Critical University Studies and the Defence of the Public University

Neoliberalism, Knowledge Socialism and Science as a Global Public Good

1. Introduction: The assault on ‘the public’

The parameters of the discourse of Critical University Studies were largely formulated in relation to the abrupt shift away from the liberal model of the public good university to a neoliberal privatised user-pays model that took place rapidly during the 1980s in the core states of the Anglophone neoliberal world (US, UK, Australia, Canada, NZ) in the years following the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who came to power in 1979 and 1980 respectively. This massive shift in policy, discourse and ideology, driven largely by second-generation Chicago school economics and rational choice theory, targeted ‘big government’ and the welfare state on both economic and moral grounds arguing for greater individual self-reliance. It was an ideology that sought to repeal all forms of social provision and collectivism, including welfare redistribution, to focus on the logic of individualism of market fundamentalism based on the rehabilitation of homo economicus. During the 1980s, the university had become the new starship in the policy fleet for governments around the world as a key driver of the knowledge economy. Universities were refitted as entrepreneurial and commercialised cultures to seek links with industry and business in venture and private-public partnerships (Olssen & Peters, 2005). The older liberal emphasis on a professional collegial culture of open intellectual enquiry and debate was replaced with institutional performativity based on global measured outputs, strategic planning, performance indicators, quality assurance measures and academic audits. Hazelkorn (2017, p. 10) argued that ‘globalisation has privileged increasing concentrations of wealth and led to an intensification of hierarchical differentiation and social stratification of higher education.’ The transformation of universities into multinational and transnational corporations with the growth of consortia has created global knowledge production networks aided by trade agencies and policies of GATS for the pursuit of the World Class University that sidesteps the public good in the service of social democracy in favour of a neoliberal privatised model as a centre of innovation and entrepreneurial activity.

The early origins of neoliberalism can be traced to the Colloque Walter Lippman (est. 1934) and the Mount Pelerin Society (est. 1947) established by Hayek:

Essentially, it became known as a set of related public policies that was aimed at deregulating capital markets, embracing ‘free trade’ globalisation, and privatisation policies responsible for state assets sale, and the commercialisation and corporatisation of government departments with the overall aim of paring back the state and increasing individual responsibility. These were the public policies developed by conservative and right-wing governments intent on limiting the powers of the state, attacking ‘big government’ and repealing social welfare provisions. The ‘Washington Consensus’ was a term developed by John Williamson in 1989 to describe the policies of Washington, DC-based institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the US Treasury in ten points, including fiscal policy discipline; redirection of public spending away from subsidies to user-pays; tax reform; market interest rates; competitive exchange rates; trade liberalisation; privatisation of state assets; deregulation; and securing property rights (Williamson, 2017). This was neoliberalism as a development model in relation to perceived problems of Latin American economies as a basis for loans. (Peters, 2021b)

Among the spectacular results was to create an enormous student debt burden. Based on the argument that higher education was a private rather than a public good, US student loans became a trillion-dollar business with steadily increasing tuition fees. At the school level, under ‘user-pays,’ students and parents became consumers and early childhood education became a fully privatised sector with some relief for paid parental leave.

2. Financialisation of higher education, international education and the rise of China

The global financial crisis and consequent educational restructuring (Peters et al., 2015) was driven by the worldwide integration and globalisation of finance, an aspect of ‘financialisation’ that coincided with the rise of market-oriented neoliberalism promoting free trade and privatisation strategies. New Internet-based technologies have reinforced financial market integration, creating a fragile, globally integrated financial ecosystem that now poses new systemic risks and contagion effects characterised by excessive borrowing and ballooning debt, massive asset bubbles, a huge shadow banking system, and financial innovation leading to collateralised debt obligation and securitisation. Public education has been at the core of neoliberal privatisation strategies and financialisation with the trillion-dollar blowout of student loans. Education, once considered a national and global public good tied to the creation of knowledge and the basis of a just and democratic society, has undergone a profound transformation and financial restructuring based on the growth of finance capitalism and financialisation, as well as the financialisation of higher education and its consequences.

At the same time, at least during the immediate pre-Covid years, the international student market led to the growth of export education within core neoliberal states with an estimated value of USD196 billion predicted to reach USD433 by the end of the decade (Hogan, 2022). International education is a massive global market of over 5.5 million students studying abroad, with Anglophone neoliberal countries alone enrolling nearly 3 million international students per year and predicted to swell to more than eight million by 2030. Since WWII, international education has been, up until most recently, a Western undertaking that first followed the philosophy and aspirations of liberal internationalism and neoliberalism. International education is also a product of globalisation developed through international schooling and university collaborations, consortia and partnerships. In the 1980s, international higher education became an ‘export industry’ under neoliberal policies that reflected the dominance of Anglophone countries (US, UK, Australia, Canada, NZ), which accounted for more than 50% of all foreign students, with nearly 50% from China and India combined. The globalisation of international education also has led to the international schools movement, the internationalisation of the curriculum and the development of global regimes of accreditation and quality assurance. Most recently, international education has fostered the development of franchises, overseas campuses and regional hubs, with transnational research collaborations contributing to the global science economy.

Over the last five years, IE has been challenged by four major changes: 1. The election of Donald Trump as the 45th US president in 2017 accompanied the global rise of the far-right that together have questioned the assumptions of liberal internationalism; 2. The rise of China and the integration of the Asian market has created a new regional hub based on a very different conception of internationalism, such as the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI); 3. Rising geopolitical tensions between China and the West, with China increasingly pursuing policies of decoupling and national self-reliance; 4. Covid-19 has disrupted international education, especially the flow of international students. Today Asian student diaspora are leading international education demand with China, the market leader for the last two decades, as the largest source market with over 1 million international students, followed by India (0.5 million), the fastest growing source market growing at 8.5% pa, and Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia. This growth in the Asian market is a result of ‘demographic trends, rising affordability and household incomes, poor quality of local education provision, improved accessibility of international education, premium salaries commanded by foreign graduates, and a greater desire to emigrate to Anglophone countries’ (Laad & Sharma, 2021), although there has been significant geopolitical disruption, particularly in China-Australian relations under the Morrison administration that look set to disrupt the $40 AUS billion market in 2021–2022. The key destination markets are still those of the Anglophone countries – the UK, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – although China and India are fast becoming a regional hub for Asian and BRI students.

