Blog post

The University is Not Innocent: Speaking of Universities

Akwugo Emejulu29 March 2017

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Our universities are at breaking point. Governments have systematically imposed new procedures regulating funding, governance, and assessment, forcing them to behave more like business enterprises in a commercial marketplace than centres of learning. This week on the Verso blog, writers respond to Speaking of Universities, Stefan Collini's cogent analysis of the marketisation of higher education. Speaking of Universities is 40% off until April 2.

For our first piece, Professor Akwugo Emejulu argues that when we speak of universities we must speak of the exclusionary relations at their institutional core: "Universities are contradictory spaces. They govern knowledge through hierarchies of control whilst simultaneously providing temporary and contingent spaces to think within and beyond themselves. When speaking of universities, it is imperative that we do not attempt to silence the realities of power that regulate what is legitimate to be known."

Disciplining the disciplines

Anyone working in higher education over the last 15 years has experienced the destructive changes to the university environment that Stefan Collini describes in Speaking of Universities. Universities have been transformed from semi-autonomous and self-governing institutions of scholarly pursuit to commodified and marketised entities. Today, universities are forced into competitive relations with each other and obliged to charge students exorbitant fees – a deliberate policy of central government control that harnesses the threat of revolt by debt-ridden students.   

Further, the introduction of increased fees effectively removed universities from social welfare provision and delinked participation in higher education from conceptions of British social citizenship and solidarity. To participate in higher education in Britain is no longer a social good but a privatised risk – although participation in higher education continues to be a mostly elite activity despite the expansion of universities from the 1960s. We should understand the introduction of student fees as part of the permanent austerity agenda of advanced welfare states since the 1990s

A policy of precarity has transformed the working conditions of higher education workers. Thanks to predatory league tables published by, for example, QS World University Rankings, and the regulatory governance of scholarship through the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the coming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the ephemeral impact agenda, scholarly work must now fulfil an arbitrary ranking system of ‘world leading’ and ‘excellence’ for the sake of increased funding from central government. These regulatory instruments are deeply affective, generating anxiety and fear for academics. Both university management and central government leverage this stress to discipline and control individual academics and our knowledge production in deeply gendered and racialised ways: white women, people of colour and women of colour in particular are more likely to placed on teaching-only contracts or languish on insecure contracts which curtail their futures as academics.

Thus to speak of universities necessitates speaking of and making visible the material conditions of universities. We cannot speak of universities without also speaking of the outsourcing of cleaning and catering services and the struggle of mostly Black, minority and migrant workers to be paid a living wage and resist the imposition of zero-hour contracts. We cannot speak of universities without also seeing how the experiments in precarity with the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers inevitably spread to other workers who perhaps thought they were protected from the logic of capitalist accumulation by their commitment to the university as a ‘protected home of free inquiry’. As we have seen across the country, temporary, low-paid contracts have been introduced to PhD students and early career researchers to enable higher status academics like myself to participate in the disciplining devices of the REF, TEF and research impact. 

The University is not innocent

Speaking of universities requires us to understand that universities are neither innocent nor neutral. It is part of the epistemic power that universities wield to construct them as essentially passive actors in struggles to regulate and decide what knowledge is and whose knowledge counts.

Take for example the fact that Black and Minority Ethnic young people are more likely to leave school with better qualifications than their white counterparts but are less likely to gain admission to Britain’s top universities. Once at university, students of colour are more likely to experience an attainment gap: they are less likely to get top marks in their studies in terms of graduating with first or upper second class honour degrees. After graduation, as they enter the labour market, graduates of colour are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, in comparison to their white peers. For those people of colour who manage to navigate this perilous journey through higher education to become academics, they are confronted again by institutionalised gender and racial discrimination in universities. According to the Equality Challenge Unit figures from 2016, there are only 345 women of colour professors: to analyse this category further, there are only 30 Black British, 10 British Pakistani and 5 British Bangladeshi women professors (the largest groups of women of colour professors are British Indian women, 80, and British Chinese, 75).  In comparison, there are 3,895 white female and 12,455 white male professors. Thus, to speak of universities is to recognise them as spaces of exclusion and discrimination which hide their epistemic violence behind a rhetoric of meritocracy, collegiality and the ‘free exchange of ideas’.

As I have previously argued, decolonisation struggles attempt to break open the stranglehold that the canon has on ‘legitimate knowledge’. When colleagues at University College London asked ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ and ‘Why Isn’t My Professor Black?’, they were attempting to recast the university to make visible its material and discursive interests.

There have always been limits to who can know, what is allowed to be known and what is deemed knowable in universities, long before the REF and TEF: from the epistemological violence of the closure of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham to the backlash against decolonisation at SOAS and Oxford, and the historical and contemporary exclusion of people based on their race, class, gender, sexuality, disability and legal status. These attempts to control knowledge and knowing are the hallmarks of the elite institutional project of the university: selection, suppression and exclusion.

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten go further still: given the epistemic violence of universities and their neoliberal logic, ‘the only possible relationship to the university today is a criminal one’. They highlight the fundamental contradiction of Black scholars in and of universities and argue for a scholarly relationship of theft:

‘It cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony… to be in but not of – this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university’. 


Collini’s analysis of the neoliberalisation of universities is elegant and persuasive. It rests, however, on a broader construction and defense of the university that elides the exclusionary relations at its institutional core. Universities are contradictory spaces. They govern knowledge through hierarchies of control whilst simultaneously providing temporary and contingent spaces to think within and beyond themselves. When speaking of universities, it is imperative that we do not attempt to silence the realities of power that regulate what is legitimate to be known. 

Akwugo Emejulu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Her co-authored book, Minority Women and Austerity: Survival and Resistance in France and Britain, will be published in July 2017 by Policy Press. 

Speaking of Universities, Stefan Collini's cogent analysis of the marketisation of higher education, is 40% off (with free shipping and bundled ebook) until April 2.