Commentary on “The New Political Economy of Higher Education”

A brief commentary on:

“The New Political Economy of Higher Education”, Special Issue of the journal Higher Education, Editors: Johannes Angermuller, Jens Maesse, Tilman Reitz, Tobias Schulze-Cleven, Higher Education, Volume 73, Issue 6, June 2017.

Eli Thorkelson put me on to this special issue of the journal Higher Education. I confess I had not seen it and that I was pleasantly surprised to see the robust theoretical and empirical work coming from a group of scholars who I was unaware of. Since I read as much as I can on US and European higher education (in English and Spanish), the fact that I was unaware of this network of researchers suggests that others might gain as much as I have from learning about their work.

This special issue contains the following articles:

  1. The new political economy of higher education: between distributional conflicts and discursive stratification, Tobias Schulze-Cleven, Tilman Reitz, Jens Maesse, Johannes Angermuller
  2. Worlds of higher education transformed: toward varieties of academic capitalism
  3. Tobias Schulze-Cleven, Jennifer R. Olson
  4. Autonomy or oligarchy? The changing effects of university endowments in winner-take-all markets, Heinz-Dieter Meyer, Kai Zhou
  5. Varieties of academic capitalism and entrepreneurial universities, Bob Jessop
  6. Academic hierarchies in neo-feudal capitalism: how status competition processes trust and facilitates the appropriation of knowledge, Tilman Reitz
  7. Fief and benefice feudalism. Two types of academic autonomy in US chemistry, Oliver Wieczorek, Stephanie Beyer, Richard Münch
  8. The elitism dispositif: hierarchization, discourses of excellence and organizational change in European economics, Jens Maesse
  9. On stratification in changing higher education: the “analysis of status” revisited, Roland Bloch, Alexander Mitterle
  10. Academic media ranking and the configurations of values in higher education: a sociotechnical history of a co-production in France between the media, state and higher education (1976–1989), Julie Bouchard
  11. Academic careers and the valuation of academics. A discursive perspective on status categories and academic salaries in France as compared to the U.S., Germany and Great Britain, Johannes Angermuller
  12. Academic mobility, transnational identity capital, and stratification under conditions of academic capitalism, Terri Kim

This is a rich collection of work ranging across a wide spectrum of political economy issues from a variety of perspectives. It is a dense set of works and so an attempt at a summary would be futile but I guarantee that reading it through will provide lots of new ideas and data on the processes of higher education. So I will only comment on things that struck me personally.

Throughout, the authors maintain a focus on comparison and their comparisons are often quite nuanced. General processes of hierarchization and neoliberal ideology are evident but a number of the articles leaven this generalized perspective by showing that national paths through these processes are anything but homogeneous. This is a helpful corrective to overly abstract generalizations about neoliberalism in higher education and also provide an anchor for local reform activities.

Many of the authors are quite sophisticated in economic analysis and thus do not fall for the simplistic argument that what is happening in mere “corporatization” of higher education. Their analyses are a good deal more nuanced and useful.

In a number of locations, they refer to the development of neo-feudal relations. In taking this up, the authors provide an interestingly new way of framing issues that have been talked about in other terms (new public management, neo-Taylorism, etc) and get additional analytical purchase on these authority systems.

A persistent theme is how ranking and stratification in academia itself can support the rising inequality in capitalism in general. This is a version of the famous cartoon strip “Pogo” where the cartoon characters say “We have met the enemy and they is us.”

There is a wonderful analysis of the way university endowments are being used to consolidate and protect the money of the rich under the guise of public-spirited charitable philanthropy. There is also an insightful argument about the need to distinguish between academic capitalism and emphasizing market mechanisms.

Regarding national differences, I greatly enjoyed the arguments that are made for the general trends in higher education being played out through highly path dependent scenarios in individual countries. So national differences persist and still matter, even though all countries are affected by neoliberal forces.

And there is a great deal more of interesting and nuanced analysis offered here.

I urge readers to delve into this collection. It provides fresh perspectives on many of the issues that traverse the whole field of higher education research and reform.

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