The Erosion of the University as a Public Sphere


In the interest of promoting individual and economic freedom, neo-liberal states have simultaneously deregulated and reduced the role of government in various sectors, giving power to the free market to allocate goods and services.  The university has historically been exempted from this process based on the widely accepted notion that higher education is a public good with benefits accruing to the whole community and, as such, should be funded by the government (Pusser, 15).  However, with the rise of knowledge capitalism, where knowledge and highly skilled human capital are the ascendant means of production, turning control and ownership of public universities over to the free market has become a priority for the government and businesses.  Consequently, a comprehensive system of policies and programs has been used to re-orient the goals of universities toward the market and also to impede their ability to uphold their commitment to democratic values.  The transformation of the functions of post-secondary institutions in turn promotes an argument that higher education is a private good, bringing added legitimacy to the neo-liberal ideology.

Neo-liberal Education Reform — Programs and Policies

The policies and programs implemented in higher education in accordance with neo-liberalism stem from either one of its two main goals (Martell, 3).  First, governments act to facilitate the privatization of public education.  This is largely achieved through cutting tax revenues, mostly from the wealthy, which reduces the amount of financial support that governments can provide and creates subsequent budget crises within post-secondary institutions.  At the same time that governments are withdrawing institutional support, they are also enforcing policies that require universities to demonstrate financial accountability and fiscal health to state policy makers (Dee, 135).

With funding from all levels of government on a continual decline and no end in sight, universities are forced to turn to private sources of revenue in order to balance their budgets.  The private sector penetrates public universities through for-profit activities such as fundraising, outsourcing of services to private companies, university-industry research partnerships, corporate sponsorship, and advertising on campus spaces (Pocklington, 141).  Governments further assist the process of privatization by increasing the amount of financial aid and loans for post-secondary education that students are eligible to receive.  By changing the recipients of public funding from institutions themselves to private individuals, governments deepen the reliance of universities on the private sector and also induce competition amongst them.

The second objective is the creation of an “iron cage” of economic rationality and standardization, which functions to regulate the production of human capital in the public education system (Martell, 7).   Neo-liberal governments accomplish this goal through the use of performance indicator systems which hold institutions publicly accountable and allow the state to effectively “steer from a distance” (Kuehn, 135).  Performance indicators assess the responsiveness of academic programs to the demands of the market, as well as their cost-effectiveness, using measurable and comparable criteria, such as enrolment numbers, the employability of graduates, and costs of instruction per capita (Pocklington, 144).  How well a university fares on the indicators determines the amount of public funding it will be awarded (Axelrod, 96), and the results are also used by potential applicants to help them make the decision of where to study.

Consequently, tremendous pressure is exerted on post-secondary institutions to internalize the cost-saving, market-oriented agenda of the government in order to improve their performance on the indicators.  Academic departments are restructured, programs are streamlined or cut to achieve greater efficiencies, and resources are re-allocated to programs that attract more students and impart graduates with marketable skills that guarantee employment (Gould, 80).  It is not uncommon for the governance and curriculum structure of universities to embrace the management principles and budget techniques that are used by private businesses and emulate the characteristics of the iron cage.

Neo-liberal education reforms expose higher education to the hegemony of the capitalist market and subject universities to the control of the state and the market.  The privatization of higher education gives businesses a large degree of influence over the production and ownership of knowledge, allowing them to ensure that the products of university research have market value and function to reproduce the status quo.  The rationalization of the academic and financial operations of universities allows the government to bring their objectives in line with its own goal of fulfilling the market’s demand for a flexible and highly skilled labor force (Martell, 7).  While these new policies and programs produce profits and a more competitive national economy, the application of market forces from without along with the rise of market culture from within the university is extremely detrimental to its ability to serve as an institutional site for a democratic public sphere.

