The financialization of the university

Drawing on her earlier work on the financialization of student life (2009), where
she appropriated Deleuze’s well-known assertion that “man is no longer a man confined
but a man in debt” (1995: 181), Morgan Adamson argues that today students are no
longer disciplined but controlled through debt in the university. Focusing specifically on
human capital strategies, and on the ways in which students today are objects for
financial investment, Adamson suggests that the ways in which capital attempts to
invest in labouring bodies to turn these into fixed capital is paradigmatic of a new form
of control in cognitive capitalism.

The latest special issue 9 of Ephemera is dedicated to the crisis of the university under extreme neoliberalism, offers a critique of ethical business school curricula and calls for the mutual study of ‘critical finance studies’. It’s a very rich collection of essays and strongly recommended. (here’s the editorialintroduction)

The issue has to must-read, detailed reviews of important books:

1. Marazzi, C. (2010) The Violence of Financial Capitalism , trans. K. Lebedeva. New York: Semiotext(e). Intervention Series 2

2. The Edu-factory Collective (eds) (2009) Toward a Global Autonomous University. Cognitive Labor, The Production of Knowledge, and Exodus from the Education Factory. New York: Autonomedia, 2009

Amongst the other articles:

• The human capital strategy, by Morgan Adamson at

• The eve of critical finance studies. By Dick Forslund and Thomas Bay at

Extreme neo-liberalism: an introduction. Stefano Harney at

• Charting the Terrain of Struggle in the Global University. Elizabeth Johnson and Eli Meyerhoff at

* A crisis of finance: financialisation as a crisis of accumulation of new capitalism. Francesca Bria at

Excerpts from the editorial:

“Many elite business schools are now attempting to trade upon any notion other than the vocational hand-maiden to capitalism motif traditionally insisted upon by the Ford and Carnegie Foundations (Wallace, 2010). Harvard Business School seems to be taking the lead in this regard within this recently emergent genre where, for example, a variety of MBA students now promise to be ethical (Wayne, 2009), a variety of business professors blog on how to put the business school back on the right footing (e.g. Podolny, in HBR, 2009) and a variety of journal articles debate and propose the principles of a new progressive managerialist ethos (Khurana and Nohria, 2008). Harvard Business Press has recently published a special collection of debates in and around the business school, as if to draw a line under the fact that all is again well (Harvard Business Review, 2009). The responses on the fringes of the academy, which has equally produced a number of special journal issues or extensive discussion sections (e.g. Cairns and Roberts, 2009; Haynes, 2009; Currie et al. 2010), has had a similar flavour.

The progressive model of the re-imagined business school that largely guide these responses is still that of the professional school (cf. Khurana, 2007) whilst even the most conservative responses to rethinking business school teaching have proceeded from the narratives of “bad individual behaviour”, thereby masking any discussion of the systemic flaws in the neoliberal ideological programme (Gamble, 2009). Ethics here becomes a key word in the salvaging the model of the business school. Business Ethics, whatever the signifier may denote at any particular time, has in recent years had a place within the confines of business school curriculum. It now offers up a pragmatic and “safe” response to the crisis from the viewpoint of neoliberal ideology. Offering up “more ethics” as a cure for recent events does not challenge the fundamental concept of the business school as a training ground for agents of the accumulation process, and perversely suggests that the business school can correct the most devastating aspects of the crisis by simply fine-tuning the ingredients of its curriculum. Two characteristics of these debates impose themselves on the observer. On the one hand, they hardly exceed the terms and bounds of earlier debates regarding the utility and ethics of business school education, most prominently expressed in Mintzberg’s (2004) critique of MBAs and Ghoshal’s (2005) attack on ethical nihilism. In an earlier special issue of ephemera (Beverungen et al., 2008), we suggested that a more radical reposing of the terms of this debate, and a more boundless critique of the business school is necessary – and was necessary even before the financial crisis. On the other hand, what is practically entirely lacking in these debates is any discussion of perhaps the most urgent condition of these debates: the financialisation of universities. There is certainly much talk of ethics, of social responsibility, of history and politics, and of critique. But while there are a few critiques of finance capital and financialisation, there is next to no analysis of how these very factors, these very objects of study, impact on study itself. It is as if the finances of the university remain the great unspoken, the fundamental condition that remains hidden.