This brief history constitutes the immediate background of the forces and pressures that have led to the decline of the public university, mostly as a result of wider neoliberal and structural adjustment policies that have gone through a number of different stages or phases and affected the entire world.

3. Habermas and the Public Sphere

It is not surprising the Critical University Studies discourse grew up around the critique of neoliberalism and the defence of the public good with key themes of privatisation, student debt, academic labour and zero-hour contracts. This critical discourse grew out of the Left’s broad adoption of the word ‘critical’ to denote Critical Legal Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Critical Pedagogy that themselves owed their origins to Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School best articulated in relation to the notion of the public by Habermas’ (1962) classic The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas argues that the bourgeois public sphere was constituted when private individuals came together to debate the general rules governing commodity exchange and social labour: ‘The publicum developed into the public, the subjectum into the [reasoning] subject, the receiver of regulations from above into the ruling authorities’ adversary’ (p. 26). It was deeply tied to a liberal jurisprudence and legal constructivism concerning liberal values, especially freedom of speech and freedom to learn, teach and research.

Habermas demonstrated that the notion of the ‘public’ emerged historically in modern Europe that is associated with the growth of liberal jurisprudence and constitutional rights developed by a range of philosophers, including Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. Second, it is also associated with ‘public intellectuals’ whose role is to protect freedoms, and with notions of the ‘public interest,’ the ‘public good’ (considered to be both non-excludable and non-rivalrous), and ‘public opinion,’ a ‘weak’ epistemological determination of public judgement. Third, the modern history of ‘the public’ is indissociably linked with the rise and complexity of public discourse, public education, the growth of science, and the proliferation of public media, all designed to educate citizens and inform public debate. The meaning of ‘the public’ and what constitutes ‘the public good’ is a historical product open to changes in the landscape of public media. Public institutions and the laws governing them have also been subject to political capture. Neoliberalism in the last fifty years has been directed against ‘big’ government wanting to downsize the public sector and to privatise education. Central to this policy debate have been arguments about the ‘public-private’ distinction and whether education should be regarded as a public good, as it was in the heyday of the welfare state (Peters, 2022).

Habermas’ idealised conception came under attack by those critics who pointed out that particular historical examples only existed through the systematic occlusion of others (e.g., Fraser, 1990, 2007). Habermas (1983) responded by jettisoning the ideal speech community to talk of ‘discourse ethics’ as a vehicle for the exploration of links between moral consciousness and communicative action. He thought that a new moral system could be derived from the rules of argumentation alone. His mature position led to the theory of communicative action, in which communicative rationality is seen as the rational potential built into everyday speech. Habermas’ theory became the basis for his deliberative theory of democracy, and others following him attempted to show how the idealised model of practical discourse connected with real institutional contexts (Bohman & Rehr, 2017). His mature discourse theory has strong implications for international modes of deliberation, especially cosmopolitan political theory, in which the global political order is considered to be based on a democratic form of life and the ideology of human rights – a substantive conception of cosmopolitan democracy.

4. The Discourse of Critical University Studies and the Notion of Public Good

As Calhoun (1992) and others have pointed out, Habermas has helped us to understand ‘the history, foundations and internal processes of public discourse’ and ‘inform[ed] democratic theory…, self-reflection of literary and other cultural critics, … new approaches in ethics and jurisprudence, and empirical studies in sociology, history and communications’ (p. vii). Higher education was seen as the institution with a critical and transformative role of the protection of the public good as well as the conditions and practices for intellectual freedom within the shifted landscape of public media. Calhoun (2006) argued that critical theorists needed to understand the conditions of their own work because the ‘deep transformation’ of universities reflected wider economic and political forces leading to the privatisation of public institutions, intensification of social inequalities and changed conditions of access to knowledge. He suggested four basic questions concerning the meaning of the public university: ‘(1) where does its money come from? (2) who governs? (3) who benefits? and (4) how is knowledge produced and circulated?’

The summary answers to these questions seriously call the notion of the public university into question as national funding regimes increasingly ease the State out of social provision allowing universities able to charge and increase tuition fees, with greater emphasis on the bonanza of international fee-paying students, and the commercialisation of research. There are many studies that address the second question in one word – ‘managerialism’ – with the side-ways shift of academics and the business domination of university councils. Who benefits? This is an interesting question because, out of increased revenue streams, HE policies could afford targeted assistance in the face of what used to be free tertiary education. The production of knowledge and its circulation has become very focused on strategic technology innovations.

The Palgrave Critical University Studies Series (ed. John Smyth), with some 19 books, ‘to foster, encourage, and publish scholarship’ concerning the ‘direction of reforms,’ was to explore ‘the deleterious effects on academic work, the impact on student learning, the distortion of academic leadership and institutional politics, and the perversion of institutional politics’ by focusing on universities under ‘disaster capitalism,’ ‘compassionate campuses,’ the reclaiming of the university as a public good, resisting neoliberalism, academic freedom, the public intellectual and the citizen scholar, academic labour and unemployment, managerialism and the assessment of research. Critical University Studies itself had strongly emerged with Slaughter and Leslie’s (1997) Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University and Williams’s (2012) attempt to frame the moment.

