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The International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives Vol. 18, No 1, 2019, pp. 66-79
The university as ideological state apparatus:
Educating to defend the corporate status quo?
University of Massachusetts Boston, US email@example.com
University of South Queensland, Australia: Adrian.Stagg@usq.edu.au
The function of the university in serving the state is the reproduction and
legitimization of state functions and behaviours. Theorized in this manner, the
university is observed as an internal auxiliary agent of the state that is made
subordinate to dominant class interests and not as an independent agent able
to critically and selectively respond to state policy and industrial incentives.
The paper argues for the application of an instrumental theory of the state to
frame the relationships between the contemporary university and the state in
corporate liberal and neoliberal democracies. By offering a critical
application of state theory, the authors provide a conceptual framework from
which to build methodological approaches that explain why universities in
advanced, capitalist societies have so thoroughly adopted neoliberal
structures and behaviours. While previous research has offered critical
approaches that tend to document how phenomena such as managerialism
have become commonplace, this paper reviews an instrumental theory based
on the power structure in which the university is cast within the state as part
of the ideological state apparatus. Current critical research documenting the
corporatization of the university is first considered then aligned with a theory
of the state that not only accommodates academic capitalism but also points
to the reasons for universities’ inability to engage in a serious critique of
corporate liberal democracy.
Keywords: university; theory of the state; instrumentalism; corporate liberal
democracy; advanced capitalism; corporate ideal; common good; private
good; academic capitalism; ideological state apparatus; academic freedom;
It is recognized that contemporary universities in advanced capitalist societies have
adopted structural and behavioural qualities typical of neoliberalist organizations. This
landscape has been well documented and analysed from a variety of perspectives by
critical scholars on higher education (Aronowitz, 2004; Ginsberg, 2013; Giroux, 2014).
By revisiting instrumental state theory and the ideological state apparatus (ISA), the
authors wish to extend the significant contributions that critical research on higher
education has made during the past four decades. The authors contend that revisionist
instrumental state theory offered by Clyde Barrow (1990), Louis Althusser (2014),
William Domhoff (1979), Ralph Miliband (2009), Jürgen Habermas (1988), and others
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provides insights into why universities have changed and continue to do so––to first
accommodate corporate liberalism and later neoliberalism.
A coherent body of critical literature has formed around the theory of academic capitalism
(Cantwell & Kauppinen, 2014; Slaughter & Leslie, 1997, Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004;).
The authors see theory of the state complementing and extending constructs such as
academic capitalism, namely “mechanisms that [connect] academics to the market
possibilities opening up and focused on organisational processes . . . expanded managerial
capacity . . . and resources, rewards, and incentives that moved actors within the
university from the public good knowledge/learning regime to the academic capitalist
knowledge/learning regime” (Slaughter, 2014, loc. 45). We argue that the theory of the
state extends critical analysis beyond the mechanisms that describe how the university
has changed to the essential relationships the university shares with the capitalist state
that explains why the university corporatized under corporate liberalism and
commercialized during neoliberalism. We contend that the university's role as an
auxiliary agent of the state restricts the university's ability to engage in critical dialogue
about state-sponsored capitalist forms of democracy and the state's role in privatizing the
Much of the critical scholarship cited in this paper addresses how neoliberal values are
insinuated into university structure, focusing on university behaviour rather than the
broader socio-structural context in which universities serve. This scholarship widely cites
policies and incentives that are frequently inconsistent with stated values and essential
sources of legitimization on which the university and professional professoriate have
relied, such as: academic freedom; intellectual autonomy; and independence from elite as
well as populist political, cultural, and social norms (Gerber, 2014). Adopting a critical
theory of the state based on the tradition of Marxist power structure scholarship not only
provides a broader context for the findings flowing from theories such as academic
capitalism but also provides openings for more radical and systemic corrective action that
challenges norms that reproduce and legitimize the ideology of corporate liberal and
Failure to adopt a theory that recognizes the relationship of the university to advanced
capitalist interests within the state apparatus increases the likelihood that critical
scholarship will generate recommendations for solutions that perpetuate, reproduce, and
legitimize the values, structures, and behaviours that the scholarship is rightly and
thoughtfully criticizing. It is the authors’ intent to propose a conceptual approach based
on instrumental theories of the state to frame the problem in ways that point to a number
of questions meriting additional consideration.
