‘The Capitalist University: The Transformations of Higher Education in the United States (1945-2016)’, ‘Speaking of Universities’ reviewed by Kevin W Gray

Reviewed by Kevin W Gray

About the reviewer

Kevin W Gray is a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto, co-editor of Western Higher …


In this review, I shall consider perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic on the evolution of universities beginning in the second half of the 20th century. These views are set out in two books, the authors of which are both prominent historians: Henry Heller and Stefan Collini. Collini, in particular, has made a name for himself through his articles on higher education published in the London Review of Books, criticising the marketisation of higher education, and his earlier What are Universities for? (Penguin, 2012).

I shall begin by discussing The Capitalist University. Heller traces the stages in the development of the modern research university: from post-World War expansion and collaboration with governments, to the radicalism of the 1960s, and to the rise of the corporate university. He does this by adopting a broadly Gramscian account of the role that ideological production plays in the stability of the capitalist system.

It is the approach that is problematic. To get two principal concerns with Heller’s method out of the way: first, despite his broadly Marxist tendencies, he remains mired in the ether of the superstructure, ignoring broadly structural economic changes that might be equally casual in explaining changes in the capitalist university. In his words, universities become “[i]n the Gramscian sense … a part of the non-coercive state apparatus” (viii). Second, since he remains exclusively interested in the hegemonic function of the university, the book remains a rather unstructured collection of anecdotes about the development of different academic disciplines in the university.

In fact, for that reason, the contrast between Heller and Collini’s work makes a review of both works productive. While Heller prefers ideological and hegemonic accounts, Collini suggests that we must be cautious against what he calls “quasi-deterministic … “tangle[s] of agency” in such accounts (22). My sympathies lie with Collini here, as I suspect that there is a great deal more in the development of universities than broad, global, neoliberal trends that are immune to country or region-specific factors. Heller’s account could benefit from being more nuanced. First, we can distinguish multiple different university systems, often existing side-by-side in the same country: (1) state-run system (where universities are often under the direct control of the state and academics are fonctionnaires, as in France), (2) publicly-funded universities where budget and general policies are dictated by the government, but a class of independent or quasi-independent administrators run the university (such as the public system in the United States, although many such administrators are former political appointees), (3) autonomous but regulated charitable institutions (such as the Ivy Leagues), and (4) for-profit institutions (Collini, 193-194). Second, to take one specific example, local effects in the United Kingdom, such as the fact that the control of universities has been transferred to Scotland under devolution, explain a great deal of the variance in universities governance in the United Kingdom, contra the impression left by Heller (Collini, 179 et passim).

These theoretic disagreements with Heller aside, there is much of interest in Heller’s work. He provides an excellent history of the development of the university, and most notably its specific discipline in the university in the 20th century, which I will summarise here. In the United States, enrolment in universities increased five-fold between 1919 until its entry into the war. However, this enrolment masked, as today, great variability in quality. Some private schools, including the Ivy Leagues, but also schools like Williams and Oberlin, were of very high quality. A great many, however, were not. Most state schools were rather mediocre, with a few notable and well-known exceptions such as Berkeley and Michigan.

Universities’ student populations would increase again in the post-war era, doubling between 1950 and 1965. From spending 2.3 billion dollars on education in 1950, the United States would spend find itself spending 7 billion dollars fifteen years later (Heller, 43). Tracing the development of the universities in terms of the developments of individual disciplines as much as the development of any specific university or the educational system as a whole, Heller argues that social pressures soon led to changes in the structure of these post-war universities.

