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Ideological discrepancy

Life is more than just capital. Universities are meant to guard this truth. Photo: K. Murali Kumar.  

hat we are seeing in different ways in supposedly ‘liberal’ states like the U.S., supposedly ‘social democratic’ states like Denmark and confusedly in-between nations like India is the increasing corporatisation of universities, the unquestioning implementation of the so-called ‘business model of universities’. This is based and conducted on two large principles: an external and an internal one. The external principle is: universities have to be viable and useful in a market economy. The internal principle is: Universities have to be structured in order to be efficient like corporations.

Both are deeply faulty and based on fictions. Both are ideological lies. Not only do they fail to apply to universities, they even fail to apply in the world outside universities.

That the market economy is neither sufficient nor self-sustaining nor, finally, very efficient has been brought home again and again by the cycles of economic crises that we have gone through since the 1980s. The reason why corporations seem to thrive a bit better than citizens in this fictitiously ‘efficient’ market economy is simple: governments do not hesitate to use the money of ordinary citizens to bail out and offer soft incentives to corporations and their crony banks.

The original liberal perspective — as set out by Adam Smith — has been long dead; murdered, if it ever was alive. This classical liberal perspective can be called the free trade school. What this implied was that governments and states should not interfere in markets and trade. This is not the case in today’s world, alas. Today, the assumption is that governments and states should interfere actively in markets and trades, and always to shore up and sustain corporations and banks. States are there to help big capital, not ordinary citizens. This is not classical liberalism. Let alone Karl Marx, Adam Smith would have turned in his grave today.

Flowering from this ideology, which hides layers and layers of falsehood, comes the demand that universities should be like corporations. We are made to believe that universities are losing money and academics and researchers are fired or asked to leave as a result. Entire departments are shut down even in rich nations for ‘losing money.’ But when did you last hear of a corporation head or a big banker being asked to leave for losing money? No, in the case of big business, governments are perfectly willing to pump money back into failing banks and corporations in most cases! But with universities, they are just as willing to tweak the indicators in order to argue for further cuts even when there is no pressing economic reason for it.

Along with this, governments remain complicit in creating business for business. No one talks about it, but universities lose more money by trying to be like corporations than from being centres of learning and research — if one looks at what universities usually lose money on, one notices the dominance of non-academic elements like branding, restructuring, bureaucracy, etc.

But there is a greater flaw. The bottom-line of a corporation is dividend: or the use of capital to create more capital. Everything else is superfluous to a corporation. In that sense, a corporation is the negative image of the world as we live it. In the world, if it is to make any sense, goods, products, knowledge, information, art, etc. are exchanged through the medium of money. Money is what gets us what we want or need. It is just a medium to enable us to live fully and satisfactorily. It is not an end in itself. But that is not the case with corporations or banks. If the bottom-line is economic profit, then we get the reverse situation: goods, products, knowledge, information, art etc. become the medium through which X amount of money grows into Y amount of money. Money becomes the end.

Of course, in today’s world where the bulk of money does not exist even as cash. It exists solely as numbers — you can see the effects of this. In the process by which money ceases to be a medium and a social relation — just something required to exchange human produce and natural value — we negate not just humanity, but also life and the earth. What is happening to universities today is an aspect of this greater process: a process that is reducing humanity, knowledge, art, science, life to merely a means by which X capital becomes Y capital.

By definition, universities should be resistant to this. Universities are places in which we engage, ideally, with life, earth, knowledge, art — that is, the universe as it is experienced by human beings. Capital is necessary for this, but it is not the purpose of universities to create capital — and, no, not even as jobs for the market. These, from the university point of view, are side results of an engagement with the universe as it is experienced by human beings.

And it is the university point of view that is the human point of view. Life is more than just capital. Universities are meant to guard this truth — and what we call ‘knowledge’ is largely the consequence of this. To lose sight of this fact is to lose sight of civilisation.

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

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Printable version | Oct 1, 2020 10:35:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/tabish-khair-on-universities-and-corporations-belonging-on-different-planets/article7485148.ece

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