Modern universities are not neoliberal – but many academics are

Successful publish-or-perish operators should look in the mirror before writing their next diatribe about marketisation, says Mike Marinetto

May 16, 2019
Source: Daniel Strange

One thing social scientists excel at is the radical pose in the academic prose. Take anything with “Foucault”, “labour process” or “performativity” in the title. Now toss it in the rubbish: such formulaic discussions of “the neoliberal university” do not spark joy, as decluttering guru Marie Kondo would say.

For its long line of big-name academic critics, the neoliberal university is now a self-evident evil: an eminently worthy target of their literary bricks. Some are even calling for the closure of the business school, that incubator of neoliberal ideology. But rather than stroking my beard in solemn agreement, I am reminded of the obscure 1980s anarcho-punk outfit, Crass, and their not-so-radio-friendly song, Punk is Dead.

The song complained of the once-radical genre’s absorption into the music business’ corporate mainstream, personified by a “superstar” punk who “sucked from the system that had given him his name”.

Like Crass’ vocalist, Steve Ignorant, I am tired of listening to privileged figures with safety pins in their ears (Steve put it a bit less decorously). I am tired of such straw man-demolishing academic populism. The reality is that the neoliberal university is just an empty signifier, used to elicit the cheers of like-minded readers.

True, the realities of academic life today – performance management, work intensification, student consumer evaluations – have undeniably intensified work routines. But they do not necessarily equate to, or derive from, “neoliberalism”. If the high priests of this economic theory visited a UK or US university, they would not recognise it as something made in their image. There are no shareholders, and while lower-ranking institutions may scrap for their share of the student market, most universities largely remain what can be called professional bureaucracies, run by and for the benefit of their staff.

If neoliberalism exists at all in higher education, it is not to be found in the organisation of the university. It is not an institutional but a generational phenomenon.

As the noughties progressed, a new cohort of academic stars emerged, editing the august journals, writing the landmark books, monopolising the major grants and wielding the greatest patronage. Their success derived not only from intellectual virtuosity but also from careerist strategies. Competitive individualism, goal-fixated instrumentalism and professional egoism became strategic virtues. Neoliberalism was embraced. The neoliberal generation is self-made.

True, the circumstances in which such strategies have proved so successful were not necessarily of the individuals’ own making or choosing. Still, it was individual choice to exploit those conditions for personal ends.

Those conditions can be defined as the researchification of the academy – which obliterated the focus on teaching that had previously dominated British academia. As Halsey and Trow’s classic 1971 study, The British Academics, makes clear, the academic of yesteryear was at best blasé when it came to scholarship and publishing – and often totally indifferent. But the expansion of the academy brought greater professionalisation, and entrance to its labour market became increasingly dependent on demonstrating research ability. The later research audit culture, using performance indicators around quality and impact, only further boosted the market value of research.

The academic labour market now resembles Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism and his idea of evolutionary fitness. In our case, the evolutionary parameters are defined by the ability to demonstrate “publishing fitness” – call it scholastic Darwinism. The neoliberal species has soon learned that failure to evolve (by prioritising research and mastering the rules of the publishing game) will result in extinction, because natural selection is determined by the survival of the fattest CV.

Not all aspiring neoliberal academics succeed in mastering “the game”, of course. The failed neoliberal academic is the worst kind – someone who excels only in envy-fuelled cynicism directed at the neoliberal class that he aspires to join. Sadly, that’s me.

The neoliberal academic is like a sole trader, as the London School of Economics’ Michael Power once put it in Times Higher Education, who uses the “university franchise for career development defined solely in terms of research” (“Is ‘academic citizenship’ under strain?”, Features, 29 January 2015). So they are particularly averse to volunteering for citizenship and administrative roles, since these have no commodity career value.

But not all younger academics have adapted to the environment in this way. As well as those unable to demonstrate publishing fitness, others reject the neoliberal ethos. They do not necessarily become extinct, but they are not flourishing. In the UK and Australia, around half have been forced on to the vast Badlands at the fringe of the academic world, subsisting on precarious, short-term contracts. This is an academic underclass.

The 21st-century university is a realm more akin to liberal Victorian England, with an “industrial reserve army”, as Marx and Engels put it, fed by a huge oversupply of labour. It is not a happy state. Not, that is, unless you are in a top hat, smoking your pipe and blowing out smoke about neoliberalism.

Michael Marinetto is a senior lecturer in management at Cardiff Business School.


Print headline: The neoliberal elite

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Reader's comments (3)

Meanwhile the customer is ignored. What other business would get away with this for so long.
Only ones which are sustained by a near limitless gusher of taxpayers' money.
This explains why most of my teachers sucked.