Competition within and across universities is so common that it may not seem like a big deal. Professors compete for tenure. Students compete to get into a best universities. And universities compete for rankings.

But where does this competition come from and what effects is it having on higher education systems?

My guest today is Prof. Rajani Naidoo, professor in higher education management at the University of Bath. She recently edited a special issue of the British Journal of the Sociology of Education looking at what she calls the “competition fetish” in higher education. The special issue, which comes out later this year, brings together articles that show the varieties of competition and the various ways actors channel, reproduce, internalize and secure competition logics. Some of the articles address the consequences of competition.

Prof. Naidoo presented some of the ideas discussed here in her Worldviews lecture. 

Citation: Naidoo, Rajani, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 20, podcast audio, July 21, 2016.

Transcript Translation, and Resources:


Will Brehm 1:20
Rajani Naidoo, welcome to FreshEd. In your newest special issue, you write that universities are trapped in a competition fetish. What do you mean by this?

Rajani Naidoo 1:32
Well, I believe that competition has colonized the life world of higher education. Everywhere we go, every step we take, we keep hearing the siren call of competition. And I think higher education is really trapped in this blind belief that competition will provide the solution to all of the unsolved problems of higher education. We believe that competition will enhance equity, that competition will increase quality and that competition will protect us against risk. And I think this is very problematic and very worrying, because it actually traps us into striving for the wrong things. It sucks up a huge amount of positive energy, and it results in some very negative consequences.

Will Brehm 2:41
So, what types of forms does competition take in higher education?

Rajani Naidoo 2:48
Okay, so what’s interesting in higher education is that there are actually very many different forms. People usually talk about higher education in terms of how market competition has entered higher education. But we must remember that there’s also a much more traditional form of competition. And that is the competition in terms of research. So, you know, for huge periods of time, ever since higher education first came into being, scholars have competed against each other in terms of different world views, in terms of producing the best research, in terms of challenging each other’s research. So, there’s very old form of academic competition that has always been present and continues today. But we also have new forms of competition. And one of those new forms of competition is, of course, market competition, where universities are expected to compete in order to produce income. So how do universities produce more revenue, both in terms of research and in terms of teaching? The third form of competition is what I call government sponsored competition. So, governments are now developing all sorts of policies and regulations, which persuade universities to compete against each other. For example, in the United Kingdom, we have the research excellence framework where universities compete in relation to research, both for reputation, but they also competing for funding. In Germany, which used to be a very nonhierarchical system of higher education, we now have the German excellence framework. There, again, universities have to compete against each other. And finally, we have status competitions, basically, rankings, how do universities feature in world rankings of higher education? And what’s interesting is that these different types of competition interact, they sit alongside each other, and sometimes they contradict each other.

Will Brehm 5:42
So, what contributed to this rise of various forms of inflation across universities? It sounds like what you’re saying is around the world.

Rajani Naidoo 5:55
Yep, I think there are, you know, a huge number of factors that have contributed to this rise of competition among systems of higher education all over the world. I think the one thing to say is that competition is really held out as very normative, as very natural, as very good in all areas of society. So, you know, you actually can’t turn on the television anymore, without seeing some form of competition, competition for baking, competition for the best song and so on. So, children are being socialized very early, even before school into embodying a very competitive ethos. But coming back to higher education, I think there are various processes that contribute to this competition. And I think you can differentiate them as being material, you know, real life policies and regulations, social and psychological.
In terms of the material processes, basically, what has happened is, in many countries, the state has transformed itself into the competition state. And by this, I mean a state which actively creates the conditions for market competition. So, these sorts of material processes include the government reducing funding for higher education, the government’s introducing market competition in terms of regulation, and policy and state sponsored competition. And also, I think what’s really important is that universities are now required to contribute in a much more direct way than ever before to the economy. So, universities have to generate income for the economy, they have to generate income for the university itself, but they also have to contribute to really reinforcing and creating a more powerful position for the country in the global economy.

In terms of social processes, I think competition is legitimized in a huge number of ways. Firstly, we have to basically believe that everyone has an equal opportunity to win the competition. So, we have to have this fiction that everyone starts from the same place. But of course, we know that neither people nor countries start from the same place. But what competition does is it de-contextualizes very, very different higher education systems. Higher education systems that have very different geographic, very different political and very different economic context. But the competitive frameworks that are in place make all of these appear to be equivalent. So, it looks as if it’s fair, but actually the competition is rigged. The competition privileges and valorizes various criteria and various factors that the centers of power in higher education have. And so, the non-powerful nations, non-powerful universities are forced to mimic these characteristics even if they have absolutely no chance of winning.

