Higher Education and Affluenza


Higher education is at a point where many universities need to activate their immune system to fight against “affluenza”. To understand what is “affluenza” we can look at a recent story published by Time about a drunk teenager who got behind the wheel of his car killing four people on a road in Texas and seriously injuring two of his passengers. What makes this story remarkable is that this teenager will not go to prison as he was affected by “affluenza” – the condition of having rich parents and a cultivated sense of entitlement with a withering sense of responsibility. An expert was called by the attorney to explain how difficult is to grow up in a wealthy family (who knew how lucky I was to have the opposite?). The judge sentenced him to 10 years of probation for the fatal accident. His father “has agreed to pay the $450,000 bill for his rehabilitation program“. If criminal acts are judged with outrageous double standards and a convenient price tag is a solution for any crime and tragedy, it may be a time to look seriously at what is “affluenza” and what other parts of our lives and society it may affect.  

When Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for US Presidency, famously said during his election campaign that “corporations are people, my friend!” he just reasserted an idea placed at the core beliefs guiding now most financial and political systems of the world: corporate capitalism and market arrangements are the only system able to bring progress and human benefit. This ideology survives and becomes more aggressive despite a global financial crisis and numerous examples where major corporations are embroiled in public scandals. These stories reveal that fraud, corruption and criminal behaviours so vile that make Nigerian scams look like innocent pranks were taken as common practice. Major banks reached in 2013 multi-million-dollar settlements with victims of their fraudulent acts, but – unlike “people”, who go to prison for inside trading, fraud and corruption – corporations prove that even if their criminal acts are investigated a cut of profits is enough as a penalty. For example, Johnson & Johnson recently reached a settlement of over 2 billion dollars for civil and criminal allegations such as bribing doctors and pharmacies to prescribe some of their drugs to elderly, children and the disabled, despite health risks or no scientific data to prove their benefits. This is not an isolated case, but a “trend” in what media called “the latest in a string of legal actions against drug companies that allegedly put profits ahead of patients“. 

That corporations and people have very different standards of responsibility seems quite clear for an objective observer. A long list of facts and stories published by international media show that corporate capitalism places important market players above the law. (Iceland is so far the only notable exception from the rule of ignoring illegal acts committed by corporate executives – see Iceland jails former Kaupthing bank bosses). Market capitalism turns today into para-religious forms, with a philosophy built on rather simplistic binary opposites, where accumulation of capital and profits promise a heaven that will trickle down on the rest of society and Satan speaks about the common good and social equity. It should be no surprise then that ideas sold by corporate ventures are defended with righteous fundamentalism, as the history shows that any religious-like system is building a proper inquisition, with zealot followers. 

Higher education was ineluctably caught into this logic and adopted what was called “the new public management”. The university turned into a large institution like any other, managed just like a corporation. In a decade since World Trade Organisation formally included education in the list of commodities that can be part of trade negotiations, many universities were left open to the virus of “affluenza”. Greed and lack of social responsibility are too often displayed as achievements in what became “the global marketplace of higher education”: from total disregard for academic freedom, opening branches in countries with a very poor record on human rights, to a proudly displayed move to impoverish academic workforce and constantly increase casualisation. Social engagement, civic responsibility or responsibility for students’ future is in many cases just part of a narrative used to sell a contract, just as any shrewd salesmen is using luring stories to sell the product to any potential victim. Criteria of efficiency, profitability and market dominance became de facto the only priority for many universities. However, getting confused to the point where it seems plausible that this is sustainable for higher education and society is just a side effect of ‘affluenza’. 

Narratives and dangerous imagination

In 2012 Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, explained in an interview with Chronicle of Higher Education why college costs so much money: “…it costs so much because it can!” The long term effect of this logic is hard to evaluate, but a recent analysis published in December 2013 by The Guardian reveals that “The class of 2012 has the highest student loan burden of any graduating college class in history, continuing a five-year trend of rising debt loads on millennials just coming out of school.” (see Student loan debt hits a new high as millennials take ‘poverty-wage’ jobs ). Even in a time when the goal of higher education is deceivingly reduced to employment, we see that graduate underemployment and unemployment remain at the best just a marginal topic for research and public discussion. Responsibility for students’ future, for what they really learn in higher education is left in the shadow of profits.

“The class of 2012 has the highest student loan burden of any graduating college class in history, continuing a five-year trend of rising debt loads on millennials just coming out of school.”

