Consumer Capitalism’s Higher (Ed) Contradiction: Commodification meets Audit

Wesley Shumar
Dept. of Culture and Communication
Drexel University

This paper focuses on the contradictory articulation of a twin set of discourses in higher education, each of which could be called neoliberal, the discourse of commodification and the discourse of accountability. This articulation is perhaps part of a larger cultural contradiction brought on by the neoliberalization of consumer capitalism. Much of my recent work has looked at the spatialization of what I think of as the second phase of the commodification of higher education in the United States. This second moment builds upon first moment where, faced with decline in state investment, higher education was pressured in the 1970s to reorganize as a consumer service sold to a buying public. The second moment was a more powerful movement where institutions of higher education imagined themselves as prosumer (Toffler 1980, Ritzer& Jurgenson 2012) sites organized as a cross between a shopping mall, country club and corporate research park (Shumar 2008). This stage of the commodification of the university involved not only a spatio-conceptual transformation of the university itself, but also put the university, in many locations, at the center of regional economic development. Making the university town (and replacing the factory town) the ideal upon which American towns are framed (Watkins 2003).

In 2011, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses ushering in a new era of audit and accountability for American universities. The discourse on accountability has been with us for a while and has been part of a conservative agenda for at least a decade. In 2006 the Spelling Report attempted to articulate a position where students and families were not getting “results” and hence not getting their money’s worth out of higher education. There was an effort to link a hard line on accountability to the last reauthorization of the Higher Education act but the effort was only partly successful. More successful are the efforts of accrediting bodies to carry out the Spelling Report vision.

Both the discourse on commodification and the discourse on accountability come out of a neoliberal ideological position. However they represent a contradiction inherent in capitalism and capitalist accumulation, which can, in this instance, be thought of as the contradiction between consumption and production. This paper will explore these contradictory discourses as they have shaped several university’s attempting to sell an experience while at the same time being required to measure learning and efficiency.