For the University and against a neoliberal curriculum

In her keynote at Discourse, Power and Resistance ’12, Rosemary Deem highlighted the isomorphism that is occurring within and across universities in the United Kingdom as the ideology of marketisation is insinuated into the practices and policies that shape the higher education environment. This is not a new process, but the pace with which it is now being rolled-out is a dislocation or shock that enables change to be enforced through uncertainty. This is one of the ways in which capital uses systemic crises to renew itself. This quickened process is made visible in: the re-catagorisation of Universities as businesses in the HRMC regulations on taxation; the Coalition Government’s use of VAT regulations to open-up a space for marketisation through shared services; and by enabling for-profit providers to obtain the same VAT exemption on educational services as not for-profits. Andrew McGettigan has highlighted how this enables private providers, which are able to ‘leverage’ private equity, to steal a march on the rest of the sector, which as it is not for-profit cannot access such funds, and this leaves those institutions at the whims of private, philanthropic donations, or needing to chase increasingly limited and limiting (research) funding. These sources of money, often sought from those with a specific ideological position to further, then disciplines what the University is able to research or produce or critique. In Christopher Newfield‘s terms this process is yet another example of ‘state-subsidised privatisation’. It is a form of enclosure enacted as a discourse veiled inside the logic of democratic capitalism.

[NOTE: please see Andrew McGettigan’s comment below for an elucidation of his position.]

Deem also focused on the role of private equity companies and hedge funds in opening-up what is perceived of as being a public space for the market. This process is complex and related to the ways in which some educational functions prove profitable and can be privatised, like vocational training that can be provided at low cost using part-time or precariously employed (post-graduate) lecturers or courses that can be delivered via distance or work-based learning. These map onto leveraged or marginal or menial skills that are developed inside the knowledge economy. Those activities that require much higher infrastructural investment, and which are of marginal profitability in the market but which have a higher social utility, like medicine, can be left to the State to fund. Post-education, these proprietary skills can be harnessed for profit, for instance through the privatisation of healthcare. This whole process of marketisation forms a system of enclosure, or in David Harvey’s terms of accumulation by dispossession. It is a way in which rents can be extracted from individuals and institutions, in the form of services or fees that are contracted for and which might include technological services or actual courses of study. The latter are increasingly to be paid for from indentures/loans that inscribe education as an individualised good, rather than from general taxation that views educational spaces as a social good.

This process is exacerbated because the State, acting as regulator rather than funder, is regulating for the market and for enterprise, and not for the society of people. This is part of a neoliberal discourse in which the practices and activities of higher education are folded inside the subsumption of all of social life inside the dynamic of competition. Here the State is proactive in acting as midwife to the re-birth of public assets as market-oriented commodities. This idea of neoliberalism as a discourse is especially important in Stephen J. Ball’s work on Global Education Inc.. Ball traces the development of neoliberalism very deliberately as a discourse designed to promote shared libertarian, market-oriented entrepreneurialism that in-turn fosters a new nexus betweeen capital and the State, in order to re-shape all of society inside its hegemonic, totalising logic. In part, Ball sees this as facilitated by networks of power and affinity, that enable the re-production of ‘geographies of social relationships’ that are in the name of money, profit, choice and unregulated markets. These networks form shifting assemblages of activity and relationships that reinforce hegemonic power. Moreover, they are transnational activist networks consisting of academics and think tanks, policy-makers and administrators, finance capital and private equity funds, media corporations and publishers, philanthropists/hedge-funds interested in corporate social responsibility etc., which aim at regulating the state for enterprise and the market.

Importantly, this forms a neoliberal curriculum. The use of the word curriculum is hugely important in the roll-back of the State and the roll-out of the neoliberal agenda. Not only does it refer to a course of action that moulds individuals into persons, but it also anchors that discourse educationally. Thus, the focus is on creating uncertainties in the spaces in which the State operates, telling common-sense stories about the value of private enterprise in ‘leveraging’ both performance and cost reduction, and in connecting those stories to a meta-narrative of there is no alternative. In turn these meta-narratives reinforce World Bank and IMF orthodoxies related to structural readjustment, freedom and choice. Thus, the networks of interconnected actors and corporations, acting as transnational advocacy networks, then reinforce these dominant positions through their: activities; conferences; prizes; media attention; control of funding; research programmes and outcomes; evidence-based approaches to data-laundering; regulation etc.. Ball describes the reality of several networks that reinforce hegemonic power, and which connect academics to education providers and research groups, and interconnects them with technology firms, as well as to finance capital and think tanks, in particular in opening-up the Indian education system for marketisation. Ball highlights how academics based in the UK, like James Tooley and Sugatra Mitra (who has keynoted about his hole in the wall project recently, for example for the Association for Learning Technology) operate inside neoliberal networks that amplify the complex geographies of neoliberalism, which are made influential and powerful by money, policy advocacy, relationships, and action on the ground.

At issue then is how to create counter-hegemonic networks, policy and relationships, that might develop counter-hegemonic positions. What alternative actions might be taken to reinforce the idea that there is an alternative value position that can be take, both socially and in relation to higher education? In this, Deem argued for the role of academics acting as public intellectuals. Interestingly she also highlighted how ahead of the 2014 REF, the social sciences panel defined impact in wide-ranging terms, including public benefit. This is important because research impact is a crucial site of struggle in the commodification of the University and its subsumption under the logic of capitalist expansion. The ways in which academics might go into occupation of terms like impact, in order to redefine its use against that prescribed by the regulatory logic of the State or transnational advocacy networks, is important in moving beyond the use of the term simply as the impression of academic activity. Impact as impression objectifies activity and relationships and people’s subject positions through behavioural demands. What can be measured is part of a neoliberal discourse related to efficiency and consumption.

