Shore and Wright on Neoliberalism

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).

See Also:

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. https://link.springer.com/journal/10734/73/6/page/1

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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Briot and Soulié, “History of administrative and service workers at the University of Vincennes”

Continuing our coverage of research on university staff, the French sociologists Guy Briot and Charles Soulié have recently examined the politics of French university staff in the 1970s, in “Histoire des personnels BIATOSS de l’université de Vincennes : de l’AG permanente au règlement intérieur (1968-1980).” In English, that’s “History of administrative and service workers [personnels BIATOSS] at the University of Vincennes: From direct democracy to internal regulations (1968-1980).” Their paper is a chapter in an edited volume, De l’Université de Paris aux universités d’Île-de-France, which I haven’t read in full, but which documents the postwar expansion of public universities in the Paris region.

Briot and Soulié document an exceptionally militant political culture among the staff of an experimental university, the University of Paris 8—Vincennes-Saint-Denis, founded in 1968 after the massive protest movement of that May-June (see Un mythe à détruire, 2012). The fieldsite is close to my own interests, since my fieldwork on French higher education focused on this same university forty years later, after it had been relocated from its original site at Vincennes to a new campus in Saint-Denis. I note that Soulié has long supported my own ethnographic research on this campus, where he also teaches — the world of critical research on higher education is not so large. Briot for his part was formerly the secretary of the Paris 8 Sociology Department, which places him in the unusual category of administrative staff conducting reflexive research on their own institutions.

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Steven Gregory, “The Radiant University”

Steven Gregory recently published a paper in City & Society, “The Radiant University: Space, Urban Redevelopment, and the Public Good,” in which he analyzes Columbia University’s efforts to expand its Morningside Heights campus into West Harlem. The paper came out in 2013, so let’s call it “relatively recent” rather than brand new, but it makes a good contribution to the literature on universities and urban geography, and thus falls within Academography’s ambit. Gregory’s paper is more ethnographic than conceptual, but its significance lies precisely in the wealth of detail provided by its extended case study.

Gregory’s story is a tale of “David and Goliath”: it recounts how Columbia University fought to get the power to expand its campus into Manhattanville (an area in West Harlem just north of the historical Columbia campus in Morningside Heights) and how the community sought, unsuccessfully, to resist. It seems that Columbia would have preferred simply to have bought up all the property in the relevant area. However, since not all property owners wanted to sell, the university was obliged to resort to more complex legal and rhetorical tactics, which in turn elicited legal action and public protests from the community in question. The key weird premise here is that it would have been calamitous for Columbia to only mostly own the Manhattanville area, as if any amount of non-university-owned space was an intolerable form of contamination to campus space. The expansion plans were all or nothing. Thus when in 2009 all but two property owners had sold out to the university, the university still vehemently continued its efforts to acquire the last holdouts (48).

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Olena Aydarova, “Glories of the Soviet Past or Dim Visions of the Future”

Ian Lowrie writes about Olena Aydarova’s recent work on Russian teacher education:

It is probably impossible to write about postsocialism without coming to terms with nostalgia and the legacy of the past. It is a particularly sticky past, which lingers in memories, texts, and institutions. Research on post-Soviet education has been preoccupied with this weight, and rightly so: Soviet history and its recollections inevitably color the everyday practices of learning and teaching in Russian schools and universities; triumphant recapitulations of the achievements of the Soviet educational system are often written into the very documents announcing neoliberal reforms designed to sweep away the institutional legacies of that system. However, the tendency in much of this literature has been to treat the past as, well, past: a dead weight bearing down on a lively present. Olena Aydarova’s recent and refreshing article, however — “Glories of the Soviet Past or Dim Visions of the Future: Russian Teacher Education as the Site of Historical Becoming” — certainly tarries with the past, but in an ultimately more productive vein than many of its contemporaries.

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Alex Cockain, “Identity Work at a Normal University in Shanghai”

Alex Cockain’s recent paper, “Identity Work at a Normal University in Shanghai,” documents the subjective dilemmas and blockages that are created when vocationalist higher education meets a bad labor market. Why force yourself to attend university when the prospects afterwards are unclear? Why value education in itself in an instrumentalist world? What happens when the educational self is torn by ambivalence and contradictory ideals? Cockain explores these questions through an intricate ethnographic analysis of student identities at his own former workplace, an unnamed non-elite (“normal”) Chinese university. The data essentially emerges from student interviews and written self-reports, along with some autoethnographic recollections of his own classroom encounters.

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Vita Peacock, “Academic precarity as hierarchical dependence”

Vita Peacock turns in a significant contribution to the growing literature on precarious academic labor with her “Academic precarity as hierarchical dependence at the Max Planck Society,” which she published this year in the open-access journal Hau. Peacock’s paper is a challenge to what we could generically call “neoliberalism theory,” a body of thinking which has often viewed the ongoing explosion of precarious labor as a consequence of the general process of neoliberalization that has reshaped the global political economy since the 1970s. In academia, to rehearse the obvious, neoliberalization usually refers to things like the growth of contract and audit-based funding systems; the treatment of students as consumers (whose student debt is considered an investment in “human capital”); the expansion of academic branding and marketing; and the generalized decline in job security for university staff. Indeed, when the contingent workforce grows to 74.8% of all academic teachers in the United States (in 2007), one may reasonably speak of a growth of precarity. It matters how we analyze and historicize precarity, though; which is the crux of Peacock’s intervention.

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Magolda and Delman, “Campus Custodians in the Corporate University”

Peter Magolda and Liliana Delman mount a strong ethnographic critique of the hypocritical treatment of service workers in midwestern U.S. universities, in a recent paper entitled “Campus Custodians in the Corporate University: Castes, Crossing Borders, and Critical Consciousness.” The first section of the paper presents three rich ethnographic cases; the second half is a meditation on why universities treat service workers so badly, and on what might be done to transcend the “caste system” in higher education.

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