The bounded scope within which these theories operate (and are applied) merits explicit
attention to ensure clarity of language, shared understanding of purpose (without which
the application of instrumental theories becomes both unfocused and uncritical in the
geographical scope), and conceptual rigour. Therefore, articulation of the rationale for
selecting the lenses of Australia and the US, and precision of language for neoliberalism,
in particular, are required to demonstrate a purposeful approach and ideological
The university as ideological state apparatus
While recognizing the important contributions that the English university tradition has
made to both Australian and US higher education, the authors have decided to follow the
foundational research by Slaughter and Leslie (1997) that resulted in the theory of
academic capitalism and relied heavily on data collected at universities in US and
Australia. In addition, although England left its fingerprints on the two nations’ histories
of higher education, both Australia and the US were influenced by other national legacies.
While Australian university life was influenced by Scottish intellectual and
organizational tradition, the German research university influenced the development of
US higher learning (Davis, 2017; Hofstadter & Metzger, 1955; Storr, 1969). Using
Australia and the US as subject nations provides a comparison of like nations as siblings,
rather than turning to the parent nations of England, Scotland, or Germany. In effect,
Australian and US higher education share a common legacy of British and Continental
rule, making them first-generation ‘new world’ universities, separated from their colonial
progenitors by geography, need, and cultural attenuation from Europe. Although there
may well be benefit to including Canadian, New Zealand, and universities from other
outposts of the former British Empire, the purpose of this paper is not principally
comparative. We do recognize the substantive differences and similarities between
Australian and US higher education and believe that an in-depth comparative essay of the
role of universities as ISAs in Australia and the US could be a valuable contribution to
higher education literature and a natural extension of this essay.
Contemporary media and academic critique often places a negative value association to
the term neoliberalism; a trend that has made the term increasingly difficult (and thus
increasingly important) to contextually define with precision, resulting in Peck's (2013)
observation that it “has always been an unloved, rascal concept, mainly deployed with
pejorative intent, yet at the same time apparently promiscuous in application” (p. 133).
Often misconstrued as arising from a single-cause influence, neoliberalism arises from a
melting pot of nuanced reactions and evolutionary processes, each with a distinct
ideological stance. This paper draws on the work of the second Chicago School (most
influenced by Milton Friedman), and the Virginia School (shaped in part by the work of
Gordon Tullock). It has been asserted (Birch, 2017, p. 30) that these schools are the ones
usually inferred by modern writers when referencing neoliberal thought; however,
exacting attribution rarely arises from such inferences. Broadly, both schools favour a
pro-corporate, ‘anti-state’ approach that positions the free market as a natural organizing
mechanism for society (Birch, 2017).
The deliberate selection of these schools to inform the neoliberal aspects of
instrumentalism leading to the corporatization of the university (and by extension
knowledge commercialization) arises from their international policy and political
influences that converged from the 1980’s onward to shape societal views of education.
Neoliberal politicians were ascendant during this decade (Thatcher, Reagan, and Hawke
in the UK, US, and Australia respectively), all of whom favoured deregulation, efficiency
metrics, and managerialism––all of which have continued impact on higher education in
those countries. Furthermore, this decade reflected policy change in international
organizations (such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) to favour
privatization, marketization of public services, and market deregulation (Birch, 2017).
For Australia, it also ushered in a fundamental change to educational funding, shifting the
onus of financial burden from the state to the student (with the implementation of state-
administered student loans known as HECS) that effectively yet subtly repositioned
education from a public good to a private one.
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The temporal convergence of neoliberal ideological ascendancy within the same decade
across both the nation of colonial rule (the UK), and the ‘sibling states’ (Australia and the
US) sympathetically resonates across political leadership, and educational policy––thus
creating a case for the type of comparison and alignment within instrumentalist theory
that forms the basis of this paper.
