Commodity Fetishism at the University

Elsa Boulet (University Paris IV and ENS Cachan) and Hugo Harari-Kermadec, IDHES – ENS Cachan and CEPN, Historical Materialism Conference, November 2013, London.

We study the ongoing marketisation of higher education in Europe, using the case study of an English university as an illustration. We use the concept of fetishism to focus on the transformation of the substance of higher education through the process of commodification. First, the ongoing reforms modify the production process in the universities through governance arrangements (norms, quality certification, rating, ranking, etc.) and other forms of the new spirit of capitalism (Boltanski and Chiapello 1999). These transformations have an ideological twin: specificities of science ideology must be removed or at least subordinated to the budget logic. A central moment of these two faces of the abstraction process is an operation of quantification (Desrosières 2008a, 2008b), which renders different activities commensurate, and turns differences in nature into magnitudes (Espeland and Stevens 1998). The final step of this abstraction process is the actual selling of teaching and research through tuition fees and patents or innovation consultancy. We conclude on the subjectivity of the resulting academics, producers of the knowledge commodity.


Under the leadership of the OECD and European Union, the European higher education sector is undergoing neoliberal reforms at a rapid pace. England is often described as an example of this program of marketisation to be imitated. With (Harvey 2003:141), we suggest seeing this process as one of accumulation by dispossession:

capitalism can […] make use of some pre-existing outside […] some sector within capitalism – such as education – that has not been proletarianized

This reference to Marx’ concept of primitive accumulation invites us to consider the super-structural aspect of the process: the transformations of the representations of higher education that go along with its marketisation. In our understanding, commodity fetishism is both a condition and a consequence of dispossession. It affects both the educational service and the providers of this service, the academics. This instance of dispossession does not take the form of a direct and violent expropriation: the new public management -and specially the form of quantification (in the sense of Desrosières) it promotes- progressively introduces the logic of capital into universities.

Our paper draws on Elsa Boulet’s fieldwork in a British university during the year 2012-2013 (Boulet 2013). She interviewed managers and academics at Ghimwall University (the university was re-named to preserve anonymity).

First we will focus on education and its transformation into a commodity, with the phenomenon of commodity fetishism. Then we will argue that academics’ labour force itself is commodified in the process of marketisation of HE.


I.               Marketisation of higher education

A.               Quantification as a condition for the market


Desrosières defines the concept of quantification as the act of translating an object or a phenomenon into numbers (Desrosières 2008a, p. 10). By opposition to physical measurement, the production of statistics on a social fact is a transformation of this fact, a re-signification. Measurement can only take place later on, once a convention on how to translate into numbers is agreed upon, ie once the new meaning is socially accepted. In this perspective, quantification is a technology of government, and it evolves with government forms. Under the neoliberal era (Desrosières 2008b:12), public management operates through means distribution conditional to performance, which requires quantifying the activity of the sector in order to measure performance. Numbers provide a scientific caution to this form of management precisely by pretending that they objectively measure reality. Actually they produce a new social representation, imbedded in the ideology of the superiority of the free-market. As we will see, this ideological production is a pathway to commodity fetishism.

Following EU Bologna process, UK higher education institutions attribute a number of CATS to each module. This operation plays a central role. First, it renders all modules commensurable (Espeland and Stevens 1998), and establishes equivalences (a module in economics and a module in biology may be equivalent in terms of CATS): commensuration is “the transformation of different qualities into a common metric” (Espeland and Stevens 1998:314). Commensurability is extended to the courses as the total number of CATS a course is supposed to deliver is standardised by the Quality Assurance Agency, together with contact time and learning outcomes.

“We were under pressure, we were being asked... The question which came out was as a department, what are the contact hours for your department, we want an average figure. The significance, I mean what the question is about where we're going to show up in league tables compared to other departments. Actually the first instance is where do we show compared to other departments within Ghimwall. Are we embarrassed [he laughs], you know, against peers and disciplines at Ghimwall. That's the first pressure, an internal pressure, and another pressure, concern with our standing with external competitors. So the pressure, the pressure is quite simple: are the numbers right ? Regardless of what the numbers mean !” (academic)


This operation of standardisation and commensuration participates in the process of marketisation. Standardisation of education according to a value added model modifies the relationship between teachers and students. This relationship takes the form of an implicit contract between providers of an education service and consumers of this service. According to the neoliberal discourse, students should have the choice between different providers of education, while funding HE by tuition fees should act as an incentive for HEIs to provide “good” courses. In order to enable students to act as rational economic actors, all courses have to be made comparable so that students can choose among the courses according to the ranking with respect to their A-levels results and to the price of the course (tuition fees).

