How to change university with words? Or towards the shopping center university

Many university teachers and scholars are confused about the radical changes in their workplaces in Finland and elsewhere. Salary cuts, lay-offs, dropping teacher-student ratios, new digital systems after another, and fewer staff members keeping the ball rolling.

Unfortunately, there is more to come. The universities are, as we older folks knew them – if not dying as Peter Fleming has suggested in his Dark Academia (2021) – gradually integrated into a neoliberal finance apparatus as its subdivision.

“Whilst these changes benefit university executives and their interests, they are not good for teachers and students on the ground who are having to deliver and receive endless classes online, fill institutional holes and mop up problems. Essentially, senior executives in universities treat the organisation as a corporation and as part of what Fleming describes as ‘the financialization of academic consciousness.’”

Words are potent weapons in doing the trick. Therefore, a critical analysis of language – rhetoric and metaphors – is essential in defying academic capitalism, which turns highly educated teachers and researchers into subjects who must obey the rules of the management.

In Finland, Digivisio2030 is a massive educational policy project that turns universities upside down and makes them “customer-friendly” money-making machines. The project uses the language of the trade alien to the university personnel. An example from the Digivisio Webinar’s slide clears the point (June 21, 2022)

“The shopping center metaphor as the background idea of the service brand

• The shopping center brand (e.g., Jumbo or Zalando) does not compete with the brands of “stores” but creates a common infrastructure and the conditions for success

• The central task of the shopping center brand is to attract visitors and ensure that the visiting experience is successful.

• Each ‘shop’ is responsible for its brand, offer, and image.

• Case: is based on solid supply brands (e.g., Adidas), which are visible, and part of the functionality is built precisely from the brand’s point of view (follow the brand, filter based on the brand). The role of the brand is to ensure a successful user experience. From the brand’s point of view, makes the offer visible to a broad audience and is one ‘sales channel.’”

The language of the slide is a remarkable example of the idea of commercialization of the university and the financialization of academic consciousness.

As Fricker (2013, p. 207) points out, it is crucial to remember that “it is precisely in the formation of our tools of understanding that the inequality inheres.” In a given context, it is thus necessary to ask a political question: whose outlooks and interests are served by these terms and vocabularies of commerce? The obvious answer is that they are not doing the interests of teachers and students.

On a more general note, we live in a time when language use has become commercialized and simplified. Maybe it increases the circulation of money and capital accumulation. But at the same time, it also increases forms of inequality and mutual misunderstanding. And finally, public stupidity as well.

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