POWER STRUCTURES AND THE STATE
The purpose of this article is not to review theories of state but, instead. to analyse the
university’s relationship with the state. We contend that in mature capitalist democracies
(including Australia and US) the state functions principally to mediate capitalist interests
within the context of neoliberal and corporate liberal democratic forms and that
universities function as part of the state apparatus. We limit our thinking to universities
in mature capitalist states and adopt an analytical theory of the state that posits:
• The state serves as an instrument of the dominant class, which, for the purposes
of this paper, is assumed to be the capitalist class.
• The state functions through a state apparatus composed of numerous institutions
that coalesce into groups identified as the governmental, administrative, coercive,
and ideological (ISA).
• State power is separate from the state apparatus through which the state elite
• Within this context universities serve as part of the ISA.
• The stability of the state depends on its ability to serve the interests of capital
accumulation and on its ability to maintain the popular perception that its values,
as articulated through policies and activities, are indicative of a popular
These five salient qualities of the state are principally instrumentalist in nature and have
roots in the major movements of revisionist socialism reaching back to Eduard Bernstein's
(1967) argument for evolutionary socialism in the late 19th Century. The benefits of
instrumentalist state theory for our purposes is that it provides an important role for
understanding the university in the state apparatus as institutions that reproduce the values
of the dominant class, conceptual structures that promote corporatization, generalizable
methods for assessing the influence of the dominant class, and the possibility for
recommendations leading to change. Furthermore, these five qualities represent ‘lenses’
through which each aspect of the university, as part of the state apparatus, can be critically
examined in terms of a discrete phenomena and as part of an interlocking, sequential
explanation of causation.
The commonly held assumption that the US and Australia are currently functioning as
advanced capitalist societies is almost beyond dispute. The combined features of an
economy characterized by advanced industrialization and a concentration of private
ownership and control over economic activity among an identifiable class provides the
texture of mature capitalist societies (Miliband 2009). Furthermore, as Louis Althusser
(2014) asserts, capitalism’s principal characteristic is the exploitation of labour by the
dominant capitalist class––the class of individuals with whom private ownership and
control has accrued. It was through processes of colonization and industrialization that
the US and Australia transitioned––post-conquest of indigenous peoples under the logic
of manifest destiny or terra nullius––from traditional agrarian and mercantile societies to
The university as ideological state apparatus
industrial and now finance capitalist regimes. These regimes are characterized by
monopoly capital, globalization, aggressive use of legal instruments to assert private
ownership of intellectual and cultural assets as intellectual property, and use of the same
legal instruments to protect and commercialize these assets. It is in these advanced
capitalist societies that the doctrines of capitalism have not only become unquestioned
but also gained the status of being fundamentally unquestionable. The doctrines of
advanced capitalism are simply assumed in public debate, policy development, and
legislation with active support of the state (Habermas 1988; Miliband 2009).
The doctrine of capitalism––especially during the Industrial Revolution––grew from the
subversion of the English courts to condone a system of enclosure wherein public land–
–a common wealth––was appropriated by the few who sought to leverage maximum
private economic yield masked by false economies of returning this yield to citizens
through taxation and contractual regimes. The use of public land for private good through
government contracts has been well documented (Bollier, 2002), yet the privatization and
commercialization of intellectual property within universities continues unabated and is
actively encouraged by governments of advanced capitalist societies. The private
ownership of tax-payer-funded research becomes a conceptual enclosure that has been
normalized by researchers at the expense of societal benefit. This represents another
milestone in the formation of the modern capitalist state.
In the US, it was during the decades spanning the turn of the 20th Century that the modern
capitalist state took shape in the form of corporate liberal democracy. Furthermore,
according to James Weinstein (1968), the rise of corporate liberalism introduced
ambiguity into the meaning of liberalism as the “nature of liberalism [changed] from the
individualism of laissez-faire in the nineteenth century to the social control of corporate
liberalism in the twentieth” (p. xi). It was during this conceptual shift in the meaning of
liberalism that the corporate liberal democracies became characterized by capitalist states
that operate through a state apparatus organized in patterns through which the dominant
capitalist class exercises power, authority, and influence. Although the state apparatus is
the organizational channel through which the dominant class exercises control, it is not
by necessity capitalist in nature (Barrow, 1993; Miliband, 2009). Examples of other
classes that could potentially assume a dominant position in the state apparatus include
labour, intellectual, hereditary aristocratic, and populist classes.
