main function of promoting the production or reproduction of middle-class functionaries, graduates who have the required certificate and half-trained minds.

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