Beginning with the role of the university during the Cold War, he shows how universities in the 1950s and 1960s were in the business of producing a large amount of instrumental universal knowledge or ideological rationalisations of the capitalist system (Heller, 3). The sciences served as integral parts of the military-industrial complex. Even the social sciences and the humanities contributed. Referencing Althusser, Heller argues that “the teaching received by students from professors at universities was the strategic focal point for the ideological defence of the dominant class system” (Heller, 7). Similarly, research was used to buttress a view of American society conducive to the dominant classes, he argues. For example, in the 1950s, work of liberal, consensus historians in the academy, such as Hofstadter, downplayed the history of class conflict in American history, preferring to discuss political over economic issues in their treatment of the history of the United States, from its revolution beginnings to the Great Depression (Heller, 50). The Red Scare further restricted the available scope of inquiry in the academy. In the social sciences, the rise of methodological individualism, prominent in anthropology, sociology, and political science, meant that the historicity of social formations was largely ignored, Heller argues; professors, he writes, “whether they knew it or not, worked for capitalism” (90).

The work of philosophers such as Marcuse captured this state of affairs, revealing the latent repression at the heart of American society (Heller, 90). Although students were largely quiet for the 1950s, in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, and then the Vietnam war, captured students’ hearts. Marcuse’s work would be the central text of the student movements. Protests exploded on university campuses, nowhere more importantly than in Berkeley (Heller, 94). Restrictions imposed on the students and on political organisation on campus soon gave rise to the Berkeley free speech movement (Heller, 96). These movements soon gave rise to violent clashes across campuses and the founding of more radical student movements such as the SDS.

The irony is that Berkeley already had a relatively progressive president, Clark Kerr. Kerr, also a public intellectual, argued in his books for a pluralist, state-funded university system available to all. In this pluralist system, there would be some campuses designed for advanced research (e.g. Berkeley) and mass education (e.g. at the schools of the California State system) (Heller, 94). Heller argues that for all its progressivism, this pluralist system masked inequality between students, which manifested itself in protests movements which would soon transform into modern identity politics.

Student activism at universities across the country also had another effect. It soon led to a conservative backlash. For instance, in California, student activism became a focus on right-wing reactionary politics. Reagan, in his gubernatorial campaign, promised to restrict student activism. At the same time, the end of the Vietnam war removed much of the urgency of the student movement. On Heller’s telling, this led to the transformation of the student movement into fragmented movements based on identity politics. This is perhaps the most original and interesting part of the book. Heller argues that identity politics in the United States, following the thesis recently popularised by Nancy Fraser (Fraser 2009), amounted to a surrender or even an embrace of market forces and the decline of class politics. In this respect, he assimilates post-modernism in the humanities with identity politics. The former, he argues, “caught on because it fit with a certain post-revolutionary if not anti-revolutionary mood among some academics” (Heller, 140). This phase, he argued, overlapped with the rise to prominence of economics as an academic department in research universities (Heller, 163).

In the final section of the book, Heller turns to the rise of the corporate and neo-liberal university. Here, he provides a helpful summary of the state of the field in research on the current economic climate at universities. Universities, he argues rightly, have experienced the same neo-liberal transformations as society as a whole. Faced with budget cuts, universities have increasingly adopted a corporate model (Heller, 173). These budget cuts have turned many public universities into effectively private institutions. For instance, the University of Michigan, a (purportedly) premier public research institution, received only 8% of its 2008 budget from the state (Heller, 174). To survive in such an environment, universities have had to turn to different funding sources. Survival has meant that universities have increased fees, leading to increased student debt; looked to corporate funding of research; and expanded overseas (Texas A&M has reportedly made hundreds of millions of dollars off its campus in Doha). They have cut instructional costs through the precarisation of teaching and through other means of instruction (including online learning and the introduction of the much-overrated Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)).

All this has occurred as universities were tasked to perform new jobs, including preparing their students for what the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has trumpeted as the new knowledge economy (Heller, 185). As governments have encouraged more students to obtain advanced qualifications (either through direct or indirect funding mechanisms) they have increasingly sought to introduce means of quantifying how the money is spent. This has meant that universities have been forced to expand their non-academic staff to meet licensing and accreditation requirements (Heller, 190) or to participate in the ever-important rankings game (Heller, 189).

In Speaking of Universities, Collini continues his previous work on the development of the university in the 21st century. He covers the development of universities on the other side of the Atlantic, and his book differs from Heller’s by covering a slightly later period. It is a good read as a follow-up to his previous work, but it is likely to be difficult to follow if you are unfamiliar with that work.

