Higher education is trapped in a competition fetish

Competition has colonised our world. Everywhere we go, every step we take we hear the siren call of competition. In higher education, too, we are trapped in a competition fetish.

Drawing on insights from anthropology, political economy and psychoanalysis, I deploy the term fetish to describe a belief in something that has the power to make our desires come true. It can also protect us from harm.

From political economy, the fetishisation of commodities refers to screening the underlying relations of production and translating relations between people into connections between things. From psychoanalysis, we find a two-fold displacement that conceals while giving meaning to a substitute object. The fetish has the power to deny, to invoke fear and to enthral.

Borrowing from these meanings, higher education can be seen to be trapped in a kind of magical thinking which fetishes competition. There is a modern day magical belief that competition will provide the solution to all problems. Competition will lead to equity, enhance quality and protects us against risk. Most importantly, competition is perceived as a natural force that is independent from human agency.

Varieties of competition

There are many varieties of competition in higher education that reinforce or displace one another or combine into new hybrid forms. I would like to outline four.

The first relates to what Pierre Bourdieu has termed scientific capital. Scholars have long engaged in various forms of competition including the symbolic destruction of rival scholarship. These strategies drew on criteria that were valorised by academics. The hierarchy of universities and faculties was thus internally judged and projected outwards. The competition for scientific capital remains strong but it is changing and other forms of competition are beginning to jostle for dominance.

The second is the contribution of higher education to geo-political rivalry. David Harvey has asserted that we live in an era of ‘the new imperialism’. Dominant states and their allies search for new areas for profit. National borders are penetrated by political and economic measures for access to raw materials and strategic geopolitical positions. There are also rising powers, for example China and Brazil, which have the potential to challenge global relations.

In addition, Robinson and Sklair show us that states exist in complex relations with transnational corporations. Global corporations gain more and more power to change policy and regulation in their own interests.

Higher education stands at the centre of such struggles. It has become a crucial engine to enhance the country’s position in the global economy. Higher education has also been transformed into a commodity. Eva Hartmann’s work reveals how the export of Bologna to Africa and Latin America increases Europe’s market share of higher education as well as its sphere of influence.

The rivalry between nations is more than economic – it is also a race for influence through which powerful groups in influential nations assert their own preferred political, economic and cultural models. This happens through the hidden curriculum but it also happens more explicitly. In the United States, Richard Riley, a former US secretary of education, has called on higher education to promote the country’s diplomatic interests with the rest of the world. And China has deployed what commentators have called 'soft power' to set up Confucius Institutes in around 88 countries.

The third type is 'government sponsored competition'. These are generally termed ‘excellence policies’. The core political aim is to identify ‘world-class’ universities. Funding is diverted to these universities to provide positional advantage for global competition. State sponsored competitions are presented as being in the national interest. However, these are battles that are fought between the most elite universities in the most powerful countries. In highly stratified systems few benefits trickle down... the system as a whole is sacrificed to the national competition fetish.

The fourth type is status competition. As Wendy Brown has noted, universities shape speculative value through global rankings. We know that rankings do not measure holistic performance. We also know that rankings underline the diversity of the system. And yet as Simon Marginson has noted, a significant number of universities across the world strive for membership, even when there is little capacity to feature in such rankings.

Matthew David in a special issue of the British Journal of Sociology of Education has also shown how rankings are constructed to fabricate a threat of global competition which serves as a rationale for neo-liberal reform. Elite UK universities are positioned between ‘US superiority’ and ‘Asian ascent’. He argues that this is fabricated through discourse rather than actual numbers.

Attention is drawn only to US successes and not to the weaknesses generated by a stratified system. Attention is also drawn to Asian rises but never falls. Most importantly as Jürgen Enders has noted, rankings produce what they measure: an imagined standardised model of a world-class university.

Factors behind the fetish

What is it that breathes life into the competition fetish in higher education? Here I want to introduce the term shaman and I am indebted to Brian Pusser for this insight. What are the shamanic actors-structures that have the power to constitute and reproduce competition?

In many countries the state is a key shamanic actor. Philip Cerny’s competition state has abandoned some of the core functions of collective welfare. Instead the state focuses on promoting returns from market forces in international settings. There is increasing articulation between the state and the market. Governments create the conditions for a quasi-market. Market mechanisms are deployed to achieve political goals. We see deregulation and increased quasi-market competition.

The second group of shamanic actors are managers. Some managers have been pressured to become what Jürgen Enders and I have termed ‘audit market’ intermediaries. They have become responsible for translating competition mechanisms into the very fabric of the university. At the same time these external pressures are used as tools to leverage managerial power and a managerial agenda. Other managers are deflecting and shielding away from the academic heartland the most corrosive effects of commodification.