From a topological perspective, Althusser (2014) points to Marx’s interpretation of state
structure, noting that the state apparatus in mature capitalist societies has an infrastructure
referred to as the economic base and a superstructure that includes legal-political
apparatuses and ISA. The economic base maintains a capitalist mode of production
grounded on exploitation of labour and the accumulation and concentration of wealth. It
is exploitation of labour that results in surplus value (profit) that is the defining principle
of capitalist production; and it is the economic base that provides the necessary capacity
to support capitalist modes of production through legal and political processes and
infrastructure, such as capital markets, banking systems, and regulatory agencies
organized within a legal regime. Coercion through the police, military, and court systems
serves the economic base by ensuring that there are consequences associated with
illegally undermining the conditions that support the economic base. Furthermore,
Althusser (2014) reminds us that the legal system in liberal corporate democracies is the
law of the dominant class of capitalists who design, develop, and interpret law in ways
that primarily benefit the dominant class.
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While the economic base of the state apparatus directly supports capitalist modes of
production, the principal purpose of the ISA is to ensure that the conditions of production
under the rule of the dominant classes are maintained. The ISA ensures that the system
normally operates without repressive intervention of coercive apparatus. The objective of
the ISA is simply and seamlessly to ‘make things go’ naturally, by simultaneously making
capitalism appear to be the only reasonable way of organizing society and creating the
perception that state behaviour is legitimate (Althusser, 2014). The prevailing and
unquestioned adherence to perpetuating the illusion of capitalist ideology as a natural and
harmonious organizing force for human society becomes entrenched by rewarding––with
resources, status, and prestige––those apparatus that align with, and legitimize dominant
capitalist narratives, activities, and behaviours (Barrow, 1990).
Before moving onto a discussion about the university as an ISA, we want to briefly
reiterate that we subscribe to a theory of state that is based on the belief that monopoly
capitalists form a dominant class, exercise class-consciousness and act through the state
apparatus in ways that not only benefit capitalists but also reproduce the conditions of
production. We recognize that there are alternative schools of thought that challenge this
position and that our treatment of the state does not give proper attention to the role of
civil society or the public and private spheres; however, the purpose of this paper is not
to describe and analyse competing theories of state.
UNIVERSITIES AS IDEOLOGICAL STATE APPARATUS
Universities function as part of the scholastic or educational ISA. As such, the university
serves the state apparatus and the dominant capitalist class by reproducing the conditions
of production. The university performs the reproduction function by providing capacity
to support the economic base. For example, the university provides professional training
to supply industry with labour, replenishes the intellectual class, reinforces the elite
capitalist class that serves as the industrial and state elite, and provides research to support
economic development and national defence (Barrow, 1990).
The university also performs the reproduction function of legitimizing the corporate
liberal state by creating the perception that the state is functioning as a democratic organ
for the common good. The corporate liberal state requires popular legitimacy and it must
balance its service to the dominant class of capitalists while also maintaining its perceived
legitimacy as an agent for the common good (Domhoff, 1978); that is, the economic base
of the state apparatus functions to serve the interests of capitalist accumulation and
concentration of wealth directly while the ISA does so indirectly. Therefore, the state is
meant to serve the private interests of the dominant class while the university, as an ISA,
must reproduce conditions in which the population is willing to acquiesce to the capitalist
class interests and accept exploitation (Althusser, 2014). These objectives tend to be
accepted but not without ongoing resistance and the potential for radical defiance and
conflict. The various ISAs (including the university) are most successful in this regard
when they are able to increase the scope of indifference the population has towards state
and industry sponsored exploitation and coercion, creating conditions of passive
acceptance with the perception of individual choice and meaningful public debate. In this
way, state and industry sponsored exploitation and coercion are viewed as legitimate.
This logic is the functional correlate of Habermas’ (1988) treatment of legitimation and
motivation crises that are endemic to advanced capitalist systems. Habermas argues that
The university as ideological state apparatus
it is through the legitimization provided by ISAs that crises and disruption of the advanced
capitalist system are mitigated or avoided and do not result in active class conflict.
