GLOBAL: Marketisation, globalisation and universities

"Despite the proclaimed virtues of globalisation, there is an all too evident closing of minds and hearts," said Professor Saleem Badat, Vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, at the South Africa-Nordic Centre (Sanord) conference on Inclusion and Exclusion in Higher education held at the university from 7 to 9 December. "Arrogant power, narrow economic interests and dubious orthodoxies" are ruling thinking about what universities should now be and do.

Universities are not simply "instruments of economies", Badat said, adding that "a new logic of revaluing knowledge and education is needed to restore to universities their diverse social purposes".

The recent marketisation and globalisation of universities was firmly interrogated by the keynote speakers at the conference.

Risto Rinne, director of the Centre for Lifelong Learning and Education at Turku University in Finland, did a sweeping overview for the conference delegates of changes in the global university landscape since the 1950s.

"Historically, studying at university was a natural privilege reserved for a few members of the upper class. It was only along with the baby boomers that the possibility of a higher education became available for the larger population group," he said. Speaking of the Nordic countries, Rinne said it was after the second world war that with the transition from industrial to service and welfare societies that universities became a mass system to "answer the growing demand for highly trained manpower".

But in today's post-industrialised societies there is growing pressure from "supranational organisations" (such as the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) to become "market-oriented enterprise" universities. In Finland this year the government passed a "radical" law making universities independent legal persons supplied with starting capital so as to position them to respond better to markets.

Rinne said: "Changes driven by economic, ideological and pragmatic motives have heavily modified the forms of mechanisms of governance and university policy-making. The old traditional models, collegial organisation, professional bureaucracy, organised anarchy, or loosely coupled organisation, have been replaced by the corporate model and the entrepreneurial model, the service model or the McUniversity model."

And, he concluded: "While quantitative democratisation of higher education systems is well established, many sociologists do not equate it necessarily with lesser injustice."

Kerstin Sahlin, Deputy Vice-chancellor of Uppsala University in Sweden, said that the worldwide expansion in institutions, disciplines and programmes and enrolment (including women and minorities) has resulted in "a process of stratification" which, she said, was characterised by "ranking activism - a race to the top of the list of universities, 'world-class' initiatives and alliances and mergers".

"The university," she said, "is in the heart of globalisation. Universities adapt to globalisation, they reinvent themselves and they channel globalisation."

She quoted Richard Levin, President of Yale University, as saying that with the increased flow of goods, services, information and people, universities faced the tension between being "instruments of peace and instruments of national competition". In the global market universities are seen as "prime resources for national competition and engines of national growth".

"Market systems permeate the university system and allocation of resources follows market principles." A telling example is the $30 billion market in educating the millions of foreign students who study abroad, of which the US alone has $13 billion.

The result of globalisation and marketisation is a "stratified pattern" in higher education. Rankings of universities tend to group those similar and exclude those that don't look like Harvard. This creates a "one-size fits all model," Sahlin said, "in which the successful university looks like this". An example here would be the plethora of MBA programmes which are all very similar in design.

Sahlin paid special attention to rankings, saying that in the last 10 years there have been not only rankings, but "rankings of rankings and lists of rankings". Anyone disagreeing with a ranking system tends to start their own, like the European Union.

"Rankings seem to comprise entire universities and disciplinary domains. It's the Harvard model for everybody and I don't know if that is so wise," she commented. The French higher education system is now being completely reorganised because historically it has not fitted international ranking systems and the government now wants to be able to rank their institutions.

"It's so easy to slip into these rhetorics," Sahlin said, adding that one result of ranking systems is alliances between elite institutions which are further instruments of exclusion.

Sahlin urged the Sanord members to think about "relevance and responsibility". Mutuality of learning and reciprocity are very important in North-South exchanges. Global and local knowledge is critical. She said for the universities involved in the network it's a question of relations rather than quantity.

"We don't need to be extremely large, we need to be extremely good."

Anthropologist Vigdis Broch Due from Bergen, who heads a poverty politics research group, approached the issue from a different point of view. Titling her keynote lecture "In praise of complexity" she called for an ethics of standing against the "seductions of simple-mindedness" in which a "dense reality is organised into an easily graspable reality by bureaucrats and policy-makers."

"Ideas shape the world," she reminded the intellectuals present, "and the world is simply, stubbornly complex. How can we understand the world without betraying complexity?" she asked.

She argued that what universities and scholars do best is to use "thick descriptions" (Clifford Geertz' words) to help societies understand the world they live in. "This should be at the core of our production and dissemination of knowledge and it runs counter to the current domination of the thin descriptions of current policies."

The drive to thin descriptions is because it is "easier and manageable", but the challenge for academics is to "insert the thick into the thin" because "thin knowing has a host of unintended consequences which is the bitter fruit of policy implemented through the last decade" in higher education institutions, she said.

"There is something reassuring about simple binaries such as 'men exploit, women are exploited'; a powerful need to distil social complexities into moral simplicities. But scholars and analysts should resist the overriding concern with categorisation," Broch-Due said.

"We cannot dislodge simplistic stories by arguing they are wrong, we must provide a better story, a more compelling story. This is also a question of pragmatics: how do we tell a better story?"she asked and then elaborated: the community of scholars must use the techniques of communication, talking to publics and across disciplines, writing and publishing in "many different genres".

The key to understand the world is in higher education, she concluded, "only higher education gives the key to complex thinking. It is impossible to divorce knowledge from the community of knowledge-making."

In the face of what seems to be an unstoppable commitment by governments to make universities the engines of national supremacy and economic development, Peter Vale, Nelson Mandela Chair of Politics at Rhodes University, asked Sanord to facilitate a discussion on "globalising elite discourses".

Sahlin responded: "We have to bring to the surface the very idea of the university itself, we cannot take it for granted". But she also said perhaps the solution for an organisation such as Sanord was to "disregard the [globalising] discourse and just do what we think is important".

Badat's opening words were apt: to steer the university into the future "we need other principles, other co-ordinates and logics from those dominating the previous three decades", he said.

"Universities hold the promise of contribution to justice, democracy and citizenship, but dealing with exclusion goes beyond access, it goes into institutional and academic cultures, into learning and teaching, into ideas, into the conceptions and the purposes of universities."

* Anthea Garman is a senior lecturer in journalism at Rhodes University.


Globalisation has become a buzzword in the new era of international relations. Basically, it is a process of expanding trade and commerce all over the world by creating a borderless market. But it has had a far reaching effect on many aspects of life. With the development of sophisticated communications media, rapid technological progress, and rapid transportation facilities, the world has come closer. We can now learn in an instant what is happening in the farthest corner of the world and travel to any country in the shortest possible time. Countries of the world are like families in a village. They can even share their joys and sorrows like next-door neighbours. If one country is in distress, others can immediately come to its assistance. If we can build up an atmosphere of mutual understanding and co-operation through this globalisation process, our world could certainly be a better place to live in.

Dr Keith Currie


This seems a veiled discussion on the diverging views of Newman's and Humboldt's ideas of university. The first one should perhaps be substantial, and the latter accidental, according to the pace of world affairs. Medieval universities were thus centred both on theology and philosophy (research into complexity), and in law and medicine (professional development). Low-cost research on the humanities should therefore precede and accompany high-cost research in sciences. This can be made possible by intelligent use of scarce funds on the part of heads of higher education institutions, at least in the northern hemisphere.

Dr Carlos Martinez-Thiem
University of Navarra, Spain