Academics Need To Seriously Engage With The World

There are few things in the world more frustrating than people who list problems but offer no meaningful solutions and such people often seem to be drawn to academia. This brings us to Lawrence Busch’s Knowledge for Sale. Busch makes many good points about academia’s problems but lacks clear plans to improve things. This failure partly comes from a disappointing casualness of analysis. He indulges in the classic game of blaming a shadowy group who apparently call all the shots, for Busch this is “neoliberals”. He doesn’t really define neoliberalism and just cheats by saying it a program of action, a school of thought, and an ideology. Given everything he doesn’t like is “neoliberal” many different things get caught in the same complaint.

He complains about the increasing number of administrators at universities. According to him this is partly because of the increasing need to report on a range of things, including gender equity in sports. In my experience gender equity isn’t the top concern of the right-wingers who he labelled neoliberals in earlier sections. Such reporting concerns are driven by people who don’t think the market will create equity. Though I’m not convinced it is, if reporting on gender equity is a problem it surely isn’t a neoliberal plot by the same people bringing market forces to bear on education.

Apparently neoliberalism is based upon the “fallacious argument that students can make a meaningful choice when provided with more information about universities….” (Busch, 2017, page 54). Sure student judgment is far from perfect but he doesn’t give a concrete alternative. Perhaps a return to the good old days when youngsters knew their place and some pompous old guy told students what they should do?

I agree with him that education shouldn’t just be about getting a job. That said some people, especially those from poorer backgrounds, don’t have the luxury of not worrying about what they’ll do for a living. Everything shouldn’t be about getting a job but any decent person (regardless of their neoliberalism) should worry about whether students can feed themselves upon graduating.

He makes the reasonable point that for a lot of research it is hard to predict the benefits. Yet we can’t fund everything so we need some allocation system. What is Busch’s? I simply don’t know. I guess we can ask the government to fund all our research as we don’t perfectly know what will eventually prove valuable. That said, I’m not sure what Busch’s plan is when the politicians say no.

I’m not clear how rankings fit into his thesis. He sees them as evil but I don’t recognize them as a plot by any meaningfully defined group. Business school rankings can arise from the desire to sell publications by Business Week etc…. This means they are often done on the cheap and are methodologically dubious. For this reason senior academics/administrators often hate rankings and generally aren’t part of any neoliberal plot to promote rankings. Instead they feel that they have little choice to go along with rankings. Who then is driving the tide? Journalists? Students? Alumni? Anyone who buys the magazines that publish rankings? It simply isn’t clear who is behind the evil plot. Furthermore, I have no idea what his plan is to change things. Ban rankings maybe? How?

My favourite chapter was entitled: “Remembrance of Things Future: Some Specific Proposals For Change” (Busch, 2017, page 109). Clearly he has a different definition of specific to me — I saw absolutely nothing specific. After reading it I had no idea who he wants to do what, how they should do it, and when he wants it done.

This book is clearly aimed at getting fellow academics to nod along with the problems while not grappling with any tough choices. He is right in saying that we rarely perfectly know what ideas will influence the world but I’m pretty sure Busch’s book won’t.

Read: Lawrence Busch (2017) Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, (English Language Edition)