In my day, people went to university in order to avoid this kind of life, but now they lead this kind of life in order to go to university, – Female Massage Parlour Owner in Leeds
The upside-down world rewards in reverse: it scorns honesty, prizes lack of scruples, and feeds cannibalism. – Eduardo Galeano, from the introduction to Section 1 “The Death Of The University”
In Capitalism On Campus: Sex Work, Academic Freedom and the Market, Ron Roberts offers a brutal takedown of Higher Education under neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism, via looking at students in the UK participating in sex work to pay for tuition.
College has been touted as the Golden Ticket – the key to the kingdom that will open untold doors of limitless possibilities – for a long time. It’s the source of wild, wind-blown exultations, like the news anchor Dan Rather, weighing in on education:
“A college degree is the key to realizing the American dream, well worth the financial sacrifice because it is supposed to open the door to a world of opportunity.”
But is it really?
If you’ve been paying attention to the media at all in the 21st Century, you’ll see headlines telling a different story. Forbes observes “A College Degree Is The New High School Diploma” while Inc. inquires “College Degree Required – But Why?“, investigating the rise of college degree requirements by employers for positions that often have nothing to do with the degree earned.
College tuitions have skyrocketed in the new millennium, under the auspices of neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism, as part of the “military-industrial-academic” complex, as author Ron Roberts puts it in his insightful, thorough, scathing look into the intersection of college students who engage in sex work in the UK.
Roberts cites numerous surveys conducted in the UK between 2012 and 2017 into the phenomenon. According to Capitalism On Campus:
- 5-6% of college students in the UK engage in some sort of sex work
- 30% admit knowing other students engaged in sex work
- Many of these sex workers come from middle-class backgrounds
- Another 16% admit considering entering the adult industry
To be clear, right from the start, Roberts isn’t shaming or calling out sex workers. In fact, he seems more sympathetic to their plight, hoping for saner and more compassionate rules and laws for sex workers. That’s one of the motivations for writing this book, as numerous universities have claimed they would take disciplinary actions against students in sex work for the potential damage to the university’s reputation.
That last sentence is the real rub, which forms the meat of what Capitalism On Campus is really about. Under neoliberalism, Roberts points out ““The largely uncritical domestic support offered by university vice-chancellors to tuition fee increases and marketisation suggests not merely a lack of vision and subservience, but a propensity to keep one eye on the huge salary and another on possible rewards from the honours system.”
The website Modern Diplomacy observes, “his prioritization of bringing in money over student welfare means an obsession with public imaging and maintaining a high rating in places like the U.S News and World Report Best Colleges Rankings and The Princeton Review. Much of the weight for these rankings comes from student surveys. Several university teachers and administrators have been caught telling students to give disingenuous good reviews on such surveys. The exponentially rising tuition rates at these school means that front offices are largely beholden to prospective parents of students and donors. Thus, the administrator line of thinking goes: What parent or affluent donor is going to want donate to or to send their precious child to a school that’s been exposed for having loads of students who sell their bodies just to get by?”
It is, as Ron Roberts puts it “a paradox and contradiction of capitalism.” (pg. 95) Everything’s supposed to have a shiny, happy veneer under neoliberalism. It’s some bad PR when you’ve got to literally prostitute one’s self to afford it.
The interesting, layered investigation of student sex work is just one aspect of this thin, fascinating text. Roberts goes on to explore how these forces contribute to other aspects of Higher Education, and life in general, under late-stage capitalism and neoliberalism, including the writing of this book itself. Roberts talks about the lack of help and outright discouragement he and other researchers have experienced when investigating student sex workers. This strikes right at the heart of academic and intellectual freedom, which is not only a hallmark of what universities are supposed to be about, but also healthy, thriving democracies.
Not only are these forces limiting academic and intellectual freedom, they’re also doing a dis-service to the students themselves. Roberts cites several instances where students are given higher grades in a bid to make the university look good and increase student satisfaction. He also mentions several instances where professors and instructed to cater to students’ whims, like assigning excerpts of books instead of reading the whole thing or preparing PowerPoint presentations instead of thorough, well-researched academic papers.
The University, like most everything else, has become an illusion under late-stage capitalism and neoliberalism. As Karl Marx puts it: “All that is solid will melt into air.”
Capitalism On Campus even digs a little bit into how this illusion impacts different groups, like working class White men who’ve abandoned the university entirely as “a sham.” This extends into a deep distrust of “experts” and “elites” which results in populist movements like Brexit and, in the United States, the rise of Donald Trump and the GOP.
Capitalism On Campus is not unique in its critique of late capitalism and neoliberalism, as necessary as it always is. What does differentiate Ron Roberts from the doom ‘n gloom-mongers is he actually puts forth some practical, actionable ways forward. He mentions the rise of the AntiUniversity movement as one model of how to bring learning and knowledge back into our communities. He also calls for personal responsibility, which is essential even if you are being oppressed or marginalized, probably even more so.
Finally, Roberts calls for a return of the “working-class Intellectual,” or the “Intellectual in exile.” As Zygmunt Beaumont puts it “The distinguishing mark of all exile… is the refusal to be integrated-the determination to stand out from the physical space, to conjure up a place of one’s own, different from the place in which those around are settled, a place unlike the places left behind and unlike the place of arrival.”
In these rootless times, so many of us are exiles. Likewise, almost all of us are striving for a life of fulfillment, stability, and peace. Too often it seems late-stage capitalism is antithetical to these pursuits. The neoliberal regime would love to paint it that we have no options, that there is no option but to succumb and give in to the yoke. Ron Roberts reminds us there is another way, the Real is still real, still out there.
disclosure: I was offered a digital copy of the book in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley.
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