And so, competition is really accepted as being very natural. Competition is linked to democracy. If you don’t believe in competition, you are perceived as being undemocratic. Competition is seen to be fair, and competition also has a huge emotional dimension. We fear shame, we fear that we enter the competition and we lose. So, we try very, very hard to win the competition. And we also love the thrill of fame that ignites in us a very strong competitive desire. So, we ourselves emotionally and socially become very embedded in the competition game. And we become responsible for how it is reproduced.

Will Brehm 11:09
You say that there are the main actors. It seems that you talk about are states and governments as well as universities, are there other actors involved in enabling a competition fetish, or just competition in general to seem so incredibly natural?

Rajani Naidoo 11:32
Yes, there are other actors such as international organizations, there’s the World Bank, there’s the OECD, and of course, these so-called international organizations have a huge … the powerful countries have a huge influence on these organizations. These organizations, although they appear to be non-ideological, have a very, very deep and invested ideological interest. And through various sorts of activities, for example, through disseminating what is best practice, through the ways in which international organizations measure what is successful higher education. In doing all these sorts of activities, international organizations themselves encourage universities and countries to enter the competition game. But the terms of competition are set in a very fixed way. So, countries don’t enter the competition in the hope that they are able to change the games of competition, they enter a competition that’s already, I would say, rigged, but it’s very, very powerful. These templates are very powerful. Everybody wants to belong to the world class club of universities.

Will Brehm 13:20
Why do universities want to join the competition for world class status?

Rajani Naidoo 13:25
I think it’s partially because of reputation. Universities want to be seen to be high quality, high quality has become, has come to appear as having a university, what at least one university from your country being of world class status. And it’s almost like an entry ticket to a civilized world. It’s become something very, very, very cultural, very reputational, very much to do with prestige, and there are certain, you know, so it’s very much about prestige, and reputation and belonging. But it also has some very material impacts, funding flows as a result of that. If you have world class status, or you are highly ranked, other universities want to join you, you’re more likely to get Research Council funding, your graduates are more likely to be employed in the top companies. So, all sorts of material effects flow from that as well.

Will Brehm 14:50
Would you include in that capturing student enrollments that with the increase of student mobility around the world, you’re now able to capture a new group of students that might reside outside of your nation.

Rajani Naidoo 15:06
Yes, absolutely, rankings have been shown to be very, very important for international students, for elite international students. Students who can afford overseas student fees, and students who have the academic capital to actually cross over borders and into elite universities in other countries, with internationalization has become another very important symbol of prestige and reputation. So, universities actually compete for very high status and elite international students. So that’s certainly one part of it. But also, it’s important to say that rankings are not used across the board by all students. It’s usually international students, and it’s usually elite students.

Will Brehm 16:07
You say that the university, one of the forces for this competition, is the commodification or the marketization of the university. Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by this term and give examples of how universities have become commodified?

Rajani Naidoo 16:26
Yep, I think we know that universities have always been a mixture of various things. Universities have always had various outputs. Universities have had various purposes, and various goals, which have all set alongside each other. So, universities have been about educating the whole person. Liberal education universities have tried to develop citizenship, criticality, social justice. Universities have been motors for social mobility. And universities have also been about global and national citizenship. And what has happened now is that the contribution of universities to human capital and the contribution of universities to the economy has become, has been seen to be a very major role and function of universities. Governments see this role as one of the most important purposes of universities. And of course, when you look at government documents, you have the economic role of universities coinciding with the role of universities for social mobility. But if you actually look very carefully at the way in which governments fund universities and government policy, you will see that the strongest dimension for governments is how universities contribute to the economy, to the national economy. And what this is meant is that universities are now measured not so much in terms of the more older and the traditional functions, but more in terms of income generation, ‘how many students are captured?’, ‘to what extent does research contribute to business?’, ‘to what extent does the university contribute to economic development?’ And the belief is that if universities contribute in a very direct way to the economy, the benefits will trickle down to the whole of society. And I think that that just doesn’t happen. So, I think that’s quite negative, because that’s really changed the ethos of the university. When universities are now looking much more, for example, in terms of PhD students had, ‘can the PhD students afford the very high fees?’ rather than ‘is it the best PhD student?’, ‘is that the person who will actually contribute the greatest intellectual work to our field?’ And I think those sorts of things become very, very problematic.

Will Brehm 19:43
And I would also add something along the lines of the type of research that is being produced by universities, oftentimes, professors are most concerned about getting the number of publications, not the quality of publications.

