2013 EFMD Research Symposium

Hosted by: Organization journal and Bath University School of Management

The event will start on: 23 Sep 13 12:00
And will end on: 24 Sep 13 15:30

Location: Bath, UK


The Competition Fetish in Universities and Business Schools


Universities and business schools worldwide are trapped in a competition fetish. Developments in higher education are more and more concerned with the ‘master economic imaginary’ of the knowledge economy, a hegemonic discourse inextricably linked to the idea of global competition that frames political, economic and intellectual strategies and affects a wide range of institutional fields (Jessop et al, 2008). The intensification of the struggle for positional advantage in the global economy, the enhanced global mobility of corporate research and development and the competition for highly skilled knowledge workers have contributed to a fierce competition within and between national systems of higher education. This competition is related to, and sits in parallel with, global economic competition. It comes with its own set of rules, established by those institutions and systems already judged to be ‘the best’ on an international scale.

Global competition in higher education takes many forms. It includes government sponsored contests, generally termed ‘excellence policies’ which involve deliberate strategies to develop or enhance vertical stratification in national systems including those that were previously non-hierarchical such as Germany. The core political aim is to identify those institutions, which are, or have the potential to be ‘world class’, and to implement policy and funding to provide positional advantage for the purposes of global competition. In addition, international rankings of universities have increasing impact. National policy makers and institutional leaders feel the need to develop strategic plans to excel in the ranking game. Countries including those in Europe, Asia, and Latin America strive for membership in the stratum of the most elite universities currently dominated by the United States of America. In effect, rankings contribute to the formation of a globally contested field of world-class universities and the further stratification of national higher education landscapes. Business schools in particular are affected by an even greater proliferation of rankings involving both educational programmes such as the MBA as well as journal list rankings (Gioia and Corley, 2002; Willmott, 2011). In addition, universities are being opened up to market forces leading to the commodification of teaching and research and a focus on the number of student customers–captured, the extent of research involvement with corporate interests and the degree of financial surplus created (Naidoo, Shankar and Veer, 2011). These externally generated competitive pressures interact in turn with the deeply embedded traditional struggles over the definition and acquisition of legitimate academic and scientific capital existing in the relatively autonomous organisational field of higher education with its own logic, modes of practice and measures of profit and loss (Bourdieu, 1988; 1996).

The two-day research seminar will examine the extent to which such competitive pressures and strategies interact, reinforce or displace one another and the extent to which competition has become a modern day fetish (Pietz, 1985). Borrowing from conceptualisations of fetish from the fields of anthropology and political economy, the seminar will assess the extent to which competition has become a magical belief, which appears to provide the god like solution to the unsolved problems of higher education. It reviews the extent to which competition is viewed as a ‘natural’ phenomenon that happens of its own accord and as a means to ensure control in the ‘risk’ society (Beck; 1999). A particular focus will be the extent to which the invisible hand of competition provides the means by which no-one appears to be responsible while veiling underlying social processes and negative consequences.

The impact of the competition fetish on epistemic and professional logics, on the transformation of power relations between managers and academics (Parker and Jary, 1995), on academic freedom (Calhoun, 2009) and the possibilities for intellectuals to call truth to power; as well as the university’s role in new forms of imperialism (Naidoo, 2011) will be explored. The impact on higher education’s economic and socio-cultural roles, particularly its contribution to social mobility and the public good (Marginson, forthcoming) will be analyzed. In addition, the disastrous consequences of strengthened vertical stratification and the erosion of non-hierarchical diversity in higher education will be presented. Finally, research, policy and strategic directions to strengthen the multiple roles of universities and business schools in contemporary societies will be explored.

The seminar is organised by:

  • Dr Rajani Naidoo, Associate Professor, School of Management, Steering Group, Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath
  • Professor Ulrich Hommel, EBS Business School, Germany; Director of Research & Surveys, EFMD, Belgium

The event is by invitation only.