Annie Vinokur, “Governing universities through quality”

Annie Vinokur is an emerita professor of political economy who recently ran a project, FOREDUC, on “The Future of Education Systems” at the University of Paris-X. I’ve previously reviewed a 2010 journal issue that came out of the FOREDUC project, which was edited by Vinokur and Carole Sigman. I want to write a few words here about a new paper that Vinokur recently published in French, “The quality-based governance of universities,” which is a useful complement to much of the recent Anglophone literature on neoliberal policy in higher education. As a critical political economist, Vinokur’s specialty is thinking about the relationship between flows of capital and social institutions.

Here’s the English-language abstract of her paper:

Since the 1990s universities have seen a proliferation of methods for quality assessment and management. Borrowed from the New Public Management business model, they impose a definition of quality on universities which is radically opposed to their traditionally held values of quality of knowledge and professional autonomy. This unprecedented movement can now be seen as participating in the capitalist absorption of a non-commercial public sector. We endeavour here to analyse its origins and the uses of quality measurements and management techniques in the process. We assess where this transition could lead according to the recent British government White Paper (May 2016) which intends to establish a market open to all providers, for-profit and non-profit, granted equal access to the public funding of students’ loans. This market would be regulated by a single non-departmental quality agency, concerned only with students’ value for money.

What I like about her paper is that it considers a set of policies and trends that are familiar to anthropologists working on “neoliberal” European higher education, but from a quite different angle and a higher level of abstraction. As a point of terminology, Vinokur generally uses the European category “New Public Management” (NPM) instead of the more ambiguous term “neoliberalism.” I agree with her that NPM is a much more precise category and that “neoliberalism” can become a fraught term, but I will freely use both terms here because both have been widely used in the literature on this topic.

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Commentary on “The New Political Economy of Higher Education”

A brief commentary on:

“The New Political Economy of Higher Education”, Special Issue of the journal Higher Education, Editors: Johannes Angermuller, Jens Maesse, Tilman Reitz, Tobias Schulze-Cleven, Higher Education, Volume 73, Issue 6, June 2017.

Eli Thorkelson put me on to this special issue of the journal Higher Education. I confess I had not seen it and that I was pleasantly surprised to see the robust theoretical and empirical work coming from a group of scholars who I was unaware of. Since I read as much as I can on US and European higher education (in English and Spanish), the fact that I was unaware of this network of researchers suggests that others might gain as much as I have from learning about their work.

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Alison Mountz, “Women on the Edge”

The geographer Alison Mountz published a remarkable paper last year, “Women on the edge: Workplace stress at universities in North America” in The Canadian Geographer (or on ResearchGate) . Based on 21 interviews and first-hand observations as a career academic, Mountz documents a series of difficult — at times impossible — working conditions and their bad consequences for the women in question. These difficult working conditions included gendered and racialized inequities, such as devalued research topics and disproportionate burdens of emotional labor. They also included more generalized bad consequences of contemporary academic work environments, such as generalized overwork, an “always on” situation exacerbated by technology, and a lack of boundaries between work and home life.

The personal consequences of these work-related stressors are multiple and, taken cumulatively, heartbreaking. They are above all psychological and affective, covering stress, burnout, anxiety, despair, isolation, fear and loss. They also extend into the human body, including weight fluctuations, problems with diet and sleep, and physical or mental illness. Mountz speaks of:

a constant aching and tiredness, coupled with insomnia—waking up alert in the middle of the night or extremely early, unable to sleep again; a yearning for sleep coupled with its elusive nature, a familiar frustration… (p. 213)

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Institutionalizing Critical University Studies

One thing I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while is the slow institutionalization of a subfield of “Critical University Studies” (call it CUS). For those who may not have come across it, CUS is a sort of compromise category that brings together a diverse set of interdisciplinary research and criticism on higher education. Jeffrey Williams began publicizing the field qua field in a 2012 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he noted, as I recall, that the name was modeled on “Critical Legal Studies.” CUS, by contrast, still lacks its own Wikipedia article (I leave that as an exercise to the reader), but I’ll just note for now that CUS brings together some very different political views about higher education, ranging from social democrats like Davydd Greenwood to revolutionaries like the Undercommoning project.

Anyway, I realized today that there are actually three book series in CUS, which seems like a clear barometer of institutionalization. It may be useful for new people to the field to see them all assembled in one place:

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Applied Anthropology and Higher Education

Over at the Society for Applied Anthropology, a Topical Interest Group (“TIG”) on Higher Education has recently come into being. I attended their first set of sessions at the SFAA conference in 2015 and found them to be a large and quite diverse group of people, many working outside of the academic social sciences. The TIG recently sent out a newsletter that announces some of the interesting work they are doing in 2017, which I thought was worth reposting here.

If anyone wants to get in touch, the current co-chair, Brian Foster (formerly provost at the University of Missouri-Columbia), can be reached at


From Brian Foster, Co-Chair
Society for Applied Anthropology

It was great to see many of our affiliates at the SfAA meeting in Santa Fe, many of whom were presenters in our TIG’s cluster of sessions and quite a few who presented in other areas. Our cluster of sessions on Anthropology of Higher Education was very impressive: great papers, great discussion in the sessions, and a good deal of informal interaction. We had over 100 presenters (including more than 30 who were first-timers in our TIG) in 25 sessions.

A new “feature” of this year’s cluster was a mini-cluster of seven sessions on diversity which was perhaps the richest and most thoughtful discussion I have ever seen on diversity in higher education. The structure was to address the question “How does it play out to be Hispanic in Higher Education?” And how does it play out to be Black, Native American, Asian, White, and a Woman? And then there was an overarching session with a discussion of the first six sessions were similar and were different—e.g., not surprisingly it plays out very differently to be Black than to be Asian. One goal of this mini-cluster was to identify new perspectives for sessions in the 2018 meeting in Philadelphia. A brief set of notes on the overarching session is provided below. A major question is whether to organize such mini-clusters in key content areas as a way to achieve more structure for future meetings.

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