Academic Capitalism and the Accelerated Academy

Corporate culture has no place in academia says Olof Hallonsten in his report for Nature on the medical scandal at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. This involved allegations of fraud against Paolo Macchiarini which may have resulted in patient deaths  .

It appears that university leaders chose to overturn established procedures and overlook external evaluations of Professor Macchiarini’s work, preferring to prioritise reputation and avoidance of scandal. As Hallonsten points out, this sort of behaviour by senior managers of universities, although tiresomely familiar, conflicts strongly with academic values of peer review and close scrutiny of claims which are designed to protect those hard-won personal and institutional reputations for research integrity. Unfortunately, too many university managers have confused university reputation with accumulated capital, not with solid scholarship and ethics.

The episode at Karolinska has led the president of the Supreme Administrative Court in Sweden to conclude that: “There is now an elevated risk that fraud is not properly detected and that ethically doubtful research is allowed to continue, notes the report, because new policy incentives cloud the judgement of academic leaders.”

Policy incentives? Hallonsten identified the intrusion of academic capitalism  whereby “universities abandon traditional meritocratic and collegial governance to hunt money, prestige and a stronger brand.”   He goes further: “The individual’s struggle for recognition in science is colonized by university managers, who use the achievements of scientists and students to accumulate capital (economic, symbolic and cultural, in Bourdieu’s terms), and thus increase the visibility of their university”.

Notice this is Nature, not Workplace or Discover Society where you might be more accustomed to finding these critical voices. To divert this readership from Mars exploration or quantum dynamics, and turn their collective heads towards Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital – well, you know there must be an issue with academics’ condition of labour.

In more news this week, the Times Higher reports that applications for grants to research councils have success rates of 12-33%. Such evidence, though, when placed before a university manager cuts no ice. Gaining a grant is in many UK and US universities, an essential requirement for promotion. But when success rates are so low, and when each proposal is estimated to take 171 hours of an academic’s time, it is apparent that the wolf of academic capitalism has started to devour its own young. The time would be better spent in actually writing and researching, but journal articles do not afford vice chancellors the same bragging rights as £££ secured.

Management by metrics has been very successful in constructing highly stressed but docile bodies for the exploitative demands of the corporate anxiety machine.  Hall and Bowles (2016) argue that the construction of anxiety is not an unintended consequence, but instead is “inherent in a system driven by improving performance”. Drawing on the Marxist concept of subsumption whereby constraints on labour are overruled by the demands of capital, they claim that anxiety has an important role to play in persuading workers that they are underperforming, and to deflect strategies of refusal. Given the incapacitation which is evoked by this level of scrutiny and control, there can be no other reason for management to deploy these strategies.

There is an alternative. We can reclaim academic integrity and freedom by refusing to inhabit the accelerated academy. We are urged towards a kind of academic festination, which to those familiar with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is an inefficient and tiring gait whereby the patient finds it hard to slow down and stop. It usually ends with a bad fall. Many of us in the academy will recognise that disorder.

Colleagues based at the University of Warwick Sociology department are researching the effects of the accelerated academy . This scholarship is beginning to be translated into action in the form of collective resistance to defeat outcomes-based performance management.

Manifestos are springing up to defend traditions of university autonomy, a humane workplace, collegiality, academic freedom and shared governance.

The Copenhagen Declaration (2016) details some essential rights: “These include the right to intellectual and professional self-determination within the context of the organization’s welfare, the right not to be fired at will, the right to a workplace that does not tolerate bullying and other abuses of authority, the right to criticise the institution in public, and the right to reject inappropriate forms of assessment”.

Aberdeen’s Reclaiming our University (2016) includes this goal: “To restore the trust that underpins both professionalism and collegiality, by removing those systems of line and performance management, and of surveillance, which lead to its erosion”.

Other declarations urge universities to resist the distorting effects judging academic work by simple metrics.

We can all act to make a difference and push back this most damaging, league-table induced trend in UK universities and beyond the UK. Join us by supporting the work of the HE Convention and the Alternative White Paper 2016. 


Academics Anonymous. (2014). Professors are supposed to be stressed! That’s the job. 14th October.

Editorial. (2016). Macchiarini scandal is a valuable lesson for the Karolinska Institute. Nature, 537,137 (08 September).

Hall, R. and Bowles, K. (2016). Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labour. 28. Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor.

Hallonsten, O. (2016). Corporate culture has no place in academia. Nature, 538, 7, (06 October).

Slaughter, Sheila and Rhoades, Gary. (2009). Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


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