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  • How Useful Should the University Be? On the Rise of the Global University and the Crisis in Higher Education
  • Gert Biesta (bio)

Introduction: The Crisis in Higher Education

In many countries around the world there is a sense of crisis concerning the state and future of higher education. This sense of crisis seems to be predominantly connected with the question of resources. Although many universities have seen a steady reduction in their budgets over the past decades, and while many academics have become used to constantly having to do more with less, the recent global financial crisis has brought about much more radical shifts in the funding of higher education—shifts that are not simply financial but also ideological, at least in their implications and often also in their intent. In England, for example, the government has recently decided to withdraw state support from almost all university teaching programs, with the exception of a small number of “priority subjects” (the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). To compensate for the impact of this measure, the government is allowing universities to charge students much higher fees, thus shifting the responsibility for the funding of higher education from the state to individual students. While from a North American perspective the actual fees may seem relatively low, they are unprecedented in the English situation, something [End Page 35] that was reflected in student protests surrounding the decision making. Scotland is currently still providing higher education to its citizens without charging fees, although university budgets for teaching and research have already been cut and further measures are expected after the elections for the Scottish government in the spring of 2011.

What is most disconcerting about many of these measures is that they are presented as if there is no alternative. This means that they are presented not just as inevitable but, more importantly, as not involving any choice. In doing so, politicians and policy makers not only seem to denounce their agency and thus their responsibility for the course of events but are also trying to mask the ideological forces at work, often by explicitly stating that “none of this is ideological”—a favorite phrase in the parlance of the current UK government. Yet, as Zygmunt Bauman reminds us, “whoever willingly or by default partakes of the cover-up or, worse still, denial of the human-made, non-inevitable, contingent and alterable nature of social order . . . is guilty of immorality,” so that “placating the pangs of conscience with ritual incantation of the TINA (‘there is no alternative’) creed, means complicity.”1 To suggest that there is no alternative implies at the very least a lack of imagination, so that one effective response lies in showing that there is always an alternative. More likely, however, the reference to the TINA creed stems from an unwillingness to expose—and hence justify—the values that are informing the choice to bail out the banks and invest in the renewal of the “nuclear deterrent” while at the same time withdrawing funding from higher education. If any justification is given at all, this is often done in a populist vein in which the alleged benefits of higher education are depicted as only having to do with individual students—this leading, on the one hand, to the (rhetorical) question of why taxpayers who have not been or will not go to university should pay for those who do, and, on the other hand, to the (rhetorical) suggestion that university education is an investment in one’s own human and social capital, conveniently forgetting that the positional advantage that came with a university degree in an elite higher education will not necessarily be replicated in a mass higher education system.2 [End Page 36]

A Different Crisis: The Rise of the “Global University”

While the sense of crisis around higher education’s financial situation is undeniably real, and while it is responding to real issues that are really affecting higher education, I wish to suggest that there is another crisis in higher education—one that is less visible, one where it is less easy to partition the blame, but one that, in my view, may well have a more devastating...


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