Hosted by the English Department, a recent lecture entitled ‘Commercial Cultural Theory and Semiotics’. Small, informal and spirited, it was led by two representatives from a unique market research company called Space Doctors, who predominantly use qualitative, cultural analysis to inform the direction of advertising agencies. Both with an academic background in the humanities, they have transferred their interpretative skills to the commercial world, imbibing theory into practice.
When the main presentation had finished and the time for questions had arrived, the girl behind me passionately asked that which had been on everybody’s lips: whether this enterprise was a sell out. After all, cultural materialism is an inherently left-wing discipline that aims to disseminate the ideology of power structures, and ‘Space Doctors’ essentially exploit its research for a counteracting effect. But the main speaker was confident in his reply: he acknowledged the validity of her comment, but challenged her to find a career from her degree that was not financially motivated.
From this ensued a fascinating discussion about the increasing unification of academia and commercialism, a fact that we can be ideologically opposed to but cannot escape.This serendipitously timed debate helps to inform our reading of the recent resignation of LSE director Howard Davies over the exposure of his links to the Libyan regime.
As our country unites in condemnation of Gaddafi and buttresses the cause of civilian protestors, it would be easy to demonise Davies and his underlings as part of a corrupt plutocracy, all too ready to sacrifice academic scrupulosity for a financial bolstering.
Although this is certainly true to an extent (the allegation that Gaddafi’s son plagiarised parts of his doctoral thesis is particularly incriminating), the easiness of such a polemic descends into facility when considering the past of other British universities, and the profundity of the issue that this represents. Exeter, for example, were making similar ties with Libya back in 2003, when vice-chancellor Steve Smith shook hands with Gaddafi on a £75 million deal to educate the next generation of Libyan academics.
“Britain is developing strong new links with Libya and is very interested in doing business with it”, Smith said, “and it will open up a whole new era of diplomatic relations”. Similarly, the University of Leeds voiced a commitment to Libyan students in 2006, offering a Ministry of Health Scholarship Scheme for the nation’s postgraduates. Ties to Gaddafi’s regime are thus by no means restricted to LSE, and it is partially due to the media’s recent focus on Libyan politics that they have been the recipient of such localised criticism.
It is true, however, that Davies and LSE have been involved in distinct practices that should not escape our condemnation. Along with the controversy surrounding the Phd thesis of Saif Gaddafi, they have been funded to actively promote the reputation of his father in the West, demonstrating a clear, economic partisanship that is difficult to separate from their overall ethos as a university. To quote Ashok Kumar, the education officer at LSE’s students’ union, their relationship with Gaddafi’s family was ‘deeper and more perverse than we would have ever imagined’, and the malignity of these revelations naturally stretch beyond the efforts of media sensationalism.
Their situation is, as the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins argues, ultimately an extreme version of the predicament now facing all UK universities. Indeed, the dealings of LSE are indicative of a more fundamental issue, namely the gradual conflation of academia with commercialism. This process effectively began in 1988 with Thatcher’s call to “bring higher education institutions closer to the world of business”, a relationship that has since been consolidated with research assessment exercises, income-generating units and capitation grants. Universities can no longer offer education for education’s sake: they must gear it towards profit.
For some, this is the pragmatic outcome of industrialization; but for others, it is ideologically reprehensible, and I find myself straying towards the latter group. John Dewey wrote that ‘Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself’, and if you can move past the triteness of axiom, it is difficult not to find truth in that statement. If universities are merely training students for the workplace and acting as vehicles for the economy, then they amount to little more than mass internships and cease to be the independently reflective institutions that they should be; they risk being assimilated into the globalist push for economic expansion and, in the case of Davies and the LSE, losing any sense of integrity.
The recent allegations are therefore shocking in themselves, but we must be aware of their deeper implications of the yoking between universities and the governing institutions. This development is of grave concern, and its position within the broader globalist movement may make it seem impossible to reverse; but to paraphrase Burke in gentler terms, the only thing necessary for the triumph of commercialism in academia is for a resisting force to do nothing, and the situation therefore need not be hopeless.