The extent to which the ISA can influence the legitimacy of state action dictates the extent
to which the common good may be exploited for private wealth accumulation without
unacceptable disruption to the system as judged by the dominant class. Therefore, we can
study the legitimation function of the university by assessing the amount of authentic
dialogue and behaviour that is exercised through the university research agenda,
curriculum, and service commitments that directly support the common good when it is
in conflict with university behaviours that serve to concentrate wealth in the dominant
capitalist class. The relative commitment to the common good vis-a-vis the private good
is a measure of a university's resistance to its role as an ISA charged with building an
impression of legitimacy and supporting the values of advanced capitalism. Determining
the university's commitment to the common good is, of course, easier said than done
because, frequently, different actors see the same behaviour differently.
Although there is some critique of exploitation of the common good for private gain, we
might expect a more fundamental critique of the university's role in supporting doctrines
that dominate advanced capitalism; however, there is little evidence of mounting critique
that seriously challenges corporate liberal democracy or the roles that universities take in
reproducing the conditions necessary for production in advanced capitalist societies. It
was Miliband (2009) who not only identified the general lack of critique among
intellectuals and universities but also pointed to the factors that make universities
conservative institutions. Miliband points to the conservative influence of the state and
business, the financial dependence of universities on wealthy individuals and businesses,
how conservative boards of trustees often dominated by business people dictate university
governance, and the growth of corporate enterprise and its ability to influence the purpose
of the university as reasons why universities tend to protect and extend the capitalist status
quo and ensure that democracy is discussed in rather narrow terms. Furthermore,
Miliband (2009) correctly asserts that the study of business, the field of university study
often with greatest enrolments, not only provides technical training but also ideologically
reinforces advanced capitalism and the values of corporate liberal democracy. Although
there may be more dialogue within the university than other parts of the state apparatus,
of the more than 5,000 colleges and universities in the US and 40 Australian universities,
to the knowledge of the authors, not one openly advocates in its mission or strategy,
economic and social relationships that are not fundamentally capitalist in nature or
academic programming through their professional schools based on collectivist social,
political, and economic principles. The university's role within the ISA militates against
behaviour potentially disruptive to the capitalist order.
The argument follows that as an ISA, the university serves as a critical auxiliary agent to
the capitalist class. Its self-imposed limitations and accepted sources of prestige have
encroached on what we think of as the traditional values of the university and those of
the professional scholar as an autonomous and self-determinate intellectual (Barrow
1990). The auxiliary agency role of universities seems like outsourcing but it is actually
a form of in-sourcing because the ISA is part of the state apparatus. This form of in-
sourcing is couched in terms of contract research and other forms of competitive funding,
creating a loosely coupled and contested space between the university, individual
academics, the state, industry, and foundations. Nevertheless, the appearance of
separation of the university from direct intellectual control of the state and its ability to
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support safe criticism of advanced capitalism and the state is essential to the role that
universities must play in legitimization. It is this tension, which is the source of conflict
between the capitalist class and the intellectual class, that plays out as members of the
academic intellectual class try to retain some authority within the university and perhaps
even society more generally (Barrow, 1990).
By way of example, the Australian university is the object of operational targets set by
federal governments that reinforce capitalist agendas and intertwine capitalist rhetoric
within educational policy that throw capitalist and academic ideals into conflict. Through
the capitalist lens, federal initiatives to increase student numbers in discrete demographic
strata, such as rural and remote students, students of lower socio-economic status
background, Indigenous students, and students from non-English speaking backgrounds,
are mechanisms designed in response to a perceived non-participation (or marginal
participation) with the dominant economic model (Hyden, 1980). Under the aegis of
‘widening participation,’ specific cohorts are the targets of incentivized assimilation
(Bradley, Noonan, Nugent, & Scales, 2008). By ‘capturing’ targeted social strata within
the university system, it could be argued that the promised social mobility manifests as
direct opportunities for individual wealth generation that in turn perpetuates the capitalist
state. Likewise, student loans shift the responsibility for education away from the state,
instead becoming an individual ‘investment’ that normalizes debt as a necessary pre-
existing condition for financial success in this environment. For their role in this process,
universities are awarded a share of federal funding, without which most Australian
universities would cease to exist. The implication, therefore, is that the university as ISA
legitimizes the status quo by inducting and acculturating students into capitalist norms
that reinforce rather than directly critique dominant ideologies. Manifesting in this
manner, it does so at the behest of a compromised government that normalizes
commercialization of publicly-funded research outputs, largely funds higher education
for meeting targets that promote engagement with the capitalist class, and describes
higher education in rhetoric that positions education within an internationally competitive
Why is it that the tensions that result from discontinuity between traditional academic
values and those embraced as part of the corporate ideal, while recognized, go largely
unaddressed? The authors believe that a potential answer may be found by considering
the university’s role as an auxiliary agent of the state apparatus.