Rajani Naidoo 19:58
That’s right. Yep. There’s been a very interesting research that’s now being done on the research excellence framework in the UK. And when you talk to people, they’ll basically say, you know, they’ll say a couple of things. Firstly, they’ll say, we just feel like we are in the research machine, we feel like factory workers, we feel like we have to publish such quantity and we have to publish in very specific journals that have been earmarked as high quality. And this really leads to a constraining of academic work, when people have to publish in certain journals, a certain number, basically the content of the research suddenly becomes less important than the type of journal that the article is published in. So, in the UK, now, people are expected to publish four articles in four four-star journals. And when people talk about their research, they talk about, is this person a 16 pointer just as person have four four-star journal articles rather than the content of their research, you know, ‘is this research pathbreaking?’, ‘has it dramatically changed our field?’ So, I think that’s really very, very problematic. And there’s also an impact agenda now in the UK where researchers have to show that their research has an impact that is beyond an economic, sorry, that is beyond an academic impact. And unfortunately, this impact is very, very much framed as economic. So once again, we’re not looking that much at social impact, at cultural impact, or at impact on non-governmental organizations, that impact on peace processes, we’re looking very much at economic impact. And I think that’s another example of the commodification of higher education.

Will Brehm 22:23
You said that the rise of competition or the competition fetish creates this blind belief that universities can solve unsolved problems, and these were equity, quality and to protect some level of risk or mitigate some level of risk. Do you think that competition has in fact made these problems worse?

Rajani Naidoo:  22:50
Yes, I would say that in terms of equity, for example, competition has definitely made equity worse. You know, higher education was never that equal in the first place. We’ve always had a major problem with the exclusion of students who are working class. That has remained more or less the same, particularly in a country like Britain, which is very stratified in terms of class. But what we have now on top of that is we have universities basically competing in league tables and in rankings and what the rankings measure is, it’s not to do with equity, or to do with responding to regionalization. Rankings measure very specific aspects. So, rankings measure a particular type of research, rankings measure the numbers of students that do very well. How quickly do they go through university? What sort of jobs do they get at the end of their university career? And all of these factors actually really promote certain types of universities that take in students that are already very highly qualified, that have gone to very good schools. And those students are usually from middle class families, they do very well at school, they do very well at university, and they get good jobs. And of course, a university that wants to climb up the rankings will actively recruit those sorts of students. So, the normal mechanisms of excluding students that are socially disadvantage has been reinforced by particular types of competition that we see in higher education today. If we look at risk, universities are competing to such an extent on league tables and rankings, that I fear that we may have some very perverse incentives. For example, we know that in hospitals that were competing in league tables, that there was some misentry of data, success rates were not exactly what they were in reality. The success rates that were reported were not actually what would really happen. So, some public sector organizations have attempted to massage the data in order to do very well in rankings and league tables. And I think that doesn’t take away risk, it increases risk. You also have very perverse incentives; universities invest huge amounts of money. And if it’s in climbing up the rankings, rather than investing in their mission, and really driving up the quality of teaching and research.

Will Brehm 26:36
Looking into the future, do you see competition increasing in universities? Or do you see a change happening to move away from competition since all of these areas, all of these negative consequences that you point out seem to be so, in many ways, obvious?

Rajani Naidoo 26:59
Yeah, that’s very interesting, the negative consequences seems so obvious, but barely anybody talks about it. You know, we’re so trapped within the kind of the competition fetish, that we are so busy competing against each other, that we barely have any time to reflect. We also fear that if we jump out of the competition game, we will lose very dramatically, we lose reputation, we lose funding, we lose our place in the world in a way. And it’s very, very difficult for just one university to withdraw from the league tables or from rankings. You know, for example, let’s say if the Ivy League basically said, we don’t believe in rankings, we will drop out, that would be a huge signal that would go to the rest of the sector. And then rankings will not be so powerful, but because the Ivy League is so powerful, the powerful universities do so well in rankings, it gives them so much privilege, it’s not something they would countenance. So, then it’s left to the, you know, the middle or the lower ranking universities should try to opt out. And that’s very, very difficult. So, I think unless it was a collective effort, it just won’t happen.

Will Brehm 28:47
So then, in your opinion, what are some of the alternatives to competition in higher education?

Rajani Naidoo 28:53
Well, I think the first thing to say is that not all competition is negative. For example, intellectual fields and higher education have progressed dramatically because researchers competed against each other. But the criteria for the competition was related to knowledge. And that knowledge became part of the public commons. This competition, this intellectual competition still exists today but it is under threat, which I am against all the other competition frameworks in which higher education is trapped, and where the means such as rising up in rankings becomes obsessive and replaces the ends. So, I think it is crucial that we agree that competition with regulation has its place, but that we do not accept competition as the only way of ensuring equity, enhancing quality or redistributing resources. Democracy does not always have to be linked to the types of competition in which a small elite remain privileged, while conditions worsen for the majority. We need both side. We need cooperation and we need democratic forms of coordination. We need this because the future of higher education is too important to be left to a fetish.

Will Brehm 30:28
Well, Rajani Naidoo, thank you very much for joining FreshEd.

Rajani Naidoo 30:32
It’s a pleasure. Thank you very much. I have really enjoyed this conversation.

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