“Investing” in higher education

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Jan Blommaert 

In response to criticism by protesters, aimed at the neoliberalization of universities, governments often reply that “they are investing more” in universities than ever before. This argument often has a silencing effect, it is often seen and experienced as an effective rebuttal of the protesters’ claims.

It also fits nicely with the general call, repeated endlessly, that “the best possible investment is investment in education”. From Warren Buffett and the World Economic Forum down to local city councils and poverty-combating NGO’s: the same message is broadcast over and over again. Invest in education, and you will increase employment rate, build superior skills for the workforce of the future, produce surplus value and become innovative that way, and fight poverty most effectively. “Investing in education” is generally perceived as uniformly and unambiguously good, something we all want and something of which all of us would massively benefit. Governments pulling that rabbit out of their hats, therefore, can align their discourses with massively consensual ones at societal level. Which increases the silencing effect of the argument on protesters claiming a more democratic and low-threshold university.

The argument is very easy to answer though. The issue is what EXACTLY governments are investing in? The fact of investment itself is entirely conditioned, as to usefulness and impact, by the actual aspects of university life that receive the investments. And looking at these, we see that such investments usually go to constructing or strengthening a high-end elite environment of competitive science: new state-of-the-art labs specialized in research that can be immediately converted into market value. Or some “top” recruitment of celebrity professors capable of attracting loads of new students. “Low end” activities, on the contrary, are usually the object of disinvestment (think of student facilities, adjunct academics, basic infrastructure).

So the issue is: where do the investments actually go to? After all, a company can say that it “invests” in its factories by repainting their façades.

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