It is important to rework the concept of the public good as a social or collective good, normally provided through public taxation and characterised in economics as non-excludable and non-rivalrous, meaning, in essence, that use by one person does not delete use by others. These are also the characteristics of digital knowledge goods, sometimes referred to in terms of expansibility or non-depletion of use, that imply the normal scarcity conditions for commodities do not apply. Knowledge is the ideal public good: knowledge is non-rivalrous as the stock of knowledge is not depleted by use; it is also barely excludable, being very difficult to exclude users. Knowledge also is not transparent. Like education in general, it requires some experience and skill to know whether it is worthwhile or suited and relevant to a particular purpose. Knowledge at the ideation stage operates expansively to defy the law of scarcity. Knowledge in its digital information form approximates pure thought (Peters, 2009b).

It is part of the reason that the term ‘digital public goods’ has recently come into use to explain the nature of the symbolic economy, public knowledge goods, and processes of peer production (Peters, 2021a). In a knowledge economy, knowledge (or information) can be shared through pdf at little or no additional cost. The economic idea originated with Paul Samuelson in the 1950s in a mathematical formalism. Free and open-source software fits the criteria of pure public goods. In terms of these criteria, it is easy to see why science and education have been regarded as public goods, as much as infrastructure, public health, national defence, public TV and the environment. Academic publishing is based on an artificial notion of intellectual property that creates a paywall based on copyright. The main argument for public goods is that they create positive externalities, and the provision of public goods is also often associated with market failure such that the sovereign or commonwealth, as Adam Smith argued, needed to fund those public institutions or ‘public works’ necessary for the functioning of society beyond the resources of private individuals. Mancur Olson was to investigate the private provision of public goods and indicated that private/public entities can provide public goods, raising the ethical question of who should pay. Neoliberalism was successful because it modelled all behaviour on the assumptions of homo economicus of rationality, individuality and self-interest. Yet, as Anderson (1993, p. 159) remarks,

Some goods can be secured only through a form of democratic provision that is nonexclusive, principle- and need- regarding, and regulated primarily through voice. To attempt to provide these goods through market mechanisms is to undermine our capacity to value and realise ourselves as fraternal democratic citizens. (Anderson 1993, p. 159, cited in Reiss, 2021)

While primary and secondary education traditional are seen as fitting into this category, neoliberals make the case that university education does no,t and they contested the welfare and democracy benefits and argued that tertiary education is largely a private good, an argument accepted as public higher education entered into the massification stage and was typically regarded as unsustainable government spending. This debate needs to be redrawn in the digital age, and the discourse of the public university needs to re-examine the concept in recent economics literature since Samuelson’s (1954) early welfare formulation, especially in relation to knowledge goods, the primacy of ideas and the economics of abundance (Peters, 2009b).

Working with Ron Barnett from the London Institute, I coedited two companion volumes called The Idea of the University (Peters & Barnett, 2018; Barnett & Peters, 2018), which was basically a defence of the liberal concept of the university based on the concept of academic freedom and its erosion under neoliberalism: the first volume presents readings from the major texts on the idea of the university over the last two hundred years go back to Kant and Newman; the second examines ideas of the university that frame its national and global perspective, and offers new thinking in rejuvenating the public university. In my contribution – ‘Renewing the Idea of the University: The Cosmopolitan and Postcolonial Projects’ (Peters, 2018) – I argued that these were the most promising lines of renewal for the public university. I had become more aware of the extent to which universities had functioned during the colonial era to aid the process of extraction of wealth, create a ruling elite and ‘administer’ and subdue local inhabitants. Historically, the notion of the public and publicly funded universities served as a regulative ideal in the era of post-war welfare capitalism, but its ambitions were rarely achieved in practice and quickly broke down during the pressures of massification of higher education in the 1980s and after.

5. Neoliberal Knowledge Capitalism and the Digital Economy

If I can pause to reflect on events in a personal way. As a secondary schoolteacher in the 1970s, I went back to university to complete a PhD on the concept of rationality in Wittgenstein (Peters, 2022). I had been the local branch organiser of the teacher union (PPTA) in a couple of schools, and after completing my PhD in 1984 and taking a job as an associate professor at the University of Auckland in the mid-1990s, I became Academic Vice-President of NZ Association of University Teachers. I was deeply involved in debates with the NZ Treasury and the policies of the Fourth Labour Government of the brand of NZ neoliberalism, a form of Thatcherism speeded up and taken to its absurd conclusion. In those days, I argued that, beginning in the 1980s, ‘a distinctive strand of neoliberalism emerged as the dominant paradigm of public policy in the West,’ based on the Chicago school, ‘citizens were redefined as individual consumers of newly competitive public services’ commodifying ‘welfare rights.’ The public sector itself underwent considerable ‘downsizing,’ as governments pursued an agenda of commercialisation, corporatisation and incremental privatisation of public services, in which the principles of ‘new public management that emulated private sector styles, was delegated rather than genuinely devolved, while executive power became concentrated even more at the centre’ (Peters, 2012a, p. 135). In this period and after, I wrote several books and articles on neoliberalism that highlighted a debate within liberalism (neoliberalism) about the public good, trying to maintain the goals and values of the public university based on second-wave democratisation and increasing access, especially to minority groups.

It quickly became apparent that neoliberalism was itself interrupted by the digital revolution sometimes called ‘cognitive capitalism’ (Peters & Bulut, 2011) that strengthened the relationship between neoliberalism and digital capitalism, leading to digital governance of the university through a performativity matrix of rankings, online delivery of teaching (MOOCs) and globalisation of HE. The financialisation of higher education took place efficiently until the global financial crisis. A second generation of CUS scholars began to question the proprietorial consequences of the new digital technologies and the form of an emerging platform capitalism that had captured the university to scaled-up university partnerships and consortia.

