Universities Are Not… Manufactories

This sounds ideological, I know, but it’s actually more economical. I also know that economics is itself an ideology (though naturally enough some disagree), but bear with me and see what I’m doing. In the previous post, having already looked at university income, I used the idea of universities’ production and its consumers quite heavily. But of course universities don’t produce in the way that a business with a saleable product that you find on shop shelves produces. You can put some of what they produce on bookshelves, of course, but increasingly digital publication makes even that intangible. Even digital publications are a countable object proxy for academic production, admittedly, but they aren’t the thing itself, because that is knowledge, which we are told is power though those in power don’t seem to set much store by it any more.

Now, whether this is knowledge of or knowledge how that we’re talking about, or content or skills as you might otherwise see it, it doesn’t move like other products of different processes. There is no production line. There are tools, sure, and even laboratories with things going on in them that can look a lot like factory processes in some cases, but the processes’ ultimate aim is not their physical product but the knowledge enabled by its making and use. For example, I used to know some of a team at UCL that had a robotic production system for making samples of nanomaterials in their lab. But they weren’t in the ‘business’, word choice intentional, of making nanomaterials; they were hoping to find a new catalyst for water-based fuel cells and thus solve the energy crisis, and the robot was to let them make as many different ones up at once as possible. There was an even bigger robot under construction at that point, to test them once they were made. I imagine patents arisin from success there would have been worth something, but success wouldn’t have been the best kit or the method, it would have been the formula of something they’d tested that had come good, which someone else would then have made.1

Another peculiarity of what universities produce is that it is brought into being into the minds of both customers and workers. It is transmitted, we hope, but not lost at site. This is not a good, therefore, in the economic sense, and it’s not really a service; there is a service involved, but that isn’t an adequate characterisation of the benefit from using the service. Perhaps it’s the differences between a man who has a gift of fish for a day, one who knows where he can reliably buy fish, and one who actually knows how to catch them, but there’s still more to it.

And, the hardest thing for market-based analyses to deal with, not all of what universities produce is quantifiable, or even valuable, in terms of skills gain or utility. For the Humanities this is an especially sharp point, on which indeed we frequently injure ourselves by invoking the moral or ethical value of our subjects.2 It’s not clear that we solve problems, rather than making them more complicated; it’s not clear that people are happier, rather than sadder or angrier, for knowing what we can tell them; and it’s not always clear what good it does; yet people do keep wanting to know it.3 I don’t think that’s just some Bourdievan process of cultural capital accumulation, or only the most useful subjects of knowledge in which one could distinguish oneself would survive; some of it has to be that people, for whatever contextual reasons, just find this stuff cool.4

For all these reasons, while the best analogy in business terms for the Academy is more likely a gym than a manufactory, in which we train people to be more highly-featured and able versions of themselves (or, if you believe some critics, pale imitations of us), it’s still not a perfect one.5 You can measure someone’s increased ability after weeks of physical training. You can, of course, measure someone’s increased knowledge after weeks of university study – we certainly try to, anyway – but you can’t as easily measure what they can now do better, though we do try to do that too, and you especially cannot guess what situations they will be able to employ that skill in. They themselves famously do not realise this until later.6 Even vocational degrees like law or medicine where there is a more obvious set knowledge requirement also supply the transferable skills and ability to get more knowledge. It’s like teaching a man to fish, and then finding he can now also navigate by constellations, because of time spent on boats; you can see how it happened, but it would hardly have been part of the assessment on a fishing course.

So this is a strange beast we have: an institution which operates in a competitive market but is denied most of the means of competition (such as the setting of its own prices or incentives), which does not derive its money from its customers, whose primary economic beneficiaries do not pay for that benefit, and which makes nothing that can be adequately counted but which people still seem to value. What is it that the university is? I still don’t know, but in the next post I will argue that nothing with these characteristics can sensibly be called, or more importantly run like, a business, and still perform these functions.


1. I mean, the ‘someone else’ might have been a company they themselves started; but the university in question wouldn’t have turned its labs into a factory for it. But actually, their successes were in the area of method, as witness Kathryn Thompson, Josephine Goodall, Suela Kellici, John A. Mattinson, Terry A. Egerton, Ihtesham Rehman and Jawwad A. Darr, “Screening tests for the evaluation of nanoparticle titania photocatalysts” in Journal of Chemical Technology & Biotechnology Vol. 84 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1717–1725.

