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‘Academic freedom and the enclosure of knowledge in the global university’

Date Released: Mon, 30 September 2013 14:05 +0200

According to one of the top feminist scholars, Professor Silvia Federici, a discussion on academic freedom is timely as everywhere across the planet, this long fought-for principle is under siege.

This she said at her presentation for the DCS Oosthuizen Academic Freedom Memorial Lecture entitled ‘Academic freedom and the enclosure of knowledge in the global university.

Prof Federici highlighted the trends, which emerged in Africa in the ‘80s and are extending to all corners of the globe, which contribute to ‘a global enclosure of knowledge’ – the restriction of access to education to the ‘happy few’.

She said, knowledge and education are becoming commodified and profitability is becoming the sole logic by which the university is structured.

Since the 1980s universities have gone through an accelerating process of corporatisation. Corporations are becoming an increasing part of and directing academic life, with companies financing and sponsoring programs, shaping the curricula and conducting profit-oriented research.

Additionally the university itself is becoming a corporation, applying the same criteria that prevail in the world of business to education. This has major implications for academic freedom. 

“The invasion of the financial world in academia, the constant search for funding for one’s research, the need that students have to finish school as soon as possible in order not to accrue too much debt, the need to work at even more than one job while taking classes, are changing life on campus,” she said.

“Both in terms of undermining the type of sociality that was once possible when financial pressure was far less, and the promotion of the idea that education is an object of consumption, condition every aspect of academic and intellectual life, limiting what anyone can chose to read, write, research and in ways that are even more insidious and more difficult to challenge than overt political repression,” she said.

Prof Federici said she first experienced the transformation in the organisation and self-understanding of the university in the 1980s, when she taught for three years in a Nigerian university. At the time the country was facing the effects of the ‘debt crisis’ and debating whether or not to take a stand-by loan from the IMF and the World Bank.

By the late ‘80s, this situation prevailed in most African universities. In Scholars in the Market Place: The Dilemmas of Neoliberal Reform at Makerere University, 1989-2005 (2007), Mahmood Mamdani describes how the need to be economically self-supporting led to a process of “balkanisation of academe”, as departments started competing, “teaching whatever courses were assumed to bring some money, and resenting, in case of success, turning their surpluses to the institution”.

Soon, ‘cost sharing’, tuition fees were introduced in all African campuses, at the very moment when they were undergoing a process of ‘democratisation’, recruiting students from parts of the population generally excluded from academe.

“Teachers began to reduce class time, needing to integrate their meager salaries with consultancy work for companies off-campus and, at the same time, also began an incessant quest for ‘links’ with foreign institutions that would provide resources, [and] run classes on their campuses,” Prof Federici said.

“At the time it may have seemed that the developments restructuring the African universities were contingent to the situation in Africa, characterised as it was by economic liberalisation, currency devaluation, and stiff cuts in wages and services.

“But on returning to the US it became clear to me that, in different ways, the same trends were taking hold also in North America and soon after in Europe, signifying a major reconversion of the process of knowledge production and education, that increasingly subsumed both directly to the needs of the corporate world and the logic of profitability.”

In America, as the state has withdrawn much of its economic support to academic institutions, increasingly companies have stepped in with ‘donations’ which entitle them to use university facilities to conduct research and influence the curricula, “ensuring they are in conformity with their needs”.

As a result, Prof Federici said the university itself has become a business, whose main concerns are costs and profitability. “Not only have we seen a proliferation of for-profit-universities, whose funds depend on the fluctuations of the stock-market. Even the public universities now are mostly preoccupied with fund raising and lucrative projects in everything they do.”

The standardisation of educational materials, “so that anybody can then teach them” and regular increases in tuition fees are concerning factors, with students resorting to both government and bank loans and falling further into debt.

According to Prof Federici, the idea that education is or should be for ‘the common good’, or that it is an “investment the state should be making to increase the productivity of work and for the sake of democratic participation, is now replaced by an individualistic, competitive ethos, stressing its impact on future wages and competition in the global market”.

“Knowledge has no value when it is not applied to enhance our critical thinking, our individual and collective self-understanding, especially in terms of our history and social condition, and above all when it is not applied to the struggle against injustice and social divisions. When education is measured according to these standards then academic freedom will be achieved,” Prof Federici said.

By Sarah_Jane Bradfield

Photo by Desiree Schirlinger

Source:Communications Division