6. Critical theory of technology: ‘Technoscience, rationality and the university’

In my own case, influenced by a Nietzschean reading of Marx and a Wittgenstein/Foucault line of inquiry, I turned to critical theory of technology (Heidegger, Marcuse, Feenberg) and Foucault’s ‘power/knowledge’ and ‘biopower’ to investigate themes such as ‘Technoscience, Rationality and the University’ (Peters, 1989). This was my first attempt to explore Lyotard’s hypothesis that the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter the postindustrial age and cultures enter the postmodern age, a situation where the legitimation of science as emancipatory had fallen away, and knowledge and power had been revealed to be two sides of the same coin. I pursued the argument over the years concerning the technoscientific rationality of the university through Wittgenstein’s influence on historicist philosophy of science (Toulmin, Kuhn, Feyerabend) and Lyotard’s critique of capitalist technoscience (Peters, 2020a). In Lyotard, there was an analysis of the significance of a semiotic understanding of technology as a language based on a deep code that brings informatics into line with synthetic biology, together with an understanding of the effects of the transformation of knowledge on public power and civil institutions. In my PhD (completed 1984), I had argued that the loss of faith in science as the paradigm of rationality concerned to provide universal standards of rationality valid for all actual and possible claims to knowledge had forced a re-evaluation of the Enlightenment and western culture. This view of western science as the paradigm of rationality had not recognised Habermas’ human interests in knowledge nor Foucault’s ‘power/knowledge.’ In terms of political economy, it had not recognised the extent to which, historically speaking, science had become part of ‘the industrial-military complex’ (Eisenhower’s phase) or the ‘academia-industrial-military complex’ funded by several trillion of dollars worldwide (the US miliary budget alone was over $800 billion this year); or indeed, the pharma-medical-industrial complex, or, increasingly, the digital-platform-financial (fintech) complex driven by algorithmic rationality. In terms of the top-100 US Government defence contractors, some $665 billion was awarded in 2020. The privatisation of science has been a silent creeping phenomenon, often leading to epistemic corruption. There was a strong shift ‘in the US innovation system towards the patentability and commercialisation of the basic research happened during the early 1980s’ (Cozzi & Galli, 2021).

Technological convergence (, 2019)

Later I followed up this argument with a critical discussion of Technopolitics and the Future of the University (Peters, 2020c) that focused on forms of technological convergence, what I called ‘Deep Convergence, Platform Ontologies, and Cognitive Efficiency’ in my public lecture for Thesis Eleven where I outlined the ‘new paradigm’ of the US National Science Foundation that consists in a deep and progressive convergence of ‘nano-bio-info-cogno’ (NBIC) technologies integrated at the nano-level. This convergence recommends the application of ‘cogno’ technologies – the least mature – funded through cognitive neuroscience that focuses on cognitive efficiency to harness a ‘bio-informationalism’ of a re-programmed body.

My program was influenced by an account of ‘cognitive capitalism’ under the influence of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Michel Foucault’s work on the birth of biopower and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire and Multitude, as well as the Italian Autonomist Marxist movement that had its origins in the Italian operaismo (workerism) of the 1960s. The theory of cognitive capitalism – sometimes referred to as ‘third capitalism,’ after mercantilism and industrial capitalism – became for me an increasingly significant theory, given its focus on the socio-economic changes caused by Internet and Web 2.0 technologies that have transformed the mode of production and the nature of digital labour (Peters & Bulut, 2011). My argument questioned the neoliberal discourse of the knowledge economy with its human capital arguments. Cognitive capitalism provided an alternative left theorisation that recognised the development of financialisation and fintech in a way that clearly signalled a contemporary form of knowledge capitalism, leaving open the prospects of common-based peer production of knowledge and what I call open knowledge production (OKP).

Poststructuralism, Marxism, and Neoliberalism: Between Theory and Politics (Peters, 2001) inspired by Lyotard’s analysis of the performativity crisis in universities and Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism. I argued poststructuralism is not a form of anti-Marxism, but rather French poststructuralist philosophers view themselves in some kind of relationship to Marx and the legacy of Marx: either they have been Marxist or still viewed themselves as Marxist, as Deleuze and Guattari did. These philosophers invented new ways of reading and writing Marx, beginning with Louis Althusser, and provide resources for critically engaging with neoliberalism as an ideology that is committed to the revitalisation of homo economicus and neoclassical economics. Following Hardt and Negri, I tried to develop a ‘postcolonial biopolitics in the empire of capital’ by identifying some of the main lines of Foucauldian inquiry: ‘the postcolonial,’ exemplified by Edward Said; ‘the biopolitical,’ exemplified by Giorgio Agamben; and ‘the empire of capital,’ exemplified by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. This work led to studies of subjectivities and ‘technologies of the self’ examining ‘prudential rationality,’ technological unemployment, and a conjunction of Marx and Foucault.

7. Postcolonialism, Globalization and the Multiplicity of the Public Sphere

In regard to third-generation Critical University Studies – CUS (SA) – it immediately seems that the postcolonial perspective problematises the notion of public and public good, especially as a historical feature of European society or American public choice economics. One thing is that it is no longer possible to talk innocently in terms of the old discourse of CUS as the notion of ‘public’ has undergone a huge transformation. We are no longer modelling European or American bourgeoisie as the notion has undergone a number of significant changes: It has become 1. globalised; 2. transnationalised; 3. diversified; 4. Indigenised; and 4. digital. So, we must problematise ‘public’ and also admit the possibility of global publics in digital social and indigenous formations.

