Corporatising universities threatens academic freedom

26 August 2022 | Story Niémah Davids. Photos Lerato Maduna. Director Nico Badenhuizen & Ruairi Abrahams. Videography and Video Edit Boikhutso Ntsoko. Read time 7 min.
Prof Fran Baum said society loses out when academics become too fearful to be “frank and fearless” in their pursuit of academic freedom.

Corporatising universities and the increased need for funding from the private sector pose a direct threat to academic freedom – and universities ignore this threat to their peril, said Professor Fran Baum.

Professor Baum is the director of Stretton Health Equity – an institute that leads high-quality scholarship on the social and economic determinants of health and health equity at the University of Adelaide in Australia. She delivered the 56th TB Davie Memorial Lecture titled, “Activism and the corporate university: incompatible or possible?” on Wednesday, 24 August.

The annual lecture, hosted by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Academic Freedom Committee, honours the memory of former UCT vice-chancellor Thomas Benjamin Davie – a fierce defender of the principles of academic freedom. Davie passed away in 1955.

“I feel privileged to follow in the footsteps of all those who have [delivered] the TB Davie Memorial Lecture since 1959,” Baum said. “Over my time as an academic I’ve watched universities become more corporatised and less open to the defence of academic freedom, and to the ability of academics to become defenders of the public good.”

A lived experience

Baum told the audience how, during her time as a distinguished professor at Flinders University in Australia, she witnessed how the university’s commitment to equity and social justice waned. Since 2017, the institution executed three processes of restructuring “in which people were treated poorly”. Baum and several colleagues had explicitly verbalised their concerns about these decisions and the new direction the university had taken.


“All four of us [academics] had resisted the changes in the culture of the university and spoke out about the unfairness of previous reorganisations.”

But in September 2021, soon after she became the first academic at that university to receive the National Health and Medical Research Council Leadership Fellowship, she received a life altering letter from the university’s executive. It stated that because of a “reorganisation” process in the College of Medicine and Public Health (her academic home), the role she occupied had been “disestablished”. She was one of four academics to receive this letter. The “disestablishment” also affected 15 research staff members.

“All four of us [academics] had resisted the changes in the culture of the university and [had] spoken out about the unfairness of previous reorganisations and the increasing expectations of excessive workloads as the norm,” Baum said.

“We will never know the behind-closed-doors conversations that concerned the fate of the four of us. But we are sure that this would not have happened before the university was corporatised. [This process meant] that I could say that I was no longer a distinguished professor, but an extinguished professor.”

A not-so-safe space

In the last few decades in Australia, Baum said universities have moved from institutions of “public good” to corporatised entities whose values largely align with large corporations and the private sector.

A member of the audience addresses prof Baum during the Q&A session after the lecture.

“Universities now operate more as businesses and less [as] public good institutions … I hope to convince you that the increasing corporatisation of universities is part of the reason the space for academic freedom and the ability to be an activist academic is closing down,” she said.

Baum highlighted the six signs of a corporatised university:

  • growing the executive class
  • reducing staff and student involvement in governance
  • frequently restructuring
  • increasing contract and casual staff numbers and reducing the number of tenured staff
  • engaging in the international education market
  • partnering with national and transnational corporations.

Baum said an increasing number of senior executives have taken employment positions at Australian universities. These executives, she added, are detached from the core functions of teaching and learning and research, and many have none or very little university teaching and research experience.

“This class of managers treat the university as a profit-making business. [They use] directive and non-participatory management styles borrowed from the corporate world that undermine academic tenure and collegiality, and adds to staff stress,” she said.

Celebrate academic activism

As Baum prepared to wrap up her lecture, she said universities that encourage academic freedom lay their foundations in the interest of the public good and are suspicious of their involvement with businesses or any other interests that might threaten their independence.


“Our task is to imagine a university that is decolonised, decorporatised and encourages academic freedom.”

“Our task is to imagine a university that is decolonised, decorporatised and encourages academic freedom so that academics can be bold and brave in their critiques of society,” she said. 

She said Public Universities Australia – an alliance of organisations and individuals concerned about the current state of Australian universities – has proposed a University Model Act. The act requires that university vice-chancellors be elected from among its academics. Further, she said their vision is to adopt an approach where students and academics are meaningfully involved in decisions about the shape of the university’s teaching and research projects. Their aim is to ensure that the focus of the university is on serving the community, rather than acting as a business.

“The university [should] actively encourage staff and students to be engaged in advocacy about equity, human rights and fairness. Academic activists [should] be celebrated for the contributions they make to positive change, rather than viewed as a threat to the corporate university,” Baum said.

Guard academic freedom

Baum believes that society loses out when academics become too “fearful to be frank and fearless” in their advocacy of the public good. She urged academics to ask more probing questions that relate to the “invisible strings” that certain funds come with, and whether “these strings” will affect academic freedom.

Prof Fran Baum with acting chair of the Academic Freedom Committee prof Pierre de Vos and UCT vice-chancellor prof Mamokgethi Phakeng.

She also encouraged both students and academics to become guardians of academic freedom, and to speak up when management practices and partnerships restrict and threaten these freedoms.


“I would hate to see the apartheid system replaced by a creeping corporate control of the academic world.”

“I know how hard these freedoms have been fought for in South Africa and I would hate to see the apartheid system replaced by a creeping corporate control of the academic world,” she said. “I am confident that TB Davie would have been vigilant about protecting academic freedom from the incursion of corporations. And I am sure he would’ve spoken out to defend activist academics.”

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