In their 2016 “Neoliberalisation and the ‘Death of the Public University,’” Cris Shore and Susan Wright give a handy summary of how one might think about the sometimes overused term “neoliberalism”:
Neoliberalism is a problematic concept. Excessive use of the term as a portmanteau for explaining everything that is wrong with contemporary capitalist societies has rendered it an empty signifier devoid of analytical value. As a noun, it suggests something universal and ascribes uniformity and coherence to an assemblage of processes and practices that are far from uniform, consistent or coherent. Like Peck and Tickell (2002: 463), therefore, we prefer to use the term “neoliberalisation” as it highlights the multi-faceted and continually changing set of process associated with neoliberal reform agendas, which assume different forms in different countries. That said, these reforms usually bear close “family resemblances”, to paraphrase Wittgenstein. These include an emphasis on creating an institutional framework that promotes competition, entrepreneurship, commercialisation, profit making and “private good” research and the prevalence of a metanarrative about the importance of markets for promoting the virtues of freedom, choice and prosperity. In Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere this narrative has typically been framed as taking an “investment approach” to higher education, one that recasts public spending on education in the short term and instrumental language of “return on investment”. This philosophy is also epitomised in the withdrawal of government funding for the arts and humanities and corresponding emphasis now placed on promoting the supposedly more “economically relevant” fields of Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (the STEM subjects). The name of the game is now about generating new income streams – through “export education”, forging partnerships with business, commercialising university IP, leasing or selling university infrastructure, and developing spin-out companies. These have now become normalised and naturalised features of academia. In the new university, what “counts” are those things that can be “counted”, quanti ed and translated as financial returns to the institution. As one Danish minister summed it up, the aim is speed up the translation of research from “idea to invoice”.
In short: “neoliberalism” (which insinuates that there is a monolithic ideology out there) can become a vague and problematic category, but “neoliberalisation” remains a useful term for capturing a series of family resemblances among reform processes that do have real similarities across national and institutional borders.
In the background here is a large anthropological debate on neoliberalism, but I can’t go into that; here I just want to signal what I take to be the bottom line for higher education scholars.
As one minor addendum to the broad point, I might also add that, in the European context, I also find quite useful the more specific label “New Public Management,” which designates, approximately, “neoliberal management practices in the public sector.” It’s useful to differentiate these from the philosophical discourses on neoliberalism, like “there is no alternative” to capitalism, or “there is no such thing as society.” It’s also useful to differentiate policy discourses from the dynamics of everyday life in neoliberalizing institutions (e.g. there are interesting questions about when and whether neoliberal policies create “neoliberal subjectivities” among local actors).