The defence of the public is still a very western liberal notion tied to the critique of neoliberalism as essentially western (Greek, Roman origins) or taking a distinctive form with modern English and American liberalism. As Tully remarks (2012, p. 1), ‘One of the most spectacular events of our time is the emergence and proliferation of a multiplicity of public spheres and the correlative multiple uses or senses of the vocabulary of public spheres around the world.’ But one is forced to ask: How well does it capture China and ‘the Asian Century’? Or non-liberal societies like Russia? Even India, Indonesia or the Pacific? It is clear that non-liberal societies have public universities. Indeed, well before the medieval tradition that dates back to 1066 with the University of Bologna (or Oxbridge or the modern German university under Humboldt), there were well-established ancient centres of learning dating back thousands of years, including the University of al-Qarawiyyin, first established as a mosque in 857–859, and Nalanda, a Buddhist monastic university that operated during 427 to 1197 CE, only to be re-established recently. To be sure, there is something special about the modern university originating in Europe to reach a global form in the post-war period, but it is not the case that the broad notion of the liberal definition and tradition of the public continues to have uniform universal applications.

In Europe and the core neoliberal Anglophone countries, neoliberalism’s attack on the notion of ‘the public’ warrants a broadly democratic socialist response not necessarily to restore the welfare state but as a Time for Socialism (Piketty, 2021) that details a different kind of globalisation centred on the growth of inequality, French reforms, the democratisation of Europe and the fall of the US idol. Piketty outlines the long march toward equality and a participatory socialism with the social state as a vehicle for equal rights. He puts the case in education: at the beginning of the 20th century, public spending on higher education was less than 0.5% of the national income, which gave rise to elitist systems. Over the course of the 20th century, spending increased to 5-6% in the 1980s and 1990s, allowing for huge educational expansion, which led to greater equality and prosperity. Conversely, the era of neoliberalism has seen cuts and stagnation in spending with correlative growth of inequalities and the growth of the power and domination of the private sector (see pages 9-12ff). In the same spirit, I coined and developed the concept and theory of knowledge socialism to explain the rise of peer production through digitally enabled forms of collegiality, collaboration, and collective intelligence (Peters, Besley, Jandric & Zhu, 2020).

8. Openness, Public Good Science and the Digital University

I have argued that, in the ‘era of digital reason,’ openness becomes a fundamental core of the global digital public domain. With other colleagues, I have argued for a vision of the digital university based on radical openness, creative labour, and the co-production of symbolic goods (Peters & Jandric, 2018). In a similar vein, I have advanced arguments concerning open education, open science, and the open university 2.0 to reflect the practices and possibilities of an open intellectual commons based on a cluster of concepts, including relationships between learning, creative col(labor)ation, and knowledge cultures, digital reading, digital self, digital being, radical openness, creative labour, and the co-production of symbolic goods. I put the case for ‘The concept of radical openness and the new logic of the public’ (Peters, 2013), the philosophy of open learning (Deimann & Peters, 2016), ‘Openness and the Intellectual Commons’ (Peters, 2014), ‘Open Education and Education for Openness’ (Peters, 2017b) and The Virtues of Openness: Education, Science and Scholarship in the Digital Age (Peters & Roberts, 2012) which sought to understand ‘[t]he movement toward greater openness represents a change of philosophy, ethos, and government and a set of interrelated and complex changes that transform markets altering the modes of production and consumption, ushering in a new era based on the values of openness: an ethic of sharing and peer-to-peer collaboration enabled through new architectures of participation.’ In one sense, I was trying to articulate a philosophy of openness that substituted for the public in a new kind of global space of science and scholarship.

The Digital University: A Dialogue and Manifesto (Peters & Jandric, 2018) was one such attempt to critically discuss ‘The University in the Epoch of Digital Reason,’ ‘Collective Intelligence and the Co-creation of Social Goods’ and ‘Digital Teaching, Digital Learning and Digital Science.’ Defining ‘the epoch of digital reason,’ we indicated that digital computers operating by manipulating on/off signals to implement logic functions over time changed the means to generate on/off signals from the early mechanical devices to transistors, integrated circuits and beyond. These ‘improvements’ brought about faster and smaller components that have transformed computers into everyday devices. While the means of on/off signals are constantly changing, the original logic remains based in the binary system of ones and zeros, which conforms to a set of rules invented by George Boole in 1850, where three operations (AND, OR, and NOT) can perform all logic functions. However, Boole’s system had remained largely unused and unacknowledged until Claude Shannon applied Boolean algebra to the design of logic circuits using electromechanical relays. Really, I was trying to give a potted history of the internet age by emphasising the development of modern algebra with its postmodern developments in the circuits of ‘fast knowledge’ of ‘cybernetic capitalism’ manifested in the emergence of educational web science, digital archives in the cloud and the political economy of information democracy.

In this book, I also began to examine more closely the prospects of anchoring this conception in a vision of knowledge socialism to coedit a collection with that title with the subtitle The Rise of Peer Production: Collegiality, Collaboration, and Collective Intelligence (Peters, Besley, Jandric & Zhu, 2020). In the introductory chapter ‘Towards a Theory of Knowledge Socialism: Cognitive Capitalism and the Fourth Knowledge Revolution,’ I sketched a conception, arguing the following:

The fourth wave of automation of knowledge and research developed quickly with the growth of ‘platform capitalism,’ the rise of algorithmic-based knowledge capitalism and the rise of global search engines, big publishing and the metrics industries. Cognitive capitalism offers an alternative and opposing account of the knowledge economy, and the notion of ‘creative labour’ provides an interesting alternative description to ‘human capital.’ In this connection, I explore the wider philosophy and political economy of openness and ‘open knowledge production’ with a strong emphasis on ‘radical openness’ and new forms of ‘co(labor)ation.’ In the era of 5G networks, there are still opportunities for full public knowledge, learning and publishing platforms that are, if not owned or subsidised by the State, at least strongly regulated in the interests of public good science, although it is not clear how long this will remain the case.

