Public Universities, Managerialism and the Value of Higher Education, by Rob Watts

David Wheeler applauds a critique of the impact of neoliberal forces on higher education

September 22, 2016
Student protesters marching through streets of Montreal
Source: Getty
Power of protest: student fees protests in Quebec effected political change

Critiques of the impact of conservative policies on our public universities are not rare. Indeed, such criticism is the defining mandate of the book series from which this latest work emerges. Assertions of the venality of university administrators pandering to neoliberal policy agendas are equally commonplace and increasingly strident.

Some commentators link the current crisis in higher education to the phenomenon of “marketisation” and wistfully contrast today’s challenges with half-remembered, half-imagined halcyon days of small class sizes, free tuition, and the unquestioned funding of university education as a public good.

As Rob Watts demonstrates with the relentless use of logic, statistics and stories from his native Australia, the UK and the US, there is a lot of muddled thinking in this argument. He points out that there never was a golden age for universities in those countries. Watts is dismissive of the elitist utopianism of The Idea of a University, Cardinal John Henry Newman’s famed 1852 homage to the academy. He also has little sympathy for those pining for the notion of a university dominated by the liberal arts and sciences, observing that higher education for the professions has nearly always held a dominant position in universities.

Watts describes the 20th-century growth of higher education in the three jurisdictions. In all cases, the increasing instrumentalism of public policy becomes clear as governments have sought to better harness the universities for their potential economic and social impacts, in return for successive waves of expansion and public financing.

In recent years, this Faustian bargain has been given a new twist as neoliberal governments adopted misplaced and coercive notions of what marketisation might bring to higher education, unleashing an entire industry of administrators and auditors, attempting to squeeze even more out of higher education institutions while shifting the burden of financing the sector to current and future generations of students.

In consequence, public universities in all three countries have been ever more accountable for defined outcomes, with public funding increasingly linked to performance against government-designed metrics. Watts reserves some of his most withering criticism for those who oversee and administer the auditing and management systems on which such metrics and accountabilities depend: the people he calls “the policy elites” and the “manageriat”. And he links the perverse effects that they produce to the emergence of “market-crazed governance” and competitive behaviours in what he asserts is not a true marketplace for university education, preferring instead to describe it as a delusional “quasi market”.

Nonetheless, under the cloak of marketisation and commodification, Watts sees real moral hazards: the debilitating growth of student debt, the continuing under-representation and underachievement of those entering university from low-income families, the development of an underclass of casually employed university teachers – in Australia, this cohort is responsible for more than half of all undergraduate teaching – and the dishonest diversion of student tuition fees to support faculty research. Watts also notes the ever-higher investments in branding and marketing as universities seek to differentiate and vie for what he sees as spurious advantage.

But Watts offers no thorough examination of alternative models that could inspire change, still less any programme for positive reform, in response to the present state of affairs. He offers only a briefly articulated case for the continuation of mass higher education and a vague call for universities to reclaim a moral purpose in line with the philosophies of Socrates, Seneca and Sen: “the challenge for university teachers is how to turn that into good practice”.

One of the most globally democratising and hopeful developments of recent years – referred to by Watts as the “digital commons” – is dealt with in just three paragraphs, significantly short-changing the phenomenal growth and transformative potential of the open educational resources movement. The resistance to inexorably rising student tuition fees is also given scant attention, even though it is a growing movement around the world that has already effected political change, as witnessed in Quebec in 2012 and in Germany in 2014.

Although Watts believes that members of the “manageriat” are unable to confront these questions, I would be a little more optimistic. There is absolutely no reason why English-speaking governments cannot establish new intergenerational social contracts based on the elimination of tuition fees altogether for reasons of social equity, labour mobility and economic benefits for society over the long term, as the Fabian Society has argued. Most vice-chancellors are sufficiently well read to know that tuition fees are not charged in many Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries with very successful economies. Indeed, we may even see a future US president delivering free tuition for children of families earning less than $125,000 (£94,000) per annum.

Unfortunately, arguments such as these are not properly rehearsed in a disappointing final chapter that does scant justice to an otherwise cogent and comprehensive critique of the impact of neoliberal forces on higher education.

David Wheeler is president and vice-chancellor, Cape Breton University, Canada.

Public Universities, Managerialism and the Value of Higher Education
By Rob Watts
Palgrave Macmillan, 348pp, £66.99
ISBN 9781137535986
Published 21 September 2016

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