And, finally, faculty and students, too, play their part. Competition is so powerful in higher education because it borrows legitimacy from elite scientific capital. But different types of competition also follow their own logic in weighting the value of universities. Academics are thus both seduced and coerced to co-produce various types of competition. And as Mark Rosenfeld shows in reference to an OCUFA – Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations – report, students who have been positioned as consumers are expected to enhance competition by applying pressure on faculty to comply with student demand.

And of course these global pressures play out very differently across the world. The impressive corpus of work of Glen Jones and colleagues show differences between Canada and the Anglo-Saxon world in relation to the relentless onslaught of neoliberalism. Canada is also strongly unionised and organisations such as OCUFA are inspirational in their research and advocacy. For example, Judy Bates has highlighted OCUFA’s principles of university funding.

At the same time the research of Sandra Acker and of Jake Pringle reveal concerns about the potential of marketisation. A very important OCUFA report also shows the rise of precarious faculty. Graeme Stewart contextualises the OCUFA report on precarious faculty in a global context. As an outsider, I would suggest that Canadian higher education has some valuable characteristics that need to be protected rather than following global trends in higher education.

Competition as a ritual

Shamans perform rituals to exert power over beliefs, desires and emotions. The anthropologist Pierre Smith has analysed the importance of ‘mind snares’ or the way in which the mind is trapped by rituals (1984). He writes that instead of a clear and exact meaning, the ritual involves simulations, which keeps the inferential process idle. This allows the mind to slip and fall into the trap that was set for it.

So what are the mind snares of competition in higher education?

The first is that competition is natural. Thus Darwinian natural selection is fused with what Pierre Bourdieu has called doxa… an unquestionable orthodoxy that operates as if it were the objective truth. Competition is deeply inscribed as common sense. To question competition is to be insane. It is also an act of heresy because competition is seen as central to democracy. The more areas of personal and human life that we subsume under market competition, the more democratic and civilised we appear to be.

The second mind snare is the idea that competition is legitimate and just. We have to make believe that participants have some vaguely equal opportunity at the outset. Riyad Shahjahan and Clara Morgan demonstrate very powerfully that most competitions are rigged. They demonstrate how international organisations create spaces of equivalence across countries with very different geographic, political and economic contexts.

Such contexts are delocalised and depoliticised so that they can be presented as legitimate comparative measures. This competition privileges and valorises templates that derive from centres of power. Peripheral nations and universities thus have to mimic these characteristics even if they have no chance of winning.

The third mind snare is that competition is efficient and effective. But what evidence do we have that competition is effective in all areas of higher education? Who gains and who loses? Are there problems that competition cannot solve? Are there problems that competition actually creates?

Here I would like to refer to the work of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel prize for economics. She challenged the assumption that human beings are trapped into competitive individualistic behaviour which in the end will destroy our common natural resources. The usual example is of two communities living by a great lake who will compete to fish until the lake is fished dry.

Her own extensive field research in Nepal, Spain, Japan and Indonesia revealed that people are not the greedy, selfish actors of standard economic theory. Her fieldwork offered examples of individuals coming together to decide on quotas of fish or using fish nets with larger holes so that young fish are not caught. They developed rules and trust and sanctions.

In these ways a natural resource was made available for their children’s children. She revealed to the world that individuals can organise themselves in combination with diverse polycentric organisations beyond the state and beyond the market to share and sustain rather than compete and deplete.

The fourth mind snare works through emotions. Katja Brogger shows us how competition can produce an affective politics of naming, shaming and faming. It is the fear of shame and the thrill of fame that ignite in us a strong competitive desire. In addition, being willing to enter the competition has become a moral imperative.

Lauren Berlant talks about ‘cruel optimism’ under neoliberal culture. It is cruel because it encourages an attachment to the idea of a better future. In reality, she says, such attachments are ‘actively impeded’ for a majority of people by the harsh realities of neoliberalism.

Consequences of competition

Wendy Brown and others have shown us that competition, particularly neoliberal competition, generates extreme inequalities of wealth, precarious and disposable communities and an unholy intimacy between capital and governments. In higher education, too, the consequences are no less dramatic.

Competition reproduces old hierarchies and channels new forms of inequality both within and across national higher education systems. We are also witnessing what I have termed the combined and uneven development of higher education worldwide (Naidoo 2014).

High status, well-resourced universities in poorer countries which serve an elite are intimately connected to the global power nodes of higher education. At the same time, there is a proliferation of under-resourced universities in rich countries which recruit the most disadvantaged students and which are detached from power and confined to their locality (Naidoo 2014).