I indicated that the ‘knowledge economy’ is often referred to as a deep structural transformation of the economy caused by a technological revolution altering the production and transmission of knowledge (and information), leading to a shift to knowledge-intensive activities. I liked to play up the connection with Marx and provide a postMarxist reading that refers to Alain Touraine, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Foucault rather than a reading of Chicago School economics of human capital, Tulloch and Buchanan’ public choice theory and Romer’s endogenous growth theory. I also tried to provide contested interpretations and genealogies of the knowledge economy that substitute the concept of creative labour for human capital. The notion of ‘digital socialism’ (Peters, 2020b) did not seem so far-fetched. The conception of knowledge socialism came to me when I established the new journal when I was at the University of Glasgow. Policy Futures in Education (PFIE, Sage) with the following policy statement:

Why policy futures in education? The shift of gravity in politics and public policy has moved beyond the post-war welfare state settlement with its institutionalised compromise between the demands of capital and labour. Neoliberalism, with an emphasis on privatisation of public assets and services, has dominated Anglo-American politics over the last 20 years and continues to exert a strong influence on Third Way politics and policies. Globalisation, underwritten by developments in telecommunications and information technologies and the ideology of ‘free trade’ agreements, has continued apace, promoting a form of world economic integration. There has been a progressive automation of the tertiary sector and a shift to service-oriented industries, which has accompanied the rise of the ‘knowledge economy’….

All of these factors and trends, in their complex interaction, have increased the significance of education both as one of the leading services of the future and as one of the few governmental means through which issues of social inclusion, social cohesion, national culture and identity, and citizenship can be addressed.

9. Bioinformational Capitalism and Biodigitalism

That time seems an era long passed. I founded PFIE in 2004 and later moved to the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champagne) in 2005, the University of Waikato (NZ) in 2011, and Beijing Normal University in 2018. At these universities, I taught courses on the political economy of higher education with a focus on a problematisation of the discourse of the ‘knowledge economy.’ In 2012 I authored the paper ‘Bioinformational Capitalism’ (Peters, 2012), which was an attempt to build on the literatures of ‘biocapitalism’ and ‘informationalism’ (or ‘informational capitalism’) to develop the concept of ‘bio-informational capitalism’ in order to articulate an emergent form of capitalism that is self-renewing in the sense that it can change and renew the material basis for life and capital as well as the program itself. I explained that the term develops aspects of the new biology to informatics to create new organic forms of computing and self-reproducing memory that, in turn, has become the basis of bioinformatics to provide a brief account of bioinformatics before brokering and discussing the term ‘bioinformational capitalism’ as a near-future of the neoliberal knowledge economy. My position has always begun from a critique of neoliberal capitalism as a perversion of the public university, and yet the discourse based on the public and the public I felt was in urgent need of repair so that it could include non-liberal societies and universities. Openness as a philosophical concept seemed well placed as a substitute. Open science designates a form of science based on open-source models that utilises principles of open access, open archiving and open publishing to better encourage scientific and scholarly communication. The term also increasingly also refers to modes of governance and more democratised engagement and control of science by scientists and other users and stakeholders, including citizen science. Data-intensive science focuses on ‘technologies of openness’ that promote not only more effective forms of scientific communication but also increasingly the deep sharing of large databases (linked data) and cloud computing. In this sense, openness is also a code word for peer review, horizontal flat structures of learned societies, and, perhaps most importantly, the ethics of science. By virtue of their professional status and membership in scientific communities, scientists are bound to openly share their work and to make public research methods and data or results. On this basis, then, scientists should be open to criticism and to participate in the review of scientific work.

My most recent relevant investigations have centred on biodigitalism and postdigitalism working closely in different combinations with Petar Jandric, Tina Besley, Wang Chengbing, Liz Jackson, Marek Tesar and Peter McLaren, and many others, including the critical philosophy of the postdigital (Peters & Besley, 2018) drawing on recent work on cybernetics, complexity theory, quantum computing, Artificial Intelligence, deep learning, and algorithmic capitalism. We argued that we have ‘arrived into the age of algorithmic capitalism, and its current phase, “biologisation of digital reason” is a distinct phenomenon that is at an early emergent form that springs from the application of digital reason to biology and the biologisation of digital processes’ (p. 29). We elaborate on the emerging configuration and technoscientific convergence of new systems biology and digital technologies at the nano level – in an evolutionary context to speculate, on the basis of the latest research, future possibilities (Peters, Jandric & Hayes, 2022). This convergence is now the context for the quantum revolution and supercomputing that has become a race between China and the west in achieving exascale computing, quantum information science and a platform for zettaFLOPS-based data-intensive science and bioinformational engineering focused on the NSF SemiSynBio-III program that ‘seeks to further explore and exploit synergies between synthetic biology and semiconductor technology’ (Peters, 2022). This speaks to the techno-rational view of the university where, ultimately, technoscience in its enveloping form of AI with an embedded algorithmic rationality takes over ‘data-intensive’ science obliterating the cultural context.

10. The Philosophy of the Open Science University

Commons-based peer production is a system of text production that is emerging in the digitally networked environment and presages a digital system of global science and scientific publishing. In my shorthand, the philosophy of openness might be summarised by the following cluster of characteristics:

1. Openness to ‘experience’: this might be given a Baconian, inductive and empiricist reading with an accent on the pragmatics of the experiment.
2. Openness to criticism: an extension and naturalisation of the Kantian account of Reason given in the first critique, which provided the tools for rational self-critique.
3. Openness to interpretation: historically connected to self-expression, freedom of expression, rights to free speech and the other academic freedoms on which the university is built.
4. Openness to the Other: an ethical stance that in the present technopolitical era can be construed in terms of institutionalised peer production, free sharing of knowledge and collaboration to create the intellectual commons.
5. Open science communications technologies: this historically contingent feature, itself an episode in the history of modern science, refers to the development of open-source and open-access models of science based on the logic of distributed knowledge systems and an ethic of sharing, peer review, cooperation and collaboration.
6. Openness = freedom: this specifically links to items 3 and 5 above, and relates to use, reuse and modification of data and information, as the basis for creativity (the Creative Commons argument) and innovation.
7. Open science governance: I would like to give this feature a radical Republican interpretation (after Polanyi’s [1962] ‘republic of science’), based on peer review extended to all levels of the professoriate and also to users, including the public. (Peters, 2009c).

