When will the Walmart of universities appear?

Almost twenty years ago Naomi Klein published No Logo. In it she argued that businesses had moved from selling things to selling ideas. The particularities of Nike trainers didn’t matter; Nike was selling the idea of sport. The nature of Starbucks coffee didn’t matter; they were selling an image, a feeling, the image/feeling of hanging out with your friends having good times in their coffee shops.

This move from thing to thought has consequences. If you’re in the idea business, if you’re selling the idea of sport, it’s something of a hassle to have to nevertheless deal with the physical work of actually making the shoes. And it’s even more of a hassle to deal with the physical bodies of the people who make the shoes: bodies which get sick, want holidays, and so on.

So part of this move towards the ideal was that businesses tried to unencumber themselves with making and makers. One of the ways they did so, of course, was outsourcing, by having their shoes made in poor countries where they could charge low wages.

But you can’t outsource the making of coffee to developing world countries. You need local people to open shop, to brew and serve and clean up. So in such cases you pursue a different dephysicalisation strategy: you simply opt not to pay for the expensive bits that workers require to lead a healthy life. You use temporary contracts, with no sick pay and no insurance, for example, so that you are paying only for the time they are brewing or opening or cleaning (indeed, you don’t pay for things like travel to work, or frequent unplanned overtime).

Klein’s book has proved incredibly prescient: companies like uber and airbnb have pursued this strategy of dephysicalisation as far as it will go. Uber not only don’t offer insurance et cetera, but they don’t even pay for the cars or their upkeep. Ditto airbnb and the upkeep of the places rented out on it. Here’s a question: what should we predict about higher education assuming the truth of this Kleinian picture?

In part, exactly what we see. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that adjunctification is widespread, accounting for — depending on definitions — between half and almost two thirds of faculty appointments.

What should come as a surprise — what represents an area in which the Kleinian logic has not yet come to fruition, is in the continuing existence of full time faculty, and in particular the existence of tenure, which, as a job for life, is the polar opposite of the contemporary model of paying for as little as possible of the employees’ time, of divesting oneself as much as possible from any expenditure caused by the pesky human bodies which actually do everything.

We should expect the money men who run universities want nothing more than to rid themselves of tenure. But there’s at least one big problem, and it’s a branding one. One of the measures of quality of a university is its faculty: just as Nike had Michael Jordan, so Cambridge has John Milton and Isaac Newton, Ludwig Wittenstein and Srinivasa Ramanujan and Zadie Smith and Stephen Hawking. Big universities have star power: going to them, even if it’s expensive, is, you might think, worth the money. They are brands every bit as much as Nike.

Now, in a sense this is branding chicanery: most undergrads won’t be taught by — say — Stephen Hawking (I mean, obviously, because he’s dead. But even if he were still alive they wouldn’t be). It will instead fall to adjuncts. But that doesn’t really matter: branding is impervious to such logic. Nike shoes are just bits of cloth arranged shoe-wise, in a factory that probably also makes much less expensive shoes. But people still pay plenty for them.

So, one might think, the money men have a problem. They are selling a brand, but the brand requires keeping its talent happy, and that requires spending a lot of money on famous professors. What to do?

Universities are brands; Stephen Hawking is to Cambridge as Michael Jordan is or was to Nike.

Let me just make something clear before going on. I don’t think any of this is a good thing. I don’t think not paying your employees properly is a good thing, I think job security is a good thing, and I think job security in academia in particular, where one’s research output can often take time to develop, is important.

In addition to discussing Nike and Starbucks, Klein also discusses Walmart. They have a different model, which capitalizes on massive economies of scale to sell products very slightly cheaper than competitors. And one of the key ways they do this is via the notion of value. In shopping at Walmart, one is not being cheap, one is being canny. After all, what is the real difference between Walmart value Cola and Coca-Cola? The big fancy companies admit themselves there is none! (And admit it they do — Klein’s book is full of quotes in which companies make this explicit). In buying their Cola, you’re just being smart.

So now we have this: most of teaching is done by cheap adjuncts, but the tenured professors convince people to spend the big bucks for their education. This is what we should expect: a Walmart of education, taught entirely by adjuncts who produce no research at all, a university which emphasises value, the faculty of which aren’t fancy scholars, but that’s okay because you’re not paying fancy-scholar money. Going there is not a last resort, or a bad option, it’s the behaviour of a rational consumer. And after all, most everywhere you’re taught by adjuncts anyway — this new university will just be passing the savings on to you. They’ll be able to undercut the competition while still making plenty of profit. The lack of star power in such an institution becomes a feature, not a bug.

To make this work, the institution of tenure will have to be attacked, and to the extent that tenure is an idea, it will be attacked on the battlefield of ideas: we will see a culture war over tenure, with people arguing against its necessity, arguing that the goal of a university is to quickly provide consumer students degrees. (Were I more paranoid, I would suggest that Soak squared is a move by Big Education in this upcoming culture war — one of the central points of its authors was that it was unfair people got tenure on the basis of publishing in the hoaxed journals on the hoaxed topics.)

Maybe there are reasons this won’t work. A quick google about for-profit universities reveals litanies of failures and lawsuits. And there are colleges out there that pitch themselves as offering value, but they clearly haven’t entered public consciousness as viable and respectable options (at least, they haven’t entered my consciousness).

But I’m left thinking it must somehow work. And I think that because it just seems so right, according to what we could call the Kleinian logic of business, that universities would want to rid themselves of their expensive physical trappings, that they would use branding to do so, and that they would use the key concept of value to sell it.

Again, I say this not because I hope this is what we’ll see. I say it rather because we need to think about how the other side think, we need to find ways of anticipating their next moves and combating them, and the way to do such anticipation is to try to figure out their playbook as Klein so successfully did 20 years ago. If the Kleinian logic isn’t going away, we need to figure out how to face it.

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books (bitly.com/cfnextract). Academic philosophy at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/