Corporatization is easily observed in the university when it takes the form of
managerialism and archetypical capitalist behaviours. However, concentrating
exclusively on corporatization phenomena may obscure the fundamental relationship
between the university and the state and, through the state, its relationship with the
dominant capitalist class, frequently taking the form of industrialists, monopoly, and
finance capitalists, and the bureaucrats that develop state policy.
MANAGERIALISM AND THE CORPORATE IDEAL
The managerialism affiliated with corporatization of the contemporary university is tied
closely to the changing roles of universities and the introduction of the ‘corporate ideal’
dating more than a century ago when we see the parallel transition of the US from a
modern and mature liberal industrial state to an advanced capitalist state, and the
concurrent formation of the modern research university and its new role as ISA. It is the
The university as ideological state apparatus
introduction of the corporate ideal as a dominant organizing principle that fundamentally
creates different roles for university trustees and executive managers who represent the
proprietary interests of the university from the university faculty who serve as intellectual
labour (Cattell, 1913; Veblen, 2015). Although it is acceptable within bounds for
university academics to, for example, criticize the commercialization of educational
offerings and the privatization of knowledge, resist incentives to conform to externally
imposed publication standards limited to Q1 journals, or question the cost of and authority
vested in non-academic managerial staff, it is not acceptable for the university to function
as an enterprise in ways that fundamentally challenge the state, its class interests, and its
efforts to corporatize the university. To do so would be to repudiate the university's role
as ISA and the benefits accrued through functioning as an auxiliary agent of the state.
Clyde Barrow (1990) develops a convincing account of the transformation of the US
college into the research university serving within the state apparatus as part of the
scholastic ISA. In his essay, Barrow studies the changing composition of university
governing boards and their growing relationships with industrial and financial capital
through interlocking directorships. It was during the first quarter of the 20th Century that
boards of trustees established and asserted their proprietary rights and responsibilities to
govern the means of intellectual production at the US university. It was during this same
period that the official representative of the professional professorship, the American
Association of University professors (AAUP), conceded faculty rights to governance and
management in exchange for job security and procedural transparency (Barrow, 1990;
Schrecker, 1986). The compromize represents a shift for the AAUP away from the
academic ideal to the corporate ideal proffered by trustees and incentivized by a number
of corporate sponsored foundations (Tiede, 2015).
During the first quarter of the 20th Century, ‘the businessman’ was established as the
expert type most qualified to address the problems of higher education (Veysey, 1970).
This position was entirely consistent with trustees who frequently had industrial and
finance backgrounds (Thelin, 2011). With the rise of the professional school, the
university degree became part of the calculus for material improvement of both the
individual and society more generally (Geiger, 2015). In the spirit of social efficiency,
the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT) was interested in
making US higher education more efficient in order to better accommodate the financial
pressures associated with increasing demand for educational services. The demand was
generated through the needs of industry, which did not really want to pay for training and
scientific advancements; and the democratic motivation to create access for social
mobility, which many in the aspiring class could not afford. CFAT used its funding and
promise of a pension fund for faculty to influence university boards, administrators, and
professionals to adopt the corporate ideal of industrial efficiency and apply it to
intellectual labour in universities functioning as knowledge factories. These socially
desirable ideals would be operationalized through the principles of scientific
management, including specialization, division of labour, standardization, and other
methods leading to efficient operations that had to be measurable to support management
decision-making and improvement. CFAT managed to provide a tool to quantify
educational efficiency through the introduction of the Carnegie Unit, which was assigned
a standard unit of annual teaching contact hours that could be translated into teaching
load and average cost per student per course. The standard allowed efficiency
comparisons across institutions, state systems, disciplines, and individual instructors.