There is room for addressing the postcolonial critique of knowledge in both the ‘Openness to the Other’ that is not simply to other scientists but to other cultures. Institutionalised science has not been receptive to indigenous knowledge systems and is only now beginning to recognise the legitimacy of non-western science or knowledge systems. The second feature, ‘Open science governance,’ speaks to how science is organised and for what purposes. In particular, open science is most often addressed to the public good and to global problems currently facing the world. It is a means for addressing the administration of science as a political and organisational issue that captures the question of responsibility and questions ‘science in the service of empire,’ a Baconian conception that needs to address a wider commonwealth. The original conception was aimed at presenting a public view of open science as a technologically-enabled kind of science that embraced a knowledge commons in the service of humanity as a whole rather than science conducted in and for the private sector for profit. In this sense, the concept of open science sits well and fosters the various forms of citizen science, including community and school-based science aimed at the public good. As we explained:

The emerging political economy of global science is a significant factor influencing the development of national systems of innovation, and economic, social and cultural development, with the rise of multinational actors and a new mix of corporate, private/public and community involvement. In contemporary science, policy regimes’ outputs often take the form of patents, unpublished consultancy, ‘grey literature’ or are covered by legal arrangement and ‘lawyer-client confidentiality.’ As a result, there are expressed concerns about the fate of scientific publishing. The term global science reflects an extension of the ‘old’ liberal (as opposed to the market-driven neo-liberal) ideology of ‘universal free knowledge’ based on exchange and peer review that developed with the emergence of the modern research university in the nineteenth century. The open science economy is an alternative growing sector of the global knowledge economy utilising open-source models and its multiple applications in distributed knowledge and learning systems that encourage innovation-smart processes based on the radical non-propertarian sharing of content (Peters & Besley, 2019a; see also Peters & Besley, 2021b).

Yet these forms of open science, while challenging mainstream practices of science through citizen science initiatives that maximise user engagement, do not address the question of power directly in the way that the postcolonial critique of science does by introducing an historical perspective to demonstrate the effects of spurious and pseudoscience, especially in relation to the question of race. Open science needs to explicitly address the postcolonial critique of knowledge and knowledge systems through the recognition of the significance of context, ‘the local,’ and an understanding of the ways that the science systems have introduced distortions and unfairness in terms of funding, access and distribution. One of the major claims that emerges from the postcolonial critique is that way in which academic scholarship is always implicated in politics – what Foucault calls ‘power/knowledge’ – despite the ideology of objectivism, detachment and autonomy. ‘Power/knowledge’ signifies that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth.’ The postcolonial critique highlights this clearly in relation to the colonial science system aimed at the extraction of wealth, the denigration of indigenous knowledge, and the way neocolonial relations are sustained through capitalist technoscience.

This is one of the reasons that I accepted an invitation to speak at the ACUSAFRICA network event to advance Critical University Studies where ‘Underpinning our work is the endeavour to find ‘other’ ways to study universities that are capable of thinking plural forms of emancipatory higher education imaginations and futures’ (ACUS Africa, 2022) and to demonstrate solidarity.

This conception is robust enough to capture some of the essential features of the discourse of the public while focusing on a healthy concept of global open science that is not locked behind a paywall. It is inclusive of liberal and non-liberal societies. Open science is strongly supported in China and Russia. Revising this concept today, I would probably frame it through a critique of the World Class University (Hazelkorn, 2011) as we argue The World Class University: A Contested Concept (Rider, Peters, Hyvönen & Besley, 2021):

The connection between the handful of Big Publishers who control the bulk of academic publications (Springer, Taylor and Francis, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Sage), universities that control academic labour and ranking agencies constitutes an algorithmic form of governance through a template for academic innovation and development. After nearly a half-century of neoliberalism, the regulation of university life through New Public Management technocratic measures such as performance indicators now serves as the benchmark for a global system of knowledge that encompasses some 20,000 universities and other HE institutions worldwide (see Peters, 2017a).

We complained that ‘the concept of the WCU in a global competitive model of the knowledge economy promoted by The World Bank (Salmi, 2003) … [focusing on] a small number of elite universities, creating a greater hierarchical reputational differentiation.… often separating teaching and research universities to link resource allocation to institutional profiling or other classification tools informed by rankings; by contrast, the social democratic model attempts to balance excellence and equity, with an emphasis on horizontal differentiation and a “good quality” university system based on the integration of teaching and research (Hazelkorn, 2015).’ My own chapter, co-written with Tina Besley, was entitled ‘Contesting the Neoliberal Discourse of the World Class University: “Digital Socialism,” Openness and Academic Publishing,’ available for free download, really spells out an argument that change in the political economy of academic publishing can be observed through Open Access, cOAlition S, and ‘Plan S’ (mandated in 2020) established by national research funding organisations in Europe with the support of the European Commission and the European Research Council (ERC); and we suggested the following:

The social democratic alternative to neoliberalism and the WCU is a form of the sharing academic economy known as ‘knowledge socialism.’ Universities need to share knowledge in the search for effective responses to pressing world problems of fragile global ecologies and the growing significance of technological unemployment. This is a model that proceeds from a very different set of economic and moral assumptions than the neoliberal knowledge economy and the WCU.

