The frontier between science and industry is fuzzier than ever, with academic capitalism accelerating around the world. The current global knowledge and learning regime includes multiple metrics shaping academic behaviors and a tendency to transform every knowledge “product” into intangible assets that allow those holding them to appropriate value. This transformation of knowledge into privately owned assets leads us to ask, who privately owns and profits from knowledge? If the answer to this question includes universities, are all universities equally enjoying the economic benefits of knowledge assetization? And how does this impact the prospect of knowledge as a commons?
Answering these questions requires thinking about how universities have changed under recent regimes of capital accumulation. Most powerful and profitable corporations base their advantages on systematically monopolizing knowledge, including big data processed with artificial intelligence. These corporations turn monopolized knowledge into assets, garnering intellectual rents, which are an appropriation of social value that increases income and wealth inequalities. They are intellectual monopolies not only because they monopolize a market, but because they privately concentrate knowledge. This knowledge is either kept secret or requires a payment to be accessed by others while it is freely used by the monopoly to expand capital accumulation.
Once knowledge is consistently transformed into assets by a few emerging intellectual monopolies, there is no better alternative for other firms than subordination. Those firms participating in production networks planned by intellectual monopolies have lost their technical autonomy. They are early adopters of technologies imposed by intellectual monopolies and proceed to engage in an unequal exchange, losing part of the surplus they would have otherwise accumulated.
Foxconn, in Apple’s value chain, is the archetypical example. Outsourcing not only takes place at the supply chain level, but also affects the innovation process. Intellectual monopolies control the overall innovation process, which takes place in networks integrated by multiple organizations. Subordinated innovating companies – typically start-ups – participate in these innovation networks and profit from part of the intellectual rents associated with their innovations. Intellectual monopolies garner the rest. Both types of subordinate firms worsen working conditions and salaries to be able to offer appealing deals to intellectual monopolies and remain profitable.
In this context, the transformation of universities into enterprises gave rise to three different types of academic capitalist institutions, depending upon which type of firm they sought to emulate: teaching institutions, subordinate research universities, and academic intellectual monopolies. In a nutshell, teaching institutions resemble firms participating in production networks planned by intellectual monopolies; subordinate research universities emulate subordinated innovating companies; and academic intellectual monopolies copy (corporate) intellectual monopolies.
The Differentiated Market University
Most universities either lost their research capacity (and some new institutions were founded without it) or subordinated it to teaching duties. Academic capitalism is expressed by their quest to maximize tuition and fees as their ultimate teaching goal. As subordinate firms in production networks, they are quick adopters of intellectual monopolies’ requirements. They orient curriculums and degrees to deliver useful professionals for subordinate firms, thus ultimately favoring intellectual monopolies. It is primarily in these institutions where higher education’s massification takes place, accompanied by a standardization of curriculums, examinations, credit hours, and degrees. A tendency toward normalization reveals the transformation of higher education into a repetitive and standardized activity, much like the production of any other commodity. Public block grants’ shortfalls push these mainly teaching institutions to compete against one another for customers.
Research universities are also under severe budget constraints. Yet, unlike teaching universities, they regularly participate in innovation networks controlled by intellectual monopolies. Regardless of a history of scientific breakthroughs, most research universities lack an equally successful history of monetizing those breakthroughs. They therefore behave as innovating companies, subordinating themselves to intellectual monopolies.
Subordination is both a knowledge and economic relation. Concerning the former, subordinate research universities have little to no say in the organization and definition of research priorities when they join innovation networks. Regarding the latter, they have limited chances to monetize their creative results, which are transformed into assets (“assetization”) by intellectual monopolies.
Certainly, not every research university subordinated in this way. The few exceptions have themselves become (academic) intellectual monopolies. They appropriate most of the (public and private) research funding and extract rents from the assetization of their knowledge breakthroughs. However, their research lines and priorities are defined following a top-down structure – led by managers and, ultimately, governing boards – that meets the needs of capital accumulation.
Harvard is a paradigmatic example. It keeps the economic profits of its performed research, regardless of its received private sponsorship. Harvard is also financially autonomous. It succeeds in private sponsorship and competitive public funding for research and has the largest endowment of any university. Nevertheless, its research priorities are defined by its board of trustees, which includes representatives of major corporations, including Google and Snap Inc. This demonstrates just how intertwined universities are with (corporate) intellectual monopolies. Under intellectual monopoly capitalism, academic freedom is subordinated to the pursuit of profit.
