Opinion: Democratising the Economised University

By Nick Brommersma

What is a university for? This is a complicated question but most answers would probably be along the lines of producing good research and providing high quality education.[1] Why then are discourses about profitability and job prospects so dominant around the university? Instead of advancing knowledge and forming ethically engaged adults, the university seems to be a handmaiden to the economy. A useful way to start thinking about this is by applying the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ theory of the colonisation of the lifeworld to this issue[2].

What does it mean when I use Habermasian jargon and say that we experience the colonisation of the lifeworld (university) by system imperatives (economy/market)? Habermas divides societies into two parts. On the one hand there are systems which have inputs and outputs which are regulated by a medium that helps to coordinate actions within that system. An example should clarify this sentence that is probably unintelligible to those unfamiliar with Habermas. The economy would be an example of a system. It has certain inputs e.g. resources and labour power and outputs e.g. consumer goods or tax revenues that are regulated through a medium i.e. money. The lifeworld on the other hand is that part of society that regulates itself through communication. Thus, the lifeworld is the space where we talk to each other to determine what to do. One might say that it’s the warm and fuzzy part of society in which we can collectively decide what actions to take, instead of having to follow rigid demands. Now, it can happen that a system gets into crisis, which means that it fails to create certain outputs. In that case it will try to exercise control over (colonise) part of the lifeworld to achieve the outputs it requires.[3]

And this is the moment where we go back to the university. Following Habermas we can say that the university is part of the lifeworld. It is (or ought to be) a space that formulates its own values through communication which it then pursues. But what seems to have happened is that there was a crisis in the economy[4] that made it colonise the university. That would explain why the university is organised like a business, producing publications and degrees which it regulates in monetary terms.

Given this analysis, what should we do? To free the university from the economic imperatives we need to strengthen the ability to determine communicatively the values the university should strive for. In other words, we should democratise the university. Of course, the concept of democracy is very complicated[5] but here are some suggestions for what could be done.

I think that it is important for the university to facilitate deliberative practices, which means that it helps students[6] to participate in the decision-making processes that bring about university policies. That could be done by giving more power to the councils (they only have a right to consent on very limited issues), Providing better information to students about the way the university functions, and creating space and time for students to reflect on and participate with these processes e.g. by lowering the pressure to finish one’s degree as fast as possible. It also means that the university should consider people that have been excluded or marginalised unjustly from conversations in and about the university. In other words, the university ought to take seriously allegations of sexist, racist, and colonial practices that prevent a domination-free discourse in which only the unforced force of the better argument counts (this is also a Habermasian concept[7]). Obviously the domination-free discourse is not something that is practically possible, especially not in an institution as complex as the university. However, this should not stop us (and speaking for DAG it will not stop us from trying) to strive for a university that facilitates these norm generating discussions.

[1] Of course, we could go in a more ideology critical route and talk about how the university reproduces certain social classes and produces certain knowledges that legitimise and feed into colonial and patriarchal practices. While these are certainly important discussions to be had, it is not what I want to discuss in this piece.

[2] I have my issues with Habermas and for some critiques of Habermas I am sympathetic to see e.g. Bruno Latour We have never been Modern (1993), Amy Allen The End of Progress (2016), and Nancy Fraser & Rahel Jaeggi Capitalism (2018). Latour and Fraser & Jaeggi critique Habermas’ concepts of lifeworld and system (in very different ways and Latour only implicitly). Allen shows how Habermas’ theories are inextricably bound up with a colonial discourse.

[3] I am aware that this is a strongly simplified version of Habermas and I’m willing to discuss the intricacies of Habermas given that I read two pieces by him and have followed three lectures that discussed him (I’m SUCH an expert on Habermas…) but that just doesn’t fit in this piece. I also want to thank Titus Stahl for helping me with some details concerning Habermas’ theory.

[4] I am keeping this consciously vague for two reasons. First, I’m not familiar enough with the history of university education and economic crisis, especially not with a Habermasian analysis of these issues. Second, it would go beyond the scope of this text to explore this issue further.

[5] I would call it an empty/floating signifier, a word that does not have a referent, so that it has to be filled with concrete examples. These words are typically very contested because people have different ideas of what it should mean.

[6] I’m talking mostly about students ‘cause I’m egocentric and think that the university is only about students. But of course this also applies to staff.

[7] And I also have problems with this one but I wouldn’t know a particular source that voices the critiques that I would have.