My reading of College for Sale: A Critique of the Commodification of Higher Education, by Wesley Shumar (London, Falmer Press, 1997)
—Choi Po King (蔡寶瓊)—

網頁編者按:香港高等教育近年變化之大之快,令人瞠目結舌,背後原因甚為複雜,值得好好探討。從走向而言,香港的大學現在以美國馬首是瞻,市場化傾向尤其明顯。College for Sale: A Critique of the Commodification of Higher Education﹙或可譯作:《待售的大學:批判高等教育的商品化》﹚一書對之有所評論,任教中文大學教育學院的蔡寶瓊女士閱讀該書後,寫成以下感想,並表示樂於向關心教育的各界人士推薦該書。本網頁歡迎對蔡女士書評及該書內容回應。College for Sale: A Critique of the Commodification of Higher Education可在中大崇基圖書館借得,索書號:LC67.62 S58 1997。﹙上此網頁日期:2007年8月28日﹚

            Based on an ethnographic study of North Urban College (pseudonym), Shumar analyses changes in university culture and its realpolitik, in the context of the crisis of accumulation in capitalism in the US in the early to mid 1970s.  He argues that, ever since the turn of the 20th century, higher education in the US has been increasingly dominated by businessmen (as these replaced educational professionals and the clergy), with their concerns for training and socializing of the workforce needed by industrial production.  Yet, the university administration was still modeled less on that of a profit-making structure and more as an administration of control.  What is more, the new complexity in industrial infrastructure and new need for technologies of consumption (market research, advertising, etc) fostered a growth of the social sciences.  Post-war needs of social control (notably the GI Bill) and sustained economic growth also brought about an economic boom in higher education. 

            Following the collapse of the Fordist/Keynesian system in the early 1970s, however, crisis of "overproduction" in both the capitalist system as well as within the University itself (too many PhDs to be absorbed, for example) began to appear.  Since the mid 1970s, there was a decline in federal and state subsidies.  This, together with actual and imagined enrollment declines and increased operational costs, resulted in a fiscal crisis for universities.  At about the same time, Nixon's government made a conscious attempt to link higher education to careerism, which was largely successful, aided by the rise of the new middle class which has taken place in the preceding two decades.  Student activism and young faculty's attempts to link higher education to social democracy and public participation in the sixties quieted down.  Higher education, just as education as a whole, together with other social arenas like health and the government, were now drawn into the system of flexible accumulation in the rapidly globalized economy.

            Shumar gives a vivid description of how the structure and culture of universities change under flexible accumulation.  These changes include: the rapid domination of universities by administrative staff (both in terms of number and power), "flexible specialization" (use of large proportion of part-time and temporary faculty, many with PhDs, to teach programmes and courses which might become obsolete in a short while, according to the whims of the market), and, most importantly, the replacement of the importance of substance in programmes and courses with their image so as to make them sell.  Needless to say, students are now viewed as customers in a segmented market (full-time undergrads, part-time postgrad or diploma "clients" needing new qualifications to prepare for constant shifts in personnel market, retired professionals who seek "genuine knowledge", etc).  Concomitantly, faculty are seen as members of a workforce to be subjected to discipline for maximal efficiency and flexible use (hence increased use of part-time and temporary staff, reduction of tenured staff, viz, the Baptist U saga, TQMs, etc).  The university, in turn, is seen as an enterprise seeking increasing profit margins, hence "responsibility centred management" (called one-line budgeting here in HK?), so that each department or "cost-centre" is forced to be profitable in dollar input and output. 

            What I find most interesting is Shumar's allegation to Baudrillard's notion of the "invented need" in capitalism, which underlies the primary importance of advertisements and image-making in global capitalism.  What we are paying for now are not commodities as substance, but their invented "images" (ask yourself why you buy a four-wheel drive with maximum horsepower, just to stop and go behind traffic lights in HK streets?).  In higher education, therefore, universities (especially 2nd tier or 3rd tier ones) try to upgrade their images by employing PhDs from prestigious universities (Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, you name it), or boast of the high entry qualifications of their undergrads (see our yearly competition among HKU, CU and HKUST in parading their 尖子), not to mention publications in "world-class journals", etc.  The replacement of substance by image is also seen, as Shumar ingeniously points out, in the change in the look of academic journals and university catalogues (instead of looking like bibles, they now look like glossy mass market magazines), as well as university bookstores (books reduced in proportion, as they give space to souvenirs and gifts). 

            Contrary to what I thought as I started to read the book, Shumar is not cynical at all.  Towards the end, he made an impassioned plea for academics to take up their role as public intellectuals.  Not only must we re-vitalize political engagement (not only abroad, but in one's own campuses), but we must also recognize the voices of the minority of publicly-engaged intellectuals, however small as they are.  We must also bring back the debate about knowledge constitutes and is constructed, instead of falling into the wide trap of knowledge as nothing but "technical expertise".  The remaining question is: how do we do this?

Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to My reading of College for Sale: A Critique of the Commodification of Higher Education, by Wesley Shumar (London, Falmer Press, 1997)
—Choi Po King (蔡寶瓊)—

  1. 陳日東 says:


    最令人震驚的是,連被認為是世界第一的哈佛,亦深受其害。哈佛大學的領導人,更不惜為此著書,以求社會高度重視大學教育淪亡的嚴重問題。當中包括由哈佛前任校長、現任過渡校長Derek Bok所寫的兩本書:《市場下的大學:高等教育商業化》(Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education)和《不成大器的大學》(Our Underachieving Colleges)。兩書均由普林斯頓大學出版社出版。

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Blue Captcha Image


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>