Much has been made of the marketization of higher education in the Netherlands and around the world. Demonstrations and building occupation in universities like the VUA in Amsterdam have led to the foundation of an outright anti-marketization political movement in universities across the Netherlands – known as the New University movement. Their argument is that the “marketization of higher education leads to less academic freedom, if not outright deformation of the academic community, and its credibility as an objective agent in our society.”
At NovUM, there is a great sense of uncertainty over what stance to take. On the one hand, we care deeply about these latest series of developments, as it touches upon what our faculties should strive to provide as a service. There does seem to be a great deal of confusion over questions such as to what constitutes academic freedom, and the controversy surrounding it. The work of any academic worth his salt is to instantiate what people mean by the terms they loosely throw around. So here goes nothing.
Academic freedom implies the total lack of coercive force determining what the academic community should research. An example of this would be a totalitarian state determining certain objectives academics must meet, or paradigms academics must look the world through. The latter reminds us of the Soviet apparatchiks, who by default researched social science through Marxist theory. The former is not dissimilar, only more technocratic.
The question as to whether there has ever been academic freedom is a predictable answer. In the same way we have never truly been free of coercion but in a hypothetical Hobbesian State of Nature (where one imagines academia would struggle to persist anyway), academics have never been free from the vices of natural self-persistence and personal interest, nor the demands or duties that the community has imposed on them implicitly. Newton studied more alchemy than physics to try to turn copper into gold. You only have to look at two acceptable historical reasons why he would do that: the first is that whoever came up with this first would have considerably large personal advantage over other until gold deflated. The second is that most of Newton’s contemporary academics believed alchemy to be a perfect science. With both cases he was neither free from neither his personal self-interest nor the peer pressure of conforming to already established academic standards.
The New University crowd though, insist that things were better before. That somehow our marketization has made the academic community more constrained. Of course, instead of being at the service of the state or themselves, they are now at the service of big business. However, the instrumentalist school of philosophy of science, its main advocates being those who study medicine, maintain that academia should merely be a tool to serve others anyway. Furthermore, the market mechanism has allowed redistributing this service in a more efficient way than any other. What it does on the other hand is make essential goods – such as medicine – marketised too. This is where the liberalisation of the scientific community can turn nasty.
We have talked about academic freedom, but there’s also a deep sense of discontent in the New University movement as to what higher education should consist of.
Plato’s original Academy was, of course, conceived for those who strived for truth as well as personal fulfilment. This is replicated by Liberal Arts colleges such as University College Maastricht, that try to build the person as much as the nature surrounding the person. Its why it emphasises as much on humanities as the other sciences, believing the good academic to be a cultured, understanding one as much as a library-dweller. One senses this is what New University are really striving for in education: the development of the individuals own freedom, by giving him possibilities. Like UCM, they have borrowed this very liberal idea from across the Atlantic.
The bile-inducing narrative of liberal arts is of course something frowned upon by a variety of scientists and especially professionals of all stripes. They claim objectivity at every measure. Academic freedom, for them, is merely the ability to pursue the objective truth in their field. This forms the foundation of the academic community’s initial argument for the New University movement: why are we letting both individualism and demand-side pressure in a market system deform a community, whose entire credibility lies in its struggle for objective truth.
The debate between these two views of what higher education should be really gets to the heart of the matter: is higher education a means to become a professional academic, by learning the paradigm of one’s academic circle, and striving for the truth accordingly. Or should it remain this sort of stepping stone towards self-fulfilment, and liberating one from traditional coercive structures?
In terms of academic freedom though, this has and will remain, a tireless debate over what constitutes freedom in an academic context. Just taking the above dichotomy, one is either restricted by paradigm; or his or her objectivity is clouded by personal self-interest. Simply leaving an individualist free-for-all rather than clear guidelines – even at the service of others – in academia is very similar to the neo-liberal paradigm that its detractors critique. In this sense order is required, hopefully by a state agent, to set certain standards to meet while protecting academic freedom through potential subsidies and so on.
By James Mackle