The University, the crisis and academic activism

I’ve just submitted this for the Higher Education Academy’s 2014 conference. It’s not contentious to me. But let’s see if it gets accepted…

Short abstract: The University is broken. The game is up. It is conditioned by neoliberal politics through the tenets of growth, financialisation and securitisation. Its twin contributions to society take the form of debt and privatisation. At issue is which knowledges and practices can be liberated from the University before it is too late.

Outline: This session will describe how the idea and reality of the University is conditioned through the triple crunch of peak oil (or more specifically a lack of ready access to liquid fuels), climate change and economic crisis. Collectively these form a crisis against which higher education is recalibrated and restructured. However, in the face of a global neoliberal politics that constrains what can be contested, it is increasingly difficult to see beyond the everyday realities of economic growth, the normalisation of debt-driven study that takes the form of indenture, and the disciplining of academic labour through outsourcing, privatisation, financialisation, impact measures, organisational development, and so on.


The concern then is that these factors become reinforcing, and that the drive for GDP and growth recalibrates the University around the rule of money. Inside this marketised space/time an agenda of privatisation based on evidential assertion or problem-solving theory is presented as de-politicised and normative, and enables private providers, working with private equity, technology firms, transnational finance, think tanks and politicians to lever open public education for profit. In this space/time, student debt becomes a key power source for this drive to privatise in the name of efficiencies, scale, value-for-money and impact, and in fact generates a pedagogic and structural view of student-as-consumer that further recalibrates higher education.


In the face of the triple crunch, and of the volatility imposed by the interrelationships between peak oil, our climate realities, and economic futures, what is the role of those who both labour and study in higher education? Can they say no, refuse, push-back or define alternatives? Or do acquiescence and exodus describe the only options? What kinds of conversations are academics having with society about our need for “more sophisticated financial engineering” to underpin increasing student debt? What kinds of conversations should academics be having with young people and their parents about the relationships between debt, real wage collapse, unemployment and precarity, in the face of the added volatility of access to the resources that keep the economy growing and climate change?


This paper will question the role of academic as activists in developing alternative methods of liberating knowing, knowledge and organisation, away from the University and into society more widely. Is it possible to liberate higher education from the space-time of debt and privatisation? The paper will briefly reference historical examples from South America, from global student/worker protests and occupations, and from the co-operatives movement, in order to ask whether it is possible for academics to describe a different space-time?

Keywords: Crisis, co-operation, neoliberalism, university, academic, liberation, space/time

Audience: This session is aimed at anyone who wishes an open discussion about the power and politics of higher education, and the ways in which critique of the organising principles for the University might be developed. In this way the session is designed to discomfort attendees, in order that a mirror can be held up to our practices as academics, and co-operative alternatives described.

Impact: The session is deliberately counter-hegemonic. My hope is that participants question the dominant narratives around higher education and find the courage to develop solidarity networks that lie inside, against and beyond the formalised university. If they do, then that is its impact.

Key messages:  

  1. The University is in crisis.
  2. Academics need to critique their role in maintaining the dominant narratives of economic growth and there is no alternative.
  3. Academic working with students have a key activist role in defining an alternative set of organising principles for higher education in society.




One Response to The University, the crisis and academic activism

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The University, the crisis and academic activism

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