With CATS and tuition fees, students are no longer confronted with a specific course whose intrinsic quality is not measurable, but with a product, comparable with other courses, in which they can decide or not to invest. The logic of investment underlies this model: CATS are a way of counting up students’ investment in human capital. Students accumulate CATS during their studies, and once they graduate they can hope that this investment will prove profitable and that they will find a highly paid job. As Becker puts it: “This is called investing in human capital” (Becker 1964:9). We will see how this human capital investment logic is materialised in the way the University of Ghimwall decides on the level of tuition fees.


B.               Performativity and materialization of the fetish

At the University of Ghimwall, tuition fees are commensurate to the number of CATS. The relationship between the student and the department is a commercial one: the student pays fees according to the number of CATS-standardised modules he/she takes. If he/she wants to take a module in another department, a proportion of the fees are paid from the base department to the other department. Very concretely, the main teaching income of the departments is tuition fees now that the last reforms removed almost all HEFCE[1] funding for teaching.

Fee levels are set by the university, not by departments. The quote below highlights that if the neoliberal discourse states that students pay for education, redefined as an investment in human capital, what they actually pay for is a diploma. The reputation of the university, and not the concrete knowledge students acquired, allows them to get a job once they graduate. The University of Ghimwall knows that, and since it is a rather prestigious institution, it sets high fee levels for foreign students and for postgraduate courses.

“The fees committee meets each year to consider the fee level. We have a university standard fees for say science subjects, for art subjects, which, we look at where our fees are positioned relatively to competing institutions, that's one of the key indicators. We also, consult departments to see where … where they are in terms of their particular market, if their subject fee level is appropriate, whether they should charge a higher fee because it's a premium course [...]. For undergraduates, we have two balances of fees for oversea undergraduates, that are set and reviewed each year with reference to our competitors. On the postgraduate side it's much more nuanced, you can have things like an MBA with very high fees, something like a finance course that prepares you to work in the city of London would have a very high fee, and then there would be other subjects, maybe the arts, where you charge quite a bit lower. So there's a lot more variation in the postgraduate, which reflects different markets.” (manager)


Fee levels are set according to market information: the level of demand, ie. numbers of applicants, prices (fees) of the competitors, and returns of the courses on the labour market, ie. graduates’ level of income. Here we see that education is treated as an investment (from the point of view of the students) and a commodity (from the point of view of the university), but not as something that has an intrinsic and incommensurable quality. On the contrary, all courses are made commensurable by indicators of employability or income level. Commensuration is extended to all types of commodities as education is priced: a bachelor can be compared with a car or a trip to Malaysia, not so much from the point of view of the student who does not yet behave like a pure rational actor and who has to pay anyway for a diploma in order to get a job, but from the point of view of capital. Capitalist firms can decide to invest in higher education rather than car manufacturing – for-profit providers of education already exist in England (Holmwood and Bhambra 2012).

On an ideological level quantification transforms students into consumer, whereas on the material level student  finance provides a solvent demand at the mass scale for a commercial higher education. Student finance does on the material level what quantification does on the ideological level:  it creates the conditions of possibility  of a HE market. Students are invited to choose their universities as investors in human capital, and are ensured to be bankable in this inversion.

Once the quantification process is successfully completed, it appears as a passive and objective measure. HE is then widely seen as a commodity, it tends to lose its specific qualities: HEIs adapt their production according to the rankings criteria and the market situation. The sector is then heteronomous and responds to the logic of value. To achieve this situation, academic work mist have been abstracted into the substance of value, that is to be integrated in the common labour market.


II.          Marketisation of the academics

A.               Exploitation

In the process of marketisation, not only universities and knowledge are transformed (into firms, into commodities), but also academics’ labour force. Polanyi showed how a market society can only exist if labour itself is commodified (Polanyi 2001). A higher education market implies that academics have to sell their labour force on a market, which will be bought by universities-firms. Commodifying academics’ labour force means dismantling the profession which regulates labour in a different way than (though it is not necessarily incompatible with) the market. Successive reforms of HE in Britain have modified the status of academics, in particular since tenure has been abolished in 1988. As a result, the relationship between academics and HEIs progressively became a wage-work relationship, while the working conditions of academics got closer to those of other employees.

The trend of managerialisation (Deem and Brehony 2005) affects academics since top managers of the university can define academics’ work to a certain extent. For instance managers are in a position to demand from academics that they bring a good REF score, and so that they bring money, to the department and to the university. Academics are less autonomous both because managers have more power than they used to (Buchbinder 1993) and because their relation is transformed: those managers increasingly come from the private sector instead of the HE sector, bringing the logic of capital with them.

The relationship between academics and the institution is now closer to a relationship of wage earning: the university provides means of production (rooms, IT services, laboratories etc.) and buys not academics’ loyalty (as in the case of civil servants), but academics’ labour force. Moreover, the relationship between academics and the university is individualised: each academic can try and negotiate a pay increase or promotion if her performance is « good » enough. Conversely, as we already mentioned, management can downgrade academics to full-time teachers. As a result, the professional body of academics is being dismantled.