However, the most important consequence of competition is the legitimation of inequality. We are hardly ever told, “We need more inequality”. Rather we are told we need more competition. And we now also compete to be more competitive than other countries. And it is precisely the decades of competition policies that have been unthinkingly deployed that have the potential to drive down quality and drive up inequality. The invisible hand of competition provides the means by which no-one is responsible for negative effects apart from the victims themselves.

Another impact is on academic work. The competition fetish has the potential to colonise epistemic and professional frameworks. It is tied to reputational and financial rewards. It directs attention to what is deemed important and deflects attention away from what is not.

In other words, competition engages us in a struggle to define the very essence of higher education. Barbara Kehm and colleagues have shown how the German Excellence initiative has resulted in more stratification, a downgrading of teaching and an additional administrative burden. Mark Ollsen has shown how research excellence frameworks militate against ‘blue skies’ research, encourage dubious research tactics for maximizing citations and over-encourage conformity to external expectations.

In some faculties we have a list of publications rank journals from 1 to 4 stars. The best result for the research excellence framework is to get four articles published in four-star journals. Academic culture and language has now changed. Faculty are classified as four-pointers or 16-pointers. The intellectual content of the work becomes invisible. Research is translated into a simple numeric score that can be ranked by those who manage the research competition.

The competition fetish also threatens our capacity to work towards global wellbeing. Much of our research and our policy focuses on how universities contribute to the economic and social development of our own countries. We are obsessed with how our universities can be propelled up the ladder of world-class rankings.

In the national context, this legitimates strengthening a small elite while weakening the system as a whole.

This is also a major problem globally. Many of the major issues facing humankind, such as the destruction of the environment, rising inequality and violence across borders, can only be solved by countries and universities working together. In this sense, the question of how higher education contributes to global wellbeing becomes very important.

The competition fetish is nation bound and runs largely on economic tracks. This hinders the great potential that universities have to work together to solve the global problems that threaten us.

Moving beyond the competition fetish

How do we move beyond the competition fetish? I think the first thing to say is that not all competition is negative. We know that traditional academic competition in research has resulted in huge intellectual advances. We also know that there was never a golden age of higher education. Higher education has both contributed to and eroded inequality. Teaching has suffered because of research and quality has been uneven.

But it is important to understand what has caused these issues and the extent to which competition can provide a solution. We need to decide which aspects of higher education may benefit from what types of competition and which areas of higher education need to be protected from competition.

So what I am arguing against is the idea of competition as a fetish – the idea that different types of competition can be unthinkingly applied to answer all the unsolved problems of higher education. Or the idea that competition has become so powerful that other ways of organising are rendered obsolete... that every time we talk about collective action or vision or co-ordination or planning we are accused of being at best quaintly old fashioned or at worst anti-democratic.

In relation to global wellbeing, we do not have robust theoretical resources to examine the relationship between higher education and collective global goods. We have not moved very far from economic definitions that are not very helpful. We have remained heavily reliant on the role of the state in securing such goods. Given the changing nature of the state and the mission drift of public universities, it may be useful to rethink these issues.

Trailblazing institutions

It is also important to turn the spotlight on trailblazer institutions that contribute to global wellbeing. These are invisible because they don’t feature in rankings.

Important examples would include the higher education programme for refugees run by the United Nations; the very successful Ford Foundation programme, which provided postgraduate access to the most disadvantaged students from developing countries; the way in which Cuba has broken the link between social disadvantage and the prestigious profession of medicine by providing free medical education to students from the most disadvantaged communities in low-income countries who undertake humanitarian work worldwide; and the inspirational example of AMAZALERT which brought together scientists from 14 research institutes in South America and Europe to work on the effects of climate change on the Amazon.

Finally, the prevalence and doxic properties of the competition fetish produce the conviction that ‘there is no alternative’. We need to explicitly counter this view and say: ‘There is no NO alternative.’ Not when the stakes are so high. Higher education is too important to be left to a fetish.

Bourdieu has written very powerfully about how neoliberalism has systematically destroyed collectives (1998). We need to find ways to recollectivise, we need to find ways to sustain the small and big acts of hope and to work together as policy-makers, researchers, teachers, managers and students to find new visions and alternative ways to organise.

Professor Rajani Naidoo is chair in higher education management and director of the International Centre for Higher Education Management, University of Bath, United Kingdom. This an edited version of the 2016 Worldviews Annual Lecture on Media and Higher Education delivered on 13 April 2016 at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. University World News is a partner to Worldviews, which is a global forum to advance mutual understanding of the relationships, challenges and potential of the academy and the media.