11. Knowledge Socialism and Open Science as a Global Public Good

The idea of openness of knowledge socialism has a clear materiality and mandate for sharing knowledge, information and resources among scientists (and global publics), to distribute it freely, to make access also free online, and to be sensitive to the multiplicity of global publics for the fair representation of science across all nations, genders, peoples based on historical redress and outreach, and a healthy suspicion of private science in the service of multinationals, or state suppression of the free flow of science and scientific publications. UNESCO adopted the Recommendation on Open Science of Nov 23 2021, ‘that Member States collaborate in bilateral, regional, multilateral and global initiatives for the advancement of open science’ with the aim of doing the following:

(i) promoting a common understanding of open science, associated benefits and challenges, as well as diverse paths to open science;
(ii) developing an enabling policy environment for open science;
(iii) investing in open science infrastructures and services;
(iv) investing in human resources, training, education, digital literacy and capacity building for open science;
(v) fostering a culture of open science and aligning incentives for open science;
(vi) promoting innovative approaches for open science at different stages of the scientific process;
(vii) promoting international and multi-stakeholder cooperation in the context of open science and with a view to reducing digital, technological and knowledge gaps.

Clearly, if it is possible to build an argument and develop a set of practices based on science as a global public good, then it is also possible to establish a vision for the university based on it. I have consistently argued that openness is a complex code word for an alternative mode of scientific production that refers to open source, open access, open archives, open publishing, open education and open science. In this sense, it refers to open models of scientific and scholarly communication and distribution with the potential to address the North-South inequalities and power imbalances and the prospect of creating virtuous public science economy based on open innovation, especially in clear cases of global public goods necessary for the survival of humanity in related areas of global health and environmental sustainability. This model of open science constitutes a radical non-propertarian social alternative to traditional methods of text production, distribution, access and dissemination. It is also clear that this alternative model of social exchange that co-exists and sits alongside the neoliberal ecosystem of intellectual property under which creativity, innovation and the free exchange of ideas are badly compromised (Peters, 2009a, 2010). One innovation has been collective writing projects that are open expressions of a new form of writing an academic article. It is now an established genre, with over 100 articles within the last few years (Jandric et al., 2022). It represents a postmarxist experiment in collective writing as an aspect of knowledge socialism that enables a critical philosophy of education and pedagogy, focused on the article as a collection of 500-word essays arranged and sequenced in the elaboration of the theme.

Radical openness and its links to the development of scientific communication is one of the means for the reinvention of the public good and the constitution of the global knowledge commons. The open knowledge economy offers a way of reclaiming knowledge as a global public good and of viewing openness as an essential aspect of an emerging global knowledge commons that fosters open science and open education (Peters, 2013).

The International Science Council (ISC) recently committed itself to a vision of science as a global public good based on the value of knowledge:

Knowledge has been amongst the most powerful of public goods. It has been the inspiration, stimulus, and agent upon which most human material, social and personal progress has been built. Access to knowledge and to the education systems that seek to increase the stock of knowledge of individuals, and thereby, in aggregate, of society, are recognised as human rights. (Bouton, 2021)

Yet as the position paper argues, science as a formalised system of peer review develops claims to knowledge based on argument and evidence that is open to criticism and reality testing, and the results are communicated to the public for the improvement of the human condition – the essence of an incontrovertible argument for the public university and the milieu of public intellectuals. A fundamental commitment to openness by the public university can be defined in terms of the protection and development of knowledge as a global public good connected to a basic set of human rights that includes not only fostering open science and education but also traditional social democratic values promoting universal access, fair distribution, academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.

I would agree with the UN Global Science Commons statement that ‘Publicly funded science should be open science,’ that ‘Open science is an accelerator of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’ and that the recommended ‘roadmap’ to a science commons should be guided by ‘inclusiveness and respect for diversity,’ equitable practice, shared benefits, and opportunities for participation. At the same time, it is necessary for setting up global open science that it carefully examines the structural imbalances in the emerging global science system, the histories of colonial science systems, and postcolonial new formations designed to promote emancipation in the service of the public university.


1. The postcolonial and its significance for ‘decolonizing the university’ I leave to engaged scholars on the ground, for example, Decolonising knowledge and knowers: Struggles for university transformation in South Africa (Hlatshwayo et al., incl. Fataar, 2022); Keet’s (2021) ‘Africanising/Decolonising Ourselves’ and the African interpretation of critical university studies; and ‘epistemic decolonisation’ from the students’ perspective (Motata, 2021).

2. See the UN Open Science Conference 2021 and the creation of a ‘Global Science Commons’ moderated by Professor Jean-Claude Guédon (Dag Hammarskjöld Library, 2022) and UNESCO’s Open Science portal (UNESCO Open Science, n.d.).


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Full Citation Information:
Peters, M. A. (2022). Critical University Studies and the Defence of the Public University: Neoliberalism, Knowledge Socialism and Science as a Global Public Good. PESA Agora.

Michael A. Peters

Michael A. Peters (FRSNZ)  is a New Zealander and is currently Distinguished Professor at Beijing Normal University and Emeritus Professor University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He was awarded a Personal Chair at the University of Auckland in 2000 and became a Research Professor at the University of Glasgow (2000-2006) before being appointed Excellence Hire Professor at Illinois and Professor of Education at the University of Waikato. He has Honorary Doctorates from Aalborg University, Denmark and SUNY, New York.

Michael was Editor-in-Chief of Educational Philosophy and Theory for 25 years and is currently Editor of Beijing International Review of Education (Brill). He is the founding editor of Policy Futures in Education (Sage); E-Learning & Digital Media (Sage); Knowledge Cultures (Addleton); Open Review of Educational Research (Taylor & Francis); Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy (Brill) and on the board of many other journals and book series.

Michael has written over 120 books and many journal articles on a wide range of topics and has worked with and mentored many younger scholars. He was given the Social Science and Humanities Leader in China Award in both 2022 and 2023 ( and is ranked 1st in China and 5th in Asia for Education and Educational Philosophy and Theory (AD Scientific Index, 2023). He is also ranked in the World’s Top 2% of Scientists by Stanford University. His recent works includes two books on the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic philosophy to be published in 2024.