In this process, academic value is re-signified and subordinated to economic value. Again, the quantification of the REF plays a major role in this abstraction of academics work.


B.               Performativity of the REF on academics

The REF (Research Excellence Framewrork, which was the Research Assessment Exercise) is now used as a measure of individual performance. It is not a tool of description of the “quality” of the research produced in universities, hence the “quality” of the researchers, but has a normative role.

“And have you seen change in how the RAE results are used either by the university or within the department?”
“Yes. So they are much more... they are regarded now as measures of individual performance in ways which can lead to HR, human resources, discussions with individuals. And that was also the case in the previous RAE, in 2008. It wasn't the case in previous RAEs [before 2008].” (academic)

The “research active” category, which became a way of thinking about academics’ jobs and management, is a performative one: academics that are deemed to be “improductive”, ie who might not bring a good REF score to the department, are put on a teaching only contract or are given more teaching and administration to do. As a result, they have a lot less time to do research and effectively become « research inactive ». Thus, the REF redefines the boundaries of the researchers group.

The REF also redefines what is a “good” publication. Books are a risky bet: academics have to submit articles if they want to maximise their chance of getting a good score.

“Some academics do research that might produce a book every 10 years. [...] it might be the most groundbreaking book in the subject ever, but if they do nothing in a 5 year period to show for it, [...] in the new structure, the REF doesn't really recognise that as... research. That's the problem.” (academic)

The design of the REF also advantages widely cited publications, in prestigious journals. The evaluation substitutes quantitative criteria (number of citations, rank of the journal) to qualitative ones, to the proper academic judgement (for the REF 2014 “esteem” from peers is not longer considered as a criterium).

“When citations form the basis of a ranking metric, the resulting list invariably privileges journals publishing widely researched topics in which commonly used methodologies are deployed and well established traditions and perspectives are engaged. [...] Journals dedicated to less popular or emergent areas of research, or which accommodate less popular methodologies and/or that welcome fresh perspectives, are correspondingly disadvantaged in citation indices.” (Willmott, p. 4‑5)

Relative values of publications and of academics are established by the REF, and they are materialised by HEFCE fundings and academics’ wages. In a reversal typical of quantification, the REF seems to express objective quality differentials between universities and between individuals, whereas the REF induces a redistribution of resources that has effects on the quality scores.

It presents relation between persons as relation between ranks or scores, that are progressively translated into wage or funding relations.

“Rankings mechanism such as the Shanghai ranking induce this inflationist spiral: the richer the university, the easier it is for it to buy research ‘stars’ who will make the university’s score rise, and the easier tuition fee rise will be.” (Laval and al. 2012:156)

Ranking, ie ordinal quantification, makes different academic works commensurable, from one discipline to another, from one university to another. Fees and research funding produce a cardinal quantification of academics work, opening the possibility of surplus-value extraction.  It also makes academic work and waged work commensurable. This incorporates academic work in the wider labour market; in this sense, academic work is abstracted.


C.                Alienation

Quantification leads to workers reification, an advanced form of alienation that  “reduces the worker to the state of a commodity and pure quantity”. This is true in a digital form of the Taylorist organisation of work, currently spreading in universities, where a large fraction of precarious academics are constrained to produce a standardised service of teaching and/or researching. They are deprived of autonomy, and power seems to pass to quantification object, ranking, score, that act as subjects.

Conversely, other academics see their power reinforced. Under the neoliberal capitalism equipped with a new spirit (Boltanski and Chiapello 1999), a modern form of alienation relies on the subjectivity of the worker instead of reducing it. In this view, “excellent” academics are those that, as managers, are able to align their subjectivity with their institution (López-Ruiz 2007). Their autonomy is welcome as long as it efficiently increases the institution reputation, financial resources and market share.



Students are also invited to adopt a capitalist subjectivity, the fetishist subjectivity of a human capitalist. But both the neoliberal subjectivity and the tuition fees can feed contestation. In Chile, huge protests took place in 2011 to demand a public system of HE. Here in England, Sussex University have witnessed a student movement in 2013. This movement is interesting as it shows the reverse side of marketisation: as universities functions more and more like firms, they also become vulnerable in terms of profit-loosing. In Sussex, students occupied cafés, preventing the university from making profit out of them for a time. With marketisation, students’ movements and occupations acquire a new meaning: from “symbolic” struggles, they become economic struggles when attacking the institution’s sources of income, classes and campus amenities.



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[1]     Higher Education Funding Council for England

Citer ce billet
Hugo Harari-Kermadec (2013, 1 novembre). Commodity Fetishism at the University. ACIDES. Consulté le 15 avril 2024, à l’adresse

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