2. See Jon Marcus, “Look at the evidence: history is not bunk” in Times Higher Education no. 2092 (14 March 2013), pp. 24–25, which sadly ought not to convince anyone. Cf. a scientist’s defence in Keith Burnett, “Universities’ humanities provision should never become history”, ibid., 12th May 2021, online here. But the message that the return is not the important thing still fails to draw much investment; funny that… This makes the better tactic perhaps once again an Oxford one: Humanities Graduates and the British Economy: the hidden impact, by Philip Kraeger (Oxford 2013), online here, followed up to an extent by John Ross, “Decline in soft skills ‘driven by trivialisation of humanities'” in Times Higher Education (THE), 13th June 2019, online here.

3. Attempts have of course been made to explain this, as social mission for the future of humanity, no less, in Eileen A. Joy and Christine M. Neufeld, “A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism” in Journal of Narrative Theory Vol. 37 (Baltimore MD 2008), pp. 161–190, or Neil Badmington, “Cultural Studies and the Posthumanities” in Gary Hall and Clare Birchall (edd.), New cultural studies: adventures in theory (Edinburgh 2006), pp. 260–272, or as more mundane social benefit in Zoe Bulaitis, “Measuring impact in the humanities: Learning from accountability and economics in a contemporary history of cultural value” in Palgrave Communications Vol. 3 (London 2017), 7, though it’s by no means a new battle, as witness Abraham Flexner, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” in Harper’s Magazine, November 1939, pp. 544–552.

4. Referring to Pierre Bourdieu, “Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital” in Reinhard Kreckel (ed.), Soziales Ungleichheiten, Soziales Welt Sonderheft 2 (Göttingen 1983), pp. 183-198, trans. by Richard Nice as Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital” in J. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York City NY 1986), pp. 241-258, whence online in the Marxists Internet Archive here, and seriously, if you’re in education of any kind and have never read this do it now, the scales will drop from your eyes I promise.

5. Actually the best analogy I’ve seen might be to sports clubs: see Richard Oliver, “Universities are more like sports clubs than businesses” in Times Higher Education (THE), 15th January 2020, online here.

6. There is a huge literature on how what we as academics assess in our students often isn’t what we actually want them to learn, or else what they are supposed to learn from doing a degree, mostly from government offices, and an equally huge but much much more consistent one from actual academic publications on how students’ own evaluations of how they’re doing are faulty. Witness for the former Dimensions of Quality by Graham Gibbs (York 2010), online here; Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a Market Environment by Graham Gibbs (York 2010), online here; The drivers of degree classifications by Ray Bachan (London 2018), online here; and reportage in Anna McKie, “Does university assessment still pass muster?” in Times Higher Education (THE), 23rd May 2019, online here. On the latter front see a small sample in the form of Michael Hast and Caroline Healy, “Higher Education Marking in the Electronic Age: Quantitative and Qualitative Student Insight”, edd. Josep Domenech, M. Cinta Vincent-Vela, Raúl Peña-Ortiz, Elena de la Poza and Desemparado Blasquez in Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences Vol. 228, 2nd International Conference on Higher Education Advances, HEAd’16, 21-23 June 2016, València, Spain (Amsterdam 2016), pp. 11–15, DOI: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2016.07.002; Anne Boring, Kellie Ottoboni and Philip Stark, “Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness” in ScienceOpen Research (2016), DOI: 10.14293/S2199-1006.1.SOR-EDU.AETBZC.v1; Susan Bassnett, Kate Eichhorn, Peter Solomon, Emily Michelson, Andrew Moore, Jessica Welburn Paige and John Tregoning, “Is student course evaluation actually useful?” in Times Higher Education (THE) 16th April 2020, online here; and most of all Troy Heffernan, “Sexism, racism, prejudice, and bias: a literature review and synthesis of research surrounding student evaluations of courses and teaching” in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education Vol. 47 (Abingdon 2022), pp. 144–154, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2021.1888075.

5 responses to “Universities Are Not… Manufactories

  1. Pingback: Universities Are Not… Really Supposed to Make Money | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. This is spot on, even for the US context. Would you mind if I provided links to this post (and the others) on social media platforms?

  3. Pingback: Universities Are Not… Like Businesses | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Pingback: So Universities Are Not… The Probable Shape of the Future | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: (Why) Universities Are Not… Giving Way to their Staff | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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