Boaventura de Sousa Santos unpicks the neo-liberal siege of universities

Boaventura de Sousa Santos

“The idea that the sole value of knowledge is the market value will kill the university. A university that is ‘sustainable’ because it finances itself is an unsustainable university as a common good, because it becomes transformed into a company”, the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos warned in one of the central talks of the Latin America and Caribbean Regional Higher Education Conference (CRES 2018), which ended today in Cordoba. With a doctorate in the sociology of Law and professor at the universities of Coimbra and Wisconsin-Madison, De Sousa Santos is – and he defines himself as – “a university activist” and has dedicated himself to the subject in various texts, the first in the mid-1990’s, and the last published this year.

The report is by Javier Lorca, published on Pagina/12, 15-06-2018. The translation from Spanish was by Cepat.

“If the students of 1918 were here today, He began, if we were these students, what reforms would be needed?” In a charming Spanish with a Portuguese accent, De Sousa Santos initially drew a parallel with Maio Frances, specified the progressive gains and characterized the present as a time full of dangers for public universities: “We are going through a conservative and reactionary global cycle controlled by neo-liberalism, which is nothing less than total domination by financial capital”. This is a more complex scenario than that faced by the rebellions of 1918 and 1968, for one reason: “Then, the global context allowed the thought that there was an alternative to capitalism. Now, it seems that capitalism has beaten its adversaries, and it is capitalism without fear”.

The neo-liberal project, he explained, aims at the construction of a “capitalism of the university”: “It started with the idea that the university should be relevant in creating the skills the market required”, followed by the proposals for taxation and privatization. “The final phase is the idea that the university should itself be a market, the university as an enterprise”. If the university is a just another good, it has to be measured: giving rise to the global rankings.

The neo-liberal ideology thus collides with the idea of “university as a common good”, the child of the gains obtained after the Reformation. “It is a difficult time for various reasons, and one of them is that there is no political attack, but rather depoliticized one. It is an attack which has two dimensions: budget cuts and the fight against the supposed inefficiency or corruption, which is a very selective fight, because we know that the public universities in general are well managed in comparison with other institutions”.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos identified three reasons for university being the target of the neo-liberal regime.

– its production of independent knowledge and critical questioning “the absence of alternatives that neo-liberalism tries to produce in our heads every day. If there are no alternatives, there is no politics, because politics is only alternatives. That is why many of the measures against university do not seem like politics, but rather economics, budget cuts, or juridical, the fight against corruption. What is behind this is the idea that university can be a tool for alternatives and resistance”.

– Neo-liberal thought seeks an eternal present to avoid all the tension between the past, present and future. University has always been, despite all the limitations, the possibility to criticise the present in relation to the past and with a view to a different future”.

– “University helped to create national projects (obviously, excluding the original peoples) and neo-liberalism does not want national projects. In its turn, universities have always been internationally solidarity, on the basis of the idea of a common good. But university capitalism wants another type of internationalism: the franchise, where the universities can buy academic products all over the world”.


The second part of the conference summarized a series of proposals to refound universities based on the Reform of 1918, but overcoming their limitations and radicalizing their democratizing spirit.

“The domination today has three heads: capitalism, colonialism and hetero-patriarchy”, De Sousa Santos postulated. “Our dilemma is that this domination is integrated. Capitalism works together with colonialism and the patriarchy. But the resistance is fragmented. Universities can be a field where thought articulates the resistance. That is also why universities are a target for neo-liberalism”.

What can be done? The first step, he said, is an epistemological break. “There is an enormous plurality of knowledge outside of universities: rural, urban, popular knowledge, that of women. Why have universities never taken these into account? Because the universities have not been decolonized. Their content, their social sciences, their history, are colonialist. To defend them as a public good, universities must carry out a deep self-criticism, on themselves. They have to abandon the arrogant idea that they are the only source of knowledge, open themselves up to a dialogue with other sources. We need to create Epistemologies of the South”.

In this sense, the second break concerns the radical reform of the social alliance that universities have to seek, not just with the urban bourgoisie classes, but with “the popular and impoverished classes, the victims of colonialism and the patriarchy, the racialized and sexualized bodies”. For this reason, he explained, “extension work has never been so important as it is today. Through the influence of neo-liberalism, extension work has been diverted to the obtaining of funds. This is perverse, this is not extension work, it is prostitution. Real extension work should be directed at the populations who are not solvent”. His proposal consists of inverting extension work, “it is not taking universities outwards, it is the bringing of non-university knowledge within”, and in turn, “articulating the different types of popular knowledge, because there has usually been prejudice between the different movements” (workers, feminists, peasants, LGBT).

Universities, he concluded to applause, must be restored, use their autonomy counter-hegemonically and “be transformed into a pluriversity. But the attack from neo-liberalism is so great that perhaps should change itself into subversion (subversity)”.

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