‘TU Delft should drop the commercialization culture’

True academic freedom should be reinstated at TU Delft, Phd-student Ali Haseltalab argues in this blog.

My previous article explains how the commercialisation of educational environments leads not only to the decline of universities, but also affects individuals in terms of working conditions. Indeed, that is how the corporatisation and commercialisation of universities restrains academic freedom.

The degree of academic freedom varies, with the most conservative perceiving academics simply as employees whose job it is to deliver skills to students in higher education and to carry out research in and around their fields of specialty. At the other end of the spectrum, academics are recognised as critiques whose value also lies in the ruthless criticism and influencing of social structures.

The corporatisation of universities keeps academics in or close to the most conservative category. Indeed, capital-oriented entrepreneurial public universities have to keep academics in that zone.

‘Scientists are regarded as budget catchers who must bring money to their departments’

There is no doubt that the culture of commercialization puts the economy before the true objectives of education and knowledge production. This places added work and study pressure on academics and students. It means that scientists are regarded as budget catchers who must bring money to their departments by submitting proposals and lobbying companies. On top of this, they should carry out ever increasing educational tasks and supervise high numbers of graduate students to publish more and more.

Job insecurity follows and tenure vanishes. Students are trained to get through their education quickly and finish each stage of study as soon as possible. Educational programmes are condensed to create space for higher numbers of students. This leaves no time and space for self-construction.

Academic life is defined on the assumption that one has enough personally controlled free time to think, produce and write. Indeed, as Pierre Bourdieu (the French sociologist and philosopher) says: “one needs freedom from necessity in order to be a successful academic[i].” Critical thinking and attitude, Bildung and self-construction are all tightly bound to true academic freedom. Without it, academics and students are limited to the most conservative level of academic freedom. This is the result of the commercialisation culture.

‘The rush to found institutes reflects the crisis that we are heading towards’

Professor Casper Chorus – in his article about his burnout from high work pressure – brought up an issue that went little noticed or was disregarded, “the uncontrolled growth of institutes” at TU Delft. “Nowadays, every self-respecting professor founds their own lab, and if it all goes well, develops it into an institute or ‘initiative’ after successfully lobbying the Dean or Executive board”, he explains. This rush to found institutes, which is normally followed by gaining more funds and budgets from government or companies, reflects the crisis that we are heading towards: the neglecting of Bildung and the commercialization of educational environments.

This mirrors the justification of the corporatisation culture in the educational environment. Yes, university is a place where knowledge is created, but I strongly agree with Michael Burawoy (the British sociologist) who suggests that it is necessary to constantly ask: knowledge for whom and for what[ii]? I also believe that the type of knowledge that is being produced at such institutes (including TU Delft) is instrumental rather reflexive[iii]. Isn’t this trend taking us away from the prophecy of the university and education for education’s sake? And why should lobbying be needed to set up institutes?!

‘This is a critical point in time to discuss and reflect’

Recently, the TU Delft executive board started an initiative to engage students and staff in discussions about a new strategic framework for the period 2018-2024. I certainly believe that this is an appropriate – and even critical – point in time for the authorities as well as students and staff to discuss and reflect the above issues in the framework.

I also would like to contribute to this call. In the initiative’s information video, President Tim van der Hagen introduces ‘the culture of excellence’. He explains this as “… we should always try to be the best that we can be in our work. I would like to develop a culture in which people feel encouraged to challenge themselves and where they will receive all the necessary support to do so.”

Bearing in mind that one of the main objectives of this new strategic framework is to enhance the university’s position in international rankings by producing more scientific papers and increasing the number of students, I perceive this culture as ‘the culture of corporatisation, commodification, commercialisation and more work and study pressure.’ With my most sincere respect for Professor Tim van der Hagen, I oppose the justification of this and similar cultures as long as they do not reflect the above mentioned issues of negating commercialisation and promoting Bildung.

At TU Delft, I have been in numerous discussions with university employees and students on different issues and have heard the most unbelievable and yet common statements such as “it is OK to be ignorant in order to be happy.” For a leading educational institute, the prevalence and acceptance of these sentiments are not surprising nor strange, they are catastrophic and the result of policies that are being adjusted and promoted. This has to change!

[i] Pierre Bourdieu, Sociology in Question, Sage, London, 1993.

[ii] Michael Burawoy, The Public University – a Battleground for Real Utopias, Available online: http://burawoy.berkeley.edu/.

[iii] Instrumental knowledge is concerned with discovering the most efficient means to achieve a given, taken-for-granted end, and reflexive knowledge is concerned with promoting discussion about the very ends, goals and values we otherwise take for granted.

Please contact Delta if you want to respond to this blog.

Since two years, Ali Haseltalab is a PHD student at 3mE, researching “Distributed Control for smart hybrid ship systems”. He and his collaegues intend to design feasible algorithms for motion control and on-board power management of autonomous hybrid-electric ships. Haseltalab did his bachelors at the University of Tabriz in Iran, and his masters at Bogazici University in Turkey.

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