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Universities Operating As Businesses Threaten Academic Freedom


Experts have called for universities to operate less as businesses and more as public good institutions that provide all stakeholders with academic freedom.

Universities Operating As Businesses Threaten Academic Freedom

Director of Stretton Health Equity, Professor Baum delivered the 56th TB Davie Memorial Lecture titled, “Activism and the corporate university: incompatible or possible?” at the University of Cape Town in which she discussed the negative impact corporatization has had on universities and their commitment to equity and social justice.

Baum said that she has witnessed universities who have aligned their values with large corporations and the private sector become “less open to the defence of academic freedom, and the ability of academics to become defenders of the public good”.

She highlighted the following as the six signs of a corporatised university:

  • growing the executive class
  • reducing staff and student involvement in governance
  • frequently restructuring
  • increasing contract and casual staff numbers and reducing the number of tenured staff
  • engaging in the international education market
  • partnering with national and transnational corporations.

During her time at Flinders University in Australia she witnessed one of these signs firsthand when she became the first academic to receive the National Health and Medical Research Council Leadership Fellowship but could no longer continue her work there due to a “reorganisation” process which “disestablished” the role she occupied.

Baum and her colleagues spoke out against the reorganisations and increasing expectations of excessive workloads at the university but no changes were made to this.

She said:

Universities now operate more as businesses and less [as] public good institutions … I hope to convince you that the increasing corporatisation of universities is part of the reason the space for academic freedom and the ability to be an activist academic is closing down,

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Baum believes that universities that encourage academic freedom carefully consider the businesses and organisations that they involve themselves with.

In Australia there has been a proposed University Model Act which requires universities to meaningfully involve staff and students in decisions about the shape of the university’s teaching and research projects.

The aim of the act is to ensure that the focus of the university is on serving the community rather than acting as a business.

“The university [should] actively encourage staff and students to be engaged in advocacy about equity, human rights and fairness. Academic activists [should] be celebrated for the contributions they make to positive change, rather than viewed as a threat to the corporate university,” said Baum.

She encouraged academics and students to speak up when management practices and partnerships restrict and threaten their academic freedom, especially in South Africa where these freedoms were fought for.

Baum says she would hate to see the apartheid system be replaced by a corporate control of the academic world.

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