Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education, by Lawrence Busch

Comparing free-market politics with state socialism may be an intellectual dead end, says Aniko Horvath

April 20, 2017
Illustration of a university seminar
Source: iStock

Growing up in Communist Romania, and going to school under Ceaușescu’s dictatorship, I happen to be – at least to some degree – a product of state socialism. I am, it can be argued, also a product of neoliberal academia. After 24 years in higher education in various capacities and in several countries, I know full well why Lawrence Busch uses state socialism as a comparison when describing the “neoliberal takeover of higher education”. It allows him to easily and swiftly evoke a total(itarian) experience of the powerlessness, oppression and structural violence that so often characterises hierarchies. Higher education, he argues, is no exception. In support of his argument, Busch offers a harrowing, well-researched and very detailed account of problematic issues within academic administration, education, research and public engagement, as they have been produced and reproduced over time in the US and the UK, and as they are emerging in higher education systems across the globe.

Some of his US examples will resonate with the reader more than others: the essay-marking software used to replace academics in assessing student essays, for example, that is leading to a near-total, and clearly detrimental, standardisation of curriculum. Or the moves by some universities to calculate “the monetary value added by each professor”, weighing individual academic salaries against student numbers, tuition generated and research grants obtained. If the “value added” is low or negative, the argument is made that such subjects and academics should be replaced by education that better “enhances one’s future salary”. Such practices, the reader can’t help thinking, seem to have encroached on the present from a fearsome dystopian future. If Busch’s account is to be believed, in the not-too-distant future US higher education may be entirely subsumed by this dystopia. European academies, if they fail to take positive steps, risk becoming casualties as well.

When Busch returns to the spectre of state socialism in his conclusion, his comparative images will summon up feelings of anxiety – perhaps especially so for those who have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four but have not lived through actual state socialism and experienced not only its horrors but also life’s everyday banalities under such a regime. Busch’s comparative frame is a powerful stylistic tool that he uses well throughout the book but it is ultimately inadequate as an analytical tool. Nevertheless, he slips into using it in precisely that way as he builds a binary that casts a shadow over many of the important and novel arguments he makes about state, governance, hierarchies and heterarchies. While he is right that we must create spaces in academia where we can explore, discuss and debate “multiple orders of worth” that allow scholars and politicians to “challenge the existing neoliberal hegemony by illustrating the existence of alternatives”, one can’t help but wonder who exactly is the “enemy” of whom he speaks when he holds up a Soviet-state-like “(neoliberal) nomenclature” as a mirror image.

Today’s world is gripped by interdependent “wicked problems”, Busch argues, and in the face of this, strong and independent higher education and research is needed more than ever. His book does a great service in shedding light on the fallacies within the system and offering alternative imaginaries.

Aniko Horvath is research associate in the Centre for Global Higher Education, University College London.

Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education
By Lawrence Busch
MIT Press, 176pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780262036078 and 2339445 (e-book)
Published 31 March 2017


Print headline: Totalitarians at the gates?

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