The conceit of activism in the illiberal university

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The popular image of activism in the university involves students and academics campaigning for social justice and resisting the neo-liberalisation of the university. Yet activism has been subtly corporatised through the migration of corporate social responsibility from the private sector into the university, a trend that may be illustrated by reference to the growing influence of research ‘grand challenges’ (GCs). Attracting both government and philanthro-capitalist funding, GCs adopt a socio-political stance based on justice globalism and represent a responsibilisation of academic research interests. Compliance with the rhetoric of GCs and the virtues of inter-disciplinarity have become an article of faith for academics compelled to meet the expectations of research-intensive universities in chasing the prestige and resources associated with large grant capture. The responsibilisation of the efforts of researchers, via GCs, erodes academic ownership of the research agenda and weakens the purpose of the university as an independent think tank: the essence of the Humboldtian ideal. The conceit of corporate activism is that in seeking to solve the world’s problems, the university will inevitably create new ones. Instead, as Flexner argued, it is only by preserving the independence and positive ‘irresponsibility’ of researchers that universities can best serve the world. Copyright © 2021 The Author(s).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)594-606
JournalPolicy Futures in Education
Issue number5
Early online dateMar 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021


Macfarlane, B. (2021). The conceit of activism in the illiberal university. Policy Futures in Education, 19(5), 594-606. doi: 10.1177/14782103211003422


  • Activism
  • Grand challenges
  • Academic freedom
  • Responsibilisation
  • Philanthro-capitalism


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