(Silva, White, & Toch, 2015)
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The CFAT was able to align social need for efficient and useful education with the
interests of industry, represented on university boards of trustees, and the desires of
academic administrators and the developing professional schools. The foundations then
catalyzed reform by selectively providing financial resources to compliant universities.
Working with the US Bureau of Education (USBE), CFAT, along with its network was
able to outline general principles that appealed to the popular notion of social efficiency
as advancement, and then offered methods of scientific management to operationalize
those values. Those universities that met the standards valued by CFAT, Rockefeller's
General Education Board (GEB), and other foundations, were rewarded through financial
support and access to the Carnegie Teachers Pension Fund, presidents were rewarded
with access to industrial resources and appointments on boards, while high producing
scholars were rewarded with grants, lectureships, and consultations. It was through
building an archetype of prestige and status that elite universities were formed, and it was
through rewarding that archetype that the model of a prestigious university was
reproduced. Elite universities were rewarded by the foundations for adopting the
corporate ideal, which was a necessary step to effectively serve as part of the ISA in the
corporate liberal state. The financial involvement of the foundations and their support of
the USBE was essential to creating a de-facto standard of excellence among universities
aligned with the corporate ideal because the federal government in the US has no policy
or funding control over higher education. (Axtell, 2016; Barrow, 1990)
The CFAT, GEB, and USBE worked alongside scientific management scholars such as
Frederick Taylor's prodigy, Morris Cooke (1910), to not only conduct research on
university efficiency and administer measurement surveys for benchmarking but to also
provide training and consulting services from efficiency experts to university
administrators. So, it was during the first quarter of the 20th Century that the major
foundations along with the USBE created a method to standardize university
management, acculturate administrators in the principles of efficiency, and reproduce the
idea and methods for achieving status and prestige (Barrow, 1990).
The methods of scientific management are predicated on control in order to reinforce
predictability, certainty, and repeatability (Boyd, 1978). Originally applied to measure
university efficiency along the lines of industrial organisations, these methods have
impacted the core activities of curriculum design, course development, teaching practice,
and research. “As such, any educational system under this technical rationality credo asks
only how the facts can be maintained; rather than any investigation of the rationale for
these facts” (Boyd, 1978, p. 176). The focus of performative measures in the educational
institution, therefore, have little concern for social change and civic engagement but,
instead, privilege predictability and repeatability while normalizing “league table”
approaches that encourage compliance and conformity rather than critical thought. Within
this system, students are positioned as “passive consumers” (p. 179) who are expected to
support and maintain the dominant problematic. This aligns with Marcuse’s (1969)
argument concerning “if education is to be more than simply training for the status quo,
it means not only enabling [citizens] to know and understand the facts which make up
reality, but also to know and understand the factors that establish the facts so that [they]
can change their inhuman reality” (p. 82).
Technical rationality, furthermore, divorces decision-making in education from values;
instead of requiring of students that they “learn how values are embedded in the very
texture of human life, how they are transmitted, and what interests they support regarding
The university as ideological state apparatus
the quality of human existence” (Giroux, 1983, p. 204). However, in considering the
relationship between universities and ISA, universities have accepted––for the most part–
–government-enforced targets of retention, progression, attrition, inclusion, and graduate
employability as the proxies of educational quality; while success is determined by
industry partnerships, commercialization of research, and the acquisition of external
funders for research. The dominant problematic caused by over-subscription to these
‘measures of success’ is a dilution of the educational role for democratic engagement,
which diminishes the broader societal agency of students and faculty.