The University as a Public Sphere

Brian Pusser makes the argument that the higher education process enacts the public sphere, as conceptualized by Jurgen Habermas: “a space . . . where public interaction, conversation and deliberation can take place, and where the nature of the state and private interests can be debated and contested” (Pusser, 18).  Through its research and teaching functions, the university can act as an ideal site for the production of knowledge for the common good and for the education of democratic citizens, who have the capacity to engage in rational debate in pursuit of the public good (ibid., 17).  The unique nature of the university, which has historically been administered autonomously by a public board of governors (ibid., 20), enables it to generate the critical perspectives and encourage the democratic participation that are prerequisites to the examination and contestation of the actions of governments and private entities.  However, the conditions which allowed for democratic research and education are disappearing as the state and the market increasingly intrude on the institutional autonomy of the university.

Production of Knowledge for the Common Good

Knowledge for the common good is a product of reflective inquiry, a research process which investigates the major issues that impact the wider society, such as poverty, class divisions, and the labor movement.  It is also characterized as being basic research for research’s sake, undertaken to examine the quality of existing knowledge with the goal of finding ways to improve the human condition (Pocklington, 6).  The production of knowledge for the public good rests on the safeguarding of institutional autonomy which preserves academic freedom, allowing research to be undertaken that may openly question, contradict, or condemn state and business practices.  The autonomous political contests that take place in a public sphere depend on the protection of the integrity of research and require the processes and findings of reflective inquiry to be made public and accessible so that it can be subjected to rational critique and debate.  Therefore, research must be circulated freely both within the university and within the larger community.  Universities that are not permitted to undertake research independently of state and market influences cannot produce basic research and knowledge that service a democratic public sphere (Pusser, 19).

The effects of neo-liberalism on higher education have caused the percentage of reflective inquiries undertaken in universities to decline (Pocklington, 6).  Professors applying for funding for research quickly discover that public research grants increasingly favor endeavors in science, engineering, and medicine to the neglect of the research in the humanities and social sciences (Axelrod, 86), and that private grants are similarly reserved for applied research projects that result in the discovery of new facts, products, or processes that can be licensed or patented.  The production of knowledge for the public good is also hindered by private-public partnerships in research and other forms of privatization, which may interfere with the ability of universities to pursue more democratic priorities and deter faculty from taking stances that oppose the status quo (Pocklington, 147).  Confidentiality agreements that restrict the publication of research and allow findings to be suppressed are not uncommon in commercial science (ibid., 147).  Without open debate and accountability, knowledge produced in universities can easily be distorted and hinder, rather than enable, political contest in a public sphere.

Education of Citizens for a Liberal Democracy

The education of responsible citizens, who have the capacity to advocate for the public good, is contingent upon exposure to liberal education, associated with the disciplines of the arts and sciences.  Liberal education consists of an introduction to a wide range of disciplines that teach humanistic values and concepts, such as ethics, social justice, beauty, and truth, with effect of “develop[ing] the breadth, serenity, and solidity of mind” (Gould, 2).  Students are trained “to explore subjects deeply, explain and define concepts and competing versions of it, research its origins, probe its theoretical strengths and weaknesses, examine it in practice, and assess its virtues” (Axelrod, 36), and leave with the ability to think critically both inside and outside the university.

In an era where public opinion can easily be mediated by mass media, conflicting information, unsubstantiated arguments, and propaganda (ibid., 39), the capacity to subject all arguments to thorough examination and recognize inconsistencies is a skill essential to a strong, deliberative democracy (ibid., 55).   Education in the liberal arts and sciences also provides students with an understanding of the social processes that shape the society they live in and also helps them theorize alternative systems, leaving them with the confidence to engage in rational debate about the kind of society they want to shape (Gould, 181).  Liberal education can be equated with democratic education in the sense that it produces responsible citizens who are concerned with the values central to democracy and who are instilled with the ability to argue for the social progress, equality, and justice (ibid., 217).

Subjecting the operations of the university to the iron cage of economic rationality has called the relevance and importance of liberal education into question.  The market system of education, in which outcomes are quantified and measured on performance indicators, favors knowledge with exchange value over symbolic knowledge.  Knowledge is treated like a commodity, and just like other goods and services, the value of knowledge is based entirely on its exchange value in the market (Gould, 102).