College Stats presents in ‘Dollars and Sense: A Global Look at Student Debt‘ a sobering picture for a system that seems to be focussed more on immediate profits than into a sustainable model for higher education and society. Data leads to the conclusion that we have a system closer in ideology to Wall Street and neoliberal fantasies than any serious concern for sustainable progress, civic responsibility, democratic citizenship or the long term role of higher learning. The fact is that the system is absolutely comfortable with rising inequality: a new study by Dr. John Jerrim at the Institute of Education at the University of London reveals that access to high-status universities in UK, the United States and Australia is de facto reserved to students from wealthy families. This seems to be another symptom of “affluenza” with effects well beyond the walls of academia, as it is already documented (e.g. OECD published a comprehensive report on inequality and its effects Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising and the US Center for American Progress just released The Impact of Inequality on Growth – an excellent analysis on this topic). 

The wealth of evidence may seem sufficient to clarify that inequality and widening wealth gap come with serious dangerous for society and economy. However, the narrative built as a confusing bricolage with bits of social Darwinism, Ayn Rand fantasies and trickle-down economic theories still engages minds and imaginations.

A recent example of this ideology was provided recently by Boris Johnson, the conservative Mayor of London, often presented as the possible next prime minister of Britain. In a speech at the conservative Centre for Policy Studies in London – titled What Would Maggie do Today? – the mayor of London revealed among other things that he finds Gordon Gekko, the corrupt fictional character in the 1987 film Wall Street, a great source of inspiration for economic growth and market ethics. He encouraged the ‘Gordon Gekkos of London’ to be greedy – as “greed is a valuable motivator for economic progress – and continued:

“No one can ignore the harshness of [free market] competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates; and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth.

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.

And for one reason or another – boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants – the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, reacted to this speech on BBC Radio 4:

“It’s extraordinary for a mayor, who should be for all of London, to think it’s all right to glorify greed – a greed that has brought a banking collapse and caused misery and hardship to many Londoners, particularly to young people who can’t get on the housing ladder.”

We should note that it is also absolutely remarkable to find that an influential European politician echoes social solutions dangerously close to what remains in the history of the continent as a colossal tragedy. Of course, education was also part of his speech, as a natural extension of this strange vision about IQs and social stratification. It seems that for those who think alike, the most irritating mistake made by the British politician was to openly admit what other neoliberal politicians around the world talk behind closed doors (i.e. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney 47% comment).

The primacy of market efficiency and immediate profits involve a serious cost on a long term for universities, and many are still comfortable to embrace denial and mediocrity. This can be fatal in a future marked by uncertainties.

A Neoliberal Dystopian Fantasy: The Wal-Mart Model for Higher Education

Evaluating the impact of current arrangements on higher education on the long-term – especially when current paradigms and managerial models stay unchanged thanks to a remarkably common ruthless pressure from decision makers – deserves more serious attention. Higher education systems based on neoliberal policies and models of governance stay now around the world as examples of explosive student debt.

The first reason is that ‘customers’ are disenchanted, youth may be less tempted to get massive debt to pay universities that have profits and exploitation as the most visible values. A recent opinion poll released by Wells Fargo reveals – among other worrying trends for a new generation able to see the effects of new public management in higher education – that “Paying off student loan debt is the top concern of millennials […] About a third of millennials (31%) feel they would have been better off working, instead of going to college and paying tuition“. Arguably, this is already a significant percentage of graduates thinking that their investment was a mistake. We can just hope that they will not spread the word…

Paying off student loan debt is the top concern of millennials […] About a third of millennials (31%) feel they would have been better off working, instead of going to college and paying tuition

In the US we see a staggering 1 trillion dollars in student debt, with ever-increasing numbers of graduates incapable to pay back their debt. In UK, the National Audit Office released last month a report showing that outstanding loan debt is already reaching £46 billion and will rise to £200bn in the next 30 years. It is also estimated that half of graduates will not earn enough to repay all their study loan.

It becomes clear that masters of efficiency, accountability and profits fail to deliver on their promises. However, governing universities as any other institution that can flourish only under an ‘efficient’ corporate management is still the ubiquitous model in place. There are some things that are worrying about current arrangements and their results, but what can go really wrong?

