In the second half of 2016, if you found yourself in the right European conference centre at the right time you might have caught a glimpse of that rarest of phenomena: a president, provost or vice-chancellor of an elite academic institution in a moment of self-doubt, contrition even. Over the past thirty years the university top brass had undergone a major makeover. A great wave of marketisation swept over the continent’s academic institutions and when the fusty and/or eccentric and/or seignorial old boys fell from their perches they were replaced by smoother operators; men – of course they were still mostly men – resembling business executives. Men who were in fact business executives. Men who projected self-assurance at all times.
Their sense of self-importance was not unjustified. Universities had become central to the ever-advancing liberal-progressive-techno-capitalist project – ‘centrism’ to its proponents, ‘neoliberalism’ to its critics – which was the only political game in town in the decades before the 2008 financial crash. Centrism’s central promise was that it would harness capitalism’s innovative power, born of intense competition, to produce improvements in living standards for all – a rising tide that would lift all boats.
In this narrative universities and scientific institutions would collectively become something like the moon, pulling that tide up. They would no longer offer shelter from the cut-and-thrust of commercial society, as places of learning and study for the fortunate few. They would be transformed into the engine rooms of the new economy, producing both life-enhancing technologies ripe for commercial exploitation and the highly-skilled workforce needed to exploit them. This, everyone agreed, was progress and the academic and scientific Brahmins – the ‘experts’ – were at the helm.