Along the way, academic work has adopted the characteristics of commodity-producing labor. The introduction of quantitative criteria to evaluate academic performance is actively transforming academic work into commodity-producing labor.
Most research universities and their employees take rankings into account because they influence funding opportunities. Every measure is a human act and entails decisions about priorities. Academic intellectual monopolies generally excel in rankings and publications’ metrics, thus accumulating most of the public and private resources for research.
Subordinate research universities, by contrast, suffer the most from the effects of world rankings. In the quest to become an academic intellectual monopoly, they attempt to comply both with the state’s evaluations and global quantitative criteria. Mottos like “publish or perish” and “apply or die” are strongly felt in this type of institution. Quantifying scientific publications assumes that they are comparable across disciplines, and even subfields. Comparing two different activities reduced to mere numbers assumes that these activities share an underlying common unit, just like commodities.
Furthermore, in line with workers’ casualization, flexible or precarious contracts for scholars are now the norm. However, low salaries and worse labor conditions are not equally distributed among universities. Academic intellectual monopolies provide multiple benefits and relatively higher salaries to their scholars, but they are usually restricted to tenure positions. Still, it is in this type of university where the economic transformation has gone the furthest. Successful results in terms of available budget and demand for their products foster that transformation, which entails pernicious consequences for workers’ academic freedom while inducing them to become patent and publication machines. Overall, in both types of research universities, pressures to quickly achieve publishable and patentable results become a huge burden for academic workers. This results in longer working hours, narrowing down research questions to accelerate their publication records while adapting their research to fulfil external requirements.
Teaching universities do not equally feel the pressure to publish or perish, but casualization is becoming the norm. Pressures to deliver what customers (students) ask for predominate. Teaching metrics – such as students’ graduation and satisfaction rates – constrain teaching and learning to the point that in some institutions there is a maximum failure rate. When faculty do carry out research despite their teaching loads, they tend to enjoy more academic freedom than their counterparts in research universities. Still, considering high research costs, in particular for STEM fields, achieving path breaking results that challenge knowledge frontiers is highly unlikely.
Regardless of all the aforementioned differences, teaching institutions, subordinate research universities and academic intellectual monopolies share an overall scenario of casualization, precarious working conditions, and an extreme focus on individual performances that fosters competition to retain the few remaining permanent positions. This scenario increases the prevalence of mental illness among workers and weakens their position in class struggle.
The CoVid-19 Pandemic and Its Aftermath
The CoVid-19 pandemic has accelerated all of these trends. In universities where a significant share of the budget relies upon (foreign) students’ tuition and fees, the pandemic was devastating. In the US, even The New School, typically seen as a progressive university, fired 120 employees, whose tasks are now in the hands of remaining faculty and administrative staff, while also raising health insurance fees for students. And most UK universities were subjected to typical market competition for remaining students. Given reduced earnings, Ph.D. and temporary positions were cut or even eliminated.
At the other end, a few leading research universities have received colossal public grants to battle CoVid-19. Sticking with the UK example, Oxford’s CoVid-19 vaccine research was primarily publicly funded and performed by university scholars, but the university signed an exclusive vaccine deal with AstraZeneca with no guarantee of low prices. And what to say about Remdesivir, used to treat CoVid 19? Gilead sells it at an exorbitant price, despite the fact that it was entirely based on NIH-funded university research.
This overall scenario is certainly depressing. However, unraveling the connections between capital accumulation and university specificities is indispensable to any counterattack, from student and faculty resistance to workers’ overall organization. A side effect of the encroachment of capital into university relations has been a growing awareness of students and faculty as working class. On this basis, we should now, more than ever, unite to build an alternative future where knowledge is not privately owned, where education is free for all, and where universities contribute to making us better human beings rather than taming us as labor power for capital.
Cecilia Rikap is a tenured researcher at the CONICET, Argentina’s national research council, and an associate researcher at the Université de Paris and the Université de Technologie de Compiègne. Her research deals with the political economy of corporate power and the rising concentration of intangible assets yielding intellectual rents, resulting geopolitical tensions, and the effects on the knowledge commons, academic work, and development.