Flow of Ideas
Moneythought in Higher Education

Glenn Rikowski, London, 15th October 2006


In a seminar a few days ago we discussed the aims and purposes of education. A couple of students argued that money was the main goal. They argued their case well. Some others argued that work preparation was the main aim of higher education. Fortunately, a fair number argued against these views, stressing self-development, intellectual development or that higher education was about the initiation of people into the culture of society – the great literature, scientific theories and so on.

Yet it is hardly surprising that students are beginning to focus on the bottom line in their thinking regarding the aims and purposes of higher education. It’s not just that increased higher education fees are causing students to focus more on the financial consequences of getting a degree. Higher education managers are setting an ever worse example in this respect. They set the tone; and they are getting into the culture of money and moneythought with gusto. Moneythought is a very broad and general phenomenon infecting higher education in England today. Moneythought can be viewed as where ideas, intellectual activities or the practical and organisational features of higher education are incorporated within or subordinated to the function of money-making. Money becomes the judge and jury of activities within the academy.

Bonus Culture, Bogus Culture

Thus, given the increasing emphasis on generating new ‘income streams’, making the best financial deal possible in knowledge transfer, the frantic search for more (relatively lucrative) overseas students, making money out of patents and inventions and so on, then an emerging ‘bonus culture’ being developed by higher education managers for staff seems no big deal. Of course, developing bonus schemes for staff has losers as well as winners, as Phil Baty (2006) explains:

“Corporate-style cash bonuses for top-performing academics and sanctions against underachievers are arriving in UK universities in a human resources revolution that will put the performance of academics under unprecedented scrutiny.”

A Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) survey found that 77 percent of higher education institutions of the 129 surveyed were already introducing staff bonus schemes, noted Baty. He also reported that from the same survey only 6 percent had no intention of developing such a scheme. It looks like a new ‘carrot and stick’ approach is being developed by higher education managers, notes Baty.

Now, if academics had discovered a new drug that would cure a specific form of cancer, after years of hard work and graft in the lab, maybe they might deserve a bonus of some kind. Or, if a team of Marxist social theorists and economists had drawn up, on the back of a massive consultation programme with revolutionaries, trade unions, activists and experts in the field, an imaginative and sound programme for the transition from capitalist to socialist society – then maybe they should be rewarded. After all, they would be benefiting the whole of mankind: not just those who get a particular form of cancer. Yet I doubt whether this latter example would cut much ice with higher education managers doling out bonuses, though the former might. The former would involve creating something that could be developed and sold on the market, from which universities, eager to get a bit of the action, could gain from. Whereas the latter would destroy markets if put into practice!

On another level, what these kinds of payments by results (PBR) schemes are really about are controlling academics’ outputs in ways which maximise income. In this process, the ideas and intellectual endeavours of academics are cast at the door of Mammon! In particular, in the UK, higher education managers at the departmental level are into making sure that academic outputs of staff are aimed at and consonant with the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). For those not familiar with this, each individual (for the first time in this next round) and each department is ranked in terms of ‘research quality’, and research flows from government coffers to those who do particularly well in process. It’s very much giving to those that already have, of course. The usual suspects tend to do best in the RAE.

The Degradation of Education Research

From 1994 to 2001 I was a contract researcher in education. My job security depended on having education research grants to support my post. During that time I was on a series of contracts. The point I want to make is that this situation encouraged me to pursue education grants with great vigour – no matter what the aims, value or provenance of the research were. I had three kids in school at the time. I became a victim, though a knowing one (which caused psychological stress), of moneythought in terms of my work.

What I particularly resented was how difficult it was to build on critical and theoretical insights. In particular, to build on my work in Marxist educational theory in terms of the research I was doing. There were a few overlaps, some data was useful, and towards the end of my time as a contract researcher I did gain from the experience. Working on Education Action Zone projects I did see how I could link up the empirical data from these with the notion of the capitalisation schools drawn from Marxist science.

Money under Scrutiny

Rather staff being under scrutiny and surveillance in higher education, money should be. What is required is a Marxist analysis of money and its existence in higher education. I have said this before in various talks I have given. A good place to start in this might be with the work of Michael Neary and Graham Taylor (1998) in Money and the Human Condition. Unfortunately, this book is only available in hardback, but what it does is show how money is infused into the fabric of our lives. So much so argue Neary and Taylor, that it is not just a phenomenon external to us. As they note: “In a society dominated by money, I am money. I am an embodied manifestation of money in all its contradictory manifestations” (p.128).

It is this kind of starting point that is required for the critique of moneythought in all its manifestations in higher education today.


Baty, P. (2006) Bonus culture sweeps sector, Times Higher Education Supplement, 13th October, p.1.

Neary, M. & Taylor, G. (1998) Money and the Human Condition, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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