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While there are many ways to apply the notion of ‘financialization’ to a university campus, ACUH member Sean Lewis has spent the last two years focusing on the process by which universities engage in the marketplace, and how that has had a direct, physical impact on the campus environment. Though not nearly complete, the following summary is a progress snapshot into research conducted to date for his doctoral thesis, preliminarily titled 'The University as the New Asset Class'.

Sitting at the intersection of property development, urban planning, history and finance, this research focuses on university real estate development, property expansion and campus evolution, over time.  One of the main hypotheses that drives Lewis' exploration is the notion that the university campus has undergone a fundamental shift in recent decades, much more pronounced and visibly evident than in the distant past. 

For centuries, universities appeared to follow a highly individualized yet standardized growth pattern; this isn’t particularly surprising, as the university remains one of the foremost examples of place-based path dependency. However, starting in the early 1980s, universities across Europe and North America have undergone significant changes in how they operate, develop, and expand, physically noticeable within the campus and operationally evident within the institutional governance structure. Further inspired by Esping-Andersen’s classic welfare state typology, this awareness of institutional change as fueled by shifting levels of government funding piqued my interest and encouraged further research into why and how this has happened.  

Research Focus Areas
Focusing on socioeconomic milestone events from the late 20th and early 21st century, Lewis' research further progressed to identify three core areas that evidence institutional financialization. As cornerstones of this research effort, each core area below highlights an example of university financialization and associated market involvement:

Institutional Funding

  • Goal: Document ongoing decline in government funding, offset by alternative revenue sources.
  • Rationale: Government funding towards universities is a driving factor in market involvement. When governments systematically and regularly decrease institutional funding over time, institutions are forced to seek out alternative funding methods, often forcing engagement with the private sector. While alternative revenue sources can fill a critical budgetary gap, newfound dependency on private sector funding comes with strings attached, including heightened involvement with and dependency on third party funding.

University STEM Expansion

  • Goal: Reproduce and categorize university growth patterns as centered on the % growth of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math [STEM] disciplines across the campus.
  • Rationale: The growth of STEM uses across the university campus has increased notably since 1980, largely due to the immediate market adjacency of many STEM disciplines and the ability (perceived or otherwise) for university spin-out concepts to generate revenue for the institution. This has been most significantly seen in technology and science-related patents. While this can provide a much-needed revenue stream, heightened support of STEM disciplines can come at the expense of or disinvestment in non-STEM departments (humanities, arts, ‘soft’ sciences), creating an unbalanced campus and resulting in the misalignment of finite university resources.

Campus Commercialization

  • Goal: Catalogue market activity across and within university assets.
  • Rationale: Commercialization on campus directly reflects the market-focused activity of an institution. In prior years, it was commonplace to study at the local university coffee shop, or patron businesses adjacent to campus. As seen in recent decades, those uses are increasingly located directly on campus, incorporated into university-owned or controlled assets. Touted as campus amenities, institutional amenitization is offered at expense of research and academic space, as campus buildings – often undersized and over-occupied – are further reduced to house non-academic commercial uses focused on revenue production as opposed to academic needs.

To explore these ideas, a case study methodology was utilized. To date, two case studies near completion (the University of Amsterdam and London School of Economics), following months of archival research at both institutions.

Research Results to Date: Institutional Funding
Archival work has revealed a systematic diminishing of government funding post-1980 to both institutions over the last 40+ years, following the anticipated spike in funding during the postwar welfare state era. At UvA alone, government funding towards the University has declined from 94.55% of total income in 1980 to 68.52% as of 2023.  

A similar trend can be seen at LSE; a post-war increase in State funding (as high as 63.17% of total institutional funding by 1980) was followed by significant government disinvestment. As of 2023, State funding only accounted for 6.62% of LSE’s total income.

Research Results to Date: University STEM Expansion                                                                   
Through archival research, STEM growth on the campuses of UvA and LSE was similarly explored. While this core research area remains in progress, both institutions evidence increases in STEM uses across campus(es) in recent years. At UvA, my current findings indicate that present-day buildings with STEM uses can be understood to account for as much as 31% to 84% of the Roeterseiland and Science Park campuses, respectively. Similarly at LSE, I have found that approximately 48% of university buildings today (or, 15 out of the 31 buildings at LSE’s Holborn campus) evidence STEM activity.

Research Results to Date: Campus Commercialization
Similarly identified through archival research, commercial activity on all university campuses was catalogued as part of this project. Unsurprisingly, both UvA and LSE exhibited a dramatic hike in the commercialization of assets post-1980, evident across all campus locations. At UvA, present-day buildings with commercialized uses account for 46%, 63% and 81% of the University Quarter, Roeterseiland and Science Park campuses, respectively. At LSE, 71% of present-day buildings evidence at least one (often multiple) commercial uses at the Holborn campus.

Whilst universities once operated independently from the marketplace (thanks to sustained and considerable government funding), in many instances that is no longer the case. Research progress to date has confirmed that government funding to both UvA and LSE has decreased consistently (and in some cases, exponentially) over the years. As a result, both institutions have had to reorient themselves towards revenue generation and increased third-party involvement, spawning an increased level of market interaction and (ultimately) market dependency. Such enmeshment with market interests is physically reflected in the campus environment, as evidenced through a dramatically commercialized campus and significant increase in support for and development of STEM spaces throughout university buildings. Such a dependence on market activity comes with strings attached; it demands a further diversification of university interests, which leads to inevitable (and potentially irreversible) governance-related changes when the number of university stakeholders multiply and diversify. As institutional players and decision-makers increase, so do the (often conflicting) needs and interests of the university operational landscape. While these developments may not jump out to all readers, many university populations are likely to notice when sections of historically academic buildings are repurposed for commercial activity (e.g. retail, food and beverage, private sector offices, event spaces), STEM-focused user groups and hybrid tech/industry innovation hubs (to borrow the institutional buzzwords of the moment). These changes are made at the exclusion of other university needs and user groups, and may ultimately lead to difficult decisions for institutional leadership: in the case of space-based conflicts stemming from incompatible needs and finite campus resources, will academia or industry triumph?

Some may see this as the natural evolution of the university, one that is indistinguishable from the marketplace; current government fiscal policy certainly seems to support this notion. The idea that a university will be funded so that it can operate outside of the market is gone. Forced marketplace participation and a reorientation away from purely academic and research-related needs is the new normal, a direct result from decades of systematic governmental disinvestment and ever-evolving institutional governance. There will be impacts to the university as a result; exactly what impacts these decisions will have on the archetype of higher education is still unfolding and remains to be seen.