We can start with the impact on the most important capital for universities: academics. Policies on human resources adopted by colleges and universities under neoliberal models of governance already come with devastating effects for higher education. In search of increasing profits and control, entire systems have moved to massive casualisation, the reallocation of academic work from full-time, permanent employees to part-time (or “casual”) employees. Casual employees are cheaper, more “flexible” (translation: they have very limited rights and can be fired fast), are not paid leave entitlements, and are hired on an hour-to-hour, week-to-week, year-to-year basis at low rates. Short term contracts are another measure of “efficiency”. The last decade in higher education has been marked by a meteoric rise of “casualisation”, which today has reached unprecedented levels. In Australia, an open letter signed in 2012 by 68 senior staff at the University of Sydney said that “higher education is already the country’s second-most casualised industry, after catering”. In the US, the American Association of University Professors announced that the tenure system has “all but collapsed” and casuals make a stunning 75% of academic staff. In the UK, the pressure on academic staff created a national “anti-casualisation committee”.

The contingent and precarious academic staff in various positions represent now the absolute majority of academic workforce for many universities. The tragic fate of an adjunct professor of French who was teaching for 25 years in higher education is relevant for the extent of the problem. A local newspaper tells the story:

“…she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity – a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself […] For a proud professional like Margaret Mary, this was the last straw; she was mortified. She begged me to call Adult Protective Services and tell them to leave her alone, that she could take care of herself and did not need their help. I agreed to. Sadly, a couple of hours later, she was found on her front lawn, unconscious from a heart attack. She never regained consciousness.”

Times Higher Education recently reported  that in the US “some academics have had to go ‘bin diving’ because of lack of money”. The ideal model for too many managers in higher education is not any corporation, but a corporation like Wal-Mart (in a remarkably similar and relevant story, a Wal-Mart store in the US was asking customers “To Donate Food To Its Needy Employees“)

As many other sectors, higher education is seduced by the American model and casualisation is the solution followed by many systems and universities. How universities will be able to attract and retain the best and the brightest? Job insecurity and low wages may soon become much more important than the passion for academia, learning teaching and research. How it is possible to lead an organisation to success based on pillars such as insecurity, fear and impoverishment of human capital?

Affluenza and antidotes

An article in Washington Post describes how the verdict was reached in the surreal story about a teenager with “affluenza” and parents rich enough to buy – literally – all they wish:

Prosecutors had asked that the boy be sentenced to 20 years in prison, but Gary Miller, the psychologist who testified in his behalf, recommended counseling. Miller said that the boy had an unhealthy relationship with his wealthy parents, who used him as a tool and a hostage to extract concessions from each other.
Meanwhile, they neglected to teach Miller that dangerous behavior could have serious consequences

It seems that this condition can be treated if the unhealthy relationship with the wealthy parents is questioned and challenged. This may be a very important step for some universities. Denial is very dangerous and leads to tragedies. Counselling may be required for severe cases, with immune systems too weak to fight against it. The most important thing is that it is the time to realise the range of implications and consequences of dangerous behaviour for universities, institutions that are now crucially important to defend human and democratic values. There are still sane examples that can be used as models to save entire systems.

  1. Dr. Popenici, I enjoyed your thoughtful article. I would like to see what “sane examples” you have in mind that would address some of the major issues discussed here.


    • This is a very difficult question indeed – for a variety of reasons. I am not sure that I can present here a list, but is possible to suggest in a very succinct answer some clues for finding some good examples. We can look as some countries in Europe, less inclined to see higher education as a moneymaking machine, but as an institution responsible for economic growth, progress of civilization and civic values – Germany is an interesting case. There are still some great universities focused more on higher learning and civic responsibility than profits (I don’t think is appropriate to name names here…). However, my personal view is that the real solution is in the hands of those academics passionate about in-depth learning, teaching and research (not so much in bureaucratic ascension), aware of complexities of this crucially important job. I was fortunate to work in higher education in different countries and continents and I have always found brilliant academics interested in academic rigor, genuine explorations and courageous challenge of accepted ‘truths’ and fads. Even if their voice is not always heard and speaking truth to power became a dangerous act – and many trust that embracing any silly fad and aligning research and ideas with power lines is an efficient way to build a career – I still believe that academics have the power to change direction. I also believe that current models are so fragile and inefficient that in less than a decade many universities and systems will have to cope with problems of such magnitude that marginal voices of today will get much more consideration.


  2. Eva Acqui said:

    As many times as I read your posts, and I read and re-read them, the issues raise so many questions about higher education, that if I were to ask you, I wouldn’t know where to start. So.. I keep on following you. Best wishes, it’s almost Christmas time !


  3. Alistair said:

    An excellent piece that crystalizes much of what I think when I reflect on the varying pieces of the jigsaw puzzle I inhabit (life, politics and my work in higher education). I shall be circulating this to folk as an end-of-year reflection. All the best!