The instrumentalist theory of the state that we have adopted in this paper relies on power
structure methodologies. We accept, based on the research of class dominance referenced
throughout this essay, that a state compromized by capitalist elites serving the interests
of advanced capitalism through the state apparatus. We posit that the state is structured
in such a manner that universities, along with other cultural organizations, serve as part
of the ISA in which the university’s principal functions are to reproduce the conditions
of production and to legitimize the state and those who control it. That is, the university
becomes an auxiliary agent that serves the state from within the state apparatus. In this
way, we assert that, although it may be that the corporatization of the university or the
university’s engagement in capitalist-like behaviour is how the critical role of the
university within democratic society has been diminished, these are not the reasons why
the university is non-critical. We assert that it is because of its ideological role within the
state apparatus that it is only able to seriously promote the reproduction and legitimization
of advanced capitalist needs within corporate liberal democracy. It is only able to offer
alternatives to the status quo within a rather narrow spectrum of political, social, and
economic alternatives that fall well within the orbit of free market enterprise and private
ownership. In effect, the university is bound by the role that it serves to legitimize the
privatization of the common good through its curriculum, research, service, and outreach.
It is our argument that developing and adopting methodologies based on power structure
analysis within the theoretical construct of instrumentalist state theory will provide
opportunities for researchers to rethink the development of the university alongside the
periodization of capitalism and the advancement of the liberal state, offer the potential
for predictive models of the university under different circumstances, and point to the
constraints and opportunities for influence that the university could exercize within its
role as an ISA. Although conceptual frameworks and theories such as academic
capitalism are powerful intellectual tools that have been used to describe and analyse how
the university has changed with impressive thoroughness, they have principally
constructed the university as an independent actor with ties to the state. The state itself,
having been largely limited to the government, places the university outside of the state
while simultaneously neglecting the legitimization role the university has with the state.
This has itself resulted in creative and insightful critical analysis of the condition of the
university in societies dominated by neoliberal values and the direct causes for change
and implications of change which should not be undervalued; but is has also resulted in
solutions and recommendations for change that seem captured by current dominant
To illustrate this point, we refer to a recent essay by Gary Rhoades in Academic
Capitalism in the Age of Globalization (2014) in which he provides four examples for
Udas & Stagg
potential university reform through organization and negotiation. Although each of the
examples are clearly valuable and will perhaps improve academic life, they do not
fundamentally challenge the context in which the university serves. None of the examples
address the fundamental issue of who the university serves, how the university serves it,
and in what context. More importantly, none of the examples offered challenge capitalist
assumptions and, therefore, reinforce the values of the advanced capitalist state, in effect
fulfilling the university role as an ISA that legitimizes the capitalist state through ‘safe
critique’ providing the perception that the state is allowing democratic action as a
legitimate organ of democracy. Although addressing immediate concerns, the examples
offered by Rhoades essentially serve to refine, entrench, legitimize, and reproduce the
most fundamental assumptions of capitalism. If our objective is to broaden the
possibilities for discussion about democracy, the real question here must not be how to
improve the conditions of academic life under assumptions of academic capitalism but,
instead, how to provide room to fundamentally challenge advanced capitalism––and, for
this, we need to adopt and develop theory that accurately places the university in its
service to capitalism. We can then start asking serious questions about how a university
would behave as an ISA in collectivist or social democratic societies rather than within
the context of corporate liberal democracy.
If we accept the examples as positive incrementalist approaches to change, they still place
us primarily in the realm of economism, which many left-social democrats see as a safe
form of revisionism that will not disrupt the capitalist order because it is based on the
principles of more equitable wealth distribution, while not necessarily questioning the
overall arrangements of exploitation. Returning to the core principles of social democracy
allows us to question the fundamental relationships between the common good and the
private good within liberal corporate democracies, the state, and the role of the university.
Looking at what resides underneath the undeniable corporatization of the university
provides opportunities to critically assess strategies for change. The fundamental
questions that we currently face parallel those debated historically by revolutionaries and
evolutionists. Can the university form its own agenda in support of authentic democracy
and, if so, how will that agenda be nurtured and implemented and, even if it can, will it
be able to influence broader society? Regardless, without the ability to engage in authentic
democratic processes, it seems unlikely that the university will do much other than serve
the capitalist state. Without a guiding theory of the state that frames the problem as one
of capitalist rule, the dialogue stays very narrow and safe––just as power structure
analysis suggests it is supposed to be.
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