Once upon a time, universities were the places, where intellectuals, teachers and students were a community of learners free to reflect and understand. They were free to practise their sciences in rigorous pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

But universities are no longer bastions of academic freedom, to understand the past, analyse the present or prepare for the challenges of the future.

Far from the academy, universities are behaving like a commodity market today. Degree-selling supermarkets where teachers and students are cash cows for the university managers.

The authoritarian governments of neoliberalism consider investments in good education to be a burden on the state. Yet governments treat education, higher education in particular, as a profitable business. What explains this paradox?

Fund cuts force the managers to follow their political masters or the funding bodies’ agenda. The very idea of independent research, teaching and learning become anathema. The teaching and non-teaching staff and students in the universities become numbers in the managers’ Excel sheets.

These managers are alien to the idea of research and teaching. Their bluffs continue to be the rulebook of university management. Like a quack’s medicine, they do not heal but aggravate the crisis.

They try to manage staff and students exactly the way they manage university buildings, computers, chairs, tables and other non-living assets. We are all resources for the accumulation of profit in their eyes.

These managerial classes, in alliance with ruling and non-ruling classes, have destroyed the idea of universities. They have transformed university intellectuals into lumpen herds. The culture of compliance has cultivated both fear and faith in the managers.

The pressure they impose in their evaluations, to pursue uniformity and conformity in the name of process-driven quality assurance, has ruined the diverse technologies of knowledge production within universities. Debates, discourses and the democratic culture of disagreements are destroyed within the unsupple process-driven matrix of research rankings, teaching frameworks and learning objectives. Slogans of ‘employability’, ‘partnerships’ with business and industry, and ‘knowledge transfer skills’ are the tools to attract increasingly indebted students to these universities, rendering knowledge production secondary to an essentialist set of skills for jobs.

Such strategies have transformed universities and other centres of higher learning into vocational training centres. The teaching and non-teaching staff are the new slaves within universities.

Such transformations did not happen overnight. The success of managers and managerialism, the marketisation of universities reflects the utter failures of intellectuals, as individuals and as a group.

The puerile careerism and individualism of these intellectuals not worth the name, allowed managers to divide and suppress them, destroying the collective foundations of knowledge seeking and sharing within universities and outside them.

As a result, the typical university is no longer a community of learners, but a place of transaction between the sellers (teachers) and buyers (students). The culture of interaction is replaced by exchange relationships driven by market forces within campuses. The fancy buildings, smart classrooms, hi-tech libraries and airport-like coffeeshops look good but make tired students and staffs feel like solitary car parks.

The reasons are obvious: transactional relationships are essentialist (they reduce you to one essence), and exchange relationships are functional, with a given expiry date. They cannot form a critical mass or a meaningful bond among a community of learners.

How did university intellectuals land themselves in such a situation? What is the future of university students and staff? The answers to these questions need deeper introspection. Here are two significant issues that need a closer look.

The first issue is around the works of intellectuals and their relationship with production within larger economies. The second issue involves the relationship between intellectuals, their role and location within our class-divided societies.

Origins of the Intellectuals

The deepening of capitalism from the nineteenth century led to the growth of a professional intellectual class – tutors, lecturers, readers, professors, fellows, researchers and their hierarchical reincarnations – within universities. This professional class is not homogeneous, except that the intellectuals within it behave like a herd, as if they are somehow different from ordinary working people.

Intellectuals started normalising this superficial notion by theorising that they do not produce anything with immediate use value or exchange value within markets, hence they and their interests are different from the working classes. This myopic and self-flattering prejudice is carried forward by the big media, to smother people’s desire for understanding and freedom.

In reality, the computer science curriculums of the highest-ranked universities are determined by the requirements of Silicon Valley. Wall Street and the City of London decide the nature of economics, banking, finance and business management curriculums. International relations, politics, area studies and security studies are shaped by NATO and other security formations of states and non-states. Pharmaceutical businesses decide the nature of research in chemistry and medicine. Assorted supremacists, religious and reactionary, are only the latest social groups to see success in controlling and rewriting curriculums of language, literature, history, philosophy, archaeology, anthropology to suit their goals of domination and power.

There are always exceptional universities and alternative programmes of studies, and a few university intellectuals who promote critical scientific study of the humanities, society, nature. But these critical attempts are easily ‘branded’ as non-merit, elitist, old-fashion and unprofitable goods by market-driven university programmes.

Overwhelmingly it is clear that university intellectuals don’t have control over their programmes. They don’t have control over their own labour because once they produce a programme, teaching material or publish a research paper, it belongs to the university. Such trends reflects medieval feudalism within modern universities.

University intellectuals are micro and macro managed by a handful of managers of ‘capital’, to achieve their goals. They behave like lumpen herds and betray their own class, which is a working class both in terms of its foundation and location.

Words and Things

Marx and Engels argued in The German Ideology that “the class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production at its disposal”. The material production of goods and services for use and exchange value cannot be separated from the mental production of ideas.

There is thus a commonality of class interests and class relations between manual and intellectual workers, as they produce value together, and capitalism misappropriates it, and weakens the working class by dividing it.

Universities merely reflect the capitalist social order and economic processes in the larger context. University managers behave like the lumpenproletariat, defined in a translation of The Communist Manifesto as the “passive decaying matter of the lowest layers of the old society… here and there thrust into the movement by a proletarian revolution; in accordance with its whole way of life, it is more likely to sell out to reactionary intrigues.”

The marketisation of universities has led to the growth of industrialised minds, industrialised degrees and programmes in the service of dominant capitalist forces. The work creates consciousness if workers get time to reflect. But the process-driven university teaching and research assignments give very little time to the university workers to reflect. Otherwise, university intellectual snobbery would end with working class consciousness.

Such assimilation of university intellectuals is detrimental to interests of the intellectuals themselves. It reproduces exploitative capitalist class relations.

It is within this context that intellectuals will have to reclaim their role in society, question the power that controls their labour, and find their class foundation and class location within a working-class politics for the radical transformation of capitalist society.

The future of universities, and society in general, depends on the way intellectuals fight to disentangle themselves from markets. The independence of intellectuals depends on the emancipation of ordinary working people (including themselves) from plunder by the capitalist owners. Therefore, it is in the interest of the intellectuals to form unity with their working-class brethren and fight this system of production and distribution.

It is the unadulterated responsibility of intellectuals to think beyond themselves and their family, community, caste, class, society – within and beyond the library or campus.

It is time to reconstruct the revolutionary legacies of working-class intellectuals. Only a collective struggle will offer an alternative, and ensure the emancipation of the working majority.