As the University becomes an overt site of capitalist accumulation, and as a result a site for entrepreneurial investment, the occupation of regulatory terms or regulations forms one concrete way in which resistance and refusal might be catalysed. There are two important points that flow from this kind of activity. The first is that the University remains a site of the production of mass intellectuality, where knowledge claims can be legitimised and critiqued. However, as a neoliberal discourse increasingly kettles the academic process and practices, it takes courage to act against the prevailing, hegemonic narrative. The cost of resistance is high and it is important therefore that academics act communally to shine a critical light on the activities of the state in regulating the University for the market. This requires that the increasing number of communal activities, like radical education projects/free universities outside the University and protests or refusals inside the University, are joined in solidarity.

The second point is about leadership. It is increasingly less certain that institutional leaders, Vice-Chancellors or Vice-Principals, will challenge the dominant narratives of the State, in terms of the marketisation of higher education. Acting as CEOs the logic is that they will attempt to compete rather than co-operate. Thus, in the UK, University leadership was quiet over the threats of violence made by the State against students who protest, and we witnessed banning orders being sought against protest on campus, PhD students being suspended for protesting via poetry, and elected student representatives being removed from University committees for protesting. This enactment of the University as an enclosed space for dissent is a logical outcome emerging from the rhetoric of competition. Earlier this year I wrote about the communal university, and noted that the marketisation of the sector reminded me of the establishment of the English Football Premier League in 1992, as a marketised space in which clubs were businesses and where the social health of the league as a whole was less important that that of the individual clubs acting as businesses. In this set of spaces, the public, or supporters, were of secondary, instrumentalist importance to the structural need to inscribe clubs as institutions inside the market.

The possibility that the HE sector may come to resemble the English football league post-1992 following the deal made to form the Premiership, which lead to: the league being ruled by the power of money (witness the power of BSkyB, the influx of transnational capital in the form of hedge funds and corporates in club governance); the ossification of success/competitiveness (witness the limited number of clubs capable of sustaining challenges for the League or for Cups); the growth of indebtedness and administration (in particular where clubs chase access to the Premiership/TV deals); and the need for special pleading for/activism by supporters (in terms of fan ownership, supporter democracy and the rising costs of attending games).

In this process of enclosure, we might ask whether our academic leaders will be able to work communally or co-operatively to roll-back the neoliberal discourse that commodifies all of our social life inside the market, and which kettles free debate about what is legitimate. We might ask then what is the role of the academic as activist in developing alternative discourses that argue for a re-humanisation of educational life and activity.

One of those roles is to develop analyses of the transnational advocacy networks that influence the spaces in which we operate, and through those networks to reveal how the neoliberal discourse is played out in our society. So we might ask: how do the technologies we procure, and the procurement practices we use inside the University, and the people we ask to keynote our conferences, and the evidence-based research we enable to be used for advocacy, and the money that we take for research, and the learning/teaching and employability strategies that we agree and implement, and the definitions of impact/sustainability that we agree and use, re-inscribe both the power of a neoliberal discourse and transnational networks of power? Is it possible for scholarly communities of academics and students, working in society, to act in public against this discourse? Where do we identify communal spaces for solidarity and courage? Taking action that is against polyarchic, univeralised norms might enable a counter-hegemonic set of alternatives to be debated or created that support an alternative way of doing. The flip-side is that we do nothing as the whole of our lives and our sociability is subsumed under the abstracted rule of money.

One Response to For the University and against a neoliberal curriculum

  1. Hi Richard

    Thanks for the mention and the references – Ball’s new book looks good. I’ve used the Premier League analogy at a few talks, mainly because its formation led to a new monopolisation of resources by a few and encouraged overambitious strategies by middle-tier teams in effort to beak into the group. From this perspective, raising investment is key, I have also written on bond issues by UK universities and the ability of private equity to buy out established universities.

    I’d also point out that the VAT issue is only a small measure but one consistent with the ‘creation of the level-playing field’ – the primary though rarely avowed objective of the HE reforms in England.

    I wrote the following for a commentary for Radical Philosophy:
    “The new market conditions must first be created. A significant amount of intervention is required to bring about a ‘level playing field’ in which new, more commercial, operations can compete successfully to drive down costs. The first steps here have already been achieved.
    “First, the complete removal of central funding to arts, humanities and social science degrees exposes the established provision to potential competition in
    a manner that gives the lie to Willetts’s claim that the cuts have been ‘scrupulously neutral’. (No new provider is currently planning to offer STEM degrees, which are expensive to run and require large overhead and start-up costs.)
    “Second, students at private establishments have already been granted access to the student loans and grants. Reporting by Times Higher Education reveals that ‘Almost 4,000 students at 60 private providers were granted loans by the Student Loans Company [SLC] in the 2010–11 academic year, including institutions that do not have degree-awarding powers.’13 These
    numbers are currently outside of the recruitment caps and reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the SLC before approval from Willetts’s department.”

    We can add a third element which would be lowering the barriers to market entry – liberalising the granting of degree awarding powers and the use of the protected titles, ‘university’ & ‘university college’.

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