Academic monopolies are nothing to be proud of

Neoliberalism is many academics’ bête noire, but it is also a litmus test of their democratic sensibilities, says Steve Fuller

July 19, 2018
Octopus tree
Source: James Fryer

Academics are naturally divisive creatures. Yet they seem agreed that something called “neoliberalism” is the ultimate source of their common woes – with both their university administration and society more generally.

Neoliberalism’s signature policy instinct is to convert monopolies into markets, resulting in more competitive environments. It first emerged among economists in the early 20th century, amid the takedown of the corporate monopolies perceived to be restricting new entrepreneurs’ market access and stifling innovation more generally. The original neoliberals were progressive, in the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. However, once Wilson imposed a national income tax (partly to finance US involvement in the First World War) these same economists worried that the state might itself become the new corporate monopoly.

The spread of broadly socialist policies over the next few decades, including the New Deal and the welfare state, turned this misgiving into neoliberalism’s dominant theme. By the time it became the house ideology of the Reagan and Thatcher governments in the 1980s, it was focused on divesting the state of its powers over the provision of health, education and other welfare services. “Marketisation” now became the state’s main business.

Neoliberalism arrived in UK higher education as early as 1963, with Lionel Robbins’ landmark report. This offered a strategy for breaking Oxbridge’s long hegemony via the creation of US-style campus-based universities specialising in social science and other “modern” subjects. Thirty years earlier, Robbins had hired neoliberal luminary Friedrich Hayek at the London School of Economics.

A less capital-intensive follow-up was the 1992 “new universities” legislation, which upgraded the status of existing polytechnics and teachers’ colleges to swell the ranks of people entering university.

It is difficult to deny that this approach – with its audit regimes for research and teaching that place all universities in the same competitive pool – has helped level the playing field in higher education. Indeed, neoliberalism generally isn’t given sufficient credit as an effective democratiser. Perhaps that’s because neoliberals have tended to turn a blind eye to past damages. Instead of penalising past winners through taxation – seen as an illicit form of restorative justice – neoliberals invest conditionally in prospective future winners.

The underlying psychology here seems sound, helping to explain the global appeal of neoliberal policies, which cut across traditional social, political and economic divisions. It is based on intuitive notions of fair play: people prefer to lose after they have been given a chance to win than to have a victory subsequently taken from them.

But why, then, are academics in particular so antagonistic? The answer is that neoliberals are more principled in their hostility to inherited privilege than academics are. The latter’s authority over their field of knowledge is tied to mastery of a discipline-based “expertise” that is the legacy of a specific line of researchers over many years, if not generations. Acquiring such expertise – and its associated jargon – entails substantial entry costs, ranging from attending the right schools to accessing the right funds.

Academics generally wear all this as a badge of honour but, to neoliberal eyes, the arrangement looks like a mutually reinforcing system of information bottlenecks, resulting in an artificially maintained hierarchy of “knows” and “know-nots”. It is the intellectual version of the ultimate economic evil, rent-seeking: a phrase inspired by David Ricardo’s – and later Marx’s – disdain for landowners who increased their land’s value simply by restricting access to it, rather than using it productively.

In response, academics say that restricted access ensures high-quality knowledge. But, like other claims to elite privilege, this assertion is self-serving unless it can be put to a test in which the academic establishment is not pressing its thumb too hard on the scale. Thus, the recent UK Higher Education and Research Act allows non-academic actors to compete on the playing fields of research and training if they have already shown a capacity to deliver such “services”. More generally, neoliberal policies promote the use of altmetrics as an independent check on the club-like character of academic peer review, while requiring academics to court extramural constituencies.

Yet, compared with other sectors of society, higher education has tended to respond to these “market challenges” in unimaginative, if not reactionary, ways. Academics appear wedded to the idea that the delivery of high-quality research and teaching in the future depends on the means by which they have been delivered in the past. Thus, their proposed “innovations” tend to be marginal, such as putting academic lectures online, publishing in open access journals and serving up the same courses in less time.

There has yet to be anything in the higher education market comparable with the creative destruction wrought by the motor car’s replacement of the horse as the primary mode of personal transport 100 years ago. That innovation required a much more radical rethinking of means to ends than self-described “radical” academics appear willing to engage in today. 

Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at the University of Warwick and author of Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game (Anthem). He will be debating with Philip Mirowski at Lancaster University on 24 July about whether neoliberalism can lead to a positive future for the university.

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Print headline: Academic monopolies are nothing to be delighted about

Reader's comments (3)

I couldn't agree more. The market for academic knowledge needs liberalising to make it more receptive to new ideas. I have two suggestions for how this might be facilitated. First, non-peer reviewed outlets for academic work. (I hesitate to use the term journal because discipline based journals are themselves part of the problem.) No other profession would get away with appraisal only by peers. Opening academic artefacts up to scrutiny by potential users, neighbouring disciplines, and so on, can only be a good thing. Second, simplicity - to use, understand and relate to other ideas - must be a key criterion for judging academic work. We all have only a limited amount of time, and the less time new ideas take to absorb and use the further humanity is likely to progress. Simplicity is a key criterion at the frontiers of science, but we need to rethink many of the building blocks as well as the further reaches. How would we have progressed if we'd insisted on sticking with Roman numerals? Many journal editors would probably say they take account of "impact", and ensure that articles are written as simply as possible. But this is really just playing around at the edge of the problem. It's not just a matter of explaining jargon, concepts and techniques; these need to be redesigned so that they are convenient and useful from the perspective of non-peers. If taken seriously, these two suggestions would, I suspect, be viewed with horror by many academics. This may be a good indicator that they are the way forward! Michael Wood, University of Portsmouth
'First, non-peer reviewed outlets for academic work.' We have those; they are called blogs. In short form they are called Facebook postings. In even shorter form they are called Tweets. And I heartily agree. Why should medical research be placed in the hands of expert medical researchers, with their complex language, their mathematical formulas? Let researchers post on the Internet whatever they want, without editorial interference. Surely, social workers and bus drivers or even academic sociologists can decide for themselves how the human body works, and how its health can be improved. And as for research in less scientific realms like history -- again, let the public decide! 'Second, simplicity.' To adopt a phrase by Nietszche, 'What if truth were a pinball machine?' You would need to bash it around a bit; addressing it with elaborate language, expressing elaborate ideas, would do no good. To hell with authority and expertise anyway! Science is bunk! To hell with careful and elaborate argumentation! Just shout! Twitter awaits you. Robert Appelbaum Uppsala University
Thank you for this article which I read with interest. I agree that recognizing and engaging with knowledges beyond those by the elites and academic monopolies is important. This point is, however, a shared denominator among those against / for neoliberalism. But I have to diverge from the article position beyond this point. Neoliberalism does not (hardly) have a democratizing effect on science or society. For example, while all universities are placed in the same pool for performance and output ratings by neoliberalism, their (universities') resources are not the same, let alone between rich and poor countries. That is not a democratizing effect. Additionally, neoliberalism avoids critical governance, and de-politicizes/overlooks the power differentials among innovation actors, publics and knowledge ecosystems, creating new inequities. That does not contribute to democracy in science and society either. Democratizing knowledge and opening up the academic monopolies can be successfully accomplished without neoliberalism, and without creating new inequities or neglecting the politics of knowledge and innovation. Best wishes, Vural Ozdemir, MD, PhD Toronto, Canada

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