The business school hence continues to embrace a capitalist mode of production, and all the while its revisionist advocates underline how it is now a school of ethics, a school of humanities, a school of learning – a school of anything other than a school of business! We must make the wager here that this persistence to affirm something, anything, says something about business school advocates, namely, that because of their very financial modality, they are not able to articulate anything for themselves other than their will towards yet more finance. !i”ek (2009) suggests that this lack of a will to articulate an alternative is an endemic feature of the left today. Following Lacan (2005), we might describe this lack of assertion as the very sinthome of the business school, the curious knotting together of its place within the bonds of authority and production, its fragmented self-images and its libidinal circuits. This sinthome is “what’s in them more than them”, and the inability of business schools to speak convincingly to the crisis might very well point to what constitutes them in the current political and institutional context: their very own finances.”

Finances of the University

“Once we shift the focus of analysis in the direction of the university and financialisation, we move beyond the content of university teaching, its curricula and pedagogies, and look at the form which university education takes today. In so doing, we proceed to ask how this very form is itself shaped by finance. And so we come to question why there is hardly a university left without a private equity club, a hedge fund society, or a trading room. While some insist on the learning experience and ethical aspects of trading, others note the ways in which these activities imbue a particular conservatism and opportunism, which deny the call for a critical engagement with finance (Jacobs, 2009). The most extreme form this teaching of finance takes is perhaps the belief that finance could function without production – a belief Marx was amused by long ago.

It is utter nonsense to suggest that all capital could be transformed into money capital without the presence of people to buy and valorize the means of production, i.e. the form in which the entire capital exists, apart from the relatively small part existing in money. Concealed in this idea, moreover, is the still greater nonsense that capital could yield interest on the basis of the capitalist mode of production without functioning as productive capital, i.e. without creating surplus-value, of which interest is simply one part; that the capitalist mode of production could proceed on its course without capitalist production. (Marx, 2006b: 501)

Apart from finance as a subject of study, on the side of the students, there is student debt, which is rocketing so much so that in the US there is now talk of student debt as the next big bubble (Samuels, 2010b). In the UK in recent years, student credit has gradually replaced a system of grants and scholarships to the point where average debt is now £20,000 per student (Forkert, 2009: 2). At the same time, fees look likely to rise across the board, and considerably so for the top institutions. It would perhaps not be an exaggeration to suggest that students spend more time on personal finance – applying for grants and students loans; waiting for the same to come through; asking their parents for financial support; arranging overdrafts with bankers; finding another part-time job to alleviate their debt – than on actual study. All the while, students are asked to consider their very education as an investment in their future, as an enhancement to their employability (emphasised by the Burgess Report in the UK), their future saleability to capital. This finance has its own pedagogy (Williams, 2009).

And on the side of the university, we are long accustomed – long before the recent cuts and threats of cuts in response to the crisis – to vice-chancellors’ talk of efficiency savings, of the need to invest in future growth, the pressure to develop knowledge exchange as a further revenue source, etc. Finance has advanced so far into the logic of the university that in August 2009 Mark Yudof, president of the University of California, found it more sensible to lend $200 million to the state of California than to invest it in education – despite the severe cuts in the education budget, cuts in provision and hikes in student fees – noting wryly that “when the university lends money to the state, it turns a profit, but when it spends money on salaries for teachers, the money is lost” (Samuels, 2010a). This is only the last consequential step in the transformation of the University of Excellence (Readings, 1996) into the University of Finance, where it is the entrepreneurship of students and faculty, and their financial gravitas that seems to count most. It is from here that our contributors proceed.”

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