Commodified knowledge prepares students for applied research, results in specialized credentials that are in high demand in the labor market, and leads ultimately to greater individual and economic prosperity.  The academic programs that prepare students for the world of work, involving professional and technical training components, opportunities for cooperative education, and access to future employers, fare better on the indicators than liberal arts programs and are allocated a greater proportion of resources.  Instead of educating future citizens of a liberal democracy, the function of the university has become the training of highly skilled workers for a knowledge-based economy.  The inability of the university to perform the two functions that enable the university to serve as a site for autonomous contest and enact the public sphere causes the idea of the university as a public good to be lost.

From Public to Private Good

As neo-liberal economic policies and programs intensify the links between the university and the free market, the capacity of the university to serve as a democratic public sphere is being eroded.  Instead of engaging in the production of knowledge that can be used for the common good and the education of citizens who can argue for the common good, institutions of higher education now function to produce knowledge and human capital for the market.  This shift gives weight to the neo-liberal argument that the public good produced by postsecondary education does not justify financing by the state.

Using the economic models of cost-benefit analysis, neo-liberals make a case that the benefits of higher education — now re-defined as greater economic productivity and personal income — accrue more to the individual and private entities than to society, and thus higher education should be a private investment (Whitney, 30).  The erosion of public support for higher education is thus justified by the inability of the university to produce a public good, i.e. a public sphere, in the face of market pressures.  The processes of higher education have been reformed in accordance with neo-liberal principles, and the university’s resulting role as a “mechanism for personal advancement” (Gould, 55) is in turn used to legitimize the ideology of neo-liberalism.


As Robert Rosenzweig puts it, “The values of the market are not the values of the university” (qtd in Steck, 68), and the way that market forces have pushed out reflective inquiry and liberal education demonstrates that universities cannot hope to support democratic endeavors and the capitalist economy at the same time.  Democracy is about open, rational debate and autonomous political contest in the interest of coming to a consensus about and promoting the common good over individual gains.  In contrast, the system of capitalism has as its ultimate goal the exercise of individual, economic freedom, without concern for values or ethics.  The contradictory nature of the two philosophies makes it impossible for the university to produce knowledge and education that serve both systems.  The introduction of market forces into higher education by neo-liberal states has caused the functions and purposes of the university to shift dramatically in favor of sustaining capitalism, not democracy.

Works Cited

Axelrod, Paul.  Values in Conflict; The University, the Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education.  Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.

Boden, Rebecca and Debbie Epstein.  “Managing the Research Imagination?  Globalisation and Research in Higher Education.” Globalisation, Societies and Educatio. 4.2 (2006): 223-236.

Dee, Jay.  “Institutional Autonomy and State-Level Accoutnability: Loosely Coupled Governance and the Public Good.”  Tierney, 133-156.

Gould, Eric.  The University in A Corporate Culture.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Hayes, Dennis and Robin Wynyard.  The McDonaldization of Higher Education.  London: Bergin & Garvey, 2002.

Kuehn, Larry.  “The New Right Agenda and Teacher Resistance in Canadian Education.” Martell, 127-142.

Martell, George, ed.  Education’s Iron Cage and Its Dismantling In The New Global Order.  Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2006.

Martell, George.  “Introduction.” Martell, 1-14.

Pocklington, Tom and Allan Tupper.  No Place to Learn: Why Universities Aren’t Working.  Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002.

Pusser, Brian.  “Reconsidering Higher Education and the Public Good: The Role of Public Spheres.” Tierney, 11-28.

Steck, Henry.  “Corporatization of the University: Seeking Conceptual Clarity.”   Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 585 (2003): 66-83.

Tierney, William G., ed.  Governance and the Public Good.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

Tierney, William G.  “The Examined University: Process and Change in Higher Education.”  Tierney, 1-10.

Whitney, Karen M.  “Lost in Transition; Governing in a Time of Privatization.”  Tierney, 29-50.

Victoria Sit is a student at York University.

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