British higher education has enjoyed a similar expansion to that documented by Heller. For instance, between 1990 and 2006, with the upgrading of the polytechnics, the founding of new universities, and increased recruitment of foreigners, the number of students increased from 350,000 to two million. The change was not merely quantitative, but impacted also the jobs performed on campus by academic staff, requiring them to perform new activities to meet newly introduced standards. These include increased attempts to quantify research production and impact, and document student learning and compliance with accreditation standards. As Collini argues, “most of the procedures governing funding, assessment, ‘quality control’, ‘impact’ and so on that now occupy the greater part of the working time of academics were unknown before the mid-1980s (1).

Content wise, the book itself is composed of essays written for other occasions. They address, in part, concerns left over from his earlier books. They focus in part, on the role of the university as understood by the general public and by students themselves, and make comparisons between English universities and universities elsewhere in the United Kingdom and in Europe. Because the book was assembled from previously published essays, it is difficult to identify one central thesis uniting Collini’s work. Instead, it makes more sense to speak of a series of overarching concerns which appear periodically throughout the book, often applied as analytic tropes to different historical and contemporary concerns.

First, Collini argues that one reason for the contentious politics of universities is that higher education has always served multiple purposes. They have always been many things to many people. As Lord Haldane noted, universities have surplus meaning to many people (Collini, 81). Collini argues that universities, in addition to preparing future members of the elite for roles in the political system, have always served, in part, a practical function, and have always served, in part, to educate students for future careers (Collini, 17). It would be pointless and futile to suggest otherwise or to be nostalgic for a day when rankings and metrics did not matter (Collini, 58, 119 et passim). Of course, what preparation for careers meant varied greatly. Humboldtian accounts of the university stressed the importance of character formation as part of preparation for entry into the upper echelons of society.

Second, Collini argues that the movement from elite to mass education and increased calls for accountability has changed the autonomy of professors. This has led, as you might imagine, to reduced satisfaction with their jobs, particularly as they have been increasingly required to spend more time documenting their activities and on labour ancillary to research (such as applying for grants). As they were expected to be less research oriented, this changed what professors could expect from their jobs (Collini, 21).

Third, there has been a pronounced change in governance at universities in the UK. Here, Collini provides an excellent account of the most recent changes in higher education brought on by successive Labour and Conservative governments. The story here is one under which the underlying framework of the earlier Robins Report (1963) on universities has been replaced by an accountability driven model derived from the work of members of McKinsey’s Global Education Practice (Collini, 97). Oddly enough, there has been little variance in the UK between the desire of successive Conservative and Labour governments to implement McKinsey’s proposed reforms.

The language of the 2011 (Conservative) White Paper, he argues, has followed closely the language of the previous Labour’s government 2009 BIS Paper (Collini, 96). The drive to introduce accountability under the mantra of theories of New Public Management has manifested itself not just in the Research Excellence Framework, which takes place periodically in the United Kingdom, and in the requirement that research staff bring in a certain amount of money each year (Collini, 46), but also in the move to deregulate tuition fees and let student learning dictate, in part, what fees universities are able to charge. It is similarly manifest in the drive to improve university rankings (Collini, 53). What is important in Collini’s account is that these changes, often lamented by academics, enjoy wide bipartisan support.

Fourth, Collini argues that the drive to expand higher education has meant large profits for corporations. Collini importantly shows that this profit drive is not uniquely American. Sometimes this has meant profits directly derived from student fees – as with the Apollo Group (owners of the University of Phoenix) and Educational Management Group (in which Goldman Sachs continues to have a 40% share after taking it over and restructuring it in 2006). At other times, this involves profiting from issuances of student loans to cover the ever-rising costs of tuition, particularly in the United States and in the United Kingdom after the Browne Report (Collini, 140).

For these reasons, these books are to be recommended not just for those, like myself, who work in universities, but for members of the broader public concerned with the fate of higher education.

7 January 2018


  • Fraser, Nacy 2009 Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History New Left Review